Mental Health & the Holidays

Recently I submitted this writing for the fall issue of Inside Medicine Magazine and wanted to share here to. I believe this topic is so important and often something we struggle to navigate. I hope this lends some hope to your holiday season!

Perhaps you have heard of people, or you yourself experience stress around the holidays. We see it advertised as this amazing time of thankfulness and joy, and while it can be, the reality is it does not always feel that way. Family members we do not care to see, houses that bring back awful memories, the constant obligation to be “merry and bright”. Ugh.

This narrative is all to familiar in my office this time of year. Individuals who are functioning optimally throughout the year but mid-October hits and so does the dread. They share how the pit begins in their stomach and they just cannot shake it. Or they feel their blood pressure is through the roof 24/7 until after December 31st. They begin experiencing panic attacks, overwhelming anxiety, and high levels of stress, all because they are thinking about the impending holiday season. The range of symptoms that result from compromised mental health during the holidays is serious. We are aware that high levels of stress can affect you physically in many ways, this season is a prime time for those issues to arise. I invite you to discover why we feel this stress and what we can do about it.

Stress is your body’s response to external stimuli that presents a challenge or demand. It manifests as a feeling of emotional or physical tension and results from any event that creates feelings of anger, frustration, nervousness, and even motivation. Stress is not inherently bad. There are many benefits of the stress response when we are properly managing the effects and input. Think about how you use to stress to finish that assignment at the last moment or push through a tough workout. However, stress becomes a negative when we are struggling to process the received stimuli appropriately and become overwhelmed by the information. In a nutshell, stress is the way we describe the feeling we get when are faced with something that seems out of our control or beyond our abilities.

Combatting stress, especially around the holidays can be helpful since lower stress levels equates to a higher likelihood to enjoy the present. Relishing in the here-and-now triggers our brain to transmit positive neural signals which assist in creating new, happier memories. This process is crucial in rewriting negative or unhelpful memories from the past. How do we execute this on a practical level?

1. Recognize what your triggers are. Stress tends to present itself in similar situations. For example, you may experience the same feelings from hanging out with family who do not communicate clearly and frequently leave you struggling to be heard as well as in a work setting where your coworkers are not listening to your input. The trigger here is the reality, or anticipation, of being unheard. The physical tension grows in your body as it recalls the defeat in past engagements with these people. The physical may be joined by emotional anguish from feeling so desperately voiceless. Your stress response in this moment is informing you of how your system was unable to find a solution in the past. That deficit is trying to warn you to avoid the situation in order to prevent experiencing those feelings again. Recognizing the trigger helps you understand BEFORE the event that you may need to consider your options before jumping in.

2. Understand you can set boundaries for yourself. Boundaries are often misrepresented as a bad thing but should be a part of all relationships. Boundaries allow an individual the opportunity to take their beliefs, needs, and limitations into account in order to advocate for and protect themselves from situations or people who cannot or will not bring them life. As humans we all have limits, recognizing what those are and establishing safeguards that keep us protected from harm is a normal part of relating with others. While boundaries are not cutting off everyone who makes us feel uncomfortable, you may have a need to cease contact with certain people in your life. As individuals, the limits we have look vastly different from person to person. Thus, it is crucial we establish personal boundaries that are based on our own unique needs. Discovering what those necessary boundaries are will require some mindfulness about how we feel in those stressful life moments. Healthy boundaries include: deciding to take a step back from a toxic relationship, not participating in a holiday at a certain family members house, or choosing to protect a specific night of the week for your family. The process of implementing boundaries is often stressful. It can be helpful to remember the following: You see a need for this boundary for a reason. Not everyone has to understand the need, they are not managing your stress around this situation. When you implement and respect your own boundaries, others are more likely to follow suit.

