WTF! Am I the only one with these problems?

Have you ever felt like  your concerns are utterly different from anyone else’s?

Sure you have! We all have different circumstances in our lives. For instance, I am wondering… Will the tires last on our car? Will the vacant lot down the street become a giant condo complex and ruin our view? Will Stephen King come to my poker game?

STEPHENKING

Stephen King considers coming to my poker game. I hope he brings chips.

(Ok, maybe I made up the one about the car).

We all think our concerns and problems are completely unique, but are they?

I am currently working on a program for people who are having a really hard time. Now, this group is facing incredible challenges that are very specific. However, I’ve noticed in my years working with different groups that a lot of the things we face can be really similar.

Some few years ago, I thought the challenges facing me as a cancer patient were unique not just to cancer patients but to me. Yup. I thought my story and my bit of hardship was incredibly important and oh so precious. And to a degree it was, as an experience with cancer should not be diminished at all. What I am saying is that if we hang around on the planet long enough, chances are, we’re going to experience some kind of hardship. It’s part of this thing called being human.

Think about the people you are closest to. Do they have their gooey, unresolved human bits? Do they have a challenge in their lives that they find really tough, be it addiction, an emotional issue or just getting through the day in this ridiculously complex world? I’m going to guess that’s a big “YES!“.

heresthething

Its not like he needs my help, but Alec’s Podcast is terrific. Go ahead, click on it.

You see, it’s really easy to look at the shiny happy people (to quote REM- and why not? They rock.) and think that we are the only ones struggling to get out of bed in the morning, or working really hard to connect with our family, or dealing with a health issue. I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts by Alec Baldwin and he had Paul Simon on as a guest. Alec said he wanted to know what it was like to grow up being Paul Simon. Paul paused for a second and said “Hey, Everything happens to everybody.” I think that sums it up really well. Everything does happen to everybody. Especially over time.

You could say that this statement is trite and patently untrue. In a literal sense you would be correct. You could say to me “Hey Rob, This thing happened to me. It did not happen to you. Do not lessen the importance of my experience.” Point taken. After all, I once barfed in the train station in Hanoi at 5:30 am.

hanoi-train

I barfed in this building once. I’m sorry Hanoi.

Has that happened to everybody? I sure hope not. Especially for the train station. However, I’m pretty sure we all go through some very basic human experiences that really seem to be the cost of the ticket to this ride called life. I think we all experience joy, love, loss, fear, connection, frustration, envy and of course a desire for a Led Zeppelin Reunion (ok maybe that’s just a few million of us).

Neil

Neil is awesome. That is all.

But in my work with cancer patients, their families, corporations, healthcare professionals, executives, and young people, I am starting to notice that the specifics of our challenges may be very different, but we are all out there, trying to find our way, trying to make a better life for ourselves and our families and trying to make sense of a world that may not make sense*. Wherever you are, to quote another great musician, keep on rockin’ in the free world.

*When Stephen King does come to my poker game, I’m sure he’ll call me on that run on sentence. Hey Stephen, read it out loud and it sounds fine! By the way, I just finished Finders Keepers and I loved it.

Hawke out.

What the heck is wellness and why should we care?

If you’re in one of the caring professions, you probably care a lot. I bet you wake up in the morning and care more before 9 am than most people do all day. (My apologies to the marines- for a bunch of reasons.)

Having that much concern all day long can sure take its toll on your health and you guessed it, your wellness!  Well what is wellness about? Its about actually taking your own needs into account, slowing down on occasion and being kind to yourself.  Let’s use the concept of a well, because heck its right in the word “wellness”. If you are caring for people all the time and not looking after yourself, then chances are you are drawing on your own resources to help them, while depleting yourself. This can leave your poor well empty and even a bit dry, as it were.

“The Wellness Well” You see what I did there? Sure you do.

When we ignore our own wellness, we tend to stress out, feel really overwhelmed and our health can suffer. The problem is, we rarely give ourselves permission to help ourselves. We feel like we should just “tough it out” and “carry on”.

