Religion, Spirituality, Prayer & Meditation

By Frank McGrath | April 19, 2020

Clearly this is a loaded subject and I am not here to promote a particular meaning to be made of life. Research, however, has suggested that people who experience more connection with a higher power, either through religion or spiritual involvement, tend to have a more positive appraisal of their lives. They appreciate the connection with a like-minded community, and show perceived control and positive expectations about the future – particularly in times of crisis. What all religions and spirituality have in common is a prayer and/or meditative practice. Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and the like all practice some form of meditative mindfulness. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) pray by reciting passages from their sacred texts, within which many scholars have found direct, or indirect, instructions to pray or meditate. Repeating prayers, mantras, chants, visualizations, movements and focused attention on the body or surroundings all draw one closer to the divine. The whole being (body, mind, emotion) is actively applied, through a variety of focus points, to develop awareness, insight, and enlightenment.

As in the breathing practices in the previous blog there are both psychological and physical benefits during a meditative and prayerful practice. Evidence has been found for reductions in anxiety, depression, chronic pain, blood pressure, and headaches as well as an increase in restorative sleep. A quiet setting promotes the required attentiveness as does a comfortable body posture. Prayer, and reading of sacred texts can readily be complemented by meditative practices. Poetry and quiet music can also be focused upon. Many devotees find a focus on love, compassion and gratitude will deepen the experience.

If you are not already practicing a form of prayerful meditation you can start with the slow, steady deep diaphragmatic breathing described previously then focus on that breath along with a single word, prayer, mantra, a relaxing visualization or the sensations you are experiencing in your body or around you in the present moment. Slow, simple, repetitive and attentive physical movement can be incorporated such as walking, qi gong or yoga. Breathe deeply and give your full attention to what you are focusing on, silently, gently, faithfully and - above all - simply. The essence is simplicity. Stay with the same focus during the whole meditation and within each meditation day to day. Let go of all other thoughts, images and words. Don’t fight your distractions: let them go by gently returning to your focus. Returning to your focus as soon as you realise your mind has wandered. Most regular practitioners meditate twice a day, morning and evening, for between 10 and 20 minutes but longer and more frequent sessions can be helpful in times of stress. It will take time to develop this discipline and the support of a tradition or community is always helpful. It is also possible to use this focus as an occasional way of destressing… in a traffic jam or while waiting in line at the grocery store.

May the spirit be with you.


COVID-19 #4

By Frank McGrath | April 12, 2020

What can we do in the face of the anxiety and fear that accompany the pandemic. There is no shortage of advice out there from the profound to the mundane; from the spiritual to the pragmatic. In this post I would like to focus on a common denominator of many practices that promote calmness. Many of you have heard of the expression “shortness of breath” as evidence of anxiety. Here I would like to bring our attention to “long-ness of breath” as practice that you can use when anxiety feels like it’s getting the better of you. Those interested in evidence-based practices can search the web and find that blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen saturation are all improved by these practices. Those of you familiar with yoga will know that regulating your breathing is central to mindfulness. Deep breathing is also associated with sleep and is now being promoted as a calming strategy for many athletes.

So how does one go about lengthening the breath? Below I will list a number of strategies that have been developed over the years. There is little research comparing one method to the other but they do have several things in common. These are finding a place and time without distraction, getting into a comfortable posture, and breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth and regular practice. Breathing exercises don’t have to take a lot of time out of your day. Five minutes is often enough. Some people experience disorientation or light-headedness often related to the unfamiliarity of body calming strategies. Consult your doctor and discontinue the practice if you experience any feelings of discomfort or agitation.

1. Diaphragmatic breathing: Get into a relaxed posture sitting or lying down. Place one hand on your upper chest and one hand below your rib cage. Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling your stomach pressing into your hand. Exhale using pursed lips as you tighten your stomach muscles to expel the air feeling your lower hand move inward. All the while the upper hand should feel very little movement. Let out a loud sigh with each exhale. Repeat.

2. Alternate nostril breathing: This is a yoga practice. Choose a comfortable seated position. After an exhale, use your right thumb to gently close your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril with the opposing fingers. Release your thumb and exhale out through your right nostril. Inhale through your right nostril and then close this nostril. Release your fingers to open your left nostril and exhale through this side. Continue this breathing pattern for up to 5 minutes.

3. Equal breathing: Choose a comfortable seated position. Breathe in and out through your nose. Count during each inhale and exhale to make sure they are even in duration. (often a count to 5 is recommended to yield five breaths per minute). Alternatively, choose a word or short phrase to repeat during each inhale and exhale.

