Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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How Creativity Improves Mental Health and Wellness

creativityMany students notice that the creativity they once had diminishes as they begin post-secondary education. It seems our schools of higher learning teach students to follow the rules, learn, memorize and repeat, conform, and measure their performance by taking standardized tests. Creativity is squeezed out as the pressure to excel on exams becomes the driving force. This, however, is counterintuitive to future demands in the workforce and the mental health and wellness of our students.

A 2010 IBM study, as reported in the Newsweek article “Creativity is the New Black”, reported that not only will creativity play a critical role in the future success of a corporation, but creativity is also regarded as a core competency for those in a leadership role. Unfortunately, education is killing the creativity of our students and leaving many of them anxiety-ridden and stressed out. What are we doing to improve the mental health and wellness of our students?

Tapping into your creativity for improved mental health and wellness

I wanted to share with you the many positive benefits creative expression has in maintaining wellness, whether through art, music, reading, writing, crafts, colouring, knitting, sewing, pottery, gardening, or dancing. Creative expression can:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Increase positive emotions
  • Decrease depressive symptoms
  • Reduce distress and negative emotions
  • Boost the immune system
  • Increase self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment
  • Improve concentration and focus
  • Increase happiness

How does creativity improve mental health and wellness?

The average person has 60,000 thoughts per day and 95% of them are exactly the same, day in and day out (Cleveland Clinic). Immersing yourself in a creative activity produces an almost meditative state where your mind is so engrossed in what you’re doing that you temporarily forget all of your troubles and worries. The goal is no different from meditation, mindfulness, or yoga: in order to find calm, peace, and happiness in one’s life, the focus needs to be on one’s inner self (not external stimuli). This can be achieved only by becoming disciplined in an activity (eg. creativity) that will naturally lessen the importance and therefore impact of those thousands of thoughts we experience everyday. Neuroscientists have been studying many forms of creativity and finding that activities like cooking, drawing, photography, art, music, cake decorating and even doing crossword puzzles are beneficial to your health. When we are being creative, our brains release dopamine, which is a natural anti-depressant. Creativity usually takes concentration and it can lead to the feeling of a natural high. Participating in creative activities may even help to alleviate depression.

The latest trend in stress relief is the adult colouring book

Adult colouring books are all the rage. They’re so popular now that there are even monthly colouring clubs. They’re inexpensive, fun, remind us of childhood, require no particular skill and they provide instant relaxation. They’ve become so mainstream that they can be purchased everywhere from Amazon to dollar stores.

Research shows that creative practices improve depression, anxiety and coping skills while enhancing quality of life and significantly reducing stress – all vital for mental health and wellness. And the beauty of creativity is that anyone can practice it – why not start today?

Are we doing enough to encourage our students to exercise their creativity?

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Get Outside! Ecotherapy Can Benefit Your Mental Health

With Earth Day coming up on April 22nd, let’s celebrate by making a commitment to reconnect with nature and reap the benefits.

Urbanization has caused our disconnection with nature

More than 50% of the world’s populations now live in urban settings and we’re contending with sensory overload on a daily basis. In order to keep up with our lifestyles and work demands, many of us are sleep-deprived, fighting traffic or overcrowded transit systems, and eating at our desks. We spend little to no time outdoors in green spaces. As a result, numerous studies have shown that urban dwellers are at a much higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people who live in more rural settings.

Some countries are actively using ecotherapy (also known as natural therapy or green therapy) to combat the effects of urbanization. These programs encourage interacting with nature and participating in outdoor activities, to help heal and nurture the mind and body. There are three therapeutic “healing forests” in South Korea (with 34 more planned by 2017). In Sweden, virtual nature spaces are prescribed for workers suffering from stress.

Fresh air is good for you

We all know about the benefits of physical exercise, but just being in nature can improve your mental outlook. You don’t have to bike or run; you can sit on a park bench, go for a stroll, or sit on a patio to reap the benefits. And you don’t have to make a major time commitment. You can benefit significantly from spending just 15 minutes a day in nature.

