September community meeting: positive psychology

At our September community meeting, Amanda Muise and Roby Miller from Community Head Injury Resource Services (CHIRS) gave a presentation about positive psychology.

We also had the opportunity to hear our long-time member Frank Bruno talk about running the Pan Am Relay this past June, and many of us posed with his relay torch (see below.)

BIST Members
Community meeting attendees pose with Frank Bruno’s Pan Am Relay torch (Amanda Muise and Roby Miller from CHIRS are with Frank in the large photo.)

Positive psychology is a relatively new field of psychology, developed by Martin Seligman , the former president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman was motivated by wanting to know what makes people happier on a daily basis.

Seligman found that the roots of happiness are:

  • having positive emotions
  • being engaged in an activity or profession you love and can ‘get lost’ in
  • being in positive relationships
  • having meaning in your life (giving of yourself to others)
  • having a sense of achievement in your activities

And while it is kind of obvious, but also worthwhile mentioning, happiness is important because it’s good for you. People who are happy have fewer heart attacks, strokes and tend to live longer.

The three benefits of happiness

Other keys to finding happiness include:

  • the ability to savour – not chugging your coffee, but enjoying it
  • gratitude – being grateful for everything you have
  • having a positive attitude
  • mindfulness

Amanda and Roby gave us some exercises to help increase happiness.

Write a letter:

Take a moment to think of someone who made a big impact on your life. This person could be a teacher who helped you pass a difficult class, or an important friend in your life. Write a short letter to that person and explain the impact they had on you. You don’t have to share the letter, or even tell the person about it, though research shows that sharing this with the person increases your happiness.

‘Trick’ your brain into being happy

Body language can have a big impact on your brain. As social psychologist Amy Cuddy discusses in her Ted Talk, standing like Super Man in front of the mirror actually boosts your self-confidence. Chewing on a clean pencil uses the same muscles as smiling, and can actually make you feel happier, because your brain thinks you’re actually smiling.

Practise mindfulness

It’s easier said than done, but learning how to pay attention to the present moment or purposely slowing things down can increase your happiness. Even taking just one minute to meditate can be very helpful.

Take a moment to think about your day

This daily practise can help with gratitude and mindfulness:

Take a moment to think about  your day.

Record something that went well: what was the event? What had to happen for it go well? Why did it go well? What role did you play? Why is it important?

Find your 24 strengths

Learning about your strengths and how to use them is crucial to leading a happy life. You can take about 10 minutes and learn about your 24 top strengths at the VIA Institute on Character, a non-profit psychology organization. You’ll need to sign into the site, but it’s free. Another great resource is authentichappiness.org

infographic about strengths
PHOTO: VIA INSTITUTE ON CHARACTER

You can find out more about positive psychology by reading Sophia Voumvakis’ post on Finding Happiness after ABI, here. And we wrote about Frank’s Pan Am Relay experience this summer, right here.

There are a lot of meditation apps you can use, including some which are specific for brain injury. We’ve also discussed mindfulness at other community meetings, which you can read about here.

NEXT COMMUNITY MEETING:  MONDAY, OCTOBER 26th

TOPIC: TECHNOLOGY AND ABI

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August community meeting: positive affirmations

At our August community meeting, BIST programs and services coordinator Kat Powell taught us about positive affirmations. After her talk, we made affirmation baskets – creating beautiful places to put our positive affirmations in and read when we need to.

a sample of affirmation baskets

Positive affirmations stem from a psychological theory which became popular in the late 1980s, coined by Claude SteeleAffirmations can be negative or positive, and it’s important to work on positive self-affirmations as a way to help ourselves and believe in ourselves. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, self-affirmation is:

The recognition and assertion of the existence and value of one’s individual self.

Negative affirmations, such as thinking ‘I’m no good at this’, are easy. How many times a day do you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, or self-critiquing? Negative affirmations erode at our self-esteem and happiness over time.

We generate many affirmations throughout the day, and when we doubt ourselves, the negative affirmations can cancel out whatever positive affirmations we have. This is why it’s important to develop your positive self-talk, think of it like building muscle,  so that you’re strong enough emotionally for when you need it the most.

Two BIST members work on affirmation baskets

To make our baskets, Kat brought some samples of positive affirmations she had found online. BIST members chose which ones suited them, and then decorated plastic baskets to hold their affirmations.

