How does Spirituality Fit into Mental Health?

On our ongoing journey to establish and maintain good mental health, part of that wheel that is ideally balanced, is the factor of spiritual practices.  For some this may mean religious practices, for others nature based practices, and still others ritualistic practices.  Spirituality is not one thing to all, but can benefit all if taken in the dynamic that fits that individual.  It can be defined in part as that journey or search for harmony, hope, or wholeness or an understanding that life is about more than material things.

Photo by Sadaham Yathra

Photo by Sadaham Yathra

Today, instead of providing statistics and facts, I’d like to relay to you personal experiences.  I have been blessed to work with many people each year, and each year is one of learning, growth, and new experiences.  Some of those experiences include watching individuals find their own strength and growth.  It frankly never ceases to amaze me to see the impact spiritual practices have on my clients and people I know.  Hearing the stories of spiritual influence is like hearing of miracles.  When we hear of miracles however, they are often stories told and retold.  I am lucky enough to hear them first hand from those whose lives have been changed by them.

I work with people from many walks of life, but because of who I am and the clients I attract, they tend to be strong, successful, admirable people.  To hear a soldier speak of spiritual influence are some of the most moving experiences I’ve had.  When I hear stories of people who were struggling with mental illness and lives of horrific trauma who have found faith and turned their entire lives around, I can’t help but know that this is evidence of the impact of spirituality on mental health.  I have worked with teens who, by all accounts, should have been following very different paths, who have found the strength and determination to get good grades, go to college, and succeed in life and attribute this change to faith.  I have seen soldiers go from trauma to faith and change their lives as well.

Now my office is not affiliated with any church or religion, but I would be remiss if I didn’t address the impact of spirituality on mental health.  It is as much a part of good mental health as exercise, social connection, and good nutrition.  Perhaps someday I will provide for you facts and statistics on the advantages, but for today, I will leave you with this.  I have seen and heard of dramatic change and improved mental health through a spiritual connection and encourage everyone to find their own fit and form of connection.  There are endless ways and avenues, and I have faith that those who search will find.

PTSD Awareness

I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer.  I guess I got a little carried away with summer and missed June 27, PTSD Awareness Day, but wanted to include this regardless.  I know, when the lazy days of summer arrive, PTSD is perhaps the last thing we want to think about.  However, some of us are not so lucky and live with the symptoms every day regardless of weather, time of the year, or time of the day.  And when in the clutches of PTSD, every day can be cold and dark.  Luckily, there is hope and there is help.

So let’s back up just a bit.  While most everyone today has heard of PTSD, it might be helpful to quickly go over some of the symptoms.  So there are those symptoms that “intrude” like dreams, flashbacks (reliving), and strong physical or emotional reactions that come with reminders of the event.  The there are those symptoms that “avoid,” such as avoiding talking about it, remembering it, being where it happened, etc, but also not being able to remember parts or all of the event.  There are also those symptoms like being jumpy, irritable, angry, and unable to sleep or being unable to concentrate.  If you’ve never experienced this, it might be hard to imagine, but I’m sure if you could, you would understand how difficult life would be with those symptoms.

But, as I mentioned, there is help.  Not only can you engage in therapy, there are different techniques with regard to life such as exercise, nutrition, supplements, herbs, and meditation to name a few.  I know, those don’t sound like they would help, and they are not the only things someone could do.  But they do help and combining those with therapy and techniques like Emotional Freedom Technique can provide relief and help the survivor find a better life for themselves.  Having been there, I can say that none of these interventions work overnight, but for those determined to improve their life, practicing these interventions on a daily basis can definitely move you, step by step, into a better place.  Please explore this website further for more PTSD assistance.

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Walk and Talk Therapy

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Walk and Talk…

Let’s shake things up a bit

Walk and talk therapy.  What the heck is it?  Well, it is just what it sounds like.  We walk as we talk for your therapy session.  Research shows that exercise is great for both your physical health and your mental health.  It has been shown to help reduce anxiety and depression, and rhythmic movement can aid in the self-discovery process.    Of course, the endorphins released and the improved blood flow and oxygen to the brain are added benefits to the process as well.  In addition, when you are trying to work through a difficult situation, sometimes it is easier walking side by side with someone instead of in a traditional face to face posture.  I like to say it helps us avoid that “bug under a microscope” feeling. 

Walk and talk therapy allows you space to think and process what you are feeling. It also encourages you to be more present.  After all, when you are slouched in a chair, it is easy to disconnect with your surroundings and focus only on problems.  When you are actively moving and walking, you have to focus on your body and movement making you focus on being present.

