Archive - November 2019

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Busting Stress for Mental Health
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Volunteer!

Busting Stress for Mental Health

By: Julie Bomengen

Much of my work as a mental health counselor has focused on how to help my clients identify the root sources of their distress and to learn adaptive and effective means for managing these stressors in their lives. According to a 2017 report issued by the American Psychological Association (APA), “nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) say the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, slightly more than perennial stressors like money (62 percent) and work (61 percent).” Since I don’t have a magic wand to wave to make these and many other of my clients’ stressors disappear altogether, I focus instead on how to help them understand the detrimental impact of stress on their overall health and wellness and look at small, yet meaningful steps they can take every day to help mitigate its impact on their lives. Because stress management is such a critical component of mental health, it is one of the Pillars that I will be discussing in today’s post.

As humans, we have evolved to manage short-term bursts of stress (ie: public speaking, taking an exam, competing in an event, etc.). What we are less-equipped to deal with is the longer-term nature of elevated stress that is now a common occurrence in our modern societies. When stress levels are high or chronic, the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, increase which can interfere with memory and learning, compromise immune function, increase blood pressure, and lead to an infinite number of physical health issues, as well as contribute to mood swings, depression, and anxiety disorders. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur with both short-term and long-term exposure to traumatic or stressful events and can alter neurotransmitters, hormones, and brain structures such as the amygdala, which processes our fear response. Please note there will be a more extensive post in the future related to the treatment of trauma.

Regardless of its origin, it is always important to help empower people to know how to identify and effectively respond to how they are experiencing stress in their lives. Here are some points that I work with my clients on:

● Make a list of stressors in your life and prioritize the top 3 you’d like to address first. Taking actionable steps towards root cause resolution is an integral part of your work as all other stress management strategies will otherwise remain band aid solutions. For example: if you know that you are stressed about test-taking, seek out help in how to feel more comfortable with this task; if you are stressed in social situations or public settings, consider contacting a local counselor to learn about social anxiety and how to better understand its origin and how to work through it.

● Learn about how useful taking slow, deep and intentional breaths can be. We hear it all the time, “Take a breath – Just relax!” As annoying as it may be to hear this from others in the moment of our distress, there truly is something to this idea. When we take longer, slower breaths from our bellies (diaphragmatic breathing), we are taking in more oxygen than when we breath in a more shallow way from our chests. Physiologically speaking, this increase in oxygen sends a message of safety and relaxation to the brain and body, allowing a feeling of ease to occur as the stressful feelings decrease. This 15-minute audio recording offers a wonderful educational overview on how breath can be a mediator to help us manage stress and learn to relax.

mental health tips to combat stress

● Learning about meditation or mindfulness techniques will help you pay attention to the moment, increase feelings of calm and focus, reduce jumbled anxious thoughts, as well as symptoms of depression and pain, and increase mental clarity and memory. Meditation extends the space between stimulus and response, helping us choose to respond versus react in any given situation (think about how helpful this will be with kids, partners, parents, colleagues, neighbors, the person in traffic, friends, etc.). I recommend “bookending” your day with a 10-minute meditation in the morning to set the stage for your day and 10 minutes at night to help you decompress and unwind for the day, setting yourself up for a truly restful, restorative night of sleeping – another essential component for reducing stress!

● Research various Meditation Apps that can be used easily from your phone or computer: Insight Timer, Breathe, Calm, and Headspace are a few I often recommend. They are easy to use and many of them are free. I have one client who sets a chime on her phone to go off every 30 minutes at which time she does a 2-minute mini-breathwork meditation. She finds this regular practice an essential component of how she remains calm and responsive (versus reactive) throughout her day. Also, check out this 15-minute segment on meditation.

● For more in-depth mindfulness training, check out Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR was developed by clinical psychologist Jon-Kabat Zinn to cultivate greater awareness of the ways unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can undermine emotional, physical, and spiritual health. It has been studied extensively at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center for over 30 years, and is clinically proven to relieve chronic pain and illness.

● Consider trying yoga or tai chi, getting regular therapeutic massages, body-centered psychotherapy, enjoying daily walks in nature, connecting with people you enjoy and can relax with on a regular basis, laughing more, and working to find joy in simple pleasures and moments throughout each day.

● Remember that nutrient deficiencies and imbalances put a physiological strain on the body which adversely affects the way we think and feel. These physiological stressors can manifest as anxiety, nervousness, depression and anger. Remembering the connections between Food and Mood is a core component of stress management as research has proven that you cannot separate mental health from physical health. When the body is stressed, our emotional and mental wellbeing may be compromised. Eat and drink in ways that nourish the body and brain and produce endorphins and neurotransmitters that help us better cope with the stressors of daily life.

