5 Tips for Good Fall Mental Health

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As we say goodbye to summer and hello to the colder months, many people are reaching into their closets and getting their wardrobes ready for winter. Are you doing the same kind of preparation for your mental health?

Though Seattle is not as rainy as other parts of the country (looking at you Kauai and Mobile, Alabama), it does get an average of 154 rain days a year, most of which fall between October and May. Translation: we’re about to begin a long, wet, grey season.

Here are 5 steps I am taking as a psychotherapist to make sure that I am coming into fall in the best mental health state as possible:

  1. Exercising regularly. I am not a huge fan of gyms but I do know that when I exercise 3-5 times a week, just like my doctor recommends, I have more energy, sleep better and feel less stressed. Studies show that exercise helps alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, depression and grief so I am committing to stay active even as the weather changes.

  2. Maintaining a helpful sleep schedule. Speaking of sleep, though I am a morning person and don’t need a lot of zzz’s to feel rested, I also know that the lack of sunlight in the colder months tricks my body into thinking it’s tired - and sad - even if I need to be alert and present for hours to come. One of the key tenets of sleep hygiene, a helpful and respected cognitive behavioral health concept for getting more rest, is going to bed and waking up at a consistent time - even on weekends. I know that getting the rest I need will help my moods and clarity stay light throughout the fall and winter. Learn more about sleep hygiene and how to make better sleeping habits here.

  3. Get Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a nutrient and hormone that helps grow and maintain healthy bones. Additionally, Vitamin D has been shown to help alleviate depression. Though Vitamin D is naturally occurring, it’s hard to get the amount you need through food alone. The best way is either getting exposure to direct sunshine (while using sunscreen and other covering to protect your skin) or by taking Vitamin D supplements. This means that I will be outside as much as possible whenever the sun is shining this fall and I will be picking up a new bottle of Vitamin D pills promptly. Ask your doctor if taking Vitamin D supplements is right for you.

  4. Do not isolate! It’s easy for me to use cold and wet weather as an excuse not to see people I care about or to leave my home for that matter. However, though hours of Netflix might sound relaxing in the moment, I know that continuing to foster relationships and be with my community goes a much longer way to reminding me that I am loved and needed. Though depression and anxiety can make it difficult to be social, coaxing yourself into being in safe, supportive places actually helps rewire your brain into more positive, happier moods.

  5. Practice gratitude. My excuse for why I hate being cold is that my ancestors were from hot places. I’m not built for northern winters. The cold combined with the busy nature of fall can make it easy for me to get grumpy so I will be making it a priority to write down at least three nouns (people, places and things) that I am grateful for every single day. Research and my personal experience shows that practicing gratitude allows people to be more attuned to the details of our lives, feel more happiness and be more optimistic. According to this article from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, gratitude also has significant physical and social benefits.

What steps are you taking to make this a healthy, happy season?

Mothers: It is OK to be Yourself

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I don't know if it's because Mother's Day recently happened or because the change of seasons makes people more reflective but I have noticed something in the past couple of weeks: mothers don't get enough opportunities to be themselves.

The mothers I see in my therapy practice fill a dizzying number of roles in their lives. They are ambitious professionals, dedicated partners, engaged community members, devoted friends - and on most days they show up in each of these ways before lunchtime! 

When people think of mothers and mental health what often comes to mind are stereotypes. One of the tropes that is commonly associated with therapy is the notion of 'the bad mother.' Freud's infamous theories of psychoanalysis contributed many intriguing and useful concepts to the field of psychology, but it also began the narrative of 'mommy issues.' The adult son who can not commit to anything without his overbearing mother's permission. The daughter who always feels insecure in the shadow of her high-achieving mother. The mother who treats her children like toys and not actual, fully-feeling human beings. The stereotypes of bad mothers are so prevalent that sometimes when clients begin therapy with me, they quickly rush to clarify that issues with their mothers are not the reason they are coming to counseling. They do not want me to assume their mothers were or are tyrants.

We have been led to believe that inattentive, distant, catty, or cruel mothering is at the core of all psychological pain. Sometimes, this is the case but not always. The mother is not always the bad guy. Sometimes, the bad guy is bigger: systems of oppression that keep generations of families in poverty, prevent access to basic human rights and constantly keep people of color in fear. 

In light of all of the challenges that the world throws at us, it makes sense that being a mother can often be stressful work. Mothers don't want to mess up. They don't want to be that mom. Whether a mother carried children in her womb or someone stepped in to take care of another human, mothering demands equal parts perseverance and faith. Those in mothering roles are often the heart and foundation of their families, the ones people come to when they need affection and when they need hope to keep facing challenges. 

