How do we navigate solitude in a world that tells us we need other people around us in order to feel valuable, and, further, how do we manage this when our neurobiology screams at us that being alone is dangerous? The messages we get from society tell us that relationships, especially the intimate ones, are a large key to our lifelong happiness.  On top of that, brain research demonstrates that loneliness can trigger the brain’s fight/flight/freeze response (the nervous system’s way of telling us we are in a potentially dangerous situation) and need to be on alert in order to stay alive. It is no surprise then, that being alone can lead to strong feelings of loneliness.

All of us have felt lonely. It’s part of the human experience. Ironically, we can be surrounded by others and still feel alone.  Loneliness is fickle – one moment masquerading as depression, the next moment rushing in on a cloud of anxiety. It is a feeling that sinks into your whole being, down to your bones. It’s hollow, yet fills you completely with a vast emptiness. It may come in waves or always be present.  It is a whole-being experience, meaning it affects our emotions, our thoughts, our bodies, our unconscious, and of course, our relationships.

The way we form relationships stems from our attachment systems – these are the ways in which we can (or cannot) get close to others.  Our attachment systems are generally created in childhood, but have the ability to change. The way we attached to others can add to what is perhaps the greatest irony in human life: the fact that what takes away loneliness can also be the source of it. Human connection can be fleeting, unreliable, untrustworthy. And when it falls apart, it can leave us lonelier than before.  Being alone can be a choice or can happen outside our control.

“Loneliness is a sign that you are in desperate need of yourself.” Rupi Kaur

How can we survive this?

  • Perhaps we should start with addressing the stigma that surrounds being without a partner. Society tells us that we need to be in a relationships in order to be fulfilled, but this simply isn’t the case. Let’s start to reframe loneliness as solitude, so that when it occurs, it becomes a powerful and necessary experience leading to personal growth.
  • Acknowledge that you are sitting in solitude – and that you are human. When we validate our emotional experience, we are better able to move through those emotions.
  • We will never not have the experience of solitude when it is warranted. It’s wired within us to feel that kind of pain, and it’s all there for a reason. Accepting the grief, despair, pain, numbness, etc that comes with the feeling can often be the next step toward moving through these powerful emotions.

How do we move forward?

  • After facing solitude, we often level up and become better versions of ourselves. Reminding ourselves that this kind of growth may not have been able to occur while surrounded by others is important.
  • We become resilient – not in a way that makes us immune to solitude– but in a way that makes us better able to tolerate and perhaps even welcome the opportunity to become more intimate with ourselves.
  • We become woke – if we can figure out what we have just learned about ourselves through being alone. Reflecting, creating insight, and being creative are all ways we can find meaning in a situation.
  • We can use the opportunity to focus on the most important human connection and fall deeper into love and knowing with ourselves.

 If you find yourself alone, especially on a day like this one – full of hearts, cupids, chocolates, and materialistic love – it can be especially hard. Remember, though, that you are likely in a phase of intense personal growth, so remember to do the hard work of loving yourself each step of the way.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

Rushing into the winter break in December, you probably thought that going back to the grind after some time off would sparkle your rusty motivation. After all, most of us had at least a couple of days off in a warm company of family, friends, and delicious food. Away from the daily hustle, our minds and bodies hit reset and regrouped for a new adventure. But why, after the January lull and into the dark month of February, is motivation lagging behind?

Despite high expectations, January might be a year’s most unproductive month and cold temperatures in the following month can extend that lack of productivity. As you ease into 2019—powered by family gatherings, friendly get-togethers, and, most likely, a disrupted routine—it almost feels like you need to remind yourself of your past pre-holiday self in order to function. We’re resurfacing from a timeless, placeless oblivion back to the world of order and responsibility. Not only are we burdened by the societal pressures, but also self-imposed resolutions to start a new life when the clock strikes midnight – resolutions which many of us have already tossed aside as the months chug along. Alongside our efforts to re-establish a routine, living life inspired might be a bigger challenge than we think.