During nice weather, walking outside is wonderful and this is definitely an option.  There is something about being in nature that is healing.  However, we live in Montana where that isn’t always possible or desired.  So how do we incorporate this wonderful release of endorphins in our sessions during inclement weather at Solutions?  We have installed two treadmills inside so you and the therapist can each set your own pace, you can enjoy the outdoor view, and you can enjoy your therapy session while experiencing the added benefits of activity.  In addition, if you are uncomfortable walking around town for confidentiality purposes, you can remain in the office the entire time.  If you are reading this somewhere other than locally and find this idea interesting, just let your therapist know about it.  Perhaps they would like to get out and get moving just as much as we do.

Exercise CAN work for YOU!

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Yes, I know, I mentioned physical activity already this month.  But this facet of mental health deserves a bit more exploration.  Research shows that exercise can be more effective than antidepressants. It can help fight depression, anxiety, stress, PTSD, and ADHD.  It releases endorphins, improves blood flow, fights inflammation, and provides a mental break from those negative tapes you may play over and over. Not only that, but if your sleep patterns are less than optimal, exercise can help improve them.  It can help your concentration and even help build new brain cells and reduce mental decline.  It can give you better self-esteem and more energy and it can help you develop better resilience. 

What is resilience?  It is that thing that helps you to get through the day, stress, or hard times without getting sick, turning to drugs or alcohol or other addictions, or struggling as hard. 

But maybe you don’t even want to get out of bed, let alone exercise.  And ideally you should exercise 30 minutes a day five days per week.  That can be overwhelming!  But here’s the deal.  You don’t have to do 30 minutes straight.  You can do ten or fifteen minutes at a time.  Or, you can even get all of your “prescribed” exercise on the weekends.  Surprisingly, that works too.  So, let’s break this down.  Yes, you can certainly join a gym; but you don’t have to.  You can be creative.

When do you have the most energy during the day?  Are you energized first thing in the morning?  Just before lunch?  Right after work?  Think about it.  This would be the best time to add in exercise.  But let’s assume that you have a busy schedule.  That isn’t hard to imagine for most of us.  It is May, and we all have things to do, but think about it, gardening is exercise.  You can garden and it provides a double duty; getting your exercise and creating a beautiful yard. 

You can also take the dog for a walk, head to the beach to swim, or canoe.  Okay, I forgot, you are too busy for summertime activities.  So park farther away from the store so you add steps to your day.  Use the stairs instead of the elevator.  Stretch at your desk every hour or so.  The possibilities to be active are endless and the very act of being creative to find those ways can help your sense of well being.

 So now that spring is here, even in Montana, get out, get moving, and enjoy!

Moving is Therapeutic!

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So May is Mental Health Month.  It is also National Physical Fitness and Sports Month.  It seems only fitting to explore how physical activity helps our mental health.  While we are all aware that physical activity affects our weight, it also helps prevent things such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other physical ailments.  But did you know that it affects brain health as well?

Exercise increases endorphins.  Those are those “feel good” things that increase pleasure.  Serotonin increases with exercise.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects appetites, sleep, and mood.  A lesser known effect is the improvement of the creation of protein that protects and created nerve cells in the brain helping to reduce depression like symptoms.  It increases the production of dopamine, which is part of our reward system and GABA which affects emotions and clear thinking.

Did you know that exercise can be as good as therapy for reducing depressive and anxious symptoms?  And even ten minutes at a time can make an impact.  You can walk, lift weights, dance, play sports, do yoga, hike, or a myriad of other things.  Basically, get moving! 

Find what makes you happy.  Cross country skiing, ice skating, downhill skiing, and skijoring are all fun activities in the winter here in Montana.  But what about a snow ball fight?  How about walking your dog?  Or if indoor activities are more your style, go dancing, swim at the local indoor pool, hit a treadmill, do yoga, or walk in the mall.  You don’t have to “exercise” to have the benefits of moving, just get out there and have fun.  Montana is filled with wonderful places to hike, run, and explore.  Perhaps try geocaching, rowing, rollerblading or skateboarding in the summer.  Hit the outdoor pools and swim or the water park for a change of pace.  The options are virtually endless.

Transform Your Stress Into a Positive!

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April is Stress Awareness Month.  So what the heck is stress? According to the American Institute of Stress, stress is defined as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”  Stress, though we all seem to know what it is, tends to be indefinable.  Most people understand and agree that there are good kinds of stress.  Those might be the rush of being on stage when one loves it, the stress one adds to their body when they train for an athletic event, or the last push in a race.  Those same stressors that are “good” for one person, however, might be “bad” for another.  We’ve all been in employment scenarios where some people think the boss is amazing, while other’s just can’t stand them and are “stressed out” by their management style. 

