Mental Health Month – Thursday

Dealing with Anger & Frustration

In challenging times, you may find that you have little patience with other people or get upset over minor things. Anger and frustration are complicated emotions that often stem from other feelings, like disappointment, fear, and stress. Taking some extra steps to decrease your overall tension can prevent your feelings (and the reactions that they cause) from spiraling out of control.

Tips for coping

Change your surroundings. Anger can make you feel trapped. Whether you’re mad at someone in the same room as you or just angry at the world, sometimes physically relocating yourself can help you start to calm down. Go to another room or step outside for a few minutes of fresh air to help disrupt the track that your mind is on.

Pause before reacting. When you feel yourself getting mad, take a moment to notice what you’re thinking, then take a few deep breaths or count to ten in your head. By giving yourself even just a few seconds before reacting, you can put some emotional distance between you and whatever is upsetting you – and you might even realize that you’re actually tense because of something else.

Get it all out. Keeping your feelings bottled up never works, so allow yourself time to be angry and complain. As long as you don’t focus on it for too long, venting can be a healthy outlet for your anger. You can open up to a trusted friend or write it all down in a journal. Sometimes it feels better to pretend to talk directly to the person (or situation) that you’re angry at – pick an empty chair, pretend they’re sitting in it, and say what you need to get off your chest.

Eliminate stressors if possible. Sometimes there’s no way to completely get rid of a big problem, but there’s often more than just one issue contributing to your frustration. Things like an overwhelming workload or unhealthy relationship can make you feel on edge. Pay attention to how and why you’re feeling stressed and see if you can make small changes to improve a challenging situation to make it less burdensome.

Manage your expectations. Negative feelings often stem from people or situations not meeting your standards or assumptions. It’s frustrating to feel let down but recognize that you can’t fully predict anyone else’s behavior or how situations will play out. Shift your mental framework so that you aren’t setting yourself up for disappointment.

Get organized. When things around you feel chaotic, it’s often a lot easier to get frustrated and snap at people. Dedicate a few minutes each day to tidying, planning, or reorganizing. Implementing a routine can also help you feel more on top of things by adding structure and certainty to your daily life.

Release built up energy. Anger is a high-energy emotion, and we store that energy and tension physically in our bodies. Exercise is a great way to get rid of extra energy and can improve your mood. Some people find grounding exercises (like meditation or deep breathing) helpful to calm intense feelings, while others prefer more high impact activities like running or weightlifting. Think about what you usually do to decompress, like taking a hot shower or blasting your favorite music and use the tools that you know work for you.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re working to cope with your anger but feel like you can’t get it under control, it’s time to get some extra support. Anger can fester and become explosive if not resolved. A number of mental health conditions can manifest as anger, so this may actually be a sign of depression or anxiety – treating an underlying condition can help heal your anger as well.


Mental Health Month – Wednesday

Adapting After Trauma & Stress

We all face trauma, adversity, and other stresses throughout our lives. When people think of trauma, they often think of things like abuse, terrorism, or catastrophic events (big ‘T’ trauma). Trauma can also be caused by events that may be less obvious but can still overwhelm your capacity to cope, like frequent arguing at home or losing your job (little ‘t’ trauma). Trauma of any kind can be hard on your mental health but working on becoming more resilient can help you feel more at ease.

Tips for HEALING

Process your thoughts. During and after experiencing trauma, it’s common to go into survival mode and not have energy to wrap your head around what happened. It may feel safest to bury painful feelings and avoid confronting them, but acknowledging what happened and how it has impacted you is an important part of healing. When you feel ready, take time to think about how you’ve been affected (and be proud of yourself for pushing through).

Connect with people. The pain of trauma can lead some people to isolate themselves, but having a support system is a crucial part of wellbeing. Emotional support helps us to feel less alone or overwhelmed by what’s going on or has happened in our lives. Talking to someone who has gone through a similar experience or someone who cares about you can be validating – and help you feel more able to overcome the challenges you’re facing.

Don’t compare your experience to others’. We often question our own thoughts or experiences, and you may convince yourself that what you experienced wasn’t a big deal because “others have it worse.” Everyone experiences trauma differently, and no one trauma is “worse” than another. If it hurt you, then it hurt you – and your feelings and experiences are valid.