Inspiration is often perceived as a metaphysical concept: a transcendental phenomenon, a feeling that has to be nourished and pampered. An inspired life is living with purpose every minute, despite any curveballs that may arise. Along with identifying the triggers that awaken inspiration, it is equally important to sustain it—through many roadblocks and downturns. This is where most people begin to struggle. Once life throws us out of the environment or mindset conducive to an inspired living, we can quickly lose our mojo, plummeting into what we perceive to be a dull existence.

Staying inspired is a skill that you can pick up and hone. Follow these tips to turn inspiration into a habit.

  1. Actions over feelings. Think “inspire” rather than “inspiration”. Instead of waiting around for a feeling, focus on the actions that you can take to evoke it. Inspire yourself and inspire others. Why do you do what you do? When inspiration is hard to summon, zoom out to the bigger picture and think of the impact of your work, how your actions affect your family and friends, and the community at large. Remember, an inspired living is living with purpose. Be clear about your purpose and go back to it when inspiration starts to fade.
  2. Seek inspiration in the mundane. Unless you live in a perfect world, you can’t always surround yourself with things that inspire you. While it is instrumental to design a personal inspiration heaven—an image of an environment where you feel most inspired—it is equally important to find inspiration in the mundane: in a grocery store, on your way to work, on the bus. We touch thousands of lives every day. Every interaction matters. Listen to the stories around you, learn from the incredible people out there in the world. Find someone who inspires you. If you wish to be more proactive, challenge yourself to inspire at least one person a day. This can be your family member, a co-worker, or a complete stranger.
  3. Practice makes perfect. Life can wreak havoc our plans, throw off our inspiration, and turn our habits upside down. It is in these moments when you need to remind yourself that actions trigger feelings, and practice actions that inspire.

Screenshot_20181023-160649Olga Ivanova is an Edmonton-based communications professional and writer with a knack for storytelling.

 

Over my lifetime, I have gone from being a voracious reader to being a voracious Netflix and podcast enthusiast. A common story for childhood bookworms, this transition occurred over the course of a text-heavy university degree or two which didn’t exactly make me dislike reading but certainly sapped my enthusiasm for recreational reading.

My reading habit remained broken for years after finishing school, so I set a 2018 reading goal of twenty-four books. I thought, “Two books a month! That should be doable!” I quickly lagged behind my goal until moving in with my partner, who completed a truly astonishing 60+ books in 2018. With his good example and (real or imagined) judgement hanging over me I curtailed my Netflix marathons and began reading more frequently. By the end of the year I was not only reading more often and finding it easier to get into new books, I was actually reading faster! I ended up exceeding my 2018 goal by one book and in 2019 I’ve challenged myself to thirty-six books.

Just like physical fitness, reading is something you can practice and there are many benefits to doing so. Health benefits include better sleep, improved brain function and health and reduced tension and stress. Regular reading improves focus and memory and it relieves tension by absorbing your attention and taking your out of your daily stresses. Reading fiction has even been shown to aid the development of empathy and emotional intelligence.

I don’t extol the benefits of reading to smugly denigrate the internet, TV, film or video games. Each of those media have made and continue to make unique and valuable contributions to storytelling and communication, but little compares to a book as a vessel for depth and nuance. In a world saturated by information, hot takes and high speed entertainment, taking the time to read a book or even a long-read article, whether to learn or escape, is a relief. It can be difficult too, even for those of us who have identified as Readers our whole lives! Attention and focus need to be trained, just like physical strength and stamina.

To read more in 2019, start practicing now!

Cultivate a habit

The more frequently you read, the more natural it will feel and the faster you’ll get. Look at other habits that might preventing you from doing all the reading you want. One less episode of Friends = twenty-five minutes of reading before bed!

Set a goal – or don’t!