While stress can be everywhere, and can be “good” or “bad,” the way we deal with that stress is going to make the difference in our lives.  For example, when the teen is forced to engage in gym class, if they embrace the challenge, that attitude transforms the “stress” dramatically.  When an employee sees the boss as a lesson in interpersonal dynamics instead of a necessary evil to be endured, they can transform their work experience.  Likewise, if that employee can see the situation as a cue to improve in order to find a more fitting position or place of employment, they can use the “bad” situation as “good” motivation to move forward in their life. 

Of course, it isn’t only attitude and outlook that can help manage stress.  If you think about good shock absorbers on a car, it isn’t necessarily the car that makes the bumps in the road less jarring.  It is one facet of the car that makes quite a bit of difference.  There are so many facets of good mental health that there are many options where improvements made can help modify stress.  Good nutrition, exercise, meditation, time in nature, and embracing a healthy social circle can all be tools that can help us manage stress.  Embrace life, embrace the myriad of tools for good mental health, and your “stress” can become motivation, excitement, and challenges.

It's Time to Take a Breather!

One of the jokes common in the Solutions office is “have you practiced breathing?” to which you can imagine the replies by teens.  And we do joke about it because it is funny, and let’s face it, if therapy is funny, that makes it so much more fun.  But on a serious note, breathing can be a very effective tool with regards to mental health and more specifically, anxiety and PTSD.  Clients will sometimes realize that they hold their breath and I’ve known some who do it regularly and don’t even notice.  Anyone in the room can hear the “gasp,” which is actually them exhaling, but it has become such a habit, that the person doing it doesn’t even realize.  When we can learn different breathing exercises, we can learn to not only relax, but also to raise our energy.

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Breathing techniques are used in yoga, meditation, biofeedback, and plain old “breathing exercises.”  One technique I was recently introduced to is breathing in one nostril and out the other, then switching.  This technique is used to stimulate one side of the brain, the other, or both to increase activity.  It can be used to balance both sides of the brain as well. 

Counting our breaths, breathing in on a count of x and out on a count of x, focusing on the feeling of the breath, and visualizing different ways of breathing are all researched modes of breathing that can affect how we feel.  Breathing exercises have been proven to decrease symptoms of mental health issues.

Okay, so there is the info that it’s good for you, but what the heck should you do?  One of the techniques Solutions Counseling and Wellness Center uses is Heartbreathing by HeartMath, our biofeedback program.  Here it is in a nutshell. 

Step one, focus on the area of your chest where your heart is. 

Step two, imagine that you are breathing in and out of your heart and slow your breathing slightly while keeping it at a comfortable pace. 

Step three, focus on a thought or emotion of joy. 

Do this for a couple of minutes and assess how you feel.  While this may seem simplistic, and is, it can be a tool that can be used at any time to relax the mind and body.  

The Healing Effects of Touch Therapy

With the gradual close of a long dark winter, many of us are hoping to see the return of flowers, birds, green grass, and are anxiously anticipating picnics and other outdoor activities.  In Montana, we still have some time before those things fully arrive, but that doesn’t stop us from anticipating them. 

Even though this is a month where we might want to get outside, it is still cold and although the calendar says it is Spring, Montana doesn’t easily let go of Winter.  One of the things you can do for yourself any time of the year, is engage in touch therapy.  It is said that “the body remembers” and this is the foundation of many touch therapies within the psychotherapy field. 

Humans require touch to thrive.  While it is generally accepted that massage helps heal aching muscles, massage also releases endorphins, helps us detoxify, improves lymph and blood circulation, and even helps respiration.  So why does a psychotherapist care about this?  Well, regardless of how much I would like to imagine that we can just work with a brain without a body, or emotions without physical interference, the fact is that the brain and body are interactive.  So, when massage reduces lactic acid buildup, it also chemically reduces anxiety.  And it is easy to imagine that if pain is reduced, mood is affected.

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There are many types of touch therapy.  Massage is one, but there are many types of massage as well.  There is Acupuncture, Acupressure, Cranial Sacral, Cranial Electrical Stimulation, Reflexology, and others.  Each of these have different modalities, teachings, and histories and practitioners will engage in different training to become proficient.  We can engage in these forms of therapy in a myriad of ways from asking our significant other for a back rub or foot massage, to researching professional practitioners and making regular appointments for treatment.  It can even be as simple as a hug or holding hands.  But if you have been waiting for permission to indulge, you have permission now.  Give yourself a foot or hand massage, give one to someone special, or head to the professional of your choice for acupuncture therapy, reflexology, or a massage, and do something nice for yourself while improving your physical and mental health this month. 