Take care of your body. Stress and trauma impact your body and physical health just as much as your mind. Listening to your body and giving it what it needs will help you heal. This includes eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly. Moving your body is especially helpful in trauma healing – aim to do it every day, even if it’s only a few minutes of stretching.

Know it will take time. There is no set timeline for how you “should” heal. Remove the pressure of needing to bounce back quickly and focus on taking it one step at a time. Remember: recovery isn’t linear, and it’s normal to have bad days and setbacks. It doesn’t mean you’re failing – it’s just part of the process.

Give yourself grace. Dealing with trauma and stress is no easy feat, but it’s still common to get frustrated with yourself and what can sometimes be a slow recovery process. Try to catch when you hold yourself to unreasonable standards – instead of angrily asking yourself “why am I acting like this?!”, think about how impressive it is that you keep going, despite what you have faced.

Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help. It’s easy to compare how you’re feeling to how you assume others who have been through similar experiences are feeling, and you may get down on yourself because it seems like everyone else is doing just fine. What others experience and how they cope doesn’t matter in your journey – if you feel like you need (or want) help, it’s important to get that as soon as you can.


Mental Health Month – Tuesday

Thinking Traps

It’s easy to fall into negative thinking patterns and spend time bullying yourself, dwelling on the past, or worrying about the future. It’s part of how we’re wired – the human brain reacts more intensely to negative events than to positive ones and is more likely to remember insults than praise. During tough times, negative thoughts are especially likely to spiral out of control. When these thoughts make something out to be worse in your head than it is in reality, they are called cognitive distortions.

Common Cognitive Distortions

Overgeneralization: Making a broad statement based on one situation or piece of evidence.

Personalization: Blaming yourself for events beyond your control; taking things personally when they aren’t actually connected to you.

Filtering: Focusing on the negative details of a situation while ignoring the positive.

All-or-Nothing Thinking: Only seeing the extremes of a situation.

Catastrophizing: Blowing things out of proportion; dwelling on the worst possible outcomes.

Jumping to Conclusions: Judging or deciding something without all the facts.

Emotional Reasoning: Thinking that however you feel is fully and unarguably true.

Discounting the Positive: Explaining all positives away as luck or coincidence.

“Should” Statements: Making yourself feel guilty by pointing out what you should or shouldn’t be doing, feeling, or thinking.

Tips for Challenging Negative Thoughts

Remember: thoughts aren’t facts. Your thoughts and feelings are valid, but they aren’t always reality. You might feel ugly, but that doesn’t mean you are. Often times we can be our own worst enemies – other people are seeing us in a much nicer light than how we see ourselves.

Reframe. Think of a different way to view the situation. If your negative thought is “I can’t do anything right,” a kinder way to reframe it is, “I messed up, but nobody’s perfect,” or a more constructive thought is “I messed up, but now I know to prepare more for next time.” It can be hard to do this when you’re feeling down on yourself, so ask yourself what you’d tell your best friend if they were saying those things about themselves.

Prove yourself wrong. The things you do impact how you feel – what actions can you take to combat your negative thoughts? For instance, if you’re telling yourself you aren’t smart because you don’t understand how the stock market works, learn more about a subject you understand and enjoy, like history. If you feel like no one cares about you, call a friend. Give yourself evidence that these thoughts aren’t entirely true.

Counter negative thoughts with positive ones. When you catch your inner dialogue being mean to you, make yourself say something nice to balance it out. This may feel cheesy at first and self-love can be hard, so don’t give up if it feels awkward in the beginning. Name things you love, like, or even just don’t hate about yourself – we all have to start somewhere!



Mental Health Month – Monday

Accepting Reality

Sometimes in life we end up in situations that we just can’t change. Radical acceptance is all about fully accepting your reality in situations that are beyond your control. This doesn’t mean you approve of the situation, are giving up, or that it isn’t painful. You are still allowed to (and should!) feel however you feel, but by accepting that it is what it is, you give the problem less power over you and you can begin to move forward.

Tips for success

Notice when you’re fighting against reality. The first step in accepting reality is gaining awareness that you’re resisting it. It may seem like this would be easy to spot, but there are actually a lot of subtle ways that people push against reality. If you’re feeling bitter or resentful, wishing things were different, or thinking about how life isn’t fair, you might be fighting reality.

