Tips for Healthy Living

With the winter holidays upon us, we may feel the additional pressure to go, go, go: making holiday cookies, selecting gifts, getting twinkly lights up, seeing family and friends—all on top of our everyday lives, a mile-long to-do list, and what may feel like perpetual busyness. While your natural inclination may be to multitask and make it all happen, a smile plastered on your face all the way to the finish line, let’s pause for a moment and consider: is multitasking a healthy way to live?

What Is Multitasking?

Before we look at whether multitasking is a healthy habit, we need to define what multitasking is. Multitasking is, essentially, the performance of more than one task simultaneously. We all know what that looks like: wrapping up an email while we talk on the phone, responding to an instant message while we’re on a Zoom conference call.

A 2017 study published in Applied Ergonomics delves further in and differentiates between three types of multitasking:

Concurrent multitasking is when you conduct two or more tasks at the same time.

Interleaved multitasking, or task switching, is when you switch between two or more tasks as they develop.

Combined multitasking is a combination of the two types above; it is when you execute two or more tasks concurrently while switching between tasks as they develop.

In general, when folks refer to multitasking, they are referring to combined multitasking.

Is Multitasking Bad for You?

With job descriptions routinely advertising for employees who can juggle multiple tasks and lives that seem to get busier and busier, multitasking can seem like a knee-jerk response to getting more done in a day. It’s worthwhile, however, to pause and look at the research done on time management techniques and consider whether multitasking is a healthy or unhealthy practice to partake in.

People who multitask are less efficient than those who focus on one project at a time, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. In fact, Stanford University studies show that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40% when we multitask. With substandard results in our performance, why do we persist in our attempts to multitask, and continue to believe it’s an efficient, productive way to work when, in fact, it’s not?

When you multitask, it seems like you’re accomplishing many things at the same time. But rather than getting more done, what you are really doing is quickly shifting your attention and focus from one thing to the next. It’s this switching, or interleaved multitasking, that slows you down and stresses you out.

How Does Task Switching Affect Me?

Multitasking is managed by your brain’s executive functions, which determine how, when, and in what order tasks are done. There are two stages to the executive control process: goal shifting (deciding to do one thing instead of another) and rule activation (changing from one task’s rules to the rules for a new task). When you multitask, you incur what psychologists call “task switch costs,” or the negative effects resulting from switching among tasks.

Research has shown that when we grow accustomed to frequent interruptions, we develop a short attention span and even begin to self-interrupt, which leads to a longer-term problem, as it extends the amount of time needed to finish tasks.

What Happens When I Multitask?

People tend to overestimate their ability to multitask, and those who multitask the most demonstrate more impulsivity, less executive control, are more easily distracted, and tend to downplay the negative effects of their behavior.

Intense multitasking can induce a stress response, according to Dr. David Meyer, a psychology professor and codirector of the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. This further degrades cognitive processing, says Dr. Jeff Comer.

Multitasking results in:

  • Diminished ability to concentrate
  • Decreased ability to pay attention to details
  • Lower competency in organization skills
  • Being perceived as disrespectful
  • Delayed task-completion
  • Increase in stress
  • Increased impulsiveness
  • Lower recall
  • More frequent memory lapses
  • More frequent accidents and errors
  • May worsen work and/or school performance
  • Burnout

The Importance of Breaks

Guess what? Multitasking makes us very tired. By quickly switching between activities, even minor ones, we use up our precious supplies of oxygenated glucose in our brains—the very same fuel we need to focus on a task! To compensate, many folks reach for more coffee (caffeine), more food—in other words, more energy. Instead, Dr. Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, speaks to the benefit of regular breaks. When we take 15-minute breaks every couple of hours and allow our minds to truly wander, we’re more productive. Your brain is, after all, a muscle, and it needs time to rest and recover after it’s worked out.

One way to think about multitasking is purposefully giving ourselves distractions in the form of other tasks. But switching tasks is stressful, and on average it takes us twenty-three minutes to return to our work when we’re interrupted, according to Dr. Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine. To avoid that switch-induced delay caused by multitasking, she advises “chunking” your time. Also known as time blocking, monotasking, or single-tasking, this method of scheduling your day can give you a sense of control over your time and make you more productive.

