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Zones

I spent some time away at Nova’s Ark this past March Break and again for two weeks this summer. To say that I learned a lot would a be huge understatement, because the culmination of my experiences there have profoundly impacted me.

How does a mental health oasis sound to you? Hopefully, good, as that’s what it was like being at Nova’s Ark for me. I was able to retreat from the stress of my daily life and get away to a place that encouraged me to think about and reflect upon my emotions. It was also a place that I felt comfortable to be myself and to focus on the things that I wanted to focus on.

The Zones of Regulation

I learned about The Zones of Regulation, “a concept to help [people] learn how to self-regulate. The Zones of Regulation creates a system to categorize how the body feels and emotions into four coloured zones with which people can easily identify”.

ZonesOfRegulation1

Skilled and carefully trained teachers and mentors helped me to articulate how I was feeling, to recognize my triggers, and to help develop my ‘toolbox’ for coping strategies. It sounds easy when I say it like that, but the reality is that figuring this stuff out is quite complex. As someone on the autism spectrum, I already struggle at putting words to how I’m feeling and what to do in stressful situations, so I felt like I had a lot to learn about how the zones applied to my life.

Toolbox

One of the first things I applied to my daily life was using my ‘toolbox’ of coping strategies. This was the easiest list to develop because I had already been implementing many of them in my life over a number of years  (if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am today) and so it was just a matter of being more intentional and proactive with my ‘toolbox’.

Zones = Rainbow

The next thing I learned is that The Zones of Regulation are not ONLY four colours, regardless of how much easier that would be, and I recognized that it’s much more complex.

This picture I drew gave me insight into how I interpret the zones. Think of this as a cross-section of my brain and the various sections represent the different parts of the brain, such as thinking, motor functions, sensory input etc.  First off, there’s four basic colours: blue, green, yellow, and red. However, there are blends, shades, and brightness of these colours that would make it appear more like a rainbow.Zones of Regulation

Blends

Between yellow zone and red zone, there’s an orange zone and sometimes this better describes where I am at better than yellow or red could.  Between green zone and yellow zone, there’s lighter green colour with some yellow mixed in etc. You can see in the picture that red and yellow have combined to form orange or blue and red have blended to make purples and pinks.

Shades

Even with one colour, such as red, there’s a variance in shades (from light to dark) and being able to differentiate between the shades within a zone is super helpful. The shades apply all the basic colours, plus the ones in-between (like orange, purple, and pink).

Brightness

Each colour is also expressed in its degree of brightness and how much space it takes up in my ‘brain’. In addition to light and dark sections in my brain, there are also narrow and thick sections too. I would argue that thick, dark red sections are far worse than  narrow, light red sections because of the intensity and the length that those bands represent. The darker sections are more problematic from an emotional perspective because it can be harder and take longer to recover from going into a thick, dark red zone. The coping strategies and tools in my box need to reflect the wide variety of zones within my brain and body.

The Green Zone

If you look again at the picture, you’ll see a diagonal band of green ‘brain’ that goes across the whole frame and all the other colours are intersecting with it. The green zone is my default state (and I would assume that for most people), but continuously throughout the day my brain is being challenged (or attacked) by various sensory, emotional, social, and physical inputs and I have to use the coping strategies in my ‘toolbox’ to regulate my responses. I cannot stop the external influx of stimuli to my brain, but I can internally help myself by using coping strategies.  For example, sometimes my eyes are sensitive to the lights and my brain starts to go into the yellow zone because it’s an uncomfortable stimuli, but then I wear sunglasses to cope and my brain is no longer stressed and goes back into the green zone.