Remind yourself that you can’t change what has already happened. Before you can make peace with reality, you have to acknowledge that there’s no going, back to the way things were. Doing this may be challenging and painful, but by identifying what you can and can’t control, you can turn your energy towards coping with the things you can’t change.

Embrace your feelings. You might still be angry, scared, overwhelmed, or lonely – that’s okay. Accepting reality includes everything that you’re feeling, too. When you accept these feelings and let yourself experience them without any judgement, you can work through them in a healthy way.

Pretend that you’re accepting reality. Even if you’re still struggling to fully accept reality, think about what it would look like if you did. How would you act if you simply accepted things as they are? What would your next step be? Changing your behaviors and actions to reflect “pretend acceptance” can help you to actually shift your thoughts.

Relax your body. If you’re feeling stressed or are pushing against the reality of your situation, there’s a good chance your body is tense. This is often associated with resistance and keeps your mind on high alert. Physically relaxing your body can help you feel more ready to accept what is reality. Try yoga, taking a hot bath or shower, deep breathing exercises, or getting a massage to help you relax.

Use coping statements. These are sentences that remind you that different, healthier ways of thinking are possible. Repeating them can help you get through difficult moments – you can focus on just one or make a long list of your own. Some examples are: It is what it is. I can’t change what has already happened. I can accept things the way they are. I can only control my own actions and reactions. If it helps, write your coping statements on Post-It notes and put them in places where you will see them multiple times a day, or set an alarm/create an event on your phone with a coping statement to pop up with a reminder every now and again.

Know that it takes practice. Radical acceptance is a great tool to cope with hard situations that we can’t control, but it can take a while before it comes easily. Don’t get down on yourself if you don’t master it immediately. Start by trying it out in smaller situations, like when you’re stuck in traffic or your internet is acting up during a call. By practicing radical acceptance on a daily basis, it will be easier to use as a coping tool when bigger, tougher challenges come your way.



Healthy Family Dynamics

What a strange year it has been. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have had the honor of sitting with many families over the past year who are struggling in some way. It is all understandable. Our normal outlets were cut off, routines disrupted, families were thrust into unemployment, or working from home if they were lucky. Most children had to make an abrupt transition to virtual learning, and the whole atmosphere of our lives was changed, at least in small ways. The news of what was happening across the globe became increasingly overwhelming, even paralyzing at times. I find many families are still in this place, showing up each day to get by, but struggling to get the same joy from the day to day. While there are many reasons for this, I believe a big one was the sudden weight of stress from so many changes at once. The shock of having to find new ways to function in so many areas of life left us feeling exhausted and defeated. I wanted to share practical tips I used in my home, as well as the office to build continuity within our family units during this challenging time. I hope as you read you will be encouraged by the simple actions we can engage in to keep ourselves mentally healthy in the midst of uncertainty.

1. Pay attention to the little things. When it started to become apparent that life was going to be overturned for longer than we first anticipated, I recall feeling this panic about how long this would be so… uncomfortable. One way that I reset was to give myself permission to stop seeing the chaos of the world and instead focus on the little things that were happening in my family. Teeth were still getting loose and falling out. Knees were scraped. Homework needed tending to. Underwear was dirty. Allowing myself to pay attention to the normalcy of the things within my household helped me to see how much had stayed the same. This shift in focus created room for me to filter the worldly things with a much healthier perspective. We cannot change what is happening across the globe and are likely to stay in a constant state of stress if we do. However, we can acknowledge that we play an important part in the lives of our family members. Perhaps today you need to give yourself permission to stop trying to solve all the problems, and instead focus on a little way you can make a big difference within the walls of your home.

2. Play together. We have always been a game family. Board games, card games, dice games, learning games, TV game shows, we love it all! Over the past year, we have stepped up our game collection a few notches. Play is a crucial component in child development. There were so many areas where school did not return to campus. As a result, children were lacking that time to play with peers that school used to provide. While the environment is not identical, playing with your children at home has several great benefits. Play helps children learn, process stress, build critical thinking, and even improve conflict resolution skills. Play gives our children time to connect with us and create their identities as well. Guess what? Play is also great for adults! We tend to engage in less play as we get older, but the research shows play still provides us great benefits. Playing with our children also helps us to pay attention to the little things. I love that online stores were still delivering during COVID, so we could do some safe shopping to pick out some games. It may also be fun to engage in a game swap with friends you feel comfortable doing so with.

