May is Mental Health Month

Quotes from Known Authors:

  • “There is a Crack in Everything, That’s How the Light Gets In” – Leon Cohen
  • “In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.” — Abraham Maslow
  • “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” — Fredrick Douglass
  • “Sadly, too often, the stigma around mental health prevents people who need help from seeking it. But that simply doesn’t make any sense. Whether an illness affects your heart, your arm or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there shouldn’t be any distinction. We would never tell someone with a broken leg that they should stop wallowing and get it together. We don’t consider taking medication for an ear infection something to be ashamed of. We shouldn’t treat mental health conditions any differently. Instead, we should make it clear that getting help isn’t a sign of weakness — it’s a sign of strength — and we should ensure that people can get the treatment they need.” (Huffington Post)  … “Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain.  It’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction” Michelle Obama
  • “Since that day (I opened up about my emotions).  It’s just been so much easier to live and so much easier to enjoy live”.  Michael Phelps
  • “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation” – Glenn Close
  • “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow” – Helen Keller

  • “So many people look at [my depression] as me being ungrateful, but that is not it— I can’t help it. There’s not much that I’m closed off about, and the universe gave me all that so I could help people feel like they don’t have to be something they’re not or feel like they have to fake happy. There’s nothing worse than being fake happy.” – Miley Cyrus

Compiled by:

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

MENTAL HEALTH CORNER

With Social Distancing, showing compassion or hugging would be a long stretch.  It may be awhile before we can hug again, but the need is still there.  It’s Good for your Mental Health.

Did you know that hugging someone you care about not only makes you feel more connected to the other person; it also contributes to both your mental and physical health?  Dr. Kathleen C. Light at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noted in NIH News in Health, February 2007, studied oxytocin levels in loving couples as well as mothers and their infants. Although the research is preliminary, she notes that as love and affection are expressed, a hormone, oxytocin, mostly made in the area of the brain called the hypothalamus, is released into the bloodstream through Dopamine, a brain chemical that plays a crucial part in how we perceive pleasure.  Released oxytocin has been found to bring about increased satisfaction and enjoyment in life.  It makes us feel good and improves our mood.  In addition, increased oxytocin tends to lower levels of stress hormones in the body as well as reduces blood pressure, increases pain tolerance, and may speed recovery from illness.  In fact, there is good research indicating that without the release of oxytocin, there is a greater chance of serious depression and other mental illness! 

We remain at social distance status.  However, hugging can be a miracle medicine that relieves many physical and emotional problems people struggle with.   Hugging is healthy.  It relieves tension.  It combats depression.  It reduces stress.  It improves blood circulation.  It generates good will.  It offers comfort and sustains self-esteem.  It brings warm fuzzies to the soul.  It also doesn’t require a license or registration.  There are no insurance costs or co-pays, and it actually saves on medical bills.   It is tax free and not dependent on the market.  It does not threaten the environment, nor does it require batteries or electricity.  Frequent use brings about increased benefits; the more you give, the more you receive.  It is something that just keeps on giving.  It can’t break down, although it is fully-refundable.  It is life-time guaranteed.  And, there are no unpleasant side effects, except during a world-renowned virus! 

With all the technology out there, inventing a software program that allows for virtual hugs seems like a worthwhile consideration. 

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

St. Williams Mental Health Center

Going Backwards may Help Us Go Forward

With COVID-19, many have been forced to return in some format to the customs of previous generations; without access to outings, social visiting or even money to purchase types of entertainment devices.    Is there any silver lining in going backwards? 

According to experts in the mental health field, the lives many of us lead today show more anxiety and depression compared to 50 years ago.  Back a generation or two, children used to play outside games, such as “Annie Annie Over” where two groups of kids on the opposite side threw a ball over the house to the kids on the other side. The goal was to tag the person catching the ball, or catch the ball and tag someone from the opposite side.  It is a simple game; one without much pizzazz, but fun none-the-less.  In contrast to today’s rapid pace and techy world, kids back then stayed home more and shared hours of creative playtime, be it dress-up, “Kick the Can”, Tag, Hop Scotch, marbles, or Chinese Jump-Rope.  Yes, this is the generation that ranked high to smelling the flowers and having neighbors over for Sunday afternoon get-togethers.  These happy-go-lucky times are of a simpler world which has nearly passed us by.