3. Schedule time for enjoyable things. The pressure is on to be at all the mandatory events and celebrations. The stress creeps in when we are not purposeful about taking time to engage in activities we enjoy. During the holidays it can be especially difficult to carve out time for ourselves. However, if we want to reduce our stress levels and increase the enjoyability of the season, doing so should be non-negotiable. Self-care through personal time and hand-picked activities can reset our stress levels and help us approach the must-dos with more patience and strength. A key here is knowing ahead of time what we really enjoy and how much time those activities will take so we can pencil them in accordingly. 30 minutes on a Thursday afternoon? Have your current book ready for reading. One hour on a Saturday? Enjoy that walk around your neighborhood. Remember that self-care is necessary, not selfish.
As with all matters of mental health, techniques to reduce stress are not a one-size fits all. However, these tips can be a great starting place in the journey toward a healthier mental state. I encourage you to take the time to be mindful, identify your triggers, recognize what your stress response looks like, and consider what healthy boundaries need to be in place in your life. Give yourself some grace, enjoy the delicious food, and have a Happy Holiday season!

Expectations

An expectation, as defined by dictionary.com, is “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.” I would wager that you have expected at some point in your life. Expected a good test score. Expected a certain response from a friend. Expected your spouse to act a specific way. You have also likely felt disappointment when those expectations were not fulfilled.

Expectations are a tricky thing. They can certainly serve us in our journey of life, helping us along as we set goals and aspirations for ourselves. However, expectations are not always positive, and that tends to be where this subject gets fickle. When we have had multiple negative experiences in our life, especially surrounding the same subject or circumstance (or even person), our expectations begin to be negative ones. Perhaps we have a child who continually makes decisions that do not allow them to work to their full potential. We start out hoping for the best but day after day, week after week, on and on we are let down. Eventually the poor choices or adverse behaviors no longer surprise us. We realize we now expect this type of outcome; our hope for “the best” has been lost, and we are stuck in a negative frame of mind concerning this situation.

When this has happened in just one aspect of life, but especially when this pattern is repeated across several areas of life, we begin to have a negative perspective. It becomes very difficult to see any positive, regardless of how much may be there. Figuratively we have a negative filter over our eyes. So, what is the prognosis? Are we doomed to just stay in this place of negativity and gloom, or is there a possibility of changing the filter?

Good news, there is hope in this situation! To lend some understanding, our brain is the storage place for the information (good and bad!) we collect during our lifetime. When we have been repeatedly let down, it is stored in our memory center. When we have been hurt by a family member, the brain keeps score. When we have had negative  or positive encounters with our partner, the brain builds “neural pathways” that inform of us what to expect in certain situations. The dread we feel before entering the room with a tough family member is expectation that things will be as terrible as they were previously. Fortunately, what neuroscience has revealed over the past few decades is that the brain is “plastic”, or capable of changing what scientists used to think was unchangeable hard-wired information. We now know that by using therapeutic techniques an individual can rewrite the neural pathways and change the way they approach and think about previously negative situations.

This process begins with being mindful about how we are feeling in our bodies as well as the message we are receiving from our brain. When we can identify that automatic response as it is being fed to us, we can halt the information being received about how to react, giving us the opportunity to create a new response. Particularly helpful in this process is focusing on something positive, or different about the situation. See, when we are stuck in a cycle of thinking or expecting negative things, our brain is tuned in to the negative around us, literally overlooking the positive! Believe it or not, it is there. We just cannot see it because of the way our brain has been trained to see the bad. So, intentionally seeing small pieces of positive help interrupt the brain’s cycle of negative filtering and allow us to begin having positive expectations.

This may seem fairly simple, and in all transparency the description here is certainly scaled down. There are hours of work that go into rewriting the brain’s responses. However, it is possible, and worth it! If you are interested in more information about this topic, please reach out! Solid Ground Counseling Center can be reached at 256-503-8586.

You can catch our video on the topic on YouTube or Facebook!

Relationship Talk

If you are interested in what it looks like to begin building better communication with your partner, you are in the right place! Relationships, although deeply rewarding, are hard work. Contrary to the fairy tale scenes today’s movies and shows depict, partnerships with our significant other take work – do not get discouraged, there is good news here!