Parts of the Brain

I think that different parts of the brain and body can be in different zones at any given time. For example, my body might go into the blue zone if I’ve just finished playing sports, so it’ll be tired, but my mind might still be in the green zone because that’s a part of my brain that wasn’t stressed. I’m sure you can think of other examples of when a certain part of your body or brain are in different zones; this obviously adds a layer of complexity to figuring out triggers and coping strategies. There’s no predetermined time-limit of how long a particular part of your brain will remain in a certain zone or even how long it will take me to recover back to the green zone. Recognizing the transition from zone-to-zone is still something I am working on and it was helpful to be around skilled observers that would communicate clues to me throughout the day.

How Zones Help Me

Learning about The Zones of Regulation has helped me to better identify and articulate my feelings. This process has also help me refine my coping strategies to be more effective and therefore my quality of life has increased. Being in a supportive learning environment incubated my learning and allowed me to practice without failing, and this in turn has given me more confidence to face my daily challenges. I think that most people want to live well and if given the opportunity to learn and grow, they seize that moment with the hopes of becoming a better version of themselves. Another coping strategy that helps me is being around animals and Nova’s Ark provided that opportunity for me. Over the course of the few weeks that I was there, I got to know Ewok (a kinkajou) and we are kind of ‘friends’ and he loves to snuggle. My time at Nova’s Ark has left a positive impact on my mental health and I experienced relief knowing that the problems that I encounter with my emotions are, at worst, temporary and at best, solvable. Having the space and time to process my learning from Nova’s Ark has been and will continue to be a tremendous asset in my daily life; I cannot wait to go back!

Ewok

 

The side character RPG

I feel like I’m playing a role-playing game (RPG) about a side character who wants to sabotage the main character but cannot do so because they know the main character did nothing wrong. The main character has a happy family, loads of friends, always seems happy. They go on plenty of quests and is adored by all the other game sprites.

The side character did not have that.

They do not want to be a villain but they cannot help but feel anger towards those who were born into an environment that did not reject them for who they are. Everyone ignores them and their story. They disappear into the background at times and no one in the world knows who they are.

They’re scared, they do not want to harm anyone but that rage that burns inside of them feels overwhelming. What is worse is that there is no one who can openly express that they feel the same way. The side character is alone, in the background, without as much detail or expression as the main character. Was it because they were created that way? Or was it because they cannot fathom being a main character.

The whole game is about the side character, who is actually the main character of their own life in game but nothing more. Their part as a main character IS to be a lesser being. But that’s wrong. It feels wrong. But there’s nothing the player can do because that’s just the way the game was developed.

Now, how can I love such a frustrating game? How can I not be envious of the perceived main character?

I tossed the controller down but I keep playing, hoping that life will get better for my avatar. I want them to feel loved. To love. To smile more and cry less. To not have to struggle with the burning jealousy of someone who did not suffer the way my character had. To not desire someone to understand, meaning that others would have experienced the same thing. Being pushed to the side by the game they were created into.

Maybe if I keep leveling, it’ll get better.

Maybe if I keep playing, it’ll get better.

Maybe it’ll get better.

Right?

More Mental Health Apps

Here is a list of some additional mental health apps:

More Mental Health Apps

Anxiety

Stop Panic & Anxiety Self-Help: Meditate, Sleep, Relax

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.excelatlife.panic&hl=en

Android Rating: 4 stars

This friendly app offers a range of self-help methods for individuals who are serious about learning to manage their anxiety. Established methods of self-help are provided in this engaging, flexible, practical resource.

Anxiety Reliever

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/anxiety-reliever-stress-anxiety/id1029839288?mt=8

iPhone Rating: 4 stars

This app consists of a collection of calming audio recordings, helpful guidelines, an insightful anxiety tracker, breathing tools, and supportive messages. Calming audio sessions are divided into categories such as De-Stress, Anxiety, Sleepy Time, Binaural Sounds, and ASMR. The built in tracker allows users to monitor their triggers, and habitual thoughts.