What Is Single-Tasking?

Single-tasking is the opposite of multitasking. With single-tasking, you balance competing tasks. When you become a single-tasker, you are filtering tasks, determining priorities, setting goals, and completing the many items on your to-do list. You maximize your productivity by setting aside specific times for completing your most important work. You can do this by focusing on creating a prioritized to-do list and then time blocking.

Single-tasking (aka time blocking) is a time management technique that is as simple as it sounds: block off a period of time to complete a particular task. By setting aside specific times to respond to emails, return calls, and focus on important projects throughout your day, you can improve your focus and deter any tendency you might have to procrastinate. Best yet, at the end of the day, you’ll feel like you accomplished something—because you likely did!

As we move through the hectic holiday season, consider taking a break from multitasking and purposefully engage in a time management technique that will reduce stress, improve your focus, and help you happily, healthfully conquer your never-ending to-dos.

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We know that self-care is important for everyone. But how do you practice self-compassion and personal wellness when you have been through trauma or are trying to help someone through a traumatic life event? In the first part of a two-part series on trauma-specific self-care, we looked at how your body responds to stress and trauma and what individuals can do to begin healing. Now, in part two, we’ll explore how mental health professionals can take care of themselves while they take care of their clients.

How Does Treating Clients with Traumatic Experiences Affect Me?

The reality is that treating clients who have experienced trauma can have impact. This “inevitable secondary stress,” as Trauma expert and Simmons College Graduate School of Social Work professor Julia Colpitts, MSW, calls it, is natural. We evolved to connect with our pack to survive. When we see or hear other people’s trauma, the areas in our brain that are activated are the same ones that would be activated if it was primary trauma—our own trauma. Mirror neurons are engaged in the trauma’s retelling, and our bodies respond to the story and mimic the survivor’s physiological response. Trauma is, in a sense, contagious. So, what can we do about it?

What Is Secondary Stress?

“Vicarious or secondary stress is empathy in action,” Colpitts states, and it is unavoidable. We are social animals, and we respond naturally to others. The impact ranges from mild to clinically symptomatic, but all responses on the continuum can have a long-term effect. We can get stuck in arousal mode from the continuous retelling of traumatic life events if we don’t actively manage our secondary stress and its impact on us as therapists and mental health providers. It doesn’t have to lead to professional burnout; viewed and managed differently, it can even become an invitation to grow personally and professionally.

Secondary traumatic stress often causes muted arousal responses, either hyper (flood of anxiety, fear, and anger) or hypo (distancing from emotion). Over time, cognitive distortions can develop, altering one’s focus, the content of their thoughts, and even their worldview. Unacknowledged vicarious stress also has a negativity bias, which can obscure our compassion satisfaction and real accomplishments. For therapists who hear traumatic stories that resonate with their own prior life trauma, the arousal response can deepen—and our professional dissociation and burnout, historical and/or cultural trauma, and traumatized organizations can serve to further deepen that response.

Some mental health professionals, like others in the population, cope with secondary stress and trauma by employing short-term relief strategies to manage their state of arousal, such as food and alcohol issues, inactivity or “mindless” (dissociative) activities, and overwork. These primitive defense mechanisms may appear to help for a few hours, but ultimately they all have long-term negative consequences.

Unhealthy coping behaviors such as substance use may have the same effect as ignoring the secondary stress altogether: illness, including serious chronic conditions such as heart disease. Women who are social workers, for instance, are 36% more likely to have heart problems than women in other professions (American Heart Association scientific session, November 2019). And “community and social services” is number one of the top ten professions correlated to cardiac arrest (gender-neutral) (CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 2016). It is therefore crucial that we develop positive coping methods for secondary traumatic stress.

A therapist’s self-care involves acknowledging the continuous stress you are under and allowing yourself a release. We need to proactively prepare for secondhand stress and its impact on us through daily doses of calm interspersed through our days.

Which Tools Should Therapists Use for Secondary Stress?

How do we turn off the arousal response? We activate the care system.

“Self-care is not just what we do after work. Self-care is how we do the work itself.” –Julia Colpitts, MSW

 

First of all, guard against the tendency to overcommit, to overwork in an effort to soothe. Like the proverbial oxygen mask on an airplane, you are ill equipped to help others if you’re not functioning well yourself.