Communication deficits remain one of the top reported relationship issues. Often, after multiple attempts at conversations that go awry partners begin to assume they are incompatible, or that the other person does not care. While this can be incredibly frustrating, it tends to be largely untrue. When we think about how different our communication styles from our families of origin are, it is understandable to see how we end up in conversations that go around in circles.

Something I have learned in life, as well as my professional career is that it is ok to argue or disagree. Conflict (i.e. not having the same perspective) is 100% alright, and honestly a healthy part of relationships. Disagreement allows us an amazing opportunity to stretch ourselves and learn about our spouse, as well as teach them about us. If this seems far-fetched or impossible because communication is a struggle in your relationship, I can completely understand. I HAVE BEEN THERE! However, I can assure you it is true. As with any area we are looking to improve, purposeful effort to update our communication patterns can result in an increase in satisfaction concerning this area of our relationship. The following are rules I use in my relationship, as well as teach couples in my practice. I am so excited to share them with you here.

1. Communicate clearly and fairly.
I imagine that most of us can think of an example of when a conversation that we had with our spouse just went downhill fast. Every time that we have an exchange of this nature it creates a connection in our brain that says “this type of conversation is not effective”, “this topic is not safe to talk about”, or even “my spouse is unwilling to resolve this with me”. Anybody been there? Communicating fairly and clearly helps conversations proceed in an effective, productive manner. Assuming the best of our partner rather than filtering everything they say as a personal blow facilitates an atmosphere of fair communication. So, how do we actually communicate clearly and fairly? Keep reading!

2. Determine what it is that you really need.
If you think about it, how are you going to help your spouse understand what you need if you cannot explain it to yourself? It is unfair to expect our partner to read our mind (if you are like me, you may need to read that again). Perhaps you are familiar with the type of conversation that begins with you asking or telling your spouse one thing, but then spirals out of control after you have requested or gone off about 9 other things. Doing a heart check to determine what you need BEFORE you bring a conversation or request to your spouse will ensure you are able to effectively communicate what you actually need.

3. Manage your expectations.
Have you ever had an exchange with your spouse that you ended up with you being upset due to them not meeting your expectations? When you think about that situation, did you go into that conversation expecting something from them that was never expressed? As previously mentioned, our partners are not mind-readers. If we need something from them, we need to talk about it. Having expectations of our spouse, especially those that are uncommunicated, leads conversations into disaster more times than is necessary. Also, it is important to ensure that the expectations we have of our spouse are appropriately theirs. By this I mean, we cannot expect our spouse to determine our self-worth. We cannot expect our spouse to be our source of joy. These are not their roles. Expecting our spouse to be responsible for these things will leave you repeatedly disappointed. Taking responsibility for those areas of our life takes the pressure off our partner to fulfill the roles they were designed to do!

4. Listen to hear, not to respond.
One of the most hurtful things that can happen in a conversation is to have poured your heart out or said something important only to have your spouse respond in a defensive manner, or not even hear what you said. When we listen to hear we use active or reflective listening. Active listening is when we listen to hear what the speaker is saying rather than listening to respond. Specifically you are listening to hear what they are communicating and why (or the emotion behind it). Although it takes a bit of practice, it is a highly effective tool for communicating.

5. Reflect what you heard to ensure you understood.
This is the second part of listening to hear. Reflecting back what you heard ensures that you understood what your spouse was saying. It also gives them the opportunity to steer you back on course when you hear something that was not their intent to communicate. Having discussions in this manner ensures that you do not assume something based on misheard information. There is very little room for misunderstandings when a conversation contains two active listeners 😉

6. Put yourself in their shoes.
Would you want your spouse to treat you or speak to you the way that you speak to (or about) them? Affording our partner dignity and respect in conversations sets the tone for how the situation can turn out. If we would not enjoy being spoken down to, disrespected, or cut short, we need to avoid speaking to our partner this way. This can be a difficult habit to break, but is an absolute game changer for productive conversations!

That is it, easy peasy, right? Kidding. If all this seems overwhelming, I suggest you begin with #2. Going into a conversation with knowledge about what you are asking for, or needing from your partner is key. If you are to be the listener because your spouse has brought something to you – than hone in on #4/5. While these techniques work best together, it is not worth stressing yourself out over perfecting them before your next conversation. Like any good skill in life, good communication skills are learned during practice. Good luck, and happy conversations!