How spending time in nature can improve your mental health

There are many benefits to connecting with nature:

  • Mood elevation
  • Restored mental energy
  • Less anxiety
  • Lower stress levels
  • Increased alertness
  • Better concentration
  • Improved short-term memory
  • Better sleep
  • Increase in Vitamin D

Small changes can make a big difference

As an employer, you can help your employees reconnect with nature. With pleasant weather upon us this spring, encourage your employees to take their lunch breaks outside or at least go for a walk around the block. If your office building has outdoor spaces, put out some picnic tables. Organize group outdoor activities in the summer months – a weekly softball or Frisbee game over the lunch hour or after work, potluck lunch at the local park with a badminton net and three-legged races, golf tournaments, or a harbour cruise. These activities will boost morale and improve mental health, which is beneficial for your employees’ overall health.

What are you doing to help your employees reconnect with nature?


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Women and Wellness in the Workplace

This past March 8th was National Women’s Day. It was a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women all around the world. Although it was only one short day, I think it’s great that we are taking the time to acknowledge all the wonderful things that women have accomplished.

One accomplishment that stands out to me is the growing number of women in the workplace. It’s fantastic that in 2014, women made up almost half of the labour force compared to just 37% in 1976.

While it augurs well that more and more companies are hiring female employees, it does bring with it a new set of mental health matters that an HR manager should consider. Although mental health affects everyone, women experience more stress, anxiety, and depression at work than men do. In fact, research has found that women are 1.4 times more likely to suffer from these mental illnesses than their male colleagues.

I’d like to share with you two main reasons why women in the workplace suffer mental health issues more than men, as well as some solutions you can use to help minimize them at your workplace.

Domestic Responsibilities

When women consider the choice to start a family, enter the workforce or return to work after having children, care for elderly parents, or pursue advancement within their career, they are considering work-life balance. Although working husbands and fathers have taken on more familial responsibilities over the years, women still tend to take on the majority of these responsibilities. Juggling career pressures with family obligations can increase risks of stress, anxiety, and even depression.

So how can managers give women the support they need? Providing programs that offer greater work-life balance is the key. This balance means different things to different families, but could include encouraging flexible working hours, allowing telecommuting, and implementing child-care services. I know it may not always be possible to establish these family-friendly services, but an important thing you can do is to be more accommodating and ask the women in your organization what would be helpful to them. Making small changes to your mindset can go miles in positively impacting the wellbeing of the women in your workplace.

Inequality 

Even though we have seen quite a positive improvement in women joining the labour force, many women still experience inequality in their career. One study shows that women earn about 26% less than men do. On top of still receiving lower pay, women also face higher levels of job insecurity as well as lack of career advancement. Unsurprisingly, this causes high rates of anxiety, depression, and distress among female workers. A large part of wellness is equality, so a valuable step you can take is to ensure that your workplace enforces pay equity.

To encourage female leadership, many companies are rewarding behaviours such as nurturing and communication. When an organization develops feelings of pride, trustworthiness, and respect, as well as welcoming ideas and building good fellowship, it will encourage women to move past the glass ceiling and create a foundation that can reduce stress and mental health issues in the workplace.

Making sure your organization has the tools in place to foster understanding and equality can make all the difference to female employees.  Checking in with them to see what more your company can do to retain happy, healthy staff is vital to their overall well-being.

Are you giving the women in your workplace the support they need?


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Good Mood Food: How to Eat Your Way to Better Mental Health

There’s no doubt about it – life at College and University can be tough. With exams to study for, papers to finish, and deadlines to meet, it’s far too easy to put healthy eating on the backburner. This is unfortunate, as our diet has a huge impact on our happiness levels. Considering the rising rate of mental health issues on school campuses, it’s becoming more important than ever for students to focus on eating healthy.

In celebration of National Nutrition Month this March, I’ve outlined 4 simple ways that you can boost your mood through the foods you eat.

Add More Omega-3 Fatty Acids

What’s your go-to snack that gets you through all those late night study sessions? If you’re like many students, chances are it’s one that’s packed with trans and saturated fats.