Relaxation

OMG. I Can Meditate!         

https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/omg.-i-can-meditate-!-meditation/id920161006?mt=8

iPhone Rating: 5 stars

Android Rating: 4.5 stars

This app provides users with their own personal meditation coach, resulting in better sleep and de-stresses in a mere 10 minutes. Learn simple mindfulness and mediation techniques which bring happiness, calm, and peace of mind into your life.

Depression

MoodTools – Depression Aid

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.moodtools.moodtools&hl=en

Android Rating: 4 stars

MoodTools is designed to help combat depression and alleviate users negative moods. Assistance is provided through the research-supported tools within this app to aid users on their road to recovery. Some of the tools included are a thought diary, various activities, a safety plan, and helpful videos.

Depression CBT Self-Help Guide

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.excelatlife.depression&hl=en

Android Rating: 4 stars

This app serves as a wonderful resource as it contains numerous articles about clinical depression and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). Depression Assistance Audio is offered to aid in comprehension of clinical depression, as well as a screening test accompanied by a graph to monitor severity of depressed mood. Relaxation audios are also provided to help deep relaxation.

Pacifica – Anxiety, Stress & Depression Relief

https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/pacifica-anxiety-stress-depression/id922968861?mt=8

iPhone Rating: 4.5 stars

Android Rating: 4 stars

Psychologist-designed tools addressed through a Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy route are provided in this app. Mindfulness meditation, relaxation, and mood tracking are included. Tools which target stress, anxiety, and depression are provided to help break the ongoing cycle of negative thoughts.

Sleep

CBT-I Coach

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.t2.cbti&hl=en

Android Rating: 4 stars

This app is for individuals who are engaged in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia with a health provider, as well as those who have experienced symptoms of insomnia and wish to improve their sleeping habits. Users are guided through the process of learning about sleeping, developing positive sleep routines, and improving one’s sleep environment. A structured program is outline which teaches users strategies proven to improve sleep and aid with alleviating symptoms of insomnia.

Thought Record

CBT Thought Record Diary

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.moodtools.cbtassistant.app&hl=en

Android Rating: 4 stars

This thought diary will help you evaluate, understand, and change both your thoughts and feelings. Users can work to identify their emotions, analyze how and why they are feeling a particular way, challenge their beliefs, and change their thinking patterns for future situations.

Tomorrow is a new day, don’t give up

March 27th, 2016

9:00pm

I sit here alone

Feeling the darkness slowly rise

My mind encapsulated in fear

“Will this ever end?”

10:00pm

I sit here alone

Shaking with anxiety

Quietly preparing my medicine

“Why bother? It’s not working.”

10:15pm

I sit here alone

Feeling hopeless, crying silently

Pouring 60 pills into my hand

“Take them all. No one will miss you.”

10:20pm

I sit here alone

Fighting these darks thoughts

Rationalizing, contemplating, deciding

“Is this how it ends?”

11:00pm

I sit here alone

Gasping for air

Sobbing uncontrollably

“This will never end.”

11:05pm

I sit here alone

Finally swallowing my pills

Only taking an extra two

“I knew you’d chicken out.”

11:45pm

I sit here alone

Drifting into unconsciousness

Knowing better than to wish for a better day

“Everything would be better if i was dead.”

 

March 28th, 2016

7:30am

I am afraid

Of these disturbing thoughts

That still encircle my mind

“I wish I didn’t wake up at all.”

8:00am

I am afraid

That admitting these thoughts

Will land me in a place I’ll never leave

“You’ll never leave because you’ll be dead.”

9:30am

I am afraid

Waiting anxiously to see you

Hoping for relief from my own self

“You’re just another number. She doesn’t care.”

10:00am

I am afraid

Sitting in your office

Spilling out every little thing I’ve bottled up inside

“Just shut up. No one ever cared.”

10:10am

I am afraid

Uncontrollably shaking, sobbing

As i finally gather my courage

To admit my suicidal feelings

10:15am

I am afraid

Talking to campus emergency

Agreeing that the hospital is my best chance

“They don’t care. You’re a liability now.”