Then, create a resilience menu. Choose from an array of simple, self-care actions to calm the body and calm the mind—a personal relaxation practice that can radically reframe how you go about your day. As though you are selecting a dish from a restaurant menu, choose the one(s) that sound best to you that day, at that time. And just as we are advised to “eat the rainbow” when it comes to dietary health, your resiliency menu or toolkit works best when you layer soothing actions across the spectrum, and use self-care well not just when there’s a personal crisis, but proactively and intentionally, every day. Some examples of what relaxing options might be on your resiliency menu [link “resiliency menu” to October blog] include:

  • Breathwork, such as box breathing
  • Being kind to yourself—kick out the inner critic
  • Muscle tension release using progressive relaxation techniques
  • Guided meditation, such as those offered by Kristen Neff
  • Sensory stimulation (e.g., aromatherapy, calming visuals, nature sounds, savory tastes, touch, water, sexual activity, massage, Reiki bodywork, and grounding strategies)
  • Acupressure and acupuncture
  • Yoga, tai chi, and other mind-body centering work
  • Conjuring up images of love and connection
  • Self-compassionate meditation and activities, such as bilateral stimulation like the butterfly hug, and affirmations
  • Interacting with animals, including equine-facilitated therapy
  • Mindfulness and related physical practices, such as walking meditation and forest bathing
  • Body scans
  • Expressing gratitude and love

Your resiliency tools not only help to heal the impact of secondary traumatic stress by releasing stored arousal responses and reestablishing a peaceful baseline, they also help strengthen your capacity for joy and presence and prepare you for future sources of stress.

How Can I Support Other Mental Health Professionals’ Well-being?

To journey to wellness together, we need to support positive attachments to ourselves, to others, and to community coregulation. As mental health providers, we can:

  • Talk openly about secondary trauma and its impact.
  • Add moments to meetings that emphasize compassion satisfaction.
  • Practice personal relaxation techniques openly, as appropriate, to model calm.
  • Notice and address when organizations are traumatized.
  • Support setting realistic workloads.

Thank you to Julia Colpitts, MSW, for sharing her keynote presentation and ideas on this subject.

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You’re in the middle of a forest on a beautiful day in Maine. Sunshine peeks through the leaves and scatters in fascinating, eye-catching patterns on the moss-covered ground, soft under your feet. You breathe in the scent of pine and become aware of the stillness and the small sounds of scurrying chipmunks and birdsong echoing across the land. Green leaves, brown soil, and glimpses of blue sky fill your vision for as far as you can see. Warmth from the sun spreads across your face. You can feel your whole body relax as you walk slowly through the woods, breathing and sensing each moment fully.

Immersing ourselves in nature cultivates a sense of mindfulness, a practice that is now widely known for promoting mental wellbeing. What is it about being outside that restores us so?

Many workers spend hours indoors in a busy state of focused concentration, and one of the results can be mental and physical fatigue. Fatigue and stress are risk factors for depression, as is the lack of vitamin D many of us experience during Maine’s long winters. Treatment for mild to moderate depression may include cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and other interpersonal therapies. Many also find strategies such as aerobic exercise, yoga, and the Japanese practice of forest bathing helpful, whether they are experiencing mild depressive symptoms or simply daily stressors.

In addition to sometimes leading to depression, fatigue can result in reduced attention, and forest bathing seems to provide a respite from the long hours of concentration that typical workdays require. Screentime, a modern near-requisite, can exacerbate the problem, as can urban living and spending much of our time indoors.

In psychological parlance, Stephen Kaplan’s theory of attention restoration proposes that when we use quite a bit of directed attention, or effortful attention employed to focus on a task we’re choosing to pay attention to, we need to exercise involuntary attention, which naturally occurs in nature, to restore our balance. Directed attention, in other words, such as you employ during the workday, can cause fatigue and mental exhaustion (even if you enjoy the work you are doing), and you need regular breaks to offset the effects.

Research has demonstrated that the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” has positive physiological and psychological benefits, including a reduction in blood pressure, an improved immune system, and improved mental health—and one study in particular, published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine in 2019, found the improved state of mental health especially pronounced for those with depressive tendencies. This natural remedy for mild depressive symptoms can alleviate negative emotions and moods such as anxiety, fear, anger, and disgust, and increase positive emotions such as joy.