The average North American diet is much higher in trans and saturated fats and is lacking in the essential omega-3 fatty acids. This is troubling, as studies have shown that high levels of these fats can actually lead to depression. The good news is, research tells us that omega-3 fatty acids have a mood-stabilizing effect that can in fact reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

How can you add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet? Great options include oily fish such as salmon, trout, and anchovies. If fish isn’t quite your cup of tea, try leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale.

Choose Foods High in Antioxidants

I have some great news for you chocolate lovers: eating foods that are high in antioxidants is a great way to maintain positive mental health and wellbeing.

Antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene help minimize molecules in the body known as “free radicals”. Free radicals are detrimental to our mental health, and they are one of the leading causes of major depression. The silver lining? It has been proven that antioxidants help to fight these molecules, reducing symptoms of depression and improving our overall mental health.

On top of dark chocolate, foods that are rich in these mood-boosting antioxidants include tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries, artichoke, and kidney beans.

Increase your Vitamin B12 Intake

How many nights have you stayed up late studying only to find yourself feeling a little bit down the next day?

I like to think of vitamin B12 as a “miracle” vitamin when it comes to perking up and improving your mood.

Research has found that those who have vitamin B12 deficiencies have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and irritability. Vitamin B12 reduces these feelings by producing a chemical called ‘dopamine’ in the body. Dopamine is an essential chemical that helps to regulate our emotional response, boost our happiness levels, and improve our mood altogether.

To add more vitamin B12 to your diet, try eating more fish, beef, eggs, cheese, and milk.

Go for the Good Bacteria

Did you know that not all bacteria are bad bacteria? It’s true – eating foods that are high in ‘probiotic’ bacteria is a great way to improve your mental health.

Studies have confirmed that probiotics reduce inflammation as well as increase serotonin production within the body. This is great for your mental health, as inflammation causes higher levels of depression and stress, while serotonin helps boost your happiness levels. By consuming probiotics, you are effectively giving your body a natural antidepressant.

If you’re looking to add more depression-fighting probiotics to your diet, try making yogurt your snack of choice.

As a post-grad many, many, many years ago, I understand how busy your days on campus can get. It’s often much easier to choose quick, “on-the-go” snacks than to make a wholesome, nutritious meal. But if improving your mental health and wellbeing is something you value, consider taking that extra time. You’ll feel a whole lot better about it – inside and out.

To learn more about how you can improve your mental health through your diet, check out our Online and Telephonic Nutritional Service through your Student or Employee Assistance Program.


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How Fentanyl Has Become Everyone’s Issue

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Fentanyl has been making headlines, with drug use and abuse  becoming topics of discussion amongst health-care providers,  paramedics, and the police, but this potentially lethal drug is now  affecting the general public. How can you be affected?

 
When a patient has suffered some kind of painful trauma, it is not uncommon for them to be prescribed medication to help manage their pain. Fentanyl, like morphine and oxycodone, is an opioid, a class of drug that is prescribed for a variety of conditions and has incredibly powerful pain-relieving properties. After OxyContin (a stronger version of oxycodone) was pulled from the market, there was a window open for illegal drug sales. OxyContin was not only popular for people who became addicted as a result of over-prescription, it also appealed to heroin users. When production began booming on these illegal opioids, drug producers began importing more powerful ingredients from China, creating Fentanyl, a drug 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Often, they would repackage the drug to their customers to make it look like OxyContin, leaving the user to either fatally overdose or become addicted to an even more powerful drug.

This issue brings to light the concern around drug addiction, and how important awareness is around prescription pain relievers.   A majority of prescription drug use doesn’t start out as a quest to get high; instead, people become addicted over time after being prescribed powerful medication.

If you are prescribed a powerful medication, make sure to ask your doctor and pharmacist about the side effects and any addictive qualities, and ask for a minimal number of pills and strength to start. Also, ensure you take your medication as prescribed, at the correct time of day and the correct dosage. If you have kids or young adults living in your home, make sure your medication is safely stowed away. For those living with addictions, whether it is to prescription or street drugs, the ramifications in the workplace can be seen with absences, missed deadlines and erratic behaviour. Be mindful of changes in fellow staff members’ behaviours and offering support is the first step to getting them help.

