Community: Health depends on it

How could any of us know that when we read George Orwell’s 1984, in high school, we would actually live it one day? It was presented to us as Science Fiction, and something that was thought provoking. We should have read it like a training manual. One of the best quotes to describe our times, inside this epic piece of literature was:

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four.”

I sat with a client last week, who is as frustrated as the rest of us, with regulatory guidelines that keep her from interacting with friends and family. She said, “I know a lot of people, who also know a lot of people, and none of us know anyone who has died of COVID, so it is hard to understand why we can’t interact with one another.” She, like many of my clients, is fighting hard to keep upbeat, pushing off depression, during this time. Statistically, the numbers are staggering right now. Depression, anxiety, addiction, abuse…all on the rise. Some reports are showing a 30% increase in reported suicide attempts. At some point we need to consider that advocating for mental health is self defense, during this freedom-less time.

Recently, I ran across an article put out by the CDC, that warned about the dangers of isolation. Recent studies were cited in the article, studies that proved that Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia. As a mental health professional, I am appalled that along with suggestions of social distancing and mask wearing, there were not guidelines of how to maintain a healthy emotional state during this time. I see firsthand the damage as I sit with clients (all via Telehealth now!) on a regular basis, who now struggle with increased anxiety and depression or who never experienced symptoms before, but are now battling sluggishness, sleeplessness, lethargy, hopelessness, lack of motivation, apathy, and many other symptoms associated with depression.

I am an introvert, who already worked from home as much as I went into my office. So, at the beginning of the shutdown, my life did not change as much as it did for others who were working from home for the first time. But I knew, that over time, the shutdown would start to feel suffocating, even to my love-my-alone-time-self, if I did not proactively make sure that I had community during the weeks (who knew it would be months!) ahead. I immediately put a plan in place for myself that included my neighborhood besties, who live, work and shop at my same haunts, so our exposure is almost identical. We met regularly, but were careful and responsible, so much so, that one of our members had COVID and the rest of us stayed healthy! Having this interaction made this shutdown doable for us. Some people have openly criticized my willingness to risk human interaction at the level I have chosen, because they know that I am immune compromised. For me, mental health is as important as physical health. How do you think I continue to beat the life sentence I have been given?

What are you doing to keep human interaction at a healthy level? What are you doing to protect your mental health and thus, your survival?

I want it to be clear that I am not proposing that you engage in activities that put yourself at risk for the disease, just so you see people face to face. I do not encourage the immune compromised to rub shoulders with strangers during this time. But most of us have the ability to find a team of people to do life with strategically and still minimize risk.

One of the personal victories that I had during this shutdown came from a proactive attempt to create community. Mike and I have been doing church virtually for the last four years, partially for my health, as I have been a germ avoider for the last 6 years. It was also fun to “attend” the same church as our kids living in Waco, TX. So, when Antioch of Waco offered the opportunity to join an online small group during the shutdown, we took a risk and joined a group. We now have friends that we have met with weekly for the last 18 weeks….who knew?

I encourage you to take a look at this short report that gives some support for maintaining contact with other humans: https://www.khca.org/files/2015/10/8-Reasons-Why-We-Need-Human-Touch-More-Than-Ever.pdf. If you are struggling to feel purposeful, or you find yourself not caring about the future or you are just sleepy all the time, you may be on the brink of a deeper dive into depression that could be reversed with some human interaction. The risk might be worth it, especially if done with care.

As always, let me know if I can help.

With love,

Sonia

Learned anxiety?: Learn Faith

Part of being a new client, when beginning therapy, is a general intake form. These entry forms have questions about your mental health history, including past counseling, identified diagnosis and current symptoms. Most clients, who are ready for time on the counseling couch, feel ready for outside intervention because their life situation has caused enough anxiety, enough depression, enough anger…whatever it is…that they are driven to counseling, by that symptom, that is starting to feel unbearable.

Some anxiety and depression are healthy!

Anxiety and depression naturally accompany hard life situations. Who wouldn’t feel depressed or possibly anxious after the death of a loved one, loss of a job, strained relationship with a child, ongoing illness or any variety of trauma? Some anxiety and depression is actually a sign of processing hard life things WELL…it is when you can’t get off the couch for days, can’t go to class without heart palpitations, or you feel like fainting at inconvenient times, that we intervene to make life manageable again.