Since a number of studies in the 1980s touting the benefits of Shinrin-yoku, Japanese doctors have included the practice, which they often describe as preventative medicine, in what is called “social prescribing.” Other social prescriptions include gardening, mountain walking, exercise and sports, swimming, caring for animals, and cooking—all activities, you may note, which engage our senses.

To practice forest bathing, we can fully immerse ourselves and our senses in a walk in the forest. Put away your phone. Slow down. Quiet your mind. Notice the details from all of your senses. It is not as simple as taking a walk outside; “immersion” is precisely the right word to truly experience all of Shinrin-yoku’s benefits. And if you don’t have access to a forest, parks can serve as a substitute space.

More research is needed to fully explore the therapeutic aspects of Shinrin-yoku, including studying whether its effects apply to those with high stress and depressive tendencies. In the meantime, forest bathing can be a stress-reducing, preventative, healthy outdoor activity for everyone to enjoy—and summer in Maine is a great time to try it out.

 

Sources: psychologytoday.com, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, mentalhealthtoday.co.uk

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Many things happen in our lives that we cannot control or predict. Unexpected, large-scale traumatic events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine can be sources of stress, as can daily life stressors, such as conflicts in relationships, money troubles, or an upsetting interaction. Psychological flexibility, or the ability to adapt our thinking and behavior when new or unexpected events arise, is an important skill we can use to increase individual wellbeing now and in the future.

Let’s say you are being tailgated by an aggressive driver on a two-lane highway. You feel scared and worried about what will happen if you need to use your brakes. No one is around to help.

Employing psychological flexibility in a given situation can be seen as a three-stage sequence of events:

  1. Evaluating the needs and demands of the situation or context;
  2. Selecting a response or coping strategy; and
  3. Monitoring the success of the approach you employ and modifying it as needed.

In the example we illustrated above, where the stressor was a tailgater, this sequence might look like:
Context sensitivity = There is potential for danger here. You need to remove yourself from its threat. The other driver may not react quickly enough if you brake.
Repertoire = Continue going the exact same speed and be extra alert for the possibility of needing to brake.
Feedback = You feel stressed and scared. You still don’t feel safe. They have not stopped driving too closely to your car.

You may then decide, from the feedback loop, to modify your approach and select a new behavior in your repertoire. Perhaps you can use your right turn signal to indicate you would like them to pass you, for instance. The feedback loop can continue until you have met your goals for the situation.

This sort of flexible thinking, as you might imagine, is a predictor of resiliency and creativity. Research shows psychological flexibility is associated with a better quality of life, particularly in older adults. In the workplace, exercising flexible thinking tends to lead to better job performance, improved learning on the job, innovation, and better overall mental health, including lower levels of stress and emotional exhaustion. In clinical settings, psychological flexibility training has been shown as effective in treating a myriad of disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and substance use, and this training works whether it is delivered in person or online.

The great news is psychological flexibility can be practiced and improved. But how?

Create optimal conditions for being flexible. By practicing mindfulness, doing yoga and aerobics, and engaging in relaxation techniques, we give ourselves a solid foundation to deal with stress in a purposeful, thoughtful manner.

Cultivate optimism. Rather than focusing on what the pandemic has negatively impacted in our lives, for instance, we can reframe our thinking and consider what has made us change for the better. Choose to view your struggles as part of being human, rather than something that happens to you.

Pause. Focus on your reactions and attitudes. What are you feeling? Why might you be
feeling this way? Allow yourself the space you need for an intentional response.

Exercise creative thinking. Consider unusual solutions. Seek outside perspectives. Frame issues from different angles. Challenge your own beliefs. By utilizing divergent thinking, we can overcome embedded thought patterns and see the situation from a new angle, which could provide a fresh perspective on the matter.

Keep your decisions aligned with your values. When you use your core values to guide your decisions, you gain peace of mind by keeping your integrity intact. At the same time, our values can change over time, and some situations present an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate which values are true for us and which may need to be reconsidered.

In clinical settings, we can employ cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as structure learning, or the ability to extract information about the structure of a complex environment and decipher streams of sensory information, to promote psychological flexibility.