If setting and accomplishing goals motivates you, choose the number of books or articles you want to read this year and keep a checklist to track your progress. Keep your goal realistic, though. If goals feel more like work than fun, focus on the habit. Instead of tracking pages or books, pay attention to how often you pick up a book, whether it’s for five minutes or an hour.

Read something you enjoy

Choose books you are genuinely interested in. Don’t try to challenge yourself with the classics or relive your lofty university reading habits with long academic works if that’s not what excites you. If you’re not enjoying a book, don’t finish it!

Carry a book with you

Keep a book in your bag and grab five minutes of reading at the bus stop or fifteen minutes on your break.

Have multiple books on the go

This might seem counter to the idea of developing focus or pushing yourself to a reading goal, but having a few different types of books on the go means that you have options depending on how you feel.

Make it social

Share reading recommendations with friends or on social media. Join a website like Goodreads to show off your progress and see what other people are reading. If you’re feeling ambitious, join or create a book club. Creating social interactions around reading adds fun, a sense of reward and accountability.

Gamify it

Make a reading bingo game, with different types of books or topics for each square and share it with friends. I have to give credit to my partner for this idea. Thanks to him I have to read Finnigan’s Wake and a “book about music production” this year!

Don’t force it

Just because you picked up a book doesn’t mean you have to settle in for an hour. You won’t have the same level of focus every day, and if five or ten minutes is all you can enjoy that is OK.

Get inspired

For me, being around someone who reads a lot inspired and motivated me to read more. Browse bookstores or libraries, read reviews and author interviews, and attend author events to get inspired and find books you really want to read.


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

As a therapist, one of the first conversations I often to have with individuals involves the question of how one copes with the intense emotions experienced in the face of difficult situations. Often, people refer to their distractions as ways of coping; however, those are different. Distractions allow us to focus our full attention on things other than our emotions, while coping strategies help us acknowledge, accept and stay within our difficult emotions. Sometimes this helps us move through an emotional experience quite quickly, while other coping strategies force us to be emotional for some time. Below, I’ve compiled a list of what seem to be the top coping strategies for teenagers and adults and why they work!

Talking: Giving words to our situation can be cathartic. Dr. Dan Siegel states that we need to “name it to tame it”, meaning, that if we are able to identify our emotions, and further, to share out loud our emotional experience, that is the first step in helping gather our emotions back into a manageable state.

Drawing and other art: Humans have a need to be creative. The process of creating art can be an experience that impacts mental health. This might be partially due to the idea that creating art stimulates many areas of the brain to create new neural connections, and research shows that this may occur in areas that ultimately lead to more emotional resilience.

Writing/Journalling: Writing has many healing benefits, so many, that I’ve written entire blog post dedicated to the positive effects of writing. Putting our story to paper can provide clarity, can allow for letting go, and can inspire hope.

Breathing: Sometimes this is one of the simplest things that we can do. Taking deep breaths into the diaphragm helps infuse the body with oxygen, which creates a calming effect on both the physical body and in the mind. This is because deep breathing helps reduce cortisol levels in our bodies.

Music: Brain studies show that when we listen to some music, the blood flow in our brain changes, particularly in the area of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. These areas are important for logical reasoning, and in the case of the amygdala, our emotions. Music can directly influence the way we feel and the way we think.

Exercise: Research shows that exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants in managing symptoms of depression, like exhaustion, sadness, and low motivation. Daily exercise may work over time by increasing our levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter implicated in depression.

Actively introducing positive thoughts: When our emotions are difficult, our thoughts tend to become negative. It takes practice and conscious thought to be able to actively introduce positive thoughts into our thinking. One way to do this is to name your thinking traps and find ways to respond to these thoughts.

Changing up your surroundings: Sometimes switching the environment we are in can be helpful. Often the change is subtle, like moving out of your bedroom and into another room. Sometimes the change is more drastic, like rearranging furniture in your living room.

Taking a step back, taking a break: This is especially helpful when our difficult emotions are stemming from relationships. Taking a step back from the relationship, either with physical distance or mental distance, can help us find room to problem solve.