However, if a friend came up to you and said “Hey I’m burned out at work, and my joints are achy do you think I should go for a massage?” Of course you’d say Yes! You’d send them off to get their body kneaded faster than you can say “CranioSacral”-which I can’t say at all.

But will we get a massage ourselves? Of course not! Why? I blame my protestant upbringing. (Feel free to blame whatever culture you’re from- I’ve found it so much easier than actually taking responsibility for myself). But seriously, we do that all the time. We can be having a really tough time and desperately need to cut ourselves some slack but we sometimes find that difficult.

Essentially wellness is, taking care of ourselves before things become horrible. We often mislabel healthy concern and care for ourselves as “Selfishness” or “self-centered-ness” or even “being like crazy Uncle Bob” but really carving out a place for wellness in our lives can be the best thing we can do for our level of contribution. Think about it, when we feel good, do we want to contribute more or less? More of course!  Are we worse at our jobs or better? Better!

massage

Damn! Don’t you want some of this? A massage I mean.

So there you go. Wellness is valuable not just to you but to the people around you and the work you do. So how do you get more of this thing called Wellness into your life? Well, that’s not actually that hard. Here are a few suggestions:

1: You could, go for a walk in nature. Simply stepping outside and walking for thirty minute has been proven to make us healthier and reduce stress

2: Get a massage! Get rid of those aches and pains and get the blood flowing by getting a massage that is either Deep Swedish or Shallow Ukrainian, (this doesn’t exist but it should.)

3: Hug three people. Because heck, hugs feel great!

So, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I hope you give yourself two shots of wellness today.

BTW, I am currently creating a wellness program for CMHA Waterloo Wellington Dufferin called…drum roll please…

The Wellness Solution: Help Yourself Help The World

More on this soon!

Are you tough enough to give this “frightening” gift of happiness.

This simple exercise is scientifically proven to make you happier but it’s scary.

In fact, it makes me so nervous, that I’m trying to get the courage to do it.

Here’s the deal. You think of someone in your life who has really helped you out. Someone who you are really grateful to for everything they have done. This could be a really good friend, teacher, parent or sibling. Once you have them in mind, you write a page or so thanking them for everything they have done for you.

So far so good right? Here’s the catch. Instead of sending it off by email or snail mail, you call them up and then read them the letter.

I’m not gonna lie, I’m nervous about this. The prospect of calling up my Mom and Dad and thanking them and then having a conversation with a good friend of mine and actually being honest instead of making dirty jokes is something I could easily put off until, well, forever (or at least until the next Game Of Thrones book comes out, whichever comes first.). However, I committed to doing this. I’ve written the letters and read them a couple of times out loud and its go time! Right after lunch.Game-of-Thrones-metal

Because who wants to do something like this on an empty stomach? Not me! And besides, I am prone to displays of emotion so the conversations are probably going to end with me blubbering like someone watching the end of “Love Actually”. Perfect! (He said, wishing there was a sarcasm font). BTW, this is all research for my upcoming book Doing Happiness: Uncovering the Hidden Benefits of Feeling Good.

Alright, so I’ve eaten left over chicken and prepared myself to not tear up by watching Youtube clips of Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, so I think I’m ready.Clint Gif

Here goes.

OK, So, I got through the first one! I called up my best friend and read him my note of thanks. It was very weird and remarkably honest. I thought it would be awkward but it was actually alright. He was quite taken aback it seems, cause really, a friend rarely calls you up, swears at you and then says you’re awesome.

Now, on to my parents… After finding every excuse in the book NOT to do this, I finally went for it.cliff

Alright! That went pretty well! The world did not end and nobody cried. (This is actually a great way to measure if a day has been a success) I managed to read my note to Mom and Dad and everything was alright. I do feel really good right now. In fact, I feel downright happy. It also feels like I’ve given a gift to people who I really care about. That actually might be the most important part about this. I know it’s an exercise to increase your level of happiness, but it feels different than that. It feels like this altruistic gift of acknowledgement and appreciation.