10:45am

I am crying

As I’m admitted to emerg

Feeling as if all eyes are on me

“You’re pathetic and weak.”

11:30am

I am crying

As i am sent back to the waiting room

For the crisis nurse to arrive

“She doesn’t care. Nobody cares.”

12:30pm

I am crying

As I’m walking to the other end of the hospital

To a place I fear I’ll never leave

“You’ll only leave here in a hearse.”

12:40pm

I am crying

As i answer more intake questions

Ticking off the mental illness being checked for

“They think you’re crazy.”

1:00pm

I am crying

Back in the waiting room again

Awaiting the arrival of the emergency psychiatrist

“They’re not coming. Why would they bother?”

2:00pm

I am shaking

As a strange man calls my name

Beckoning me into a small interview room

“There’s no going back. You’re never leaving this hospital.”

2:30pm

I am shaking

After talking to a man who has no interest in my issues

Who only sees me as another cry for attention

And another wasted hospital bed

3:00pm

I am shaking

As a new nurse tells me they have a bed for me

But it’s in the hallway of the department

I tell her I would rather leave than sit there in the open

3:15pm

I am shaking

As the nurse finds an empty room for me

Explaining no psychiatric beds are available at this time

Unless I’m willing to be transferred to Toronto

4:00pm

I am exhausted

Longing for sleep, eternal or not

Laying here alone

Not once being checked on

4:10pm

I am exhausted

Stirred awake by a volunteer bringing me food

Refusing it and telling her to take it away

“You don’t deserve to eat.”

4:45pm

I am exhausted

Still crying, still afraid, still alone

Having second thoughts about staying here

No one seems to care

4:55pm

I am exhausted

As I call a nurse into my room to talk

Asking to speak to the psychiatrist

Because I can no longer stay here

5:00pm

I am exhausted

Venting to this nurse, the only one who seemed to care

The one who says staying is best, but understanding the need to leave

Promising the psychiatrist will be by soon

5:15pm

I begin to wonder

After being here for 6 hours

Why no one had kept an eye on me

What if I had the means to end it all?

5:20pm

I begin to wonder

Had someone else been in my spot

If they had the means to end it here

How long until someone would notice?

5:40pm

I begin to wonder

Why I am here

As the psychiatrist berates me for wasting his time

“I was afraid of what I’d do. What else was i supposed to do?”

5:45pm

I begin to wonder

Whether I can keep holding on

Whether life really is worth it

And whether I have any strength left within to keep going

5:55pm

I begin to wonder

Why I was placed in a small, dim room

No windows, alone with my thoughts

Feeling more claustrophobic as the seconds tick by

6:10pm

I am calm

But still afraid

Somehow determined to keep living

Not understanding where this sudden change came from

6:20pm

I am calm

But still shaking

As I decide, for certain, to leave

Being told again that I’m making a big mistake

6:30pm

I am calm

As i sit outside waiting for a ride

Determined to prove him wrong

That this decision was right

7:30pm

I am calm

But alone

Facing my bottle of pills

“Don’t.”

8:00pm

I am calm

But exhausted

Fading into unconsciousness

“Tomorrow is a new day. Please don’t give up.” 

– Anonymous

My Autistic Experience – Conflicted During Autism Awareness Month

Apparently it’s Autism Awareness Month… at least in the States.

Every time there is an event or month that has something to do with me, I find that I barely notice it. A year ago, I made a post on Ableism month that started with “So apparently this month is Ableism Month?”

So yeah. Apparently it’s a month that I should care about, but of course I don’t. Surprise surprise, right? It is an interesting, seemingly conflicted opinion that I hold that I think should be investigated.

When I look at society, I see its potential. When I look at people, I see their potential. It is why I hold people to such a high standard. If people were able to live up to the potential that they possess, the world would certainly be a more interesting place – if not better. In seeing the potential of myself and others, I also see how that potential is squandered – for as smart as I am, I could be smarter if I were more dedicated. For as hard-working as I am, I always feel like I am being lazy if I am not working all of the time.

