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

My Offering: Sitting in the Pain

I just got off the phone with my best friend from my childhood. We met in 7th grade when she and her brother accidentally rang my doorbell, when they were going door to door selling magazines for the school fundraiser. She told me later that she was mortified when I answered the door…we were in 7th grade where everything is embarrassing. I honestly thought it was hilarious, and it lead to a joined-at-the-hip friendship that took us through high school and beyond. I can’t tell you how many memories I have of the two of us laughing till we cried. We passed notes, talked on the phone, double dated, played sports, went on family vacations, were in each other’s weddings…we had no idea that life might not always be so carefree. Since then, our lives have not always been intertwined, but we talk and get together whenever we can, because we will always be heart sisters.

This morning I was liking a photo of her handsome son on Instagram. Her son and my girls are the same age. I remember thinking it was so fun that we were pregnant at the same time. He was recently made a deputy and I thought the picture was celebrating that. It wasn’t. It was the picture in the paper, that told how he died in a car accident yesterday. His was a young, beautiful life, cut short and his mama is my dear friend. And even though I am a trained counselor, and have lead grief groups, and taught seminars on grief… I had no words.

Sometimes in life, there are no words for the pain we shoulder. Even as I have been crying for her all day, and reflecting on our earlier conversation, where she shared about the last time she saw her son and the way God allowed some moments to take place in the last week that she will be forever grateful for…I still do not know what to say. I know better than to think there is a sentence or a phrase that will take any of her pain away. She has faith. She is relying on that to get her through this time. I can only offer myself to sit in the pain with her.

Have you ever had someone sit with you in the pain? I can think of several times in my life where my situation in life was inconsolable and there were no words to ease my burden and there were people who sat…sat next to me…no words…just presence. Presence just says, “I Iove you and I wish had a magic wand to wave on your behalf…but since I don’t, I will sit and pray and hold your hand…” I can only hope that is what I offered this morning.

Our world is topsy turvy right now and you might know of people who need some sitting next to. Maybe you need someone to sit in your pain with you. If you have ever shied away from being with another human because you didn’t know what to say, know that words are not always the only way to be there for someone. I am grateful for every person who has silently come alongside me and sometimes it is all I have to offer.

I wish I could wave a magic wand today…for my dear friend and for those who are facing all sorts of crazy in this pandemic. But today, all I can do is say I am sorry and offer my presence.

Love,

Sonia

Stormy Waters: Who is in your boat?

For those of you who follow my personal Facebook page, you know that my recent trip to counsel global workers started with a bang. I was sitting on a plane, minding my own business, watching a movie, when I experienced the most painful back spasms ever. If you have flown internationally, you know there is that time, in the middle of the flight, where the cabin is super dark and everyone is supposed to be asleep. I was trying to comply! I am a girl who flies a ton but in all those travels, I have never had the need to push the call button. I was humbled when I had to not only push the button, I had to engage numerous flight attendants to help me. (Shout out to Lufthansa Airlines…I am forever grateful for the care they gave to me! Carol, Caroline and Lauren literally held my hand, encouraged me, and did everything they could to help me through a crazy time.)

The rest of that day was equally humbling as the back spasms continued and I had to be transferred through airports in a wheelchair, transported with special equipment and given special assistance at every turn. If it weren’t for Lorrie Lingren, the CEO of Thrive Ministry, I would probably still be sitting in a concourse somewhere in Germany. Of course, the larger concern looming through it all was, how effective would I be once I got to the conference!?

Fortunately, once I got to the hotel and was able to take some muscle relaxants, the healing could begin. I also had Mary Ellen, our Physical Therapist on the volunteer team, who worked on me and our precious doctor, Cheryl, who walked me through the pain management. I felt close-to-fine once the retreat commenced and I was able to use the experience to relate to some women in tough life situations.