Psychological flexibility helps us see that what we’re doing in response to a given stressor is not leading to a successful outcome, and it shows us how to make the appropriate changes to our behavior to achieve our goal. It is a handy tool in our kit to cope with stress. The more we exercise flexible thinking, the stronger it gets, providing us with a protective buffer between everyday stressors and possible negative outcomes.

 

 

Sources: ethicalsystems.org, psychologytoday.com, weforum.org

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The holidays can be a time of perpetual joy, faith and connection. However, there are many ways our mental health can worsen during this time. There’s the stress of buying gifts and attending family gatherings. The feeling of loss and nostalgia for those who are no longer with us. And the last two years during the pandemic, a lot of us are feeling more isolated and distanced than ever. But there is hope. You can manage your mental health, stay connected, and lean into the holiday spirit with the following reminders.  

  1. Reset routine: Think about your daily routine. What’s working for you and where can you improve? Keep in mind that your health practices such as eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, and getting restful sleep are all beneficial to your mental health.  
  2. Boost brain power: Have you ever wanted to learn something new? Maybe it’s yoga, cooking a gourmet meal, or learning a musical instrument. Even 5-10 minutes per day of practicing a new skill or hobby can boost your mental and emotional health and take your mind off any stresses of the season. 
  3. Slow down: The way we gather and celebrate may have changed, but it has also forced us to slow down and take stock of our lives. Allow yourself to move at a slower pace to be more present and mindful of the holiday season. What or who are you grateful for? What memories or events bring you joy this time of year? Writing these things out in a journal or on a notepad and seeing them will help. 
  4. Adjust traditions: The way we come together has changed, but it can be an opportunity to adapt rather than to be upset for how the holidays “should be.” How does this time of year make you feel? Share this with your family (along with their feelings) to see where new traditions can align.
  5. Reach out: We can still be connected while being apart. Keep connected to your loved ones by text, phone or video call, or writing a letter or holiday card. Let them know you’re thinking of them, share how you’re celebrating, and let them know you’ll always be there. 

 

It’s important to recognize that having a mixed bag of emotions during the holiday season is normal and that existent mental health issues can worsen due to holiday stresses. We all may need extra help this holiday season and that’s okay. The following are signs that professional guidance may be necessary:  

  • Fear and worry 
  • Self-isolation 
  • Fatigue, sleep changes 
  • Irritability, mood changes 
  • Impulsive or risky behavior 
  • Worsening chronic health issues 
  • Worsening mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression) • Increase in substance use (such as alcohol, drugs and smoking) 

Sources: hhs.gov, usatoday.com, mayoclinic.org, clevelandclinic.org, nm.org

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An estimated 22 million Americans among every gender, race, and social class are currently in recovery. For those in recovery, it is not a one-size-fits-all situation but one completely unique to one’s life experiences and circumstances.

What does “in recovery” mean?

It’s a common misconception that abstinence and sobriety alone equates to being in recovery. The definition provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is as follows: Recovery is “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach
their full potential.” While in recovery, it’s important to also recognize the significance of focusing on one’s physical and mental health. Continued success is more likely once an individual has gained insight regarding any unresolved trauma, or underlying emotional and mental health issues in order to better understand how these factors may have impact on their recovery process.

Recovery varies by person, but may include:

  • 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous
  • In-patient treatment, Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) or an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)
  • Avoiding triggering situations
  • Meditation and prayer
  • Regular counseling sessions
  • Trying a new hobby or resuming an old one
  • Building strong + positive support systems
  • Being physically active on a regular basis
  • Developing structure and routines
  • Focusing on nutrition, sleep, and stress management

How do I support a loved one in recovery?

When you discover that a friend or loved one is in recovery, you may be nervous or unsure of how to act or speak around them. Remember, people in recovery are humans just like you! If someone discloses that they’re in recovery, you can say the following:

  • “How’s it going?”
  • “I’m proud of you!”
  • “That’s great! You deserve to live a happy and fulfilling life.”
  • “How can I support you in your recovery?”