With time, we have become more multifaceted beings.  Our society has given way to the technical world and the rapid pace of it all, with expectations higher and the competition greater.  Our brains have stretched to saturate more and more advanced data of which we strive to understand so that we can function in today’s world.   As we are in a progressive generation that requires the mastery of such operandum, we become accustomed to a fast-paced, complicated operational culture. 

We all are adjusting to a new normal; one that allows for more pause and breathing space, giving way to waning schedules and tasks mostly limited to home projects.  Maybe this is a time for reflection on the lives we live.  What would be the silver lining in all this?  Maybe there is some benefit to taking a wider lens to a fast-paced lifestyle while also being homebound and forced to live more simply.  Could it be that we come to a new truism about the lifestyle we choose once this virus is behind us?  While we capture ourselves in an advanced era, maybe we will seek a new balance; one that supports good mental health.  Truly, relaxing is a necessary key to reducing our mental health symptoms while also reducing chronic pain and improving your overall physical health.  As we have become consumed with the fast pace of this generation, it is doubtful that our kids will learn “Annie Annie Over”.  However, possibly we all will come to see that taking a breath, slowing down or just settling is a good thing.  Going backwards may help us move forwards.  

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

The Pathway Through Uncertain Times

Who would have thunk it?  Most of us have never experienced anything like COVID 19.  As many of us in our country, even throughout the world, have been obstructed and disturbed by several gigantic turbulences in their lives (e.g., world wars, gigantic volcano eruptions, drastic ups and downs of financial markets), this is unique.  A virus?  Impacting the entire world?  Yes, we haven’t experienced anything like this in our life time, although history shows that we have gone this way before.  Most of us have felt the crunch that has taken place along the way; and without a certainty of what’s best next, we each have a choice as to what path forward we will take.  There are many paths, yet we all must ask ourselves which one will lead us to the best one.

What path will you take?  When people become anxious or stressed, it is common to react with either/or a mixture of “flight, fight or freeze”.  These are the common responses to anxiety. 

What is “flight”?  It is running away from it all.  The hype of the virus becomes so overwhelming and unstoppable that it can’t be reckoned with.   As emotions of anxiety or fear reach a new height, logic may not be at the forefront and running away is the primary mode of operation.

“Fight” is another pathway some follow.  Here, the emotions of anger/blame come forward.  It is an effort to ensure there is justice or that those in authority be held accountable for poor leadership.  The individual finds justification through efforts at opposition with feelings of being wronged.   Again, emotions run the show and finding the path may be secondary.

“Freeze” is a reaction oftentimes felt by those who are stunned or shocked with the trauma and their emotions paralyze them so that moving forwards or backwards is not considered.  Panic is the primary emotion, and staying still without a course of action is common-place.

Emotions have a hay-day with disturbances we have to face, such as this virus.  We can allow our emotions; like anxiety or fear or anger/blame or guilt, to guide us down a path that allows our passion or reactions to lead. 

We can also allow our own biases or personality traits to dominate our choice of paths, be it burying your head in the sand with a sei la vie’ attitude, fighting for power or control, reacting with a sense of being victimized and dependency, or sharing a full force of drama.

Resilience is a path that oftentimes is left forgotten.  Resilience allows for a brighter ending – being logical about the reality of the virus, appreciating the challenge of it all, seeking emotional and spiritual endurance, over-powering the temptation of reacting with raw emotion, and building inner strength may all be keys to finding the right path. 

Most of us believe that at some point we will return to a new normal but one we can accommodate with.  How are you going to get there?  In paraphrasing one author, “We all get off the train at the same time; but the experience of it all is up to us”.  Indeed, these are uncertain times.    Be aware of the path you choose.  

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

Spring is in the Air, so COVID-19 Has to Share

No one can take away our spring!!  It is that time of year that we have long been waiting for; the warmth of the sun, the popping of greens, the airborne freshness and fragrance of the season – a delight to our souls. 

Being outdoors is a huge benefit to mental health.  For the most part, through COVID 19 and during this Minnesota’s late winter, we have become destined as indoor creatures. As our brains have attempted to survive isolation with these long cold days, many of us have turned to exploring and operating technological advances.   However, as time has gone on, many of us have sunk into the grasp of these operative systems.  We have lost control and now suffer with its innumerable phone calls, time warps with computer over-indulgence and extended TV/movie successions, and then there are the inundating  tagalongs of sequential advertisements from all over, paperwork, political inquiries, fund raising requests; and all sorts of overwhelming information.  What happens to the brain with all this chaos?  It becomes frazzled, or exhausted, or drained, and weary.  It sinks into an android-like state, quivering and drooling, and half-stumped over.  What does it need?  It needs the outdoors!!  Especially in the spring!!  Enough of this swarm to this technological magnet! 