Another issue brought to the forefront is awareness around drug use amongst family members. Many parents of young adults who have overdosed or unknowingly took Fentanyl from a dealer had no knowledge of their son or daughter’s drug use. Certainly the challenges surrounding substance use are difficult for the individual as well as their familial supports, and often these supports need external help to cope.

If you or someone you know is living with drug addiction, talk to your EAP provider. Young students can speak to their SAP, or Student Assistance Program, at their school for confidential resources. There is help available and professionals with whom to discuss the painful issue of addiction. You don’t have to do this alone.


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Staying Motivated During Uncertain Times

Aspiria-Motivation (1)Have you noticed how the news channels only seem to show tragedies around the world? I remember when an unexpected event would make headlines, and we were shocked by how horrific the situation was, and how many lives were taken. Today’s news headlines seem to be filled with airport bombings, gun massacres, immigrants fleeing en masse for their safety on lifeboats, uncontrollable forest fires, planes disappearing off radars, and stabbings in our neighbourhoods. The reports from all media are continuous, 24/7, and we are supposed to process the devastation and get on with our daily lives without interruption to our psyche?

As employers, you may have employees who are feeling the effects of all this chaos trickling down and affecting their ability to function at work at their best. You may observe this as more frequent sick days, employees arriving late or leaving early, and not asking for or taking more vacation time. Others may decline attending office parties, staff lunches, and other events or meetings with coworkers; difficulty dealing with problems, setting and meeting deadlines, maintaining personal relationships, managing staff, participating in meetings, and making presentations.

Depending on the individual employee, they can start to develop Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). These individuals may not feel that they are actively worrying, but this exaggerated fear can cause constant stress, and can stop them from living life fully.

Some signs of GAD can include:

  • Excessive, ongoing worry and tension
  • An unrealistic view of problems
  • Restlessness or a feeling of being “edgy”
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating, and easily distracted from daily chores
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Being easily startled

How can you help? Be diligent in providing reassurance about their performance. As an employer, you can support your staff by encouraging an open-door philosophy to have a conversation about how they are doing and where they can find help. Show your support through posters in the lunchroom or through intranet communications, promoting self-help assistance or external resources such as the EAP.

Recognizing feeling of fear in ourselves and those around us, and supporting each other in unsure times, will help to motivate, rather than paralyze, creating a path to living life to its fullest.


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Taking Time for The Important Things Over the Holidays

relaxing at homeWhether you look forward to the holidays with anticipation or dread, there is no doubt about it that even though we may have time off over the holidays, it’s typically a time of more decisions, more buying, more cooking and cleaning, more decorating and entertaining… meaning even though you have more time, it feels like less time and that can lead to less time to look after your own health and well-being. Peace on Earth may seem impossible if you don’t have peace of mind.

Finding balance between family, holiday celebrations and your own personal “down” time can be very difficult to achieve, but I’ve outlined below a few tips to help boost your health and well-being.

 

  1. Take some time to get outdoors for a walk, hike or a run. Not only will the sun boost your vitamin D and help relieve seasonal affective disorder, it also decreases anxiety and improves sleep and the fresh air will help to rejuvenate your attitude and boost your mood for up to 12 hours.
  2. Take care of your mental health by saying no to at least one invite or shopping trip, or extra cooking requirement. Remember: It’s OK to slow down a bit.
  3. Unplug not only from work, but also from your mobile device. The constant cell phone buzzes and email alerts keep us in a perpetual fight-or-flight mode due to bursts of adrenaline. Not only is this exhausting, but it contributes to mounting stress levels. Try it for a few hours a day and work up to an entire day, if you can.
  4. Never underestimate the power of laughter. Spend time enjoying your family and friends and make sure to do the things that make you laugh. Laughing like crazy reduces stress hormones. That, in turn, helps immune cells function better.
  5. Try to keep an optimistic outlook – after all, it is the holidays and it’s time to celebrate with your family and friends. Staying positive will help you cope with challenges that come your way.

 

I hope you’ll realize the importance of unplugging and relaxing this holiday season – they are called holidays for a reason!

Wishing all of you a wonderfully healthy Holiday Season!