3. Keep the conversation going. It is common for humans to shut down when we feel stress. As parents we may have felt like “it is all I can do to keep everyone fed and mostly clean, there is no energy for engaging in big conversations.” I can completely relate! Talking with our kids is important though. I love that conversation with children (even the older ones!) can be much simpler than we tend to make it. Adults typically ask a LOT of questions – far more than we really need to. There does not need to be a constant stream of talking happening for you to keep the conversation going. Instead, it is more about facilitating an environment that allows the family to talk when someone feels the need to. A great way to ensure you have the capacity to give children attention for chatting, without coming up with tons of questions is to let them lead. When they start talking, just listen! As they take a natural pause, repeat back a little of what they said, or reflect an emotion they mentioned. “Oh, when you were on class today Sally kept talking over you, and that frustrated you.” We do not need to solve all the problems (see number 1!!). By just allowing our children to feel heard we encourage ongoing communication. This creates a safe place that our children feel comfortable bringing their thoughts and takes the pressure off us parents to have an answer for everything. An awesome platform for practicing this skill of reflecting is through play.

While I know there are so many more components to healthy family dynamics, I hope something from this article clicks for you. If you find yourself still struggling, I encourage you to reach out. There is great power in connection, Stay well friends.

Rachel Sullivan, LMFT, CFLE-P

New look, same us




I am so excited to share my brand design! 

This has been a labor of love over the past few months – and the thoughts that landed me with this particular aesthetic have been in motion for close to a year. Since I am a talker, I want to share a little about the why behind the new elements in the design.

When I founded Solid Ground Counseling Center (lovingly referred to as Solid Ground) there was this vision to meet people where they were and help them experience love so they could grab hold of hope, which I believe propelled them into growth. It was the tagline for my business for a long time. While I still believe in the process of love | hope | grow, this past year was one of immense personal growth for me. As I reflected on how that impacted the way I thought about my business, I realized it really is rooted in love. This emerged as the new tagline for Solid Ground because I believe it is the foundation of absolutely everything we do here.

The original logo, centered on the arrows, represented the path forward. I believe that while we cannot go back, we can use the past to inform us of our steps moving forward. The arrow concept still holds true, but as my understanding of people, behaviors, and healing has grown, thus the brand needed to as well.

The new logo incorporates the arrow on the planter. I couldn’t quit lose that piece entirely 😉 The plant on the new logo is a perfect visual representation of how I picture growth. I always giggle when I see the meme that talks about “Get sunlight, water, and fresh air because we are basically plants with complicated emotions”. It is funny, but true! I think humans need love and nourishment to thrive. When we lack these basic necessities, our roots (the source from which growth is possible) just become ineffective. We struggle to survive, and thriving is off the table. BUT the hardiness of nature, of plants, is SO awe-inspiring. I have seen plants with essentially non-existent root systems get nourished from the top, supported from above and it provided the time necessary for new roots to develop. Once that happened the plant had the opportunity to grow to its maximum potential! Sound familiar??
I chose a snake plant for the beauty they have. To me they represent elegance and strength in the face of uncertain circumstances. They are hardy and resilient, growing slow but steady so long as they have the proper conditions. When neglected, these plants can continue to sustain for long periods, and are relatively quick to bounce back. People, right?

My new colors are based on visually representing adjectives like calm, joy, growth, hope, stability, positivity, freshness, restoration, trust, and patience. I hope you feel these things in the new design.

My desire moving forward is that each client, supporter, and business partner will continue to see how much love drives our work. We only move forward from here! Our business model is not changing, the services are still the same, but we hope that the message we visually convey more accurately represents the work that is done within the walls and hearts of our amazing little center.
THANK YOU for the opportunity to serve you for 2.5 years. I am so humbled and deeply grateful.