Most people used bright coloured tissue paper to decorate.

BIST member holds up finished affirmation basket

You can find many examples of positive affirmations online, including these two sites for  people living with brain injury and their families / caregivers:

3 tips for writing affirmations

There are also many examples of creating affirmation jars online – they range from the super-simple, to the very complex – for the more artistically inclined:

BIST member works on Affirmation basket

NEXT COMMUNITY MEETING: SEPTEMBER 28th, 6-8 p.m.
TOPIC: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOLOGY
MORE INFO

May Community Meeting: Reading rehab + Advocacy and brain injury

BIST had two speakers come to our May community meeting: BIST member and writer Shireen Jeejeebhoy discussed her experiences trying to re-gain her love of reading and Katie Muirhead, advocacy specialist at the Ontario Brain Injury Association (OBIA), spoke about advocacy.

Reading Rehab

Before her brain injury, Shireen was a vivacious reader,  a person who could lose herself in a book for hours. But after her ABI, Shireen lost that ability completely. It’s how she learnt the hard way that literacy does not equal reading.

Shireen can read words and sentences but can’t remember the information from them. She often stops in the middle of a sentence, and is unable to retain new vocabulary. She said she usually  needs a nap after a reading session, and ABI-related initiation problems mean even choosing what to read is a problem.

After her brain injury, Shireen said she followed the medical model of re-learning how to read. She focused on one page at a time, and says it her a full year to read a simple book, which, she says, she remembers absolutely nothing about.

The interesting thing is, Shireen has written several books since acquiring her brain injury, because, as she explains, reading is taking stuff in, whereas writing is taking stuff out.

Shireen said her first illumination was learning the physiological reasons why she was having difficulty reading from a EEG test. Also, biofeedback treatments helped her remember characters and improve her concentration, though she was still unable to recall the book after she was done reading it. When her biofeedback treatment ended, Shireen could read for 20 minutes a day – what the average person reads. But Shireen is a writer who needs to read for hours and hours a day. 20 minutes isn’t good enough.

Which is why Shireen says she convinced her neuropsychiatrist to help her regain her love of reading. She says she didn’t want to go back to a reading “expert”, who would claim her reading abilities are fine. She needed someone to start from the ground up, and who would respect her goals.

While the road Shireen is taking is bumpy, her neuropsychologist’s treatment is helping. His first exercise was to take a newspaper article and to listen to Shireen read out loud in the same way she would read silently, for as long as she could. Shireen says this helped her doctor see her get a headache, repeat words and get tired from her efforts. From this he is able to work with her to help her, hopefully, regain her love of reading.

Reading is a solitary activity,

You can read what Shireen has written for our blog about her experiences here.

Brain Injury and Advocacy

Katie Muirhead is the advocacy specialist at OBIA, and survivors who need help accessing services or benefits they feel they are entitled to can contact her for assistance at:  kmuirhead@obia.on.ca or (905) 641-8877 ext. 229.

Katie explained that advocacy is different than lobbying. Advocacy is supporting a cause, and trying to get others to notice and pay attention to that cause. Lobbying goes a step further, and aims to make systemic changes – something which non-profits such as OBIA (and BIST) are unable to do.

There are four types of advocacy:

  • Self advocacy – advocating for your own interests
  • Peer advocacy – advocating for someone else’s interests
  • Systemic advocacy – advocacting for change for a larger group of people
  • Legal Advocacy – when a lawyer helps advocate for your legal rights

Focusing on self advocacy, Katie discussed that we all have some barriers to being good self- advocates. Maybe we get frustrated quickly and can lose our temper, or keeping track of paper work just isn’t our thing. What’s important, Katie said, is to recognize those weaknesses and get support in dealing with them.

In order to achieve your goal (for example, get on ODSP benefits) Katie said it’s important to break down the problem into more manageable pieces. For example, if you were denied ODSP, consider:

  • why you were denied
  • what are the facts about your case which you know are true
  • collect the right information (usually, additional medical information)
  • carefully look at the denial letter

Documentation is very important. Be sure to keep track of all conversations that you have about your case. Include the following in your notes:

  • the date
  • time
  • names of people contacted and their titles
  • agency name and telephone number
  • description of what was discussed

In addition, it is very important to keep track of your medical information. Katie suggests keeping a binder of all of your documentation – so that everything is in one place. Organize these documents in a way that you can easily retrieve them.

