VIU Counsellor shines a light on mental health

Shining a Light

October 9, 2020
Author: Gemma Armstrong

A message of support and encouragement from a VIU Counsellor

Wow, we’re now in October, which means we’re a few weeks into classes for many programs. What a September it has been! I imagine that for much of the VIU Community, if not all, this September has presented some new challenges and has involved some pretty major adjustments. The shift to this hybrid education model, with so much being online, has meant that we’ve all had to learn new things on top of our usual day-to-day requirements.

I know you’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating. If you’re struggling, know that you are not alone. By that I mean both that there are others having similar experiences since we’re going through a pandemic that is impacting us collectively and I also mean that there are supports available to you. I want to offer some encouragement to acknowledge your experiences, along with those feelings that are so natural and human, and to seek support when it feels right.  


Recognizing our accomplishments

Even if you’re struggling with some parts of life, I really encourage you to recognize and appreciate all that you’ve done to adjust, cope, shift your expectations, shift your strategies, learn new ways of using technology (has anyone needed IT help… I know I have!) and adapt to changes both at school and outside of school. These accomplishments deserve acknowledgement, and I want to congratulate you for every challenge or barrier you’ve overcome, and every new step you’ve taken, no matter how small they may seem. Making changes and doing new things involves courage and commitment. I invite you to take a moment to feel the goodness of that!


Welcoming the feelings

Let yourself feel all the different feelings

Working with students every day, I am honoured to witness the desire to grow, learn and be well. As a counsellor, often students courageously share with me the things that feel difficult, painful, vulnerable and sometimes even those things students are ashamed of, in order to move forward from them. I get to see on a regular basis how turning toward some of these painful aspects of life, how shining a light on them and being curious and compassionate toward oneself, can lead to healing, relief and new possibilities. So right now, even at the risk of seeming like a stereotypical counsellor (“how do you feel…”) I want to really encourage you to experiment a little with letting yourself truly acknowledge and feel what you feel, with care.

This isn’t always easy and we often avoid our feelings by distracting ourselves, trying to talk ourselves out of our feelings, trying to push through without really giving any attention to them. It’s OK to do this sometimes, but I’ve learned that the benefits of giving ourselves space to just be as we are and to feel is that we get to better know ourselves in the world, like what we want, or need, or like, and what we don’t want and don’t like. And we are often guided by emotions to move toward action that is usually adaptive and healthy in some way, like reaching out to someone we care about, or who can support us; or maybe setting a boundary; or making a plan to take care of ourselves in a different way. So if you can stay present enough, I invite you to take time to turn your awareness inward to how you feel in an embodied way: in your mind, body, heart, spirit. Do it with a supportive person if that helps, do it for a very brief moment if that’s all that feels OK right now, do it for those parts of your experience that feel manageable enough to go there, at least a little, for now.  


Make space for loss

An example of a common experience right now is grief or sadness at some level, because with every change, there involves some loss. And we have gone through a lot of changes! We might have lost the opportunity to go on a summer vacation we were looking forward to, we might have lost work, or the chance to live on campus and meet new people in person, or the expectation of what our classes might be like. I know that really feeling these losses can HURT– there’s disappointment, sadness, grief, maybe anger or frustration too. And I also know that when we stay with the feelings for a little while a shift often happens, and what actually happens next is something useful, that helps to adapt and cope with the situation. For example, I might realize that I’m missing a friend and decide to give them a call, or I might feel gratitude about what I DO have, or I might really recognize how important it is for me to just take some time do something fun and recharge. The nature of emotions is that they shift, and the beauty of them is that they give us important information when we pay attention! That information often comes naturally as a result of really acknowledging and processing a feeling in the present.   


It's OK to feel fear

Another example is letting ourselves feel fear, if that is part of our experience. There is a lot of unpredictability in the world and feeling some fear about this is so natural. I get that it often feels vulnerable to tune into this, though. You may ask, “Why would I want to feel fear?” By clearing a space to just be with that fear, and fully feel it in mind and body, we often discover new ways to adapt. Like I might decide I want to build up more of a support system, ask for help from someone I trust or put something in place that helps ensure my safety and wellness in the future, like picking up extra toilet paper (OK that part is a joke). Or, I might recognize the value of being as healthy as I can be and so I might decide to cut down on sugar, or to fit in an extra walk each week to have a more balanced, healthy mind and body.


Celebrate the positive

So, what I’m getting at here is that it’s natural and normal to be experiencing some hard feelings. Stress, worry, anger, sadness, fear. These are OK and worth actually letting yourself feel sometimes if it is manageable enough to do so. You’re not the only one feeling this way. It’s also natural and highly encouraged, though sometimes even just as hard, believe it or not, to really make space for feelings like joy, excitement and pride in your accomplishments. Because WOW – these are real too! And it can all co-exist within you because we’re complex beings – one feeling doesn’t negate another. So notice what it’s like when you feel a moment of joy or delight in feeling the sun on your face. Or finishing an assignment and feeling relief and satisfaction, and pride that you did it! Expand a little on that moment of excitement and happiness when you have a phone call coming up with someone you love, or a bite of your favourite fresh fruit in front of you. Let yourself enjoy these moments. Let them fill you up and keep you going, like putting gas in a tank or charging a battery.


Support is available

Ok, now there’s just a little more to this I want to make note of right now. There are lots of good reasons why it might be hard to feel and bear the emotions you’re feeling right now. If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the thought of letting yourself feel any of these things, that’s OK too. We don’t always learn from our culture, our role models and our families that we’re allowed to feel certain emotions. And sometimes events happen in our lives that overwhelm our capacity to cope. Sometimes our mental health takes a big dive and our suffering is too much to handle on our own. If that’s the case for you and you would like support to move through challenges, please feel welcome to connect. The VIU Counselling team is here for you. There are also several other supports available such as VIU Elders-in-Residence, Here2Talk which is a 24-hr service for students, and the VI Crisis line. See our website for a list of supports.


Gemma Armstrong is a Counsellor at VIU. She would like to acknowledge two of the most impactful models that inform her understanding and experience with the above topics: Hakomi and Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy, as well as all the wonderful students who teach her through their work together.

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