4. 4-7-8 breathing: Prepare for the practice by resting the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, right behind your top front teeth. Try to keep your tongue in place throughout the practice. Let your lips part. Exhale completely through your mouth. Close your lips, inhale silently through your nose as you count four seconds in your head. Then, for seven seconds, hold your breath. Exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. Repeat – starting with 4 breaths and work your way up to eight full breaths.

You can try most of these breath exercises right away. Take the time to find the one that works for you.


COVID-19 #3

By Frank McGrath | April 05, 2020

This blog will focus on families coping with COVID. Although many of the ideas previously shared also apply to children there are many things that children need help with including protection from the media. Two of the most popular movies on Netflix these days are “Contagion” and “Outbreak”. Last week I was reading a main stream news site whose ads were vividly promoting a new video game called World War 3.

Children also have their own expertise and knowledges that we can learn from. These include the abilities to be mindful and present such as in “How deep is that snowbank dad?” or positive dissociation and imagination like “Let’s try walking on the moon.” Again, these ideas are not original and may seem obvious to some.

1. Limit social media and COVID conversations: Especially around children. COVID media is often sensationalized, negatively skewed, and alarmist. For yourself find a few trusted sources that you can check in with daily and set a time limit on how much you consume. Keep news and alarming conversations out of earshot from children—they can become very frightened by what they hear.

2. Spend extra time playing with children: Play is cathartic and helpful for children—it is how they process their world and problem solve, and there’s a lot they are seeing and experiencing in the now. Creative expression is a very effective way of helping kids to emote and communicate as well!

3. Focus on safety and attachment: Unprecedented demands of unemployment, working at home, homeschooling, sterilizing after kids, and/or entertaining in confinement can make us forget how scary and unpredictable these times are for children. Spend time connecting by following their lead, physically touching, playing, reading therapeutic books, and verbally reassuring that you are there for them.

4. Find your own space: When space is at a premium all family members should have their own separate spaces for work and for relaxation. If necessary, use chairs, dividers, pillows, blankets etc. to make separate “private” spaces. These can - retreat spaces, productivity spaces, imaginary spaces. tc.

5. Expect behavioural issues in children: Respond gently when kids are struggling with loss of routine which can make them feel unsafe and wondering what comes next. Expect increased anxiety, worries and fears, nightmares, difficulty separating or sleeping, testing limits, and meltdowns. Do not introduce major behavioral plans or consequences at this time—hold stable and focus on emotional connection.

6. “Chunk” the quarantine: Focus on whatever bite-sized piece of a challenge that feels manageable. Whether that be 5 minutes or an hour a day - whatever feels doable for family members. Your children will model your coping. If you are over whelmed they will be too or, what could be worse, they will try to become the grown-up in the situation.

7. Remind everyone that this is temporary. It can seem that this will never end. Take time to remind everyone that, although this is very scary and difficult, and will go on for an undetermined amount of time, it is a season of life and it will pass. We will return to feeling free, safe, busy, and connected in the days ahead.


COVID-19 #2

By Frank McGrath | March 29, 2020

There has been plenty of, what might be called, piece meal, research on coping with stress and anxiety over recent years which is becoming very valuable in this time of crisis. The following list relies heavily on front line psychologists working in the midst of the worst break-out in North America. That is in New York City where there is a virtual lock down and quarantine and an overwhelmed medical system. Many NYC therapists are sharing their insights gathered from, and for, their clients… here are a few of them. - adapted heavily from Dr Eileen Feliciano, New York City.

1. Stick to a routine: Go to sleep and wake up at a reasonable time. Write a schedule that is varied and includes time for work as well as self-care. Get showered and dressed in comfortable clothes, wash your face, brush your teeth. Take the time to shower or bathe or give yourself a facial. Wear bright colors.

2. Get out and exercise: At least once a day, for at least thirty minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable going outside, try YouTube videos that offer free movement classes or have your own dance party!

3. Reach out to others: FaceTime, Skype, phone calls, texting—connect with other people to seek and provide support.

4. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt: Being cooped up can bring out the worst in people. Each person will have moments when they will not be at their best. Do not show up to every argument you are invited to! Try to see every one as doing the best they can to make it through this.

5. Notice the good in the world, the helpers: Among the scary, negative, and overwhelming information there are always stories of people supporting one another in miraculous ways.

6. Help others: Find ways, big and small, to give back to others. Offer to grocery shop, pick up prescriptions, check in with elderly neighbors. Helping others gives us a sense of agency.