Recognizing Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders Awareness Week is the last week of February.   Eating disorders are actually life threatening illnesses that impact millions of people every year in the US.  There are a number of factors that contribute to eating disorders.  There are psychological factors such as low self-esteem, lack of control in life, depression, anxiety, and even loneliness to name a few.  There are also interpersonal factors such as troubled personal relationships, bullying based on size or weight, and a history of abuse.  Social factors such as the cultural pressure of placing value on having the “perfect body” can contribute  And there is research into biological factors such as brain imbalances that control hunger, appetite, and digestion.

Unfortunately, when it comes to brain imbalances, in addition to the initial issue, the lack of nutrition the person is absorbing as the eating disorder develops exacerbates the condition.  Nutrition can be key in maintaining good mental health so when someone is struggling emotionally, then adds unhealthy dietary practices, this can have a snowballing effect. 

Some warning signs to look for are things like constantly adhering to a special diet regardless of weight, hoarding food, binging, habitual trips to the bathroom immediately after eating, compulsive exercise, consuming laxatives or diet pills, or stimulants either prescription or illicit.  There can also be a withdrawal from friends and family, avoidance of meals or events with food involved, preoccupation with one’s appearance, and obsessing over calories eaten and burned.  These can all indicate that you, your friend, or loved one may need help.

How can you help you ask?  It seems cliché; however, it really is important to seek professional help from someone with training and experience with eating disorders.  There are school counselors, EAP opportunities, as well as internet searches to find qualified professionals. 

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Food, Glorious Food!

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Food.  Why would a psychotherapist be writing about food?  Just as food nourishes our bodies, it also nourishes our brains.  It contains vitamins, minerals, fats, antioxidants, provides energy, and can alter consciousness (think alcoholic drinks or sugar).  The thing to keep in mind is that we are all different so there is no perfect diet for all of us, but there are perfect diets for each of us.  This means that while organic food is healthier for all of us, there are also differences in our genetic makeup requiring different dietary requirements for different individuals.  This means that while one of us may feel great on a keto diet, another might feel wonderful being vegetarian.  One might be better with higher protein and lower fat while another might do better with higher fat. 

Let’s take a moment though to review the commonalities.  We are biological beings and evolved on natural foods.  That means we didn’t evolve on preservative, hormones, pesticides, and refined foods.  We require clean, healthy, chemical free nutrients to be at our healthiest, physically, emotionally, and mentally.  In addition, if we eat it, we need optimum digestion to ensure we absorb and utilize those nutrients.  So, get rid of the processed foods that are stripped of nutrients, add in good, whole, healthy organic foods, and you are on your way to better health.  But there is more to eating than what you eat.

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Food preparation in itself is healthy and should be done mindfully.  Historically, food preparation was a daily ritual that brought fresh food to the table for the family.  Rituals have been found to use both right and left-brain hemispheres and improve mental health.  Once the preparation ritual is complete, the ritual of sharing a meal should begin.  The social component of eating together, in addition to the mindfulness of experiencing good food are all health contributing.  Food should be eaten slowly to allow the digestive process to begin in the mouth.  Cramming our meals at our desks or in front of the tv or computer are not healthy ways of eating.

Choosing foods from the rainbow of colors ensures more complete nutrition as does including fermented foods, fresh foods and variety. Organic meats, eggs, healthy fats, berries, and bitter greens are all great foods to support healthy moods.  A variety of spices such as turmeric, ginger, and garlic support wonderful mental health.  Saturated fats such as organic grass-fed butter can help the body absorb vitamins.  Eating regularly can help avoid a drop in blood sugar which can result in poor mood reactions such as anxiety, irritability, nervousness, and other symptoms.

 While a mere blog post cannot provide much information regarding the influence of food on mental health, I hope that this has at least provided “food for thought” with regard to the topic and “whet your appetite” to learn more.  Yes, I’m sorry, I just couldn’t resist going there.

Introduction to Complimentary Facets of Mental Health

January is Mental Wellness Month.  So I thought, being a month dedicated the mental health, and a new year, I would take this time to look at what we should look at if we want to maintain good mental health.  Anyone who has met me or worked with Solutions Counseling and Wellness Center knows that I don’t believe that counseling is THE KEY to good mental health.  Obviously, since I chose to do that for a career, I believe it can be very helpful.  However, there are many things that add up to create and maintain good mental health.  These are some of them.