The statements above show your genuine support of their health. A simple phrase of encouragement and recognition can go a long way for someone in recovery. If someone discloses that they’re in recovery, avoid the following statements:

  • “You don’t look like an addict.”
  • “How do you know you’re an addict?”
  • “When did you hit rock bottom?” or “How do you know you hit bottom?”
  • “If you were addicted to drugs, can you still drink alcohol?”

The statements have the potential to result in hurt or upset feelings for a person in recovery. While you may be curious about their recovery process, it’s essential to allow the person in recovery to share their perspective on their own terms.

Health Affiliates Maine continuously strives to address the stigma associated with mental health and substance use. We work to increase access to supportive services for all Mainers so that they have a successful journey to recovery. We have a network of counselors, LADCs, and community resources (such as our telehealth IOP) that aims to help anyone in need of treatment. While you can’t force anyone to get help (only they can make that decision), you can offer validation and encouragement. If you’re equipped with resources and education, you’re already supporting them in their journey to recovery.

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Discovering life’s joyful moments fuels our creativity, our purpose, and our overall wellbeing. Although it can be challenging to allow ourselves to truly appreciate what brings us joy daily, it’s well worth the effort as all aspects of our lives can benefit.

Be present. Joy is experienced in the present moment. It’s normal to think about the past or plan for the future (and in some cases it’s necessary). Try allowing yourself to soak in smaller moments that resonate with you throughout your day. The smell of coffee brewing, a cherished hug from your child, or the way your body feels after a long stretch. Whatever it is, relish it as it’s happening in the moment.

Search for meaning. We tend to get caught up in our to-dos and responsibilities making us forget or push aside meaning and purpose in our lives. During the 2020 quarantine, people had the opportunity to slow down, recognize what’s truly important to them and re-direct their lives accordingly. Dismiss what you should do and dig deep for what you want to do— and do it!

Make time for a passion. Prioritize time for activities that you love. Joy can be found when pursuing something you’re passionate about and can also help you better understand yourself and what may bring more meaning into your life. Bonus points if you go outside of your comfort zone – for a challenge and personal growth. Both will excite and motivate you.

Seek authenticity. Particularly on social media, we can get lost in comparisons and lose sight of our true selves. Ask yourself: am I living how I genuinely want to live? Am I pleasing others rather than myself? Choose to live in a way that feels right to your authentic self. This includes surrounding yourself with positive people. We subconsciously absorb the energy of those around us so choose carefully who you spend your time with.

Connect with nature. Studies have proven that when we spend more time outdoors, we experience less anxiety and reduce our stress levels. When in nature, we not only gain the benefits of fresh air, but we also tend to slow down, be present, and reconnect with a higher power/our spirituality.

As helpers, we provide this feedback to our clients every day. At the end of a frenzied day, it can be daunting to think about putting to practice our own teachings. However, when we choose to prioritize ourselves by finding joy and relishing in it, we know that these efforts can reduce stress and anxiety, boost our immune system, reconnect with life’s meaning and add significance to our life. If you’re having a difficult time finding the positive in your life, do just one simple thing each day only for you. Even if for five short minutes—you’ve earned it. We all deserve to feel life’s joys!

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Mental health can and should be a daily practice, taken into consideration more often than “when something is wrong” or when going through a particularly difficult time. Taking care of your mental health is a preventative form of care and by incorporating daily rituals and practices into your life, you can give your mental health the attention it deserves.

Here are nine things you can do to take care of yourself so you can take care of others:

Take a mental health day. You know yourself best. If you feel that you need a break, take one. If you don’t have vacation or paid time off, consider taking mini breaks throughout the day to renew your energy and spirit. It’s okay to slow down and not feel rushed to cross everything off the to-do list at once.

Switch up your evening routine. Try winding down in a different way than you typically do if you’re feeling particularly stressed or “off.” Think about what relaxes you and adopt that into your routine: reading a book, taking a long bath, chatting with a friend.

Adopt a vacation mentality. Put your phone setting on do not disturb between 9pm-7am. Go swimming instead of sweating at the gym. Walk in the park with a friend during lunch. Ignore emails after you’ve clocked out for the day/week. Whatever you do on vacation that feels relaxing and rejuvenating, try bringing some of that into your daily life.