Stay well friends. ❤️

#solidgroundmadison #solidgroundcounselingcenter #rootedinlove #mentalhealthmatters

Dismantling Mental Health Stigma

Let’s talk about the stigma surrounding mental health. A stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Layer that over mental health, and specifically mental illness and now the definition reads “a mark of disgrace associated with mental illness.” Ouch. It breaks my heart that mental illness continues to carry a mark of disgrace with it, especially with the high prevalence in our communities.

Did you know that an estimated 1 in 5 adults struggle with a mental illness? When we include youth and children in this estimate, the percentage rises. With such significant numbers, the fact that mental health is still discussed minimally, if at all, is discouraging. We know that individuals with a mental health diagnosis are at a greater risk for social isolation, have greater difficulty developing fulfilling relationships, and that there is a correlation between untreated mental illness and suicide risk. Despite the known complications, as well as the known benefits of treatment, conversations about mental illness continue to happen below the threshold necessary to encourage change.

What if we talked about mental health as openly as physical health? Imagine what our communities would look like if individuals affected by a mental illness were able to gain support from their family and neighbors for their depression, the same as when they are post-op from a heart surgery. Consider what the recovery process for mental illness would look like if when someone disclosed their struggle and their journey to wellness they were accepted and encouraged! Do you think that kind of support would affect whether people with mental illnesses reach out for help? I think so, and I believe this kind of change is possible, with some shifts in how society thinks about mental health.

How do we begin to unravel the stigma? I believe the first step is to get educated! Almost without exception, when I have a judgment about a topic, it is due to a lack of information about that subject. Mental health is no different. In my opinion one issue that prevents people from being educated about mental health includes the lack of open discussions regarding the prevalence and impact of mental illness. Due in large part to stigma, many individuals who struggle with mental illness feel unable to talk as openly as someone who is battling cancer – and yet mental illness can be just as detrimental. When we hear personal testimonies about how mental illness affects people, we can connect our hearts with the importance of the cause. As I see it when we become educated, through real people accounts, our understanding and compassion provides the catalyst for reducing the stigma and normalizing mental health care.

To begin changing the conversations surrounding mental health I have unpacked some points I believe are important.

1. Understand mental illness is not a choice. Depression, Anxiety, Bi-Polar Disorder, PTSD, Anorexia, Oppositional Defiant Disorder. These diagnoses, like so many others, involve a reaction in the brain that the afflicted individual has difficulty controlling without outside assistance. The behaviors, thoughts, reactions, and effects are not something the person would choose for themselves. Unfortunately, because of a lack of information, society sometimes paints a picture that people who are mentally ill choose to live this way. The truth is that even if they felt comfortable doing so, many people do not know where to turn to for help, or even that something is “wrong”. Mental illness tells lies like “You are the only one that feels this way”, it is from this isolating place that the person struggling keeps their battles tucked away, lest they seem “crazy”.

2. Mental illness can be treated. The field of psychiatry and therapy has grown tremendously over the past few decades. What we now know about the brain allows clinicians and physicians more opportunities to assist individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses. Previously, a schizophrenia diagnosis would almost certainly mean hospitalization. Fortunately, the advances in medicine and psychiatry have allowed a more comprehensive approach, providing platforms for many individuals with schizophrenia to live full, independent lives. These advances have positively impacted the field of mental health in many ways. Understanding the possibility of treatment can encourage those struggling to get help, which means more people on the road to wellness.

3. People with mental illness are not their diagnosis. Mental illness does NOT define an individual. We do not say “That bi-polar woman”, but rather “the woman with bi-polar disorder”, because the diagnosis does not define the person. It is a struggle they are walking through, not a definition of their being. Can you imagine calling the mom battling breast cancer “the cancer lady”? Absolutely not, and yet society has normalized the labeling of people struggling with mental illness by their diagnosis. In my opinion, this reinforces the stigma, rather than creating space for safe, open conversation about the struggle. Realizing that mental illness is something that affects the individual, rather than who they are, is key in updating how we view mental illness.

4. People with mental health diagnoses are capable. Individuals with a mental health diagnosis are just as capable of living abundant lives, raising families, and working fulfilling jobs as people who do not struggle with mental illness. It is true that some diagnoses will require more intense, or even long-term care for symptom management, but this does not prohibit productivity or decrease the value of the individual. Some of the most resilient people I know have battled mental illness and come out with more grit, tenacity, and compassion for others than individuals who have never dealt with mental health issues.