Our speaker was ironically talking about navigating stormy seas in life. Talking to a room full of women, engaged in serious work around the world, who live cross culturally…you might have expected the message to be one that gave them license to take a break. Instead she crafted her message with words like; keep going, don’t quit, trust the journey.

Our speaker referred to the familiar Biblical account, in Mark 4, where the disciples of Christ are in a boat with Him when they encounter a storm. While they fret, He is sleeping, giving them the impression that He doesn’t even care. But if you look a few verses back, He actually took them into that storm so He knew all along about the trial they would face and that He would calm the waves at the right time.

Life is full of storms. Everyone faces struggles that, in the moment, seem overwhelming. When I called my sweet husband from Germany, he was ready to hop on the next plane to come and save me, but I knew in my heart I needed to trust that God knew my struggle. I am grateful that I did not turn back. I would have missed out on connections with women who needed encouragement to stay put, keep focused, fight for good things in the world. My calling can’t be minimized because of a bump in the road!

Are you in a life trial where you feel alone and unseen? Are you unsure if the God of the universe cares for you? I am positive that He does. Who else is in your boat? When I look back on it, I had a whole team of people caring for me so that I could, in turn, care for others. Do you need someone to remind you not to quit, to keep going, to trust in the journey?

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

Broken Things: God can’t use perfect people

I always wanted to be a counselor. From the time I was just a kid, I found myself sitting on couches, listening to people’s stories. When I suggested the idea to my parents prior to heading off to college, my dad seemed confused by the idea of it. He was the son of immigrants, grew up in a gang in East LA…he did not get the concept of sharing your story with a STRANGER. Plus we had church, which was supposed to be where you got that kind of support. So instead of focusing on an actual profession right at first, I attended a liberal arts college and studied Communications and Political Science and got a Masters in Education so that I could teach high school history and government. I loved teaching but even then, my favorite part of the job was building relationships with students and mentoring them in life. My revised plan became to continue in the field of education and be a school counselor someday. But marriage and my girls and a few moves across state lines changed all that. I now realize that our journeys are not completely our own, and there may have been just a tiny bit of wisdom in the madness of God’s plan for me.

When I finally went to seminary to get a degree in Clinical Mental Health, in my forties, I was actually thinking that I would use my degree in a ministry setting, since at that time I volunteered in those capacities on a regular basis. I was going to grad school again because I had a number of life experiences by this time that gave me some wisdom to speak into other people’s lives and I wanted to enhance that life experience with some big time book knowledge. But my time in my second-time-around grad school, mostly outside the classroom, broke me in so many more ways. Once again, life journey often outweighs book stuff. I have seen things now…hard things. I know now, all that real life was so that today, I can sit across from almost anyone and empathize with their situation, using an emotion I have once experienced, maybe not in the exact way, but similarly. It took me awhile to fully understand that it isn’t the perfect stories that minister to people, but rather brokenness and rebirth that encourages the downtrodden and broken hearted in their pain.

Have you ever been weary? Are you broken hearted now? Do you wonder what you have to offer anyone? My guess is that if you have endured trials in your life, you are more than prepared to be a mentor, a soul mate and an encourager. You might be just getting started in leaving a legacy of helpmate and friend. When people are perfect, they really have nothing to offer the hurting world. Who wants to be told how to live by someone who has not faced struggles? Are you ready to accept the challenge of taking your brokenness and turning it into service to the world?

When I look back at the times in life that I felt broken…when I was lonely, depressed, struggling in relationships, financially wrecked, betrayed and overcome with grief…I never felt that I had something to offer anyone. But once the wounds began to heal, because of God’s mercy, good counsel, the elapsing of time and support of other encouragers, I started to realize the power that comes from overcoming the battles of life. Do you have some power that has yet to be tapped into?

 

This morning, I was listening to this song…and I once again was reminded that in brokenness, we are simply in training for our calling. Are you ready to join in the hard work of turning your sorrow into dancing?

As always, let me know if I can help.

With love,

Sonia