Meditate for five minutes every day. Perhaps you’ve heard this advice before, but the science doesn’t lie! Meditation eases stress and anxiety, calms your nervous system, helps with memory and so much more. There’s no need to put pressure on yourself to gain some important insight or enlightenment. Sit quietly, focused on your breathing with no judgment of the thoughts in your head. With regular practice, you’ll begin to feel the benefits.

Be mindful of what you eat and drink. It’s a common coping mechanism to comfort our emotions with food, drink or other substances. We all have different nutritional and lifestyle choices, but we suggest being extra mindful when experiencing stress, anxiety or depression as sugar, junk foods and alcohol will make you feel worse (even if you feel better temporarily).

Consider reaching out for professional help. There is no barometer, specific feeling or event that warrants a person to “need” or want professional counseling. We all have varying life circumstances and coping strategies. If you feel like you “shouldn’t be this upset” or that “others have it worse” we suggest allowing yourself permission to seek help. We all deserve it.

Prioritize rest. Our culture values the “hustle” and though hustle has it’s time and place, we also need rest. You know your body and mind best—if you need a morning off work, take it. If you need a long weekend alone, take it. If you need to sleep in just a little bit longer, sleep in! The to-do list is not going anywhere and you’ll need your physical and emotional health in top shape to do your best.

Write down as many inspiring messages as you can. They can be lyrics, affirmations, reminders to move your body, drink water, have gratitude—any message that uplifts you. Keep them close by, such as in a desk drawer, a large jar or your phone’s notebook app. If you need a pick-me-up, reach for one. Alternatively, download an app that sends positive affirmations to your phone daily. It’s proven that we bring to life the thoughts that we tell ourselves (even unconsciously), so let yourself think positive thoughts!

When we feel that we are in control of our thoughts, feelings and emotions we’re bound to continue the work that allows us to feel that way. However, if you think you may need professional help, reach out. Everyone needs help at some point in life. It takes courage and strength to recognize when help is needed and seek it out.

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This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on April 29, 2021, by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine.  

Question: I recently found out my 17-year-old is smoking marijuana. He said he does it to help with anxiety and that he finds a lot of relief in it. I don’t love the idea at all, but I also feel powerless to stop him. How can I talk to him about the risks but also be supportive if I lose this battle?

Answer: This is a difficult time for parents. At 17, your son is on the cusp of becoming a legal adult. This can give teens a feeling of not needing guidance or permission. Passing the milestone of 18 will not suddenly make him mature enough to all make decisions that are in his best interest. However, if your son is just starting to use at 17, studies show he is less at risk than a teen who starts at a young age, who smokes/vapes for years. A University of Montreal study says that the more teenagers delay smoking marijuana (cannabis) until they are older, the better it is for their brains, but there may be little ill effect if they start after age 17. That may give you some comfort. However, the human brain takes 26 years to reach full development so introducing substances does have risks when it comes to full potential.

That being said, I find a troubling issue in your question. What is causing the anxiety at age 17 for him to self-medicate with marijuana to relieve it? Many people have found cannabis calming, yet at seventeen or any age really, understanding the underlying cause of the anxiety is key. There are many non-drug ways of treating anxiety worth exploring.

Teens have lots of reasons to feel anxious and the pandemic has increased this anxiety. Life looks uncertain, relationships and future plans may be on hold, decreased social activity can add to general unsettledness and hopelessness. Under normal times, this age is challenging—adult responsibilities and major life decisions loom and teens question themselves. They are also developmentally pulling away from parental influences which can sometimes cause problems at home.

I commend you for wanting to address his marijuana use, but an overall conversation needs to include healthy coping and understanding of what is contributing to his anxiety. Living with anxiety can be a lifelong struggle and he should seek help at an early age to prevent this. Assure him that he does not have to talk to you about it, but a counselor might be a great help to him. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based successful treatment for anxiety which many therapists use in their work.

I urge you to do more research to give you what you need for the discussion. For parents with younger children, talking about marijuana and substance abuse needs to happen before they start using and should be an ongoing conversation. Here are some talking points (taken from the references below) for you and other parents to begin a conversation about marijuana use.

Marijuana can affect driving. It is extremely important that teens who drive understand how dangerous driving under the influence of marijuana can be. Reaction time and judgment can be impaired coupled with inexperience behind the wheel.