If you want to use this technique to scientifically improve your level of happiness (and those you care about) here are the steps…

1: Decide who you want to thank.

2: Set a timer for about 20 mins and write them a letter about how thankful you are for everything they have done for you.

3: Promise yourself that you’ll get to it tomorrow.

4: When tomorrow arrives, decide it’s not the right time and then do your laundry or wash your dishes, or do your taxes from 3 years ago.

5: Finally get the courage to pick up the phone.

6: Say something like “Could you do me a favour? All you have to do is listen, I’ve written you a letter and I want to read it to you. Don’t worry, it’s all good stuff, is that ok?”

7: Read the letter.

8: Feel Awesome!

You’ll probably feel terrific afterwards, and as a bonus, the folks you care about will feel great as well. This is definitely a scary and generous gift to give and as a bonus, I bet you also get your laundry done.

Happy Post Holidays Everyone!

(Photo by Jenn Pierce/The Press)

Hawke out.

Has anxiety ever made a sneak attack on you?

So, have you ever been smacked upside the head with an unexplained dose of anxiety? It sucks doesn’t it? Well recently, I was going along and minding my own business when I was hit with a wack of anxiety. It was very strange! Ordinarily I can cruise through pretty much anything and feel calm and cool. Going onstage? No sweat! Big meeting? I got that. Final Episode of Game of Thrones? Ok, that can freak me out a bit. But really, most of the time, the word anxiety has little meaning other than something that “other people” experience.anxiety charlie brown

Not so the other day. I woke up and for some reason and I couldn’t get started working. Everytime I was about to start my timer to do the “gazillion” things I had to do, I was totally freaked out by them. So, I relaxed for a bit and then tried again. No go. I just felt more and more tension in my chest and started to feel down right “freaky”. It was like an ocean tide of bad feeling had just rolled in and there was nothing I could do about it.

Before I knew it, most of the day was gone. The next day? Pretty much the same deal. I started to feel pretty terrible and had no idea how to change my mental state. So what gives?

A few months ago I found out that anxiety runs in my family. This should have not come as a total surprise as I had heard some family members described as “worriers”, but then I realized that these stories actually went back generations. (Here’s a hint: If you hear stories about your family being worried before the Model T was invented, it might be a family issue)model t

Ah! It seems this whole anxiety thing may have deeper roots than I thought. It doesn’t seem fair that genetics, that mysterious part of our make-up that brought us our eye colour, height and our love/hate of Star Wars, would have something to do with how we feel on a regular basis, but it does. Apparently our genetic history can really affect how we feel.

Here’s the other side of the coin. Many years ago a relative who I won’t mention (We’ll just call him “Dad”) was feeling really worried. In fact, he was walking around the house anxious a lot of the time. Finally it got to the point where he needed to go to his doctor. After examining him, taking his blood pressure and asking him some questions, the doctor came up with a pretty terrific prescription. 1: Stop watching the News. 2: Wear looser underwear.

So, he went home and did both of those things-and he felt better. For me it wasn’t so simple. However, I woke up one morning and the crazy tension in my chest had lessened. I was able to work again, and as I got a bunch of stuff done, I started to feel capable and OK.

Many of us deal with this. My own small foray into the world of unnamed anxiety was tiny in comparison to what others deal with. For some, waiting a few days and making different underwear choice doesn’t cut it. Folks sometimes need medical care for their condition. If you are dealing with this or something like it, I really hope you get some assistance.

My few days of discomfort was enough for me, thank you very much. Hope it doesn’t happen again, but if it does, at least I know there are others fighting the same fight and just waiting for the tide to go out.beautiful-beaches-0

Here are a couple of resources for dealing with anxiety here.

Help Guide.org

Anxiety and Depression Association Of America

 

Is Your Happiness Selfish?