Communication Skills

Finally, advacating for yourself is a very stressful thing to do. Often you are advocating because you have denied something you need, such as financial benefits. It’s why Katie said self-care is so important. Things such as setting boundaries (I will not take calls or work on this issue during meal times, for example), talking it out with people you trust and trying to take time out from the case are very important. For more information, you can read Katie’s presentation here.

Katie Muirhand, Advocacy Specialist, OBIA
kmuirhead@obia.on.ca or (905) 641-8877 ext. 229

Next community meeting: BIST AGM – June 22, 2015; 6-8 p.m.

Community Meeting Round-Up: Eating healthy on a budget with Joanne Smith

When Joanne Smith acquired her spinal cord and brain injury at the age of 19, after the initial recovery, she says she spent 10 years feeling “lousy.” On top of dealing with her injuries, additional challenges such as weight gain, fatigue, digestive pain, neuropathic pain and migraines had a big impact on her quality of life. Then she took a look at her diet.

Smith said she was eating the same convenience and processed foods she ate as a teenager, prior to her injury. And when she changed her diet to more nutritious, whole foods, she says, she changed her life. She lost weight, and her headaches and pain went down. She felt better. That’s when she decided to go back to school and learn more about nutrition.

Joanne Smith and BIST member
Joanne Smith and BIST member Michael (Pinky) Clouthier

Smith became a certified nutritional practitioner, work she continues to do to this day. She’s also been the host of two TV shows focussing on disability issues (the Gemini-award winning Moving On and Accessibility in Action) and co-authored the book, Eat Well Live Well with Spinal Cord Injury. And on a Monday night in March, she came to the BIST community meeting to teach us about eating well on a budget.

Smith began her presentation with this somewhat disturbing statistic:

Each year we eat on average_

The bodies of ABI survivors, Smith said, are more susceptible to inflammation. Diets with too much salt and sugar (basically, the average North American diet) can trigger inflammation, leading to swelling, headaches and mood changes. Changing your diet, Smith says, can improve these symptoms.

Smith acknowledged that changing your diet can be challenging – especially for ABI survivors who may have a limited budget, accessibility challenges getting to the grocery store and energy issues. But she said that while many people think it’s more expensive to eat healthy it doesn’t need to be. For example, making your own food is cheaper than buying it, as per National Geographic’s article, What Can You Get for Ten Dollars?

Image via National Geographic
Source:  National Geographic

Smith’s tips for healthy grocery shopping on a budget

  • Make a list before you go out, and stick to it
  • Avoid the centre aisles of the store, they tend to have the processed, more costly food
  • Buy whole foods (foods which have been through very little processing and do not have additives) – they’re cheaper and healthier
  • Avoid pre-chopped produce, which tends to be more expensive
  • It’s cheaper to buy in bulk
  • Double or triple salad recipes so you can have prepared food for the week ahead. Put salad portions in individual serving containers in the fridge for a quick grab and go. (Smith says dollar stores are great places to get Tupperware.)
  • Grow your own – it’s possible to grow herbs, fruits and vegetables in a small window box garden or balcony.
  • Organic is not necessary, Smith says. Just wash your produce really well by filling your sink with water and a splash of vinegar, rinse and rub. (And here’s some motivation, Smith says the average apple is sprayed with pesticides 17 times.)
  • If you are going to invest in organic food, Smith says it’s best to spend your money on organic meat.
  • If possible, avoid shopping during peak times (such as the weekend). Produce is often marked down on Monday mornings and Saturday nights, afer the rush.
Making a smoothie
Making a smoothie with spinach, banana, almond milk and peanut butter

Reading labels and ingredients is crucial to healthy eating, Smith says. Watch out for trans fats, which can lead to inflammation. And beware of ‘no sugar added’ labels, some foods with these labels can still be loaded with naturally occurring sugars which still count as sugar. A single serving of food should have no more than five grams of sugar.

Artificial sugars are worse, Smith says they irritate the nervous system, can set off your mood and induce headaches. They can also stimulate your appetite, and there is evidence that people who use artificial sweeteners may consume more calories than people who don’t. (Smith says if you have to use artificial sweeteners, use stevia, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar and has “no horrible side effects.”)