For as good as things are, they could always be better.

Autism Awareness Month is similar in this instance. I have said multiple times that to bring about acceptance of autism, it is necessary for autistic people such as myself to reveal their conditions and share their experience openly. There is no better way to show the potential of autistic individuals than to have autistic individuals show their potential to the world.

I don’t know how many people with the autistic condition take my advice, but I cannot blame anyone who refuses to do so. It would be hypocritical for me to expect other autistic individuals to do what I have thus far been unwilling to do.

I am conflicted on this matter.

On one hand, I want to reveal my condition so that I can show people that there is potential for autistic people, that there is much we can do.

On the other hand, sharing my condition will cause people to think differently of me.

Every second that I remain conflicted on this subject is wasted potential. If I decide to reveal my condition, I can help build a better world for autistic people. It will be a slow process, but every piece of the puzzle matters. If I decide to keep it to myself, I can achieve some peace of mind. I can get by on my own for the most part. No one has to know my condition, and chances are that no one will unless I go out of my way to tell them. No one will treat me any differently in an attempt to accommodate my condition, nor will I be underestimated based on autism’s more difficult aspects.

Autism Awareness Month is a reminder of this conflict in my mind. It reminds me that I have work to do on the autism awareness front. It is a reminder that I have a decision to make that may have consequences that I am not able to predict. It is easier not to think about it, but I can’t even do that without feeling like a hypocrite.

There is much to be done that requires putting myself out there, making myself open to the public. It is a scary prospect, but someone has to do it. Perhaps there will come a day that I decide it will be necessary to reveal my condition. I hope that I will not have to, but I suspect I will if I do not want to be left feeling guilty and hypocritical.

Taking Time to Relax

As students we often feel as though we do not have time to relax, or feel guilty when we take a day off from studying. I know I personally do this. I will start watching a movie and feel as though there are 100 other things I should be doing. But sometimes we just need a break.

It’s important to take some time each day to relax. By doing so we reduce our changes of burning out and feel more refreshed once we go back to work.

Exams are creeping up which means everyone is stressed to the max! In order to keep sane, take short breaks while trying to review the entire semester in a few short nights. If you feel as though you can no longer be productive, it is definitely time to take a break. Have a nap, watch an episode or two of your favourite tv show, go outside for a walk, do something that makes you happy and relaxed. This will only help you accomplish more.

Best of luck on all your exams! Remember to make time to relax!

Toxic Friendships

SO I just finished binge watching the new netflix series “13 Reasons Why” (yes I should be studying for exams but this was worth it) and if you guys haven’t watched it yet, I suggest you do. It is about a girl who is bullied throughout high school to the point where she ultimately decides to commit suicide. The experiences the characters go through make this series extremely relatable. As I was watching it, I’ve connected things that have happened in my life to the show, and I think that is why I probably cried every episode (but I cry when I watch anything, it can be a comedy and I’ll cry, I’m an emotional person okay?).

I’m not going to give the show away to you guys, but I thought I would talk about an experience of mine that may help you make decisions about your friendships. Have you ever been in a toxic friendship? Or maybe you currently are in one and do not realize, or do not want to realize.

I was best friends with someone for years. Every single secret or big thing that happened in my life, this person was the first to know, before my own parents. Some things you just don’t tell your parents, even if you realize you should have. Every person needs a friend, someone they can talk to and open up to about situations you wouldn’t disclose to just anyone. Things started changing, this person began to put me down, talk behind my back, and tell some of the personal things I have told her to others. I am not a confrontational person, which sometimes SUCKS, because during this time I still remained her friend, because I did not have anyone else. We were known as a pair, everyone knew we were inseparable, so imagining us not as friends was strange.