Have you ever been told that your happiness was selfish? I bet you have. “They” say concern for our own well being is something that should really be at the bottom of our list in terms of priorities or that we are being greedy or petty when we take our own happiness into account. The truth is that when we make our happiness a priority good things happen for us and for those around us. In fact, the contagiousness of feeling good virtually guarantees that if we are happy, we are making the world a better place for those we love the most.hands with globe

By the way, when I am talking about making your own happiness a priority, I am not talking about thinking only of your own needs. Please don’t say to yourself “OK, Rob says my happiness is important, so I’m going to stuff my face full of poutine, buy a red convertible on credit and move to Antigua with a bunch of bathing suit models because that will make me happy!”

zeppelin

I am crazy about these guys. Have you heard “The Rain Song”? Wow.

I’m not talking about living like we’re Led Zeppelin in 1976, or Russel Brand in 2002, I’m talking about making our daily happiness something that we care about and take into consideration.

Believe it or not, this takes discipline. It is attained not so much by going after our every sensory based desire (although, I’m all for sensory based desires) but by doing simple activities that have been proven to make us feel good, right now and in the long term as well.

“Happiness is contagious” is said so often that its a bit of a cliche, but did you know that its actually, quantifiably true?  A little out fit called The Harvard Medical School (you may have heard of them) did a study called “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study” (which is really such a catchy title that it should be a pop song by Katy Perry).

“Hey Everybody, I hope you like my new hit Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network ! Woo hoo!

In this study they found that if you were a friend of someone and lived within 1 mile of them your chance of being happy went up by 25%! Wow! If we can extrapolate (and heck why not?) that would mean that by being happy ourselves, we are actually increasing the chances of our friends and family who live close to us by 25%. Really, you are doing the world a huge chunk of good if you are happy. Isn’t that great? I think it is. So, to answer our first question, Is your happiness selfish? Nope! In fact, you being happy is one of the most generous things you can do for the world.

Hawke out.

 

Do you appreciate the awesomeness of this pumpkin carving? Well, congrats…

pumpkin-carving-art-4

…You just helped make your brain healthier!

What?

Are you crazy about art? I mean any kind of art. Do you get down to old Led Zeppelin tunes? Do you do needle point? Square dance? Do water colours? Woodburning? Do you paint amateurish acrylics of your dog doing water sports? Do you make needle point pillows of Harley Davidson motorcycles jumping through rings of fire? Well if you are doing any kind of art at all, or appreciating it (like our breathtaking jack o lantern up there) you are doing yourself a world of good.

It turns out, the arts are good for us. In a very big way.

I had the pleasure recently of speaking at a conference called The Art Heals Health, Health Heals Art Symposium in Toronto. There was a very impressive group of people there who are committed to exploring how the arts help all of us be healthier. There was a neurologist there named Dr Luis Fornazzari who showed us incredible research (with diagrams of the brain that were lit up like Vegas on New Years)

 

Las-Vegas-New-Years

This is what Vegas looks like at New Years

proving that when we either do or appreciate art in any form we are stimulating neural pathways and helping our brains stay healthy (I am assuming you only have one brain- I mean brains like “all of our brains”) It turns out that our brains really need to be exercised and stimulated on a regular basis to make sure our minds stay limber.

In my own research for my upcoming book Doing Happiness: Uncovering The Hidden Benefits of Feeling Good, I came across research that shows that art does other great stuff for us as well. Art helps make us happy! Yes, that’s right. As well as keeping our brains cooking, doing any kind of art (including Norwegian woodworking) can help us to be happier in a measurable way.

Want to know the best part? You do not have to be good at whatever you’re doing to get the benefits. That’s right. You can absolutely suck at your art and you’ll still get all the benefits to your health and level of happiness.