Beware of foods which claim to have Omega-3, we need three to four grams of omega-3 a day to be useful. To get that amount from margarine, for example, Smith says you’d need to eat the whole container. (Best-news-ever: butter is way healthier than margarine, and good for your immune system.)

If you’re buying fish, avoid any fish that is farmed. (Smith says she doesn’t buy fish unless it says ‘wild’ on the label.) Farmed fish are fed grains, and can acquire diabetes as a result of their diet. As a result, farmed fish do not have the essential omega-3s which wild fish have.

And here’s one that may be a shocker: don’t heat olive oil. Olive is wonderful to use on raw foods, such as salads, or to poor on pasta, after it has been cooked. Instead Smith recommends cooking with coconut oil or rapeseed oil. (If you want to read more about the cooking with olive oil debate, go here.)

Finally, Smith says drinking your nutrients is a great way to get your nutrition. Smith uses the Nutri Bullet to make her smoothies, which go for about $90 to $100. She says she’s not a fan of juicers, since they tend to remove most of the fiber. But the point is, Smith says, you don’t need to invest in an expensive juicer or blender to get the benefits of drinking your nutrition. At the meeting we made a great smoothie consisting of: almond milk, peanut butter, spinach and banana.

Shannon and John enjoy their smoothies
Shannon and John enjoy their smoothies – made with spinach, almond milk, peanut butter and bananas

Most importantly, Smith says, take things one step at a time. “You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel.” We felt better just listening to her – and sampling those smoothies.

For more information: Joanne Smith | Fruitful Elements | fruitfulelements@gmail.com | 416-992-2927

Next community meeting: April 27th – Masquerade Themed Volunteer Appreciation Event!

Exploring the mind-body connection and ABI

It’s hard to imagine yoga and mindfulness instructor Krista Schilter doing anything half way. A year ago, BIST members had the opportunity to learn about Schilter’s unique approach to meditation as a four-time brain injury survivor. Now she found the time once again  in her busy schedule (among other things, Schilter teaches yoga, mindfulness and skating) to share some meditative wisdom. And it worked:  on a cold, dreary and all-round miserable January night, she made the room feel, better. Like bitter cold Monday nights in January are ok, something we can get through, if we just breathe.

Krista Schilter
Krista Schilter demonstrates alternative nostril breathing

Schilter lead the group through simple breathing excercises which she says have helped calm her persistent headaches and improve her sleeping. She says she uses meditation as a tool to help her be “the best version of herself” possible. She reminded us that though we are rarely mindful of it, breath is the one thing we all have in common as living beings, .

Schilter stressed that meditation is a practise. It’s about where you are at today, in this moment, in this body. She asked the room to make a commitment to practise one breathing exercise in the morning when we first wake up, or at night before we go to sleep. She asked us to think of meditation as something we do every day, a habit like brushing our teeth.

Schilter speaks from experience. She says when she gets “lazy” about her meditation, her headaches come back. She has, at times, felt resentful that these practices need to be a part of her life, that she has to wake up that much earlier every morning to do them. At the same time, she says, the benefits are enormous. It’s about mindfully accepting who the “after-ABI Krista” is, she said.

The first technique Schilter lead us through was alternate nostril breathing, which she says helps to re-wire neurotransmission and balance the hemispheres of the brain. You can find an example of alternate nostril breathing in the video below:

Alternate Nostril Breathing from Center Your Health on Vimeo.

Another breathing exercise Schilter taught was  Satali Pranayam. This practise can cool you when you are over-heated and Schilter says she also practises it whenever she feels a headache coming on, even if she’s out in public. To practise Satali Pranayam:

    • breathe in through your mouth like you’re sucking a straw
    • hold your breath
    • exhale softly through your nose

Schilter says that being mindful is learning how to respond to stress as opposed to reacting to it. “That’s the work,” she told us. “To realize and notice what’s going on at a point in time and to make a decision. … It’s hard work to be mindful and focus on the now.”

It is hard work, but Schilter makes us think anything is possible. And who knows? If Schilter comes back next year, maybe she’ll get us levitating.

If you’d like to contact Krista Schilter for more information on breathing exercises, you can email her at krista@scrambledeggsheadtrauma.com. You can also look at her document on mindfulness and ABI here.