In my experience as a psychotherapist and as a woman blessed with many mother figures, I have noticed that while many mothers relish the opportunity to serve others at the same time it can be exhausting. Constantly putting others needs before your own can lead to burnout ('I barely have enough energy to do the things I have to do'), bitterness ('If I wasn't giving so much I could be happier') or feeling unappreciated ('They don't even notice how much I do for them').

The most effective way I have found to work against these feelings of stuckness and fatigue is to encourage mothers to claim their identity. Too often my clients say that even though they love their children and families, they are treated as if being a mother is the fullness of their experience. People only seem to ask them about their kids - and sometimes, mothers don't know who they are outside of their children, either.

Mothers and mother figures are so much more than the people they take care of on a daily basis. I invite clients to think about the topics they are passionate about, dreams they still want to pursue, parts of themselves that they want to explore - and then go after them. This can mean taking the initiative to start the conversation with other adults about topics they care about or going back to school. It can mean teaching their children about who they were before they became a mother or learning more about the mothering figures they respect.

A key part of mothers living into their full identities is for them to practice self-care. My mothering clients wiggle uncomfortably when I tell them this but unless caregivers take the time to attend to their own needs and goals, they will not have the stamina, flexibility, and resilience needed to successfully mother. As mothers, it is not selfish to take care of yourselves. It is smart because you are ensuring that you can be around for the long haul. Additionally, and this is the part that really hits home for my mothering clients, it models for your children and dependents the importance of them pausing to take care of themselves so that they can fully be present for their loved ones. That is an early lesson that can go a long way in strengthening their mental health.

So mothers, be yourselves. Recognize that what makes you a good mother is your complete self, not the kind of mother you think you have to be because of the media, other parents around you or your mother. Make time for your hobbies and your friends. Ask for help and let people help you. Love your families and love every part of what makes you you.  You don't have to be perfect but you do have to be good to yourself so that you can be a good mother for someone else.

Daring to be Powerful

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Audre Lorde, a brilliant artist and educator, proudly identified as a Black, Lesbian, womanist warrior. In her book, The Cancer Journals, named after the disease that took her life, she wrote this line:

"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

As the new year arrives (at least for Western cultures), many people are planning their resolutions. Lose weight. Stop drinking. Be happier.

Without clear, attainable goals, within weeks these resolutions often become jokes, surface level actions or, worse, self-shaming failures.

What if we took a different approach?

This year, instead of resolving to do something you may actually be dreading, what if instead you set an intention to be powerful. This can look different for each person and is not easy. However, choosing courage instead of fear can lead to drastic life changes. This can look like saying no to someone in your life who does not appreciate you or asking for that raise at work. It can mean wearing that color you love but were told makes you look "too ethnic." Little acts of courage build your strength and enable you to know that you are powerful in all settings.

If you knew you were powerful, what could you achieve?

 

For Sexual Assault Survivors on an Election Night

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Trigger warning: this blog post addresses sexual violence and may be traumatizing for certain readers.

My phone screen lightly beeped me the news: "Doug Jones wins a tight Senate race in Alabama." I paused, noticing the relief in my chest and ignored the rest of the article as a vivid memory flashed through my mind.

My introduction to working in the mental health field began when I volunteered as a Sexual Assault Victim's Advocate during college. I had never been sexually assaulted but was horrified by the number of friends and acquaintances who had. They whispered their stories to me on walks between classes, at the entrance to my dorm room, late at night when they explained why they were scared to walk home alone. I wanted to do something, to somehow make the world safer for these women, for myself. So I became an Advocate and after months of training, I was called to my first emergency room visit early one morning before the sun had fully risen.

The dispatcher who briefed me on the incident reported that the victim was young, but when I walked into the ER room I realized that fact was sorely lacking in detail. Young is the early twenties, maybe even adolescence. The person in front of me with pink pajamas holding a teddy bear was not young. She was a child. 

For the next twelve hours, I sat with this nine-year-old girl, her six-year-old sister, and their distraught parents. In between talking about Justin Bieber and getting her to giggle, I informed the family of their rights, held her mother's hand as I explained what a rape kit is, and firmly reminded law enforcement officials who needed to be making the decisions in that particular moment (the family). By the time I left the hospital, the younger sister through listening to all of the conversations happening in the room had climbed into her father's lap and whispered, "Me too." Even as my heart was shattering, I looked at her and repeated what I had told her sister.