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Sleep.  We all know that we work better when we get enough sleep.  Did you know however, that our bodies are programmed to be awake when it is light and sleep when it is dark?  For those of us in Montana, that means that we would sleep much more in the winter than the summer.  It also means that those who work night shifts, swing shifts, or rotating shifts are actually adding to their stress levels by forcing their bodies to work on that schedule.

Relationships.  We are social and many say “tribal” creatures.  We require social interaction both with people and other animals.  Emotional Support Animals are becoming more and more prevalent because they actually help mitigate depression and anxiety by their very presence in our lives.  Those with larger support and social networks tend to be healthier people with regard to their mental health.

Food.  The food we eat can greatly modify our mental health.  Did you know that common pesticides when eaten with our food kills the microbes that digest your food and support your good mental health?  I strongly encourage all of my clients to eat organic food as much as possible.  In addition, a healthy balanced diet provides the nutrients needed to help our brains work properly.

Supplements and Herbs.  There are natural supplements easily obtained that work for many as well or better than prescription medications for anxiety, depression, and PTSD.  These can be very cost effective as well as health supporting.  Many of them support functions other than brain health and your body may be lacking them.  By using supplements and herbs, you can provide the support your body needs and decrease or eliminate these symptoms.

Detoxification.  Did you know that some people don’t detoxify as well as others?  And toxins can very much affect not only your moods, but the very way you think.  Sweating is a wonderful way of removing toxins, but if you don’t clean the toxins off your body with a non-toxic cleansing agent, you can reabsorb them through your skin.

Hormones.  Seriously, who hasn’t heard someone say “she is just being hormonal” or something similar?  We all know about PMS and Menopause for women, but those well-known hormonal imbalances are not the only ones we deal with.  And they affect men just as much as women.  Unfortunately, with much of our meat supply being provided by giving the animals growth hormone to make them grow, our population is “taking” hormones without even thinking.

Exercise.  Some say that exercise is the best anti-depressant there is.  Our bodies were made to move.  Movement encourages proper function of our bodies in so many ways.  It improves blood flow and encourages more oxygen to get to our organs and brains.  It releases endorphins which are our “feel good” messengers.

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Massage and Body Work.  Many people know that if a baby does not have human contact, they can die.  Did you realize though that contact helps human health?  Massage for example, helps tissues heal and flex but also helps release endorphins, remove toxins, and improve our mental health.

Breath.  Breathing seems simple enough, but different breathing techniques can change our moods, outlook, creativity, and energy levels.  Slow breathing can help with anxiety.  Breathing through one or the other nostril can affect brain use. 

Spirituality.  Spirituality, faith, and ritual have affected humans probably for as long as humans have existed.  This doesn’t necessarily mean going to church, although it can.  There are countless spiritual practices all over the world.  Finding one that you can embrace can ensure better mental health.

Meditation.  I am the first one to say that I am not a natural meditator.  I admire those that are.  But I do know that meditation can help people in endless ways. It is a practice that in my opinion is more important now than ever in history due to our busy lives.  Those days of walking a field behind a horse-pulled plow are long gone for most of us and with them those quiet hours of meditative time.

Genetic.  Integrative Medicine is learning that our genetics don’t have to dictate the course of our health.  We can encourage or suppress certain genetic predispositions by embracing health habits that either encourage or suppress that gene expression.  For example, if you are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s, you can take steps to maintain your brain health and avoid the expression of it.

As this year begins, you may want to start thinking about those small modifications you can make in your life that can make major changes to your mental health.  In the following months, we will provide further information on each of these topics with practical information on how you can do just that.

Questions to Ask a Therapist Before You Schedule Your First Appointment

Questions to Ask a Therapist Before You Schedule Your First Appointment

Finding the right therapist (counselor) makes all the difference.  Everyone has a different style and different parameters they work within.  For example, some therapists take insurance and some don't.  Some have evening hours, some work with children, some work with specific types of diagnoses, and some work virtually.  All of these differences ensure there is a therapist out there to fit just about everyone, but it is important that you know who you are scheduling with. 

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Very often people don't seek out therapy as soon as something goes wrong or they encounter a trauma.  Some people wait years.  You struggle and perhaps talk with friends, perhaps keep it all to yourself.  You try to use your coping skills, perhaps buy a book or two, but you are a Montanan.  You are independent.  You try to "get it together."  Only when nothing else works do you reach out to see if therapy might help.

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