BIST’s next community meeting will be on Monday, February 23 from 6-8 p.m. (topic TBA) at the Northern District Library, 40 Orchard View Blvd, 2nd floor meeting room. 

Community Meeting Round-Up – Safe Inclusive Toronto Streets

BIST members had the opportunity to hear Melanie Moore from the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto speak at our November community meeting. Moore talked about Safe Inclusive Toronto Streets – the idea that Toronto’s streets should be safe for everyone who lives here, whether they have a disability or not.

“Safety means different things to different people,” Moore told us. She asked members to describe what safety means to them:

  • Being aware of what’s around us – people and things
  • Making a clear path
  • Preventing accidents, i.e. riding a bike with a helmet
  • Locking doors
  • Carrying money in a safe place
  • Have a good attitude in public
BIST's Kat Powell and CILT's Melanie Moore
BIST’s Kat Powell and Melanie Moore of CILT

Melanie showed us a self-defence video taught by Savoy Howe of Toronto News Girls – a boxing club for women and trans people which focuses on empowerment and “exploring the art of boxing”. In the video, Howe showed people with disabilities –  the majority of whom were in wheelchairs – how to throw traditional boxing punches versus “street fighting” punches.

Moore emphasized, as did Howe in the video, that self-defense is just one part of safety training. Using your voice effectively can stop a potentially dangerous situation from escalating, for example.

Here are other tips from Moore:

  • If you’re in trouble, yell “fire.” People are much more likely to respond to “fire” than “help” or anything else you can yell.
  • Get a case for your cards which lets you use them without taking them out of the case – they’re not expensive and means you don’t have to expose all of your cards.
  • The City of Toronto says people with disabilities and seniors can have their sidewalks cleared of snow for free this winter. You need to register in advance.

Next meeting: BIST Holiday Party!
Dec. 15, 6-8 p.m., Northern District Libary
40 Orchard View Blvd, 2nd Floor meeting room

Community meeting round-Up: Variety Village Fitness Club

Picture of Sherri Risto Wood
SHERRI RISTO (WOOD); PHOTO: MERI PERRA

At our October community meeting, BIST members had the opportunity to find out how Variety Village can help keep us in shape. Sherri Risto (Wood), Variety Village’s coordinator of rehabilitation to community and education, talked about Variety Village’s amazing  facilities which are open to all abilities and for all ages.

Where is it?

Variety Village is located at 3701 Danforth Ave, just east of Birchmount. To get there by TTC, take the 12A bus from Kennedy Station, which goes straight to their front door.

What’s there?

Facilities at Variety Village include:

The Fieldhouse

PHOTO: VARIETY VILLAGE
PHOTO: VARIETY VILLAGE
  • A 200 meter track, made with MondoTrack foam, with lanes for walking, running and wheelchairs.
  • Parallel bars
  • Wood-floored basketball courts
  • A cardio and weight room with fully accessible equipment

The Aquatic Centre

PHOTO: VARIETY VILLAGE
PHOTO: VARIETY VILLAGE
  • A warm pool, kept at 84ºC with bridge blocks separating the deep and shallow ends
  • A deep end that’s 4.27 meters, with accessible entrances such as a chair lift, built-in stairs and a ramp
  • Pool walking programs, which are easier to do than being on land but offer the benefits of the water’s resistance, which helps develop muscle
  • A hot pool to relax in, kept at 90ºC

Programs

Some of Variety Village’s programs are fee for service, and others are included with the cost of membership. They include:

  • TaiChi
  • Aquafit
  • Chair Fitness and Seated Zumba
  • T.I.M.E (Together in Movement and Exercise) – an exercise program designed for people with balance and mobility challenges, including brain injury survivors
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
PHOTO: VARIETY VILLAGE
PHOTO: VARIETY VILLAGE

How much does it cost?

Membership at Variety Village depends on factors such as age (they have adult, youth, child and senior memberships) and income. Folks on social assistance such as ODSP can get a subsidized rate of $210 a year (or $17.50 a month.) Find out about their other membership rates here.

Variety Village
3701 Danforth Avenue (east of Birchmount)
Scarborough, Ontario
416-699-7167

BIST’s next community meeting will be on Monday, Nov. 24 from 6-8 p.m. (topic TBA) at the Northern District Library, 40 Orchard View Blvd