Going outside seems to be a natural remedy.  It reduces mental fatigue and washes away stress, at least for a while.   In fact, just 20-30 minutes a day outside in nature can meaningfully reduce cortisol levels and lower your stress level.  Spending time in nature has also been shown to improve symptoms of depression or prevent it from occurring.  And, of course, there is the sun – the natural light that has been shown to be beneficial, not even to improved moods but now studies point to higher self-esteem, especially when combined with outside exercise.  Getting a breath of fresh air, being in the sun, feeling the warm breeze, watching the season of life begin again; a true stress-reliever! 

Yet, we have to share this spring with COVID-19!!  No parks or recreational areas are open, walking is done mostly in isolated places, and no scurrying about with others as we see distant masked faces looking away to avoid contamination.  So, how do we sustain our mental health with the disappointment of limited access to the air we breathe and the outdoors we cherish this time of year?  Well, like it or not, we bulldoze ourselves right through.  That’s how!!  There is room in the air for both!!   We draw up some plans to help us get through.  We find some ways to make it work.  We can’t ignore either the reality of COVID-19 and the need for good mental health by being outside.  This is a big world.  We can do both.  COVID-19 just needs to share ‘cuz spring is in the air and good mental health is a key!!

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

Rumination is like a Hamster on the Wheel – A Never-Ending Loop that Takes you Nowhere

Lots of times, we get stuck with a plethora of unending and overwhelming thoughts.  They are usually negative, lined with bad memories, triggered by our mood, focused on past regrets or “what if’s”, and hold a distorted or pessimistic perspective of ourselves or others.  Some find negative emotions and thoughts as simply being a healthy and natural process of working through issues.  Others find their ruminations burdensome, and if left unchecked, breed more gloom and gather more speed, blasting away any withering positive inner voice, hiding some place in the wilderness.

As the mindset adapts to pessimistic thoughts and negativity, the software program in your head becomes routine and increasingly one-sided.  You may find yourself to be the person you never wanted to be, or you become the one your mother warned you about; you are unhappy, negative, depressed, and your mind no longer captures positive thoughts, or a more objective perspective in dealing with its difficulties.  There is no insight gained.  There is no problem-solving.  It is simply a matter of mind control from within.  Your inner voice needs some repair!!

Most negative ruminations are truly an unending journey and a waste of time.  So, how can you stop the spinning of the hamster treadmill?

  1. The first step is to recognize or gain insight into your ruminating.  Be an observer of yourself and watch when you ruminate?  How often?  When?  Where?  What about? Are there any solutions conjured up while you ruminate, or does it lead to a dead end, and likely picked up later? How does it impact your mood?  Does it bring about depression, or worry, or anger; and if so, how helpful are those emotions?  How much don’t you get accomplished by your ruminating?  What are the triggers?  What other things does it impact – your sleeping? – your relationships? – your self-esteem? – your happiness? 
  2. Take back your life!  Once you realize you are ruminating, remove that thought NOW!!  Definitely not easy, but it helps for the moment; – use distraction – focus on the opposite emotion and strive towards it, go to another topic or activity, talk to someone about something else or create or expand your hobbies and interests
  3. When you are ready, commit to changing the software program one step at a time; think differently, challenge old negative thoughts, locate those positives that have been hiding in the wilderness way too long,  stop worrying and focus on what you can control, work on forgiving yourself or others, learn from vs. obsess on regrets, live today and enjoy the moment.  No one said it was easy to change software programming, but truly it has got to be better than having a fatalistic, non-stop, never-ending wheel of burdening thoughts.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

Life as it Could be with COVID-19

As time passes, we become weighed in with the reality of it all.  This virus, as has been the case for so many contagions before us, could last for much longer than we had initially anticipated.  It may become a way of life for a while.  Working on managing the virus with social distancing, wearing masks/gloves, and being home-bound may be the beginning of a long process.  How do we move beyond interrupted anxiety about “what could happen?”; or lingering isolation with deepening loneliness and depression; or ongoing family or relationship conflicts with no individual space; or heightened stress about how to pay the bills or put food on the table?