Importantly, marijuana is illegal. The fact that many states have legalized recreational marijuana has given a lot of young people the idea that it is legal and okay for them to use. It is not. Recreational marijuana is only legal for adults age 21 and older. Legal trouble can be incurred by a teen for possession and/or dealing.

Marijuana is not good for teen brains. Studies have shown that early marijuana use (16 and younger) causes problems with judgment, planning, and decision-making that may lead to risky behaviors. Some studies show problems with memory, motivation, and academic performance. Not the best situation with which to step into adulthood. The teens who may have a predisposition (possible family history) to mental illness and/or addiction may find themselves struggling with depression, psychosis, or further substance use.

There are very real health reasons not to smoke/vape cannabis. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine states that teens who vape are twice as likely to experience respiratory problems along with coughs, bronchitis, congestion, and phlegm than peers who do not vape.

Lastly, I like that you want to have a conversation with your son about marijuana. This is hard for parents who are often confused themselves or have mixed messages on the subject. I also like that you want to be supportive no matter the outcome. It is a conversation worth having and it will show your love for him.

Here is further information about cannabis use in teens and about anxiety:

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Anxiety-Disorders.aspx
https://www.verywellmind.com/marijuana-use-by-teens-statistics-2610207
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170125214606.htm#:~:text=2,Delaying%20marijuana%20smoking%20to%20age%2017%20cuts,teens’%20brains%2C%20new%20study%20suggests&text=Summary%3A,they’re%20less%20at%20risk.

Click to access evidence-brief-youth-13-17-e.pdf

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine.

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Are you feeling busy, distracted and exhausted? Even after the emotionally overwhelming year we’ve all just experienced, we haven’t slowed down and taken time for ourselves. Further, our society doesn’t value the practice of introspection, the observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes. Introspection, or self-reflection, is the willingness to recognize and determine your “old programming” that no longer serves you so that you can build new “programming.” How this can be done? With a calm mind to start.

How do I calm my mind?
Having a calm mind will allow you to concentrate and feel more relaxed. This practice will vary person to person, but here are some suggestions:

  • Take a few deep breaths; practice breath work
  • Stretch your body
  • Go for a walk; move your body
  • Journal, meditate, pray

How do I practice self-reflection?
When your mind is calm, allow yourself to draw inward and think deeply on the issue, emotion or memory at hand. To help, ask yourself:

  • What does this make me think?
  • How does it make me feel?
  • How does it hold me back?

It’s important not to judge yourself. Be honest with yourself so that you’re not tempted to imagine how you should feel. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper! You’re trying to access the root of the issue and you will most likely come across resistance. This is your ego/mind trying to protect you from uncomfortable and harmful emotions.

Additionally, you can ask yourself questions in order to get to know yourself better whether or not you’re currently working through an issue. Start with these:

  • What am I really scared of?
  • Am I holding on to something that I can let go of?
  • When did I last push passed my comfort zone?
  • What do I want most in life?
  • When was the last time I made someone smile?

Why should I practice self-reflection?
With self-reflection comes self-awareness. You’ll begin to see your thoughts, behaviors, emotions and reactions in real time as you experience them. You can determine which ones bother you, don’t serve you or harm you and learn to let them go. By slowing down, calming your mind, and asking yourself substantial questions to draw on old issues, you can then learn to shift your behaviors, thoughts and reactions to ones that better represent you, your values and beliefs.

The more you reflect, the easier you’ll be able to hold yourself accountable. This not only benefits you directly, but it also benefits those you surround yourself with. You may even inspire them to be more introspective!

What are benefits to introspection?
A self-aware person can expect myriad of benefits, but here are some that may be true for you:

  • Clarity
  • Self-control
  • Less stress and anxiety
  • Higher self-esteem and pride
  • Increased emotional intelligence
  • Easier time coping with challenges
  • Appropriate reactions to situations
  • Realize their potential and become more aligned

Remember, slowing down, calming your mind and regular self-reflection may come with resistance­­­­ from your mind, your family, even your job. Stay strong­­–this time is essential for your mental health. It’s okay to start small and always be gracious and patient with yourself. You’re in the process of changing how you think, feel, and behave. You’re changing your life!

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