● Be aware of the mindset you bring to each day, remembering that this world doesn’t owe you happiness and peace. Become more conscious of your contribution to the stress you are experiencing and learn to tease apart what is worth being worried about and what has become habituated. Remembering that there is an impermanence with everything helps us understand that even our difficulties are passing through. This perspective can help us with cultivating contentment and feeling gratitude for what is instead of focusing on what is not. This, in turn, will help reduce some degree of stress. Consider this from poet Mary Oliver, “Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up. And took my old body out into the morning and sang.”

● Cultivate contentment and gratitude as a way to gain perspective on your stress. From The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, the 8 Pillars of Joy are discussed: 4 Qualities of the Mind (Perspective, Humility, Humor and Acceptance) and 4 Qualities of the Heart (Forgiveness, Gratitude, Compassion and Generosity). I’ve chosen a few quotes from the book, which I highly recommend:

“Grateful people report more positive emotions, more vitality and optimism and greater life satisfaction as well as lower levels of stress and depression.”

“Scientists have long known that our brains have evolved with a negative bias. It was no doubt advantageous for our survival to focus on what was wrong or dangerous. Gratitude cuts across this default mode of the mind. It allows us to see what is good and right and not just what is bad and wrong.”

“There is always the choice available to us and an ability (if we choose it) to reframe any given situation more positively — With our Mind we create our World.”

By virtue of being human, some degree of stress is inevitable but chronic stress that undermines your mental health is not. Pick one bullet point from the list above and get started on your way to reducing the impact of stress on your emotional and mental well-being. Lastly, consider the following short mindful meditation from Nobel Prize winner, monk, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, Being Peace:

“Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”

Additional resources to further your education and information:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-may-ease-anxiety-mental-stress-201401086967

https://www.nami.org/find-support/living-with-a-mental-health-condition/managing-stress

https://www.mqmentalhealth.org/posts/stress-and-mental-health

https://chriskresser.com/your-gut-microbiome-and-anxiety-whats-the-connection

http://www.buddhanet.net/audio-meditation.htm

https://www.soundersleep.com/


Julie Bomengen is a Vermont Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC) with 22 years of experience in the field of mental health. Julie is also a Nutritional Therapy Consultant (NTC), a certification of the Nutritional Therapy Association. She lives, works and plays in Lamoille County.

Volunteer!

By: Dan Regan

To volunteer is to do something willingly, without compulsion or generally without compensation, for someone or something. In volunteering, the focus, rightly, is beyond oneself. The goal is to serve others, helping them accomplish their desired ends. Volunteers serve on fire crews and rescue squads, mentor youth, serve on non-profit boards in the arts and family services, build Habitat houses, deliver meals to seniors, help govern our towns and schools, and deliver meals to seniors. These forms of volunteerism, and countless others, contribute to the health of our communities and help make the world a better place. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service’s 2015 report, a third of Vermont’s residents volunteer, contributing over 20 million hours of service annually, ranking the state eighth among the 50 states and Washington, D.C.

The interesting thing I want to focus on, for purposes of this Live Well Lamoille blog post, is that volunteering also benefits the volunteer and may contribute significantly to his or her own wellbeing. Research affirms the positive connection between volunteering and the physical and emotional health of those who participate. But the connections are sometimes hard to tease out. After all it’s possible that healthier people may volunteer, without their volunteer activities exerting a real impact upon their wellbeing. With that in mind, here I will present only a few findings that come from studies (most from the early 2000s) that can truly claim the effect of volunteerism on volunteers:

  • Older adults who gave social support to others had lower rates of mortality than those who did not, even when controlling for socioeconomic status, education, marital status, age, gender, and ethnicity, according to a large survey.
  • An over-time study of older married adults found that those individuals who reported providing support to friends, relatives, and neighbors had lower rates of mortality five years later than those who had not reported providing support.
  • Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose, especially for those who experience a major change of identity, such as retiring or becoming an empty-nest parent.
  • Volunteering leads to lower rates of depression for older adults, even when controlling for other forms of social interaction.
  • Individuals suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for other chronic pain sufferers.
  • According to a Carnegie-Mellon University study (2013), “many people [found] volunteer work to be helpful with respect to stress reduction,” and of course stress is very strongly linked to health outcomes. The same study also posited a connection between volunteering and lowered blood pressure, and thus a reduced risk of hypertension.

Thankfully, our friends and neighbors offer their services voluntarily, with others—not themselves—uppermost in mind, and our communities are the better for it. But the connection—between volunteer service and the wellbeing of volunteers—may be perceived without being articulated. In fact that connection may help make sense of the seeming paradox in the way the US has historically been described: as both an intensely altruistic as well as individualistic nation.

To give is, truly, to receive. So do yourself a good deed and volunteer to help others!


Dan Regan, a sociologist, is the former dean of academic affairs at Johnson State College and continues to work part-time for Northern Vermont University.