Manitoba·Q&A

Reorganizing the brain to move forward: Winnipeg psychologist Syras Derksen on how we cope

Whether it's dealing with loss, grief or preparing to walk away from the something, coping is "the process of trying again," says a Winnipeg psychologist.

'You can emotionally or intellectually engage in that process of trying again,' says psychologist

Whether it's dealing with loss, grief or preparing to walk away from the something, coping is "the process of trying again," says a Winnipeg psychologist. 

The ways we cope with hardships vary as much as the challenges we face.

Yet despite the variety of coping mechanisms out there, what binds them together is a desire to move forward.

Psychologist Syras Derksen has had to cope with loss in his own life — his sister was Candace Derksen, who went missing in November 1984 and was found dead the following January.

But as a psychologist, he's also worked with others struggling with grief. He recently sat down with CBC Manitoba's Information Radio host Marcy Markusa to talk about how we cope and, ultimately, how we move on.

Are there common threads in how people cope?

"Definitely. It's not a brain injury, but in my mind, it's similar," Derksen said.

There's many different ways to do coping, but for me they're all variations on that theme of finding ways to engage that place of hurt in your brain.- Psychologist Syras Derksen

"If you have a brain injury and you can't walk anymore, you have to engage in that trying to walk again, otherwise you may never. When I think of people coping, it's often different ways that you can emotionally or intellectually engage in that process of trying again — trying to re-engage that part of your brain to re-form it.

"There's many different ways to do coping, but for me they're all variations on that theme of finding ways to engage that place of hurt in your brain, while still reorganizing it and reforming it so that you can move forward again."

What role does ritual play in the coping?

"Ritual is something that I don't always see in my practice, but I always encourage. It is shown in the research to be helpful for people," Derksen said.

"In fact, it doesn't seem to matter what the ritual is. People who were doing things in a ritualized fashion while dealing with an emotional difficulty did better than those who were trying to deal with it without a ritual. I don't think the ritual itself matters that much other than that you're doing something that makes sense to you."

How can a simple act of ritual create meaning?

During the first murder trial for the man accused of killing his sister, Syras Derksen engaged in his own ritual — he took off his shoes each time he entered the courtroom.

"Going into a courtroom is dark: it's about the offender and everything that he did, how he did it, and whether he's guilty. Sometimes the victim isn't even mentioned or thought about in the process," he said. 

"When I was taking off my shoes, I was thinking about a different orientation for that courtroom. I was thinking about how this was actually about something that I thought was sacred and meaningful. That was something that helped me take a different perspective. I worked through the emotions and still was able to reorient them and recreate them in a way that I could walk forward in a healthier fashion."

How do you know if you're coping with your feelings, or avoiding them?

"Generally speaking, psychologists are trying to get you to not avoid situations, but I'm also pro-avoidance. I don't want people to be dealing with the feelings all day and all night, that's not healthy either.

"Generally when you're dealing with grief, unlike depression, the emotions come in waves and it's OK to have a feeling of being overwhelmed, and knowing that feeling will pass and you will be able to laugh at the funeral or reengage in your day. Those feelings will likely come back at some point, and for some people, you can almost schedule them. That's OK, too."

What's the anatomy of a good coping technique?

"I find it very difficult to prescribe coping techniques. You have to look at the skill sets and the kind of brain the person has coming in, the kind of experiences they've had and create something unique for them. That usually is much more attractive and much more successful, in that it's something they're actually going to engage in," Derksen said.

"And that's where the creativity comes — when you're talking to somebody and they don't even necessarily realize that they're engaging in a coping technique, but they've created some kind of purpose, some way of organizing themselves, and all of a sudden they're doing it without thinking."

What comes after the coping?

"A lot of your brain was oriented around the thing that you lost. When you lose it, all of a sudden it's like, 'Well, do I like going to Las Vegas? Or did I just like doing that because my wife liked going there?' And I have to rethink who I am, and kind of recreate that part of my brain.

"When you break a bone it takes about eight weeks [to heal], but when you have nerve damage it takes a lot longer. Recovering from brain issues often can take up to a year. That doesn't mean you're going to feel the same way six months from now. The recovery process is continuous. But that being said, I think if you're being healthy about it, it can take up to a year to get back to the same stress level you were at before the injury.

"And maybe every 10 years you do need to have a good cry, or a time where you really deal with this and feel that grief again, and that's OK."

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