I would ask why she did things but she would deny it all. I knew she was lying, but I did not want to be alone. I am an introvert in the sense that she introduced me to people and brought me out to parties, I never did that stuff on my own. I felt like I was walking on eggshells, I was so afraid to do something wrong because I thought she would make fun of me again, or tell other people my secrets out of spite. She would be happy and normal around me, but once I was gone she was different. She would talk about me to her other friends, and I still don’t understand why. I never did anything to hurt her or to betray her trust, but it was like a Jekyll and Hyde relationship!

The turning point was when I had a traumatic experience happen to me, and I immediately called her. I told her what happened, but she didn’t believe me. She also didn’t tell me I was on speaker phone and her other friends were there, which meant they all know what happened as well, and they didn’t believe me either. I heard the snickering in the background and that is when I realized I was already alone this whole time. I hung on to something so toxic, that I didn’t realize being alone was probably better for me anyways.

Toxic relationships are not only intimate relationships, they can be friendships too. But, they are just as bad, and just as hard to get over. I look back at what happened to me and wish I would have had the courage to stick up for myself and walk away before things got worse. A friend shouldn’t be judgemental and gossipy, they shouldn’t discredit you, make fun of you, be resentful, or be self-centred in the relationship. If you feel uneasy around a “friend” because you are afraid they will hurt you, make fun of you, or tell people your secrets, it is time to walk away. Do what I couldn’t do, and make the decision which will benefit your mental health and your life. When you are in toxic relationships like the one I experienced, you feel depressed, anxious, and nervous all the time.

When I decided to stop the friendship, it was hard. I slowly stopped messaging her and segregated myself from her friends. We went to different schools so it was a little easier for me, because I did not have to face her everyday. The friendship really took a toll on my life – it took me a very long time to have a “best friend” again, I think it was because I was weary of getting close with another person. I can promise once you leave, it will get better. The anxious feelings and the overthinking subsides, and you will find your groove again. Learn from every experience you have, and make yourself a better person from them. You will know what is right and what is wrong, and what works best for you.

Almost There

So here I am, another year of school has gone by. I have no more midterms, and two more assignments to go. This does not include the various things I will need to apply/interview for but you know what? I feel good. I’m almost at the finish line.

For some reason as exams draw nearer, I feel less stressed…for now. So I plan to enjoy it while it lasts. I can finally take a step back and breathe. I’m excited to be almost done my 3rd year of university, but also a bit sad because I will be graduating this time next year. I won’t go into detail and dwell on my future of what will happen even in forth year. Right now, I want to feel in the moment for once. Think about the current situation rather than the future. I want to enjoy my calmness while it lasts, although I know it won’t last long.

I would like to take this time to reflect. I feel this school year has been a lot about growth, grace under pressure and taking on too much. I’ve learned a lot. The most important I feel has been to give myself a break, physically and mentally. I may want to do all that I can and sometimes it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day, but maybe that’s a good thing. Limits are a good thing because they let us know (no matter how stubborn we are or try to fight it) when it’s time to take a break or just move on. Limits give us a place to draw a mark in the sand, so we know not to go any further. And though I do believe that we all need to push our limits at times, it should not be an every day thing. I don’t want to push myself so hard and keep redrawing my line in the sand to the point where I don’t realise that I’m about to fall of a cliff or have life pass me by.

I want to have balance in my life. I know it will be hard, and I know it won’t be easy, but I feel ready. Obviously this comes after surviving one of my most stressful years in my academic career, now knowing that I can do it. But I don’t know, I feel confident. I know what success feels like and failure too. I’m still learning more and more about myself but at the same time, I’m not where I am when I first started university. Thus, with regard to the end of this school year, I am happy to say I am almost there. I made it. Not because of the late night study sessions, the lack of sleep, the countless commitments I made, but the people around me. Those I helped and those who helped me, even if they didn’t know it. And that’s a good feeling to have, so I’m going to hold onto it for as long as I can.

Well wishes,

L.R.