So, what do we do with all of this? The reality is mental illness is not going away, a fact we cannot change. What we can change is the way we perceive mental health as well as the individuals who struggle with mental illness. We can set into motion a snowball effect of acceptance, and thus facilitate dialogue for healing. I believe when we do so the stigma decreases, and the topic of mental health care becomes a more normal conversation. People who are struggling feel more safe reaching out for help, and a shift begins. I am ready to be a part of the change, are you?


Coping in Unusual Times

Coping in Unusual Times

Coping mechanisms are the tools we draw upon to help us combat stress. It is no surprise that stress can do strange things to our bodies and minds. It can induce lethargy, intense anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, and change the way our brain makes decisions, all of which can make coping exceedingly difficult. Most people have some identified coping mechanisms that assist with striking a balance between the stressful event or circumstance, and a healthier state of functioning. Unfortunately, when stress happens during non-normative times there can be additional factors at play including a decrease or complete lack of our usual coping options or an inability to gather support from the people we normally would. Regardless of the change in factors, there are some tools that are helpful for coping, even when times are unusual.

Understanding your triggers. We have talked about triggers before, and likely will again – because they are important! These are those situations or people that poke some internal part of our emotions or memory and stir us to feeling out of control, or unsafe. The result of feeling out of control or unsafe usually begins a spiral of thoughts and behaviors that are unhelpful to us regaining the peace we are seeking. When we work to identify our triggers then the situations that would cause them to become less surprising, and thus our reaction to them changes. Triggers during times of unusual stress may include feeling helpless, hopeless, optionless, isolated, or stuck in a certain circumstance. Understanding a trigger can take some work and may not be something achievable without professional help.

Resource List. This is a tool that frequents my clinical practice. A good resource list helps an individual outline what their resources are during a time of peace or neutrality, with the intent to be drawn upon during times of stress. Recall that stress forces the brain to make decisions about what functioning it will focus on – and typically logical thought gets excluded at some point in the process. So, creating a resource list during times of low to no stress is best. A good resource list should contain items such as

a. Indicators you may be feeling excessively overwhelmed (you may be surprised at how difficult it is to recognize this when you are in this state!). Note the behaviors, feelings, and physical characteristics that you exhibit when your stress is high, and you are not at your best.

b. Coping mechanisms that can be utilized without outside assistance. These are things such as exercise, journaling, listening to music, taking a bath/ shower, or meditation. The items here should be actual activities that you know are helpful, this is not the time to try out new things! The key here is productive coping, so any action that is unhealthy or self-injurious should not make the cut.

c. People you can turn to in the event the above items do not work. The individuals on this list should be reliable and know enough about you to know what is helpful for assisting you in times of need.

d. Signs your stress levels are decreasing. This is important because being able to identify what is happening when you are starting to function more effectively gives you feedback that what you are doing is helpful. So, outline what you are doing and how are you feeling when you find yourself more balanced.

e. A list of local emergency numbers. Although no one enjoys thinking about what happens when our stress is so high we cannot handle it anymore, the fact is that everyone has that threshold. Having a list of your local emergency room number and location can be helpful in the event your situation escalates to an unsafe level and you need to reach out for medical help to stay safe.

Professional help. While there are plenty of ways that we can assist ourselves, sometimes the best option is to seek professional help. During unusual times of stress our resources may look different, our triggers may be stronger, and our coping strategies may not be working as effectively as they do during more normal times. When that is the case, there is nothing wrong with using outside assistance. Mental health professionals are trained to help people through difficult seasons and circumstances. Counseling may be the best option if you find yourself unable to regulate your emotions, your stress level remains consistently elevated, or none of the typical ways you cope are helping.

It may be helpful to know that everyone has a certain threshold for dealing with stress. How we cope may look different, the tools we draw on likely vary, but the reality is all of us are coping with stress on a continual basis. How effectively we do so depends greatly on how much we are required to deal with at one time, and how well equipped we are to tackle the task. My hope is that utilizing the coping resources listed here will give you the advantage the next time you are faced with high stress. Stay well friends!

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!


An expectation, as defined by, 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!