"Thank you for telling us. You are so brave. What he did to you was not your fault. It was wrong."

Over the course of my career, I have sat with too many people as they shared their sexual assault stories. In ER rooms, over the phone late at night on crisis lines, by their deathbeds, on college campuses, in church sanctuaries, on vacation, at family reunions, in a San Diego club, in graduate school, in my therapy office. The stories are everywhere. 

As the #Metoo movement spreads throughout national consciousness and men from Hollywood to Capitol Hill face real consequences for perpetrating acts of sexual violence and intimidation, I remember every single person that shared their story with me. But tonight, as the Alabama special election results cover the front page of every news outlet, as polls show that 98% of Black women and 93% of Black men voted for Doug Jones while 63% of White women and 72% of White men voted for Moore despite the many sexual misconduct allegations against him, all I can think of is that little girl. Pink pajamas and a teddy bear. 

If you are a survivor of sexual violence, this might be a very overwhelming time. The news is never-ending, the possibility for flash-backs is high and the American President is slut-shaming women for speaking out about what he did to them. This is a time for self-care. That might mean sharing your story, becoming a Sexual Assault Victim's Advocate yourself, or working for cultural change in your workplace. But know that self-care right now can also mean sobbing, not looking at social media or the news, or taking time to ensure you feel safe. It is your decision. 

If you are a loved one of someone who has shared their story of sexual violence with you, this also might be an overwhelming time for you. Know that you have similar options. When you have the choice, let survivors take the lead. They were violently stripped of their agency and part of their healing will be regaining the power to make decisions for themselves. You can speak out against sexual misconduct though remember that you should never disclose someone's story unless they give you permission. You can, however, speak powerfully about your own experience. You can become an Advocate in many senses of that word and you, too, can lament. Take care of yourself.

And whatever you choose, whatever your story, please know this: You are so brave. What happened to you was not your fault. It was wrong. Thank you for sharing what you can, when you are ready.

Grief During the Holidays

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It is "that" time of year again. The daylight fades quickly, the weather is noticeably colder and seemingly overnight stores have turned into variations of Santa's workshop. For many people, the months of November, December and January are a festive time to celebrate holidays with those they love. The carols, parties and gift-giving atmosphere create a wonderful opportunity to express gratitude and reflect on the fullness of another year.

However, this is not true for everyone. Many people find these months to be a particularly painful season. Instead of being a time of peace on earth, some find themselves experiencing grief, anger or isolation, not to mention the stress that often accompanies Western holiday traditions.

Some of my clients dread this time of year because it ushers in memories of loved ones who have died. Whether it is the first holiday spent without someone or the thirty-first, people may often find themselves thinking about the person who is gone, the bittersweet memories of past celebrations and what it was like at the end of the loved one's life. If there were unresolved issues in the relationship or if the death was unexpected, there can also be additional levels of complexity in the grief. Instead of being a happy time, the holidays are an anniversary of loss and sad endings.

Being surrounded by images, customs and sounds of celebration can also be difficult for people who are struggling with strained relationships. This can take a variety of forms: the person who just broke-up with a romantic partner; the parent who is struggling with an angry child; the adult trying to ignore the memories of abuse that happened every year at this time; or the person unable to be with the rest of the family during the holidays because of work, physical distance or low funds. The holidays can be a disheartening reminder that, for whatever reason, someone is living without meaningful connections.

If the end-of-year holidays are a difficult time for you, know that you are not alone. A survey conducted by Healthline in 2015 found that over sixty percent of respondents experienced their stress to be "very or somewhat" high during the holidays. Only ten percent of people reported feeling no stress at all during this time.

What can you do to help yourself get through and maybe even enjoy this time of year? First and foremost, be kind to yourself. Grief, loneliness and isolation are very real experiences and are heavy to hold. You are not a bad person for not being happy during the holidays just because the popular societal narrative tells you that is how you should feel.

Second, find ways to honor the people, relationships and customs that are important to you. Whether that means setting out a picture of a loved one who made the holidays special or starting a new tradition that honors everything you have survived, create a moment that celebrates your lived experience during this season.

Third, connect with people you enjoy being with who care about you as much as possible. You do not need to do a holiday type of activity. Grab a cup of coffee, go rock climbing, send someone a letter expressing gratitude for who they are in your life. If you do not have someone in your life to connect with, try attending a community event that sounds fun to you or finding a local non-profit to volunteer with during a holiday. 

Though the holidays are not always the happiest time of the year, you can make this season into what you would like and need it to be. Taking good care of yourself is reason enough to celebrate.