How do we endure?  How do we use this time as a way to challenge ourselves with what we actually can change?  As well, how can we embrace our suffering so it doesn’t overcome us?  Indeed, it would be quite the challenge to allow ourselves to suffer without being run over by our negative thoughts and fears, much less the certainty of the realness of this crisis.  

What is it inside of us that brings ourselves to a sense of calm when the world is spinning around us?  Of course, it can be denying or minimizing the true effect of the spinning.  But beyond this, what characteristics or values or beliefs or vision does one hold to truly not give way to all of the chaos around us?

Is it a sense of who we are or how we define ourselves that makes a difference, or how we put together the real meaning of life?  Maybe a goal is to have an internal locus of control vs. reacting to what happens outside of ourselves.  Maybe it is redefining our purpose that drives us throughout our lifetime, regardless of the circumstances that befall upon us.  Maybe it is a time to turn in and look at what shapes our own principles or values, and sense of resolve, or true Faith beyond ourselves that gives us resolution?     Maybe that is what will help us endure – coming back to our roots; asking ourselves what life is supposed to be all about.  Maybe that is the way we can challenge ourselves with what we can actually change – a sense of serenity during a time of chaos.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

Seniors Facing COVID-19

Putting yourself in the seat of a senior, what would it feel like to be constantly reminded about the fear of contracting COVID-?  While facing the reality that grave illness or death for themselves or their friends may be just around the corner, the curve of anxiety takes a steep turn upwards.  Not only is the mind turning various possibilities of “What if’s”, they are also more prone to constant worrying, sleeping and eating problems, concentration difficulties, increased irritability and frustration, and likely fear the worst-case scenarios – all symptoms of clinical anxiety; and all normal in the face of a pandemic. 

On top of this, seniors, as is the case for most Americans, are authorized to isolate themselves or practice social distancing during the course of this virus.  Overall, seniors struggle significantly more with isolation compared to the general population.   As isolation persists as a constant, loneliness oftentimes begets depression.   Being alone can be debilitating, with a high suicide rate among those over 65, noting that 18% of all suicide deaths are from the elderly population.  Depression among the elderly oftentimes shows itself with common symptoms, including staying in bed and sleeping too much or too little, not eating well, losing interest in a usual routine, having little energy to do even pleasurable activities, postponing contact with others, and of course isolating.  Actually, if you have visited your area nursing home or senior living facilities, it is evident that there is an epidemic of loneliness among its residents.

On the flip side, not only do seniors isolate themselves when depressed, the truth is that they are isolated as a forgotten generation while the rest of the world stays busy with all its distractions.  Their isolation comes from within as well as in a large part, prompted by the reality of being left behind as an after-thought or one of the last “things to do” on their adult children’s “to do” list. Isolation is a daily reality for most seniors, and likely much more so with the COVID-19 virus.

As we all face being home-bound, missing our friends and those family members not living with us, isolated in a sense from normal living, let’s pause and empathize with those seniors that live like this as a matter of routine.  Reach out and connect.  Seniors need the support, comfort, and alliance during this difficult time.  They are a special generation of people with strong values and faith, hardy by history, and have been our leaders and role models for the generations after them.  They are next in line as the lost generation.  Let us respect, appreciate and value their worth, and keep them in your thoughts and prayers.  Now that life hurriedness has taken a stop with quarantine for most of us, let us take time and reflect on what really is important.  Reach out and virtually touch a senior, including those that are isolated as well as those more vulnerable and are especially dealing with heightened anxiety and depression.  If you were sitting in their seat, isn’t that what you would want?  

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

Mental Health Professional

St. Williams Mental Health Services

What About the Kids?

How are kids dealing with the CoVid-19?  Being locked down is a difficult proposition, but especially for our kids.  Kids are used to playing with their friends, being active, going to school and not necessarily focusing on world events as their parents are.  I mean, it is their parents’ job, right? Not there’s.  However, don’t be fooled.  With Co-VID-10, those of smaller stature have experienced their worlds as having been turned upside down these past few weeks.

First, they are home-bound.  They have limited access with their friends and only through electronic means.  Their only companions are their siblings which in reality can be quite skirmish and combative.  They are limited to their back yard, if they have one and it is not snowing and cold.  The news of the virus is on nearly 24/7 on many channels.  The resounding “Breaking News” numerates many times a day, and oftentimes parents are glued to the updates to prepare for the next surge of action.  But “what about the kids?”. 