7. Try to control what you can control: Like the serenity prayer says learn to control what you can – in your little corner of the world. Organizing your bookshelf, closet, furniture, toys can ground you.

8. Lower expectations and practice radical self-acceptance. For what you can’t control try radical acceptance about yourself, your current situation, and your life without question, blame, or pushback. It is what it is!

9. Find a long-term soothing project to dive into: Learn a musical instrument, write a book, paint a picture, crochet a blanket. Repetitive movement (knitting, coloring, painting, clay sculpting, etc) and especially left-right movement (skipping, running, drumming, skating, hopping) have been shown to be effective at self-soothing and maintaining self-regulation in moments of distress.

10. Stay hydrated and eat well: This one may seem obvious, but stress and eating often don’t mix well, and we may find ourselves over-eating or forgetting to eat. A rarely used healthy cook book can be your best friend! Drink plenty of water.

11. Find lightness and humour in each day: Counterbalance the heaviness with humour: cat videos on YouTube, a stand-up comedy show on Netflix, a funny movie, etc..


COVID-19 #1

By Frank McGrath | March 22, 2020

Many previous clients have reached out to me to get tips, advice or ideas for staying emotionally healthy in this time of COVID anxiety. Below you will find some material on staying as emotionally well as possible during a pandemic crisis and physical distancing. I am also interested in hearing what you and others are doing that helps.

For myself I have been avoiding the news - except for a brief post from a trusted Canadian newspaper in the morning. I am listening to relaxing music, exercising as much as possible, keeping in close contact with family and friends, journaling and finishing a book I had stalled in writing. Long walks and Yoga in the evenings have also been very helpful. Friends have suggested "looking at positive and humorous videos and quotes on Facebook, playing online card games and scrabble with friends, upbeat Netflix shows, and remembering to be grateful for simple everyday pleasures.


During a pandemic it’s not uncommon to experience strong emotions. Psychology helps us realize that these are often normal responses to abnormal events. Novel & unfamiliar threats provoke anxiety & even unrealistic fears. We need to realize that, social distancing & public health measures are realistic lines of defense.

Stay Informed – Not Overloaded: With major news events, media inundates us with coverage & potential implications – that can create additional stress. Gather information that will help you accurately determine your risk so that you can take reasonable precautions. Framing risk with clear facts helps quell panic. Alberta Health Services, the World Health Organization, Public Health Agency of Canada, & the US Center for Disease Control are all reliable information sources. Minimize unnecessary exposure to stories or gossip about the pandemic. Our governments need to prepare for possible worst-case scenarios in order to protect the public. The public, however, does not need to expect the worst.

Stay healthy: A healthy lifestyle is your best defense against disease. Physical health has positive impacts on psychological health (and vice versa). Social distancing & good personal hygiene will keep you, and others, safe.

Manage your own Stress: Take some time for yourself, go for a walk, or spend time with friends & family doing things that you enjoy. Be aware of the frequency with which you’re discussing the news. Remember that life will go on. Avoid catastrophizing & maintain a balanced perspective. Build your resilience – how have your coped with stressors before? Keep connected. Maintain your social networks (even via social media & telephone). Have a plan -- How would you respond if you or a loved one were diagnosed with COVID-19? Developing contingency plans for potential scenarios can lessen your anxiety.

When to seek professional help: Psychologists are trained to help people find constructive ways of dealing with anxiety & emotional stress. Contact a psychologist if you feel overwhelming nervousness or lingering sadness adversely affecting you OR if you notice persistent feelings of distress or hopelessness & you feel like you are barely able to get through your daily responsibilities & activities.


Oh the Stories your Nervous System Could Tell…!

By Keri Murray Sotropa | December 02, 2019

Finally, there is attention being given to how our bodies respond to experiences - to stress, to trauma, to life events. Counselling practice has often relied heavily on thoughts, talking, feelings, and behavior. Mindfulness practice has introduced the ideas of ‘being in the moment’, observing without judgement, accepting what is, and calming the body. All of this can be exceptionally useful, and yet for many people I have worked with, and even in my own personal life experience, it felt like something remains unknown and almost unknowable, in an unsettling way.

As a narrative therapist, some of what we endeavor to do is to listen deeply. To listen for what is absent, but implied. To listen for what has influenced people in making meaning of their experiences… and to listen for the preferred ways of being and the rich stories yet to be known. To ask questions to help people clarify for themselves the best steps forward. We may offer up ideas others have found helpful at times. And we look for how people respond already, what resonates, what strikes a chord so to speak, and what offers a sparkling invitation to a more enlivened experience, or one that is hopefully much less painful.