Don’t know what art to do? Here are a few suggestions…

1: Buy some acrylic paints (they’re cheap!) and paint a landscape. There are some GREAT lessons on youtube for every level of skill, and that’s a trip to ART CITY. I mean who doesn’t love  Bob Ross?paints

 

2: Make a playlist with your most favourite music on it and go for a walk. It’s a great way to transport yourself to whole different way of thinking. forest walk

3: Dance like your choreographer is Gary Busey. (Wouldn’t that be interesting?)Gary Busey

4: Go to your local art Gallery and wander around. (If you want to sound impressive, mutter things like “How very didactically expressionistic!” even when ordering a coffee.) Personally, I am crazy about the AGO for a bunch of reasons.

aberdeen-art-gallery

 

Remember, you don’t actually have to make art, you can just appreciate it. Now we know that art is good for us and helps keep us smart, happy and gives us a shiny coat we can take advantage of it whenever we want, and remember you’re not wrecking the living room by painting a mural of your favourite Swedish Death Metal Band on the wall, your making art and staying healthy!

Rock on! Make Art!

What do you say when someone has cancer?

This is a big question and it can fill people with fear. You find out someone has cancer, maybe its a family member or a friend. What do you say? Do you say anything? Do you completely ignore the 2,000 pound Tyrannosaurus in the room and just hope it goes away? That might seem like the easiest thing in the world to do, but is it helpful? Do you drop your documents and run from the photocopier crying when you see them coming around the corner? That’s probably not the best strategy, but I’ve seen it happen. As a decent human being, how the heck do you handle this?

You see, 30% of us will get a cancer diagnosis at some point in our lives, so at some point, someone you know is going to be dealing with this issue.

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

elton-john-the-diving-board

As a cancer survivor myself, I have had my share of uncomfortable and yes even hilarious conversations when well meaning folks were trying to talk about something that is tough to talk about. So how do we do it?

Here’s a strategy that works for me.

Wait for a time when you have a modicum of privacy and say something like “Hey, I heard you got some bad news lately.” Then …let them talk. What’s great about this is you haven’t said what the bad news is. This gives them the opportunity to talk about it or not. They might shut it right down by saying “Ya, uh that’s private” or “I don’t want to talk about that right now.” This is totally fine and you should respect that. However, they may want to talk about it. They might say something like “Ya, I just got a diagnosis and I am totally freaked out.” or “Its still early days so we’ll wait and see” They might go into a lot of detail and that might surprise you.

If they are anything like me, they will have a LOT to say. Some of my conversations went like this…

Rob: So, ya, I’ve got surgery scheduled for next week and I think the surgeon is good, but he asked me if he should take out my whole thyroid or just part of it. How am I supposed to make that decision? what do you think?”

Bus Driver: I don’t know sir but you still need to deposit a token.

bus driver

You might hear a river of opinions and worry that have been damned up for a long time. You might hear about doctors, hospital parking, and ultrasounds. You might find yourself in a 20 minute conversation that is remarkably one sided. Here’s how to handle this…

Listen.

That’s right. Listen. Listening is quite honestly one of the greatest gifts you can give someone who is going through cancer. In all likelihood they will be under a tremendous amount of stress. Being able to talk to you might be just the thing they need to feel a bit of relief.

You’ll notice I didn’t say “Listen and offer advice”. Please don’t offer advice unless you have a DR in front of your name. You will really want to because you’re a nice person and you will want to fix it. Listening is enough. Please don’t mention that they should eat more veggies or take raspberry keytone or got to Mexico to take a weird drug or talk to your Uncle Lou who beat cancer by eating only radishes. This will not help. Listening and giving them a safe place to share what they are going through will. You might be the only person in their life who they feel they can talk to. If so, then you are even more important to them than you realize.

They may ask for more kinds of help later and that’s terrific, but when a diagnosis  first happens the best thing you can do is talk less and listen more. If you pull this off, you will be giving them a gift that very few know how to give.

Good on you. I like you already.

listening dog

What’s your favourite two minutes in the world?

Wow! I wouldn’t have guessed that, but congratulations on being so acrobatic!