Even when parents try to fake it, kids feel it in their bones when their parents feel anxious, frustrated, belabored or depressed.  That is the nature of kids.  Their connection to their parents is intuitive.  It can’t be seen or heard, but it is there.  They feel what their parents feel.  They may express it or react differently than their parents, but kids feel there is definitely something in the air! They watch their parents watch the news and the tension draws deeply inside them.  They watch their parents, the leaders of their world, struggle.

Kids also have their own reaction to the crisis besides dealing with their parents’ reaction.  They are out of their element.  Instead of playing or doing homework after school while supper is being made, they are at home all of the time.  They can no longer be distracted by reality.  They have nightmares or feel that zombies are living in their basement.  They may regress and act younger than they are.  They may be clingier, or cry more, or have more outbursts.  It’s their way of saying that they are not doing well.  Expressing their fears verbally is just not their nature at their young ages.

What do kids need?  Lots of love, and patience, and understanding, and reassurance, and a walk-through of their fears to help them better understand that things will eventually return to normal.  They need guidance and leadership.  They need a parent who will help them pick up the pieces and encourage them to be resilient, look at positives, and allow their parents to handle the burdens.  What about the kids?  Their mind is not yet developed and their understanding of this crisis is warped by the emotion of it all.  Be there for them.  Help them know that this will soon pass.  Give them hope.  Give them your attention.  Having kids stay at home could be a hidden blessing as they are around their most influential people to help them get through this crisis.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

Psychotherapist

Hunkering Down with the Coronavirus

Here we are, hunkering down at home for a while.  Who would have thought?  How do we survive with each other during this time of crisis?  This in itself can be quite the stressor unless we practice some good strategies. 

Here are some of the mental health practices oftentimes reviewed in the literature that you can install in your home to make the time go smoother for everyone during the lockdown period.

Have a routine – Grab onto some structure.  Most of us are accustomed to some kind of structure, be it work duties at our jobs or school assignments at school.  Now, with chaos arising at the home-front, having a routine is a good thing to incorporate; sleeping and eating schedules, exercise times, social distancing contacts, designated chores or duties, selected fun time with new and creative activities, and school and work time slots with designated breaks.  It doesn’t have to be a prison for everyone, but it surely doesn’t have to be WWIII!  Studies have shown that having a routine can help reduce boredom, reduce anxiety and depression and lead to more healthy patterns of coping.  This format at home can then allow more energy to deal with other more important things that need to be tended to. 

Don’t stop exercising because the gym is no longer open – Physical exercise is synced with good mental health.  Get that heart pumping, build those muscles and make that body move.  Cramped quarters can be a problem, but figure out how you can make it work – even if you have to have a shared group exercise program in the living room, or if you can find some exercises that allow you to stay in one place.  It doesn’t take a genius.

Spend time in nature – even if it is through a TV channel, video or internet.  It is calming to your soul and it definitely helps your body relax.  There is much research that has found time in “green” and “blue” space is associated with a reduction in anxiety and depression as well as helps reduce the risk of chronic health issues.  Being out in the sunshine, breathing air outside (with good social distancing) is a good habit for both your body and mind.  In fact, some studies indicate that the chemicals released from the trees; phytoncides” can increase the immune cells that help keep the body healthy.

Re-arrange, clean out or organize your home – It makes you feel productive, you gain a sense of control over times of uncertainty, and gives you time to focus on something else besides the news flashes and all the media clips about the Corona-Virus. 

Give yourself some time to breathe, be quiet, and meditate.  It helps your body calm down, have better insight as to what is happening, and maintain a sense of internal control and confidence that this too shall pass.

Continue with your support team as you maintain social distancing – We are social creatures and need each other; that is how we were made.  Take time to reach out and connect.

Keep your empathy at the forefront – While experiencing the sense of being home-bound, you now can realize what so many people regularly experience throughout their much of their lives.  Reach out. – but don’t touch – at least not yet.    Empathy is a great experience that makes you feel good all over.  Doing acts of kindness and thinking of others before yourself all have huge mental health benefits.  It provides you with a sense of purpose.  It also helps you the opportunity to climb out of yourselves and give a bit of support and kindness to someone else that also needs it. 

Be thankful – Recognizing your blessings, being grateful, trusting in a spirit greater than yourself can be hugely beneficial to mental health.  Practicing thankfulness with others not only improves your mood, but those recipients of such grace.  Don’t judge.  Realize that we are all likely doing the best we can with what we got.  Sit back and relax.  We will get through this.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

Psychotherapist