New Year, New Mental Health Outlook

Solid Ground Counseling Center was honored to kick off 2019 with a feature in Inside Medicine magazine – North Alabama’s medical landscape resource. You can find our article in the Jan/Feb issue, or read the content below! We are excited about this new partnership, as well as the launch of our blog. We look forward to serving you in 2019.

Welcome to the new year! A time for new beginnings, a fresh start, a clean slate. But what if you do not feel that way? While many people are channeling the excitement and making New Year’s resolutions, others are just surviving. If the thought of a new year does not bring feelings of excitement and opportunity, you are not alone. An often-overlooked part of turning the calendar’s page is an inventory of your mental health. Mental health is a vital aspect of overall wellness, a critical piece that not only compliments your physical well-being, but often contributes to it. Yet, all too often we brush aside taking care of that essential part of ourselves. Why is that? While there are any number of factors, I believe it is partially due to the ongoing stigma surrounding mental health care. I also believe it is because many are unaware of the importance of mental health. Lastly, I believe there is a general lack of knowledge about where to start when it comes to taking care of one’s mental health. Let’s take a moment and unpack these points a bit.

1. Mental health care is not just for people with problems. Surely you have heard the comments “therapy is just for crazy people”, “how is a stranger going to help me, this has been a problem in my family for generations”, or how about “only weak people get therapy”. Ouch. That last one stings. The reality is, strong people attend therapy. Struggling people attend therapy. Accomplished, well-off people attend therapy. Broken, hopeless people attend therapy. You see, therapy is, in its very nature, designed to help people exactly where they are starting from, regardless of the factors that bring them in. Therapy can even be used as a tool to increase satisfaction in your life and relationships, even if there is not an immediate problem!

2. Mental health awareness is important, and benefits everyone. Mental health literally means the health of your mental status. For some people, that status is great, they are flourishing. For others, they need more assistance. Regardless of your current state of mental health, being aware is important. Caring for our brain, which plays a big part in our emotional well-being as well as our physical welfare, is vital to operating at our optimal levels. Our brain and body work in tandem throughout our life span. When one of these components is unhealthy, it directly affects the other. For example, when we feel depressed our body has physical symptoms which often lead to a decreased desire to be physically active. This in turn can cause complications with multiple body systems. Persistent anxiety can lead to alterations in brain functioning, which may affect social and work environments. The truly scary part? Often these mental health issues show up in physical form first so they may be difficult to recognize. Maybe you have repeatedly felt just blah, but chalked it up to being overly tired. Or had an increased heart beat in social situations, but assumed your gut is telling you there must be something to keep an eye out for. Sound familiar? You are not alone, but where do you even start?

3. Start a conversation. According to the National Institute of Mental Health nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. It is estimated that only half of those people receive treatment. That is a lot of people going without much needed assistance. Talking with a trusted friend about where you are at with life is a great starting place. There is power in personal connection. You can also speak with your primary care physician. They are aware of how mental and physical health complement each other and can get you in touch with a mental health care provider. These trained professionals are equipped to assess symptoms and develop a course of treatment that best suits your needs. Some of these professionals will even be able to help your family learn how to best support you in your journey to wellness.

Wherever you fall on the mental health spectrum, be mindful of you. The new year does not have to feel like more chances to fail or fall short. 2019 can be the time you finally get serious about taking care of your mental health and start working on the best version of you.

References, if that is your thing 😉
National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml
National Institute of Mental Health. (2018). Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/index.shtml
Robinson, O.J., Vytal. K., Cornwell, B. R., & Grillon, C. (2013). The impact of anxiety upon cognition: perspectives from human threat of shock studies. Frontier in Human Neuroscience, 7: 203. doi: [10.3389/fnhum.2013.00203]
Trivedi, M. H. (2004). The Link Between Depression and Physical Symptoms. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2004; 6(suppl 1): 12–16.