I am often struck by how life has unfolded around me over the last few years, particularly since I began to implement my own positive psychology practices. I mentioned in my last blog about the personal impact of Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory as I have found myself slowly stretching my previous boundaries by engaging in wondrous adventures that serve to break down the constraints my anxiety has walled around me over the years.
In 2008, having just “come out” about living with mental illness, I decided to put my name forward as a “face” for the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health Faces of Mental Illness Campaign. I was thrilled to be selected among the participants that year and excited to be invited to the celebrations in Ottawa for Mental Health Awareness Week. As the date came closer, however, my anxiety about travelling alone to Ottawa became too much; I reluctantly declined to attend, using the excuse that I could not take time off work. I felt embarrassed and deflated by the fact that something that was an every day occurrence for so many others caused such panic in me that I was incapacitated simply by the thought of travelling alone. My thoughts returned again and again to how ridiculously weak I was. The excitement I had felt was replaced by self-flagilation.
Fast forward to 2016: I was reading The Mental Health Commission of Canada online newsletter and saw the call for applications for a training workshop called SPARK – Supporting the Promotion of Activated Research and Knowledge. The program is designed to “help participants apply techniques for moving evidence-informed research and knowledge in mental health, substance use, and addictions more quickly into practice.” (http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/initiatives/11857/spark-training-workshop). It sounded like a great match for my 50 Fabulous Feats experiment. It was the last day applications were being accepted, so I put together a brief outline of the SilverLiningFrog concept, the positive psychology research, and my blogs where I shared my own novel, intentional activities in support of improving my mental health and encouraging others to do so.
In early April, I received an email that advised my application had been placed on the waiting list for SPARK participation. Later in the month, I was excited to learn that I was being invited to attend training in Ottawa in June. There was a slight challenge for me to manage as between the time of my application and my acceptance, I had started working at Niagara Region Mental Health. I am forever grateful to both my Manager who allowed me the time off despite being less than two months on the job, and my team members who let me to pick up a weekend shift so that I only had to take one day without pay.
The only hurtle left for me was travelling to Ottawa. A lovely MHCC staff member, Hannah, made arrangements to get me there and home again in time for my Friday morning shift. The fastest route available other than driving was a bus, Go Train and a Via Rail train; my old friend, anxiety, reared up at this point. Fortunately, over the last few years I have become more aware when anxiety tries to make decisions for me, and I, in turn, have changed my response from self-judgment, embarrassment, and raging against it, to a more open, self-compassionate mindset.
Kristen Neff, leading researcher in the field of self-compassion, identifies three elements of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. In its simplest terms, self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness and care we would give to a good friend, recognizing that no one is perfect. Instead of raging against my anxiety, I have learnt to be more aware of it. I have reframed the “negative” aspect by recognizing that the fear is grounded in a desire to keep me safe; I actually have a little conversation with my anxiety expressing gratitude for its underlying protective nature, and walk through the steps I will take to make sure I can and will be okay. It may sound a bit hokey, but making friends with my fears frees up my energy for more productive problem solving.
As the day arrived for my departure for SPARK, I was fully prepared with my tickets carefully tucked in my backpack, taxi pre-arrange to take me to the bus terminal in Niagara Falls, and a mental toolkit of breathing techniques and other grounding exercises should I need them. I began my adventure at 6:30 a.m. moving from taxi to bus to Go train, then onto the Via Rail train that would deliver me to Ottawa just after 3 p.m. I was actually surprised by how little anxiety I felt. As I transitioned between Go Train and Via Rail at Union Station in Toronto, I became a bit confused. I stopped, took three mindful breaths, and asked some friendly looking young women how I might find Via Rail; not only did they give me directions, they went out of there way to walk me there and we had a lovely conversation on the way. When I sought confirmation from another young woman that she, too, was awaiting the train to Ottawa, she let out a sigh of relief and told me she thought it was, but was glad to hear that I was also travelling that way. With a great deal of what Kristen Neff would call “common humanity,” we enjoyed a nice chat before the train arrived and we each departed for our assigned seats. By the time I entered the taxi that took me to my hotel, I was both tired and exhilarated as I had accomplished the first phase of my “fabulous feat” and anticipated the amazing training opportunity that would now bring me together with participants from across Canada with whom I would become an official SPARKie.
Next up: Becoming a SPARKie: Part 2 – The Training