My favourite two minutes in the world is right before going onstage. Its a total blast. Its this incredible feeling that something big is about to happen and you really have no idea how its going to go. You’re completely in the moment and nothing seems to matter except the experience that you are about to have. As one of my heroes, Mr Robert Plant says “There is no place to hide”. Its especially fun when its 8:30 AM and you’re hopped up on three cups of joe.PatientXforum Crowd Wisdom

I’m the guy in the red shirt who looks like he’s bringing in a plane.

Yesterday I had the absolute pleasure to speak at the 3rd National Forum on Patient Experience in Toronto. It was my job to stir up what I call the “Wisdom in The Room” and get folks cranked and ready to collaborate. After a few minutes this very generous crowd was sharing ideas and having a blast. There were medical professionals and patients there from all over the country who care deeply about the patient experience and how we can make it better. I was so taken by the depth of talent and integrity in the room.

All of the content was amazing and here are a few of my faves. There were folks from North Bay Regional Health Centre who are doing great work with patient stories with Photovoice. People from Mississauga Halton CCAC who are improving the patient experience by actually involving patients in the health care system. (What? That’s crazy!) They backed up their research with some incredible stats on how they were actually able to reduce patient time in the hospital.  Wow. I’ve also got to mention the amazing Dr. Shah from Anishnawbe Health Centre in Toronto. His dedication to service was quite inspiring.

The patients in the room really had their voices heard as well. My friend Zal Press from Patient Commando is always ready to kick butt and take down names. And he did.

The silence in the room was palpable when a patient told her emotional and moving story to the audience. She was asking hard questions that need to be answered. It was a terrific event and I was very proud to be a part of it.

With committed people like this working in Health Care in Canada, things are changing and I dare say its for the better.

Shout outs to Dr Joshua Teller and Angela Morin for hosting a great day.

A Showdown At The Patient Corral

The patient experience can be a crazy thing. Often it is more emotional than we think and these feelings can come out at times that are absolutely not convenient. I remember when I had just been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I thought I took the news pretty darn well. In the doctor’s office, I had been fine. However, out in the world it was a completely different matter. You may not be aware of this but cab drivers and cyclists have a deep abiding love for each other. Truly, we stop at red lights and take the opportunity to give each other affectionate and lingering hugs. Actually that is not really accurate. In fact, you could say that cab drivers and cyclists don’t get along at all. I was riding north on University Ave in Toronto (a major street with a ton of traffic on it) when a cab driver pulled up to me in the next lane and cut me off.

badass cyclist

(This is not me.)

I slammed on my brakes and came to a skidding stop; inches from his back bumper. We shared a few words with each other that were not “Happy Birthday”. Ordinarily that would have been it and we would have each gone our separate ways. But no! I was under the influence of a cancer diagnosis which was baking in my psyche like a bubbling toxic cake. Suddenly, my perceptions changed. The buildings of University Ave seemed to fall away and were replaced by the façade of main street from the old west town of tombstone. I stood facing the cab driver in tense silence. A tumble weed drifted by. The town bell clanged twelve times for noon.

cowboys

The cab driver spoke. “Draw!” I coiled all the rage I had into my throbbing right arm and like lightning I drew my six shooter from the holster strapped to my leg. I aimed down the barrel at my adversary and I realized…that I had completely lost my mind! There I was on University Ave in a shouting match with a cab driver. We were both filled with rage. Oh sure we had something to disagree about but no one was hurt and we both could have just got on with our day. But no, I had completely dove in to the conflict like this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. Did I have the right to be angry? Sure! Was this the best way to handle it? Nope.

Somewhere in the depths of my brain a little voice sad “Rob, calm down! You’re acting like a maniac!” So I literally took a step back, got on my bike and went home. I’m sure that I would have handled it differently if I wasn’t completely shocked by having this thing called cancer, but I didn’t. It made me realize that sometimes we think we have dealt with something on an emotional level but our psyches need to catch up with our logical minds. This can make us do strange things, like think we’re Clint Eastwood on University Ave. Wherever you are and whatever your story is, hang in there and watch out for tumble weeds.

Clint Gif