Now all of this is quite a cognitive level operation… some mental gymnastics at times. And how do we ‘know’… or what do we mean by, ‘resonance’, or ‘gut feeling’? I believe our bodies have a way of knowing, and of communicating to us and others but it does not have a language. Craig Penner (naturalprocessing.org) speaks of the therapist’s role in helping people ‘give time and space’ to not only notice how our bodies communicate, but to stay with that body (somatic) experience. That it is important to bring awareness to these physical sensations that don’t have language. WITHOUT INTERPRETATIONS. Our job is to help people give room for this experiencing of their bodies, in the here and now, without changing it, to allow it to be, just as it is. This offers the healing. In not doing this, in avoiding discomfort, our distress can be prolonged. Our bodies need to be heard and felt.

This has me thinking deeply about how co-creating language for the nervous system, trusting and allowing what is can easily be missed in favor of trying to ‘make sense’, and that the healing is in the being with, noticing and acknowledgement of the body’s experiences. Slow it down, listen and feel one’s feelings without judgement. This is actually quite challenging to do in a culture hell bent on making sense of it. No wonder our bodies can keep repeating the same messages… can we just listen/feel deeply and give our bodies space to communicate to us rather than getting into our heads?


Narrative Therapy Definitions

By Keri Murray Sotropa | October 14, 2019

I have found ‘The New Dictionary of Narrative Therapy’ (Tom Carlson, Tiffany Saxton and Sanni Paljakka, 2018) helpful in understanding Narrative Therapy

1.       Outsideness - we invite people to become observers and narrators of their own lives, to be moral agents evaluating their own experience (vs. being caught inside a problem or someone else’s version of their story). Seeing you as the expert on your own life, is critical to discovering and sustaining steps forward in your preferred direction.

2.       Up Against - what have you been up against in life (not what are you diagnosed - the traditional therapist shorthand)? What are the specific contexts and factors that cannot be ignored?

3.       Master Narratives - what are the unquestioned ideas, assumptions, and stories that the dominant culture speaks that may silence what you and others have been up against, and your efforts in the face of these.

4.       Unbelonging Effects - often give clues to the effects of the master narrative. We often see our work is in re-belonging people.

5.       Counter Story- we prefer to seek the stories less spoken, the ones that have always been there but may not have been given the attention they ought to have, to be described in rich detail. These often provide clues in how you prefer to conduct your life, based on your particular values and principles for living.

6.       Moral Character - we wish to understand in detail what the moral character is that drives you along in your life; We want to know the person we find ourselves in the presence of, in light of what you are up against? And who you prefer yourself to be…

7.       Belonging Goals - our hope is to come together in service of connecting lives (vs. focusing on people as individuals), to do right and hold dignity in safer spaces.


What if the help isn’t helping?

By Keri Murray Sotropa | October 02, 2019

There’s nothing worse when you’re really struggling and doing all that you can to deal with a problem, when others suggestions about what we ought to do doesn’t seem to help… or even seems to make things worse. We can feel more like “the problem is me.” It can be soul destroying and leave us feeling more helpless and alone with the problem. And the problem can seem even bigger. Many people I have worked with can feel so desperate that there seems to be no way out. It is then insult to injury when we are made to feel like we are the problem, or that our efforts are making it worse. In this world of pop psychology and “self-help” there is plenty of ‘evidence’ presented to us that doesn’t work and we can end up judging ourselves (or feel judged by others) and torture ourselves for ‘not doing it right’.

Many people speak about their problems in a sort of short-hand that has trickled down from ‘experts’ who have defined the ‘evidence’ for their struggles. While some might find this short-hand helpful to ignore the life-story of the problem and all that one has been up against, it often does little justice to any one person’s particular struggle with ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘abuse’, ‘anger’ or ‘personality disorders’ for example. It can render people to feel powerless in the face of problems, or that the problems are ‘in charge’.

So what is good help? Or how do we know when it is good help? These are good questions. The clarification of what isn’t helping can discern why and what might help, better. We are all discerning people…. Always responding. If you feel bad about something you’ve done, or how things are going, then we investigate the source of that in terms of what you value for your own life and for those you love and care about. Gut feelings (or how our bodies might be reacting) about our boundaries and preferences can give us evidence as to when we are headed in the preferred direction. This is our own preferred direction, which may or may not be in the direction others hope for us. When we feel more in charge of decisions, in line with what we most value, this is often a good sign. So knowing what good help is, is help that puts you in the position of expert. The therapist is trusting that you are the expert in your life and will know when something is working better or not.


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