Anxiety, in particular, can be limited by learning your body signals, using positive self talk in the crisis, changing up life routine, and even taking medication if you need a reset. But once you feel a little more yourself, there might be some talk therapy surrounding how living life, feeling just a bit out of control, may not be the worst thing imaginable. In fact, it might be a little healthier than the I-have-all-my-ducks-in-a-row model. (Those ducks-in-a-row people have issues too, just so you know.)

Right now, there are a number of self-help gurus, who have large audiences believing that if you just work a little harder, stay a little bit more positive, create better mojo/karma/tribe, your life will instantly improve and all your dreams will come true. I am not against any of those things, but in my experience, anxiety and depression aren’t eliminated just because you try harder.

So, what if, instead of beating ourselves up that our lives aren’t perfect, we embrace a little of the chaos, as part of the larger plan? I for one, have worked hard, have been positive even in some really dark times and have an amazing tribe, and yet…life is still freakin’ hard.  BUT…that difficult stuff is the stuff that allows me to do my calling well. I have a calling to counsel people in dark places and my personal chaos is sometimes the best tool I have…empathy and compassion rarely come from easy peasy lives.

If you are in control of your destiny, is it your destiny?

I want to leave you with a little thought provoker…for those of you who are looking for purpose, looking for a way to feel whole, wanting life to mean more… Do you believe in calling, destiny, or a “reason you were put on this planet”? Are you struggling to feel like you are doing “it” because your life feels out of control or a little messy? What if feeling in control of your destiny means you aren’t on the path to your destiny? What if destiny HAS to come from the outside and be a bit of a struggle? In my case, my purpose is God-driven…He dictates my path. Is there a higher power dictating yours and you are busy trying to organize, plan, hustle, team build and in that controlling stuff, you are missing your purpose, and as a result…feeling depressed, anxious and messy?

My friend, Hunter, texted me this morning with an “aha” from a book she is reading. Paul David Tripp says in New Morning Mercies, “What is the lie? It is the lie that life can be found outside the Creator.” Hmmm…now that is something to think about!

As always, let me know if I can help.

Love,

Sonia

Managing Mood: Circulation, healthy eating and bedtime routine

Talk therapy is an important part of mental health. Uncovering the cause of your depression, anxiety, or other treatable concern, is the most important step to mental health, but you would be surprised how much time of my day is spent talking about diet, rest, exercise and self care. There are many times that we cripple the healing time or impede progress when attention is not given to healthy food, movement and time for re-centering. Here are some in-a-nutshell tips for those of you wanting to achieve a more peace-filled life, with or without the use of prescription drugs.

Since I do not prescribe drugs, I am often sitting with clients who have received care from a general practitioner (pediatrician, MD, etc) and we have to work within the parameters of the drugs they have been prescribed. I should probably find time to blog about how to manage your doctor as he/she manages your mental health….maybe next time… In short, drugs for mental health issues cannot be managed like you manage an ear infection with antibiotics. Dosages must be observed over time and played with until you find what works for you, with the least side effects. It is a process that can be time consuming, but if combined with good counseling, you may find a life rhythm that makes you feel like yourself, only better!

Most of my clients do not like taking prescription meds because of how the drugs make them feel…Hello! If you cannot get the drugs to make you function at a higher level, there is something terribly wrong. They are meant to improve life, not hold you back. So let’s uncover some tips to try before going the prescription route or during the process of finding a medical solution…

CIRCULATION IS A MUST FOR EVERYONE WHO STRUGGLES WITH A MOOD DISORDER

When life is getting us down, it is easy to put aside good health practices, become sedentary and increase the use of food and alcohol. Let’s be real, binge watching a new series on Netflix is sometimes easier than going for a run and eating a salad. But the fact of the matter is, healthy living promotes mental health!

Thankfully, the newest studies are showing that bursts of exercise are actually better for the production of serotonin (the happy hormone) than a long walk. That is not to say that leisurely exercise is not good…just that “running like you are scared” for 20 seconds gets that part of your brain charged in a way that helps overcome mood issues. I recommend running up a flight of stairs, doing 25 jumping jacks or jumping on a mini-trampoline when you start to feel the dark cloud or experience that anxiety bubble starting to creep up inside. Additional tip: If you can do this in the SUNSHINE, you increase the production of serotonin, since sunlight produces Vitamin D, which leads to the production of serotonin…or maybe just sit in the sun for a good 10 minutes after you run around the block.