Communicating your needs: It takes skill to be able to recognize what we need, and more hard work to communicate these needs to those in our lives. Perhaps you need an hour of me-time, maybe you want to say “no” to an upcoming social event, or maybe it is important to tell a family member you’ve been hurt by their actions. Communicating your needs assertively helps you to not only get what you need, but can help with self-esteem and feeling accomplished.

Using coping strategies when our emotions seem to be out of control can help bring them back to being regulated again. Moreover, coping strategies, when used over time, can help make changes that increase our ability to become resilient in the face of life events.  Remember, you got this.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

After four long, active days of hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile I am not sorry to spend a few hours listening to podcasts and watching the Patagonian landscape roll by from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus. As we wind our way out of the park towards the Chilean-Argentine border, we are treated to dramatic views of the Paine massif from various angles as well as a photo op with a herd of guanaco and one very distant and lonely flamingo. By the time we reach the border, the mountains have receded into the Patagonian steppe, which is all rolling grey-green and brown scrub under harsh blue sky. After some last-chance Chilean souvenir shopping we cross the border into Argentina and continue for hours more before seeing mountains again on the approach to El Calafate, a pretty tourist town and the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park.

Guanaco

A few years ago, I convinced some friends to take the Greyhound for three days and $130 from Victoria, BC to Austin, Texas so I have not only a great appreciation for the beauty of barren landscapes, but a high tolerance for long distance bus rides. Something about this bus ride, whether it was the previous four days of early mornings, poor sleep and physical activity, or the dehydrating air conditioning and hypnotic landscape of the bus ride itself, I could not handle. About half way through I began to nod off, occasionally waking up groggy and uncomfortable.

The roast lamb

I rallied in time for dinner with the rest of the group and went all in, ordering a plate of precariously stacked roast lamb and vegetables. The meat slides off the bone and is satisfyingly charred on the outside. Sadly, I barely make it halfway through the mountain of meat and root vegetables before exhaustion overcomes me in the form of mild nausea and light-headedness. Rather than pushing through the discomfort for the sake of the night out, I bought a bottle of Powerade and went back to the hotel for a full night’s sleep. I still regret not being able to finish, or fully appreciate, that meal but by missing out on one culinary experience I ensured that I was back in full working order to enjoy the next day’s glacier walk on Perito Moreno Glacier.

perito moreno glacier.jpg

Travel can be exhausting. The best trips tire you out and revive you in equal measure. The pressure to maximize your time in a new place and to experience everything on offer can backfire, though. Even on holiday, it is important to have downtime and listen to your body’s needs or you run the risk of burning out. My recent trip to Patagonia taught me this lesson in a number of ways.

Although I am in adequately good shape, I am not an experienced hiker. The main hikes on Intrepid Travel’s “Patagonia Trekking” tour are challenging, although the tour is designed to be manageable for a range of experience levels. The first hike of the trip gave me confidence. The second was one of two all-day hikes with some difficult uphill sections. I started the day at a steady, confident pace which deteriorated before even reaching the most challenging section of the hike – the last, uphill leg before our destination. By the time I returned to the campsite, far behind most of the group except one of the guides and another member of the group who was pacing himself, I was hobbled by burning toe pain and seriously doubting whether I could keep up with or enjoy the fourth hike which was said to be both longer and steeper.

almost near the summit

Two days later we set out on the fourth hike to Mirador del Torres, the grand finale of the W Hike. Somewhat refreshed, but still cautious, I paced myself from the very start of the walk. Instead of instinctively trying to keep up with the group at all times I focused on staying relaxed, breathing and maintaining an easy, sustainable pace. I soon realized that rather than falling way behind the others, the group ebbed and flowed around me as everyone’s energy and pace fluctuated. Sometimes I was near the front, other times at the back. I was able to make it to the summit of the hike feeling challenged but not frustrated or dispirited. Pinched toes eventually made me fall behind on the very last stage of the return to camp, but this time it did not affect my sense of accomplishment because I had maintained control of my experience throughout.