For those of you on mood altering prescriptions, this is especially important. Drugs need to be moved through our systems. If they get “hung up” somewhere in the circulatory system, you can experience a “dump” at times, which results in nasty side effects. Make sure you schedule time in your day to get the blood pumping so that you keep side effects to a minimum.

HEALTHY EATING DOES NOT HAVE TO RUIN YOUR LIFE

When you are fighting mood disorders, there are a few things to keep in mind. Some substances that present as energizers or “calmers” are actually depressants and make the struggle worse. Unfortunately, they are also the things many people first turn to when they start to feel yucky: sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Since I am an all-things-in-moderation kind of gal, I don’t think you have to cut these things out of your life completely, but understand the effect they might be having on your mood.

When you are having a particularly bad day, be sure to minimize the use of sugar, caffeine and alcohol rather than increase the amount you add to your diet. While it might feel really satisfying to eat a hot fudge sundae, the effect you experience later will not be worth it. For my Colorado clients and friends…medical marijuana has the same tendencies so please be careful and ideally, switch to CBD oil without THC. You won’t get the high but you will actually improve your symptoms rather than experience the tendencies toward depression that follow the use of THC. (Were you wondering why the suicide rate increased in CO after we legalized marijuana?)

BEDTIME ROUTINE

Clients often complain that when their sleep is off, their symptoms increase. That makes sense. We all need good sleep when battling anything other than normal. When we struggle to get to sleep or wake up anxiety-filled in the middle of the night, we risk entering a “bad cycle” of starting the day feeling icky and fighting adverse symptoms throughout the day.

Try making bedtime a routine that invites calm and restoration. Dropping into the sheets without proper preparation, can often lead to a restless night or unproductive sleep. If you want to actually be asleep at 11pm, make sure to give yourself some lead time and begin this process between 10 and 10:30.

Things to try:
1. Shut off devices that cause mind stimulation; TV, phones, iPads, etc. While you might feel like you are zoning out on these devices, your mind is still being stimulated and it can sometimes be difficult to shut that down.

2. Chamomile tea, 3-6 mg of melatonin (your body’s natural ability to produce enough itself can be limited in times of stress), a bath with detoxifying epsom salts, listening to classical music…all these offer preparation for a deeper sleep that leads to real rejuvenation.

3. Diffusing lavender near your bed or using a lavender spray on your pillow can be sleep inducing. You might even try combining lavender essential oil with a carrier oil and rubbing it on your feet. (If you don’t like lavender, try rosewood, bergamot or chamomile oils instead.)

4. Make sure your room is dark. Your body creates melatonin better in darkness which leads to better sleep. That is why falling asleep with the TV on isn’t such a great idea for most days.

Creating a routine and sticking to it creates muscle memory. You may find that as you do this daily, your body will start to relax earlier in the process because it knows what is coming…ahhhh!

Life can be difficult so make sure you are doing what you can to support your mood.

As always, let me know if I can help.

With love,

Sonia

Holy Week Counseling: Make your life a prayer

I will be the first to admit I don’t get as much counseling for myself, as I would like. I have never had a manicure from someone with manicured nails either. It is probably true for most professions. Fortunately, I have some friends who are amazing listeners, good question-askers and love me, even in my weakness…so they are just like a good counselor!

Last week I had lunch with my friends Jayna and Carla. We met on a mission trip and there is something about serving side by side that builds a bond that is supernatural. We are able to share from the deepest parts of our hearts…the stuff that is raw and painful, but we can also be a source of hope for one another in this crazy world, as we encourage, pray for and crack jokes with one another that we think are hilarious. If you don’t have any friends like this, you need to find some.

We were having a conversation about prayer and how disappointing it can be when you pray so hard for something and the answer is…. silence, or no, or not now…. All three of us have some real prayer requests right now. We are all three in some trenches of life and if there is a magical formula for getting our prayers answered, we want to know what it is. Someone pass us the magic wand if you have been hogging it!

Of course there is no magic wand. Sometimes in life, our challenges don’t go away with the wave of a hand. Sometimes there are struggles that sit next to us for long periods of time and the more we pray and the more the answer is no, the more we want to give up hoping.

Jayna knows about cancer. Her beautiful daughter has been battling brain cancer most of her life. I can tell Jayna that my numbers that had been going down, went up again and she knows what that feels like to hear. She knows what hope has to be mustered if you are going to stay in the fight and that even when God is silent, He is working.

Jayna encouraged me to make my prayers an act of worship. She reminded me that prayers are not just about asking for what we need, but they are petitions ensconced in praise to our Lord who walks beside us in the Valley of the Shadow of Death…where we need not fear.

This week is Holy Week, a time when we reflect on the suffering of Christ and the liberation of our souls when He is resurrected. I wonder how many times in His life, even prior to the week leading up to his crucifixion that He felt lonely and sad, frustrated that life wasn’t just a little bit easier in the day to day. I wonder how many times He wished his Dad would just “fix it”. But we know that Christ continued to battle for our hearts, our souls and our minds by living His life to the fullest. His life was lived sacrificially, in obedience, one foot in front of the other. And in that, He pointed to heaven.

Who is with me, to start today…to live in a way that we point to heaven in our struggles and even when the answer is silence, no or not yet, we remain faithful because the God we serve is our hope, our redeemer and the reason we live? Who is ready to make their life a prayer that allows God to be all He is both in heaven and here, on earth?

As always, let me know if I can help.

With love,

Sonia

New Normal: Joy in the chronic…

Yesterday was my birthday. I am officially 52 years old. I remember thinking my mom was old when she turned 52 but I thought she was young when she went to be with God at 70. I have no idea if I am young or old right now. I feel both.

I do know that I went to the oncologist on my birthday, and surprisingly, I wasn’t really all that put out by having a doctor’s appointment on my birthday. This was, I am sure, in part because I needed to know that there was improvement in my white blood cell count from the week before. This is my new normal. The receptionist even said, “I know who you are Sonia, you are all checked in.” (Are we friends now or just people in each other’s lives from now until…a long time from now? Oh gosh…I better start remembering her name!)

Last week I had coffee with my friend Susan and she asked me if I think about “it” all the time. Ummm, that would be yes. First thing in the morning and in the moments before I sleep, I think about being “chronic”…and if I am honest, about 100 other times during the day. There is a little weight that sits on my shoulder and only goes away when I am listening deeply to a client or a loved one. I am trying to make that weight my friend and use it to feel, think and live more aware. I am trying to make that weight my new super-power for understanding people better.

So this was interesting timing: A new client called last week and wanted to know if I specialize in chronic pain. I told her that I am not yet an expert in that area, but I do know some people who specialize in treatment for those battling daily bouts of extreme pain. Our short interaction brought to my attention, in a profound way, that people who have long-suffering, whether it is emotional or physical, fall into a category all their own. When there is a timeline associated with a traumatic event, a therapist can utilize so many techniques designed to help a client realize that just because it happened once, doesn’t mean that it will happen again. But someone who is battling a situation that is for the rest of their life…that is different. I am beginning to understand.

When we got the report on Wednesday that showed my WBC numbers scooting back into normal range, I became immediately hope-filled. Mike and I did a victory dance outside the office, took the stairs because our spirits were lifted, and Mike fist-bumped the medical personnel having a conversation in the stairwell. (I chose not to touch anyone who may not have used hand sanitizer in the last few seconds after touching sick people, because those darn white blood cells are still a little bit of a thing.) They too joined in our victory celebration. That trip to the doctor’s office was joyful but I know that I am going to have to remind myself of this joy somewhere down the road of the journey I am on, when the news is scary again and I have to fight a little harder. I have joined the fraternity of people whose story has to be coerced into joyfulness because it wants to take us the other direction.

What ongoing situation in your life tests your limits? What reoccurring emotional battle or physical dilemma will not release its grip some days? Are you able to find joy in the suffering?

James 1:2 reminds us…

”Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.”

I get it. It was the one day of the year that I should have been at the spa, relaxing, forgetting my troubles. But, because of the Lord’s gracious spirit, I was able to be blessed by those silly numbers…going up just fractions of a point…enough to know that God sees me, in my brokenness and chooses to give me hope on this day…joy on this day. I will take it and celebrate today.

Do you need a little hope too?  Do you have a situation in your life that feels chronic? You need to know that hope can be found, even in the most dire situations of life. I am praying HOPE for my clients, my friends and the world…

As always, let me know if I can help.

With love,

Sonia