patagnia firebush

Slowing down, resting and taking time to myself when I needed it rather than rushing to keep up, to do everything and never miss out meant that in the end I was able to fully enjoy my trip without getting exhausted, sick or grumpy. When travelling, the tendency to overdo things comes from a desire to make the most of life. In daily life we often overextend ourselves out of a drive for productivity, desire for accomplishment or to be of service to others. Instead, without rest and downtime we become burnt out, anxious and more likely to flake on commitments. Saying yes and taking opportunity as it comes is important, but so is knowing when it’s time to go to bed – whether that bed is a tent in Patagonia or a queen sized mattress at home.


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Before the memory of our family vacation fades too fast in the wake of getting back to work and school for my oldest, I wanted to take a moment and talk a little bit about some of the things I have learned about travelling with kids as a result of this Euro trip.

Background: I haven’t taken a vacation in 7.5 years. The last time I truly had a break from work, school and the hustle was my very first trip to Morocco in 2011 to visit my husband, meet his family, and check out the school he was building. I spent six weeks getting to know everyone and seeing some sights around the country including a trip to the Sahara through Marrakech, Ouarzazate and Merzouga, and side trips to Casablanca, Mohammedia and Rabat. Even though we travelled around a bit, it wasn’t a super touristy trip because we didn’t have our marriage license yet and so paying for two hotel rooms everywhere we went wasn’t feasible for extended periods of time. I spent most of the time between his family’s places in Marrakech and a small village 60km north called Attaouia. This was followed by a month in Florence six months later where I spent most of my time buying and devouring dozens of books from a boutique English bookshop just off Piazza Duomo. Shortly thereafter, I actually moved to Morocco to continue building our school and running classes for small children in it.

Since that time, I’ve had two marriage celebrations (one in Canada and one in Morocco, same marriage!), taught for three years, endured a horrific birth trauma with my firstborn, immigrated with my husband and daughter back to Canada, built a business, completed a masters degree, delivered dozens of lectures/workshops on Islam and anti-racism work to literally thousands of people, and had a second baby. Between motherhood, grad school and the pressures of being a veiled Muslim  woman activist in an era of rising Islamophobia and misogyny, it’s safe to say, I have felt burnt out for a long time. So much so that burnt out has been my new normal…for a while.

selfie
Well rested on the last day of our trip.

Fast forward to August 2018 when we decided to use our good ol’ Canadian parental leave to take five months in Morocco and you have me still juggling kids, full time work (business has been busier than ever, thank God) and everything else in between -only now, I’ve had all the uniquely Moroccan stressors added, ones that I won’t get into listing much but which involve weather extremes, bugs and cultural divides, especially in the village where we are staying.

Because Canadian passports only entitle you to three months in Morocco without a residency card, work permit or visitor’s visa extension, November started to loom on the horizon. I had zero intention of going through the hassle of getting my papers for a (relatively and comparatively) short stay so I decided we should do a visa run on a cheap flight to Europe.

I am one of those moms that cannot leave her children for long periods of time. My oldest – who is now a spirited and eternally stubborn five year old – has only ever spent two nights out of my bed: the night her sister was born and the night after. I haven’t been away from my new baby for more than an hour in the ten months since she was born. As a survivor and someone who lives with PTSD, this is what I need to do to feel secure and safe and I am alright with that. What it means though is if I do a visa run, my family is coming with me.

So I started scouring for flights anywhere in Europe from Marrakech and checking out sights and accommodations in each place. As I looked more and more, it suddenly dawned on me: why not take an actual two-week vacation? One where you set an email auto-responder and legitimately don’t check your inbox. One where your phone is set to airplane mode and you only open the Wifi to update your Instagram. Could it really be possible? Do I dare to eat a peach? Do I dare disturb the universe?

alcazar of seville
Tile detail in the Real Alcazar de Sevilla

In the end, my love of history and my husband’s indifference won out and I booked us for five days in Berlin followed by ten days in the south of Spain running the Malaga-Cordoba-Sevilla circuit. I only had mild nerves as I gleefully packed our bags, carefully estimating how many diapers and how much formula I could cram into the two smaller checked bags the budget airline allowed. But ultimately the nerves were for nothing: we went on to have one of the best trips of my life and I will savor its memories for the rest of it.

What made it so great?

People we know couldn’t believe we were attempting a Euro-trip with two kids. People called us “heroes”and “troopers”. I honestly didn’t know what all the fuss was about and I still don’t. With enough careful planning and some important things to remember, traveling with super small kids can be fun, rewarding even. Were there meltdown moments for everyone involved? Of course. Did they happen often enough to destroy our enjoyment? No. And in the process we had the time and energy to learn more from our kids about what they need and when they need it.

berlin
Guten Tag, Berlin

Timing is everything. First of all, lap babies fly free so why not take advantage of that fact? Go when your baby is a bit bigger but not too big that they want to walk around all the time. The perfect middle ground for us was almost 10 months.

Also, when you’re checking flights, try to pick ones with good check in/departure times as well as being mindful of when they will land and how long it takes to arrive at your destination. We found that booking early morning flights to destinations worked well because we could rouse our kids to get on the plane but then they would be so groggy as to pass out as soon as the flight took off, waking off somewhat refreshed on arrival. Baby was a bit fussy on the flight to Berlin but still napped most of the way.

Check your booking carefully. We booked holiday apartments and even a hostel instead of pricey hotels. But it wasn’t just a budgetary decision: we also needed access to a small kitchen everywhere we went so we could prepare kid-friendly foods and wash bottles. Two out of four places also had baby cots for us and the other two had furniture arrangements that allowed for safe sleeping regardless. Also, many bookings have specific check-in times and won’t allow entry before then – make sure you time your flight/travel to allow for you to get to accommodations as soon as you arrive. There is little more anxiety-producing scenarios than dragging a stroller, two de-planed kids and suitcases down narrow cobblestone streets. If you have to, request early entry and pay slightly extra if you have to. There was only one occasion where we had to sit around so we found a playground and parked the baby, her stroller and the luggage while our oldest got her pent up energy out.

malaga
View over Malaga

Hit the supermarket. Honestly, as much as I am a closet foodie and wannabe chef, culinary tourism isn’t really my bag. Especially since becoming Muslim when finding halal or even vegetarian options is nearly impossible. We were so touched that the breakfast at our hostel in Berlin actually had certified halal breakfast sausages and we occasionally hit a shawarma shop, but most of the trip involved getting fresh bread, produce, instant coffees and yoghurts at the corner shop. It was infinitely cheaper than attempting restaurant eats with a picky kid who prefers fresh veggies and simple food, and our pocketbooks were happy the whole trip.

Let go of the Euro-trip stereotypes. When a lot of folks think of backpacking across Europe, they think of late nights at pubs and days spent rushing from one sight to the next. Obviously as Muslims we have zero interest in clubs or bars, and ultimately we let our kids set the pace for the day. We booked enough time in each place to do one or two major things a day, interspersed with supermarket runs, playground breaks or outright Legoland visits. Having kids with us also meant hitting the sack when they did at 8pm after clocking 15-18,000 steps a day together.  And that was alright. In fact, it was ideal. We got so much more rest than we were used to and rising early to have a fresh breakfast and plan our route for the day became a beautiful routine for us. There were some days we just didn’t make it to all of our destinations either and instead we wandered around, taking in neighbourhoods outside the center and seeing different things.

Ultimately, you know your own family best. These are just some of the things we found helped us have a much-needed rest and to make the most of it together. Alhamdulilah for that.

IMG_20181124_193000_293
Plaza de Espana, Sevilla

16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.