Holiday stress? This year, strive for simple celebration

Hark all you women who are feeling the stress of the holidays: You are not alone, and you need to take your stress seriously!

While men and women both feel demands this time of year, women are more likely to report higher levels of stress.

Women typically spend more time organizing for family gatherings, decorating, shopping, wrapping and preparing food. While stress should never go unmanaged, these additional pressures over the holidays can lead some women to experience a life-threatening heart problem, according to Dr. Karla Kurrelmeyer, a cardiologist with Houston Methodist Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Center.

The condition is known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy and it is most common among women in their late 50s to mid-70s. It occurs when a short period of intense stress is compounded by trauma, such as a death in the family, a car accident or financial loss. The high levels of stress hormones weaken the heart’s ability to pump. Anyone who develops chest pains or shortness of breath after a period of emotional or physical stress should seek medical attention.

While most of us may not encounter such a severe situation, the fact is stress-relief should be a high priority for everyone. Getting exercise, getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, planning ahead and simply taking a break are all sound ways to lower stress.

But with big holiday celebrations just days away, these suggestions may seem impossible.

It may feel like the only way to escape stress is to cancel Christmas.

Fortunately, it is not always necessary to go that extreme.

Some changes here and there can bring balance and even joy to your holiday. First, think about what is most important to you and then make a reasonable goal. Give yourself permission to do less and, instead, focus on the people and experiences that are most meaningful. Finally, accept that many things lie beyond your control.

Remind yourself that you don’t have to solve every problem, and not all problems are yours to solve.

Personally, I learned to enjoy a simpler holiday by first letting go of “Christmas past”—you know, trying to do things the way my mother used to do it. The experiences she created were wonderful, but life today is not the same. It is not reasonable for for me to re-create the past.

I also began to ease up on my expectations. For example, I started to open up my home to guests even when things weren’t in perfect order. I didn’t want to miss out on a visit with dear friends just because I thought someone might stumble across a dirty sock or a pile of unwashed dishes.

Last year around this time, I had a more on my plate than usual. I had just moved and started a new position at work. I was worried about money and crunched for time. As Christmas inched closer, I settled into a survival plan. I did not decorate cookies. I did not host a big party. I decorated my home using the contents of just one box and set up a 4-foot artificial tree, pre-lit. I took advantage of online shopping, gift cards and gift bags. I sent out zero Christmas cards and instead opted to send out New Year’s cards a month later.

And the good news is: it was a great Christmas. I can vividly remember the feeling of my teenage son’s head leaning on my shoulder as we watched a holiday movie, a fire glowing in the fireplace, lights twinkling in the window. I don’t remember what I bought him as a gift or what he gave me. But I do know we felt warm, close and content. It is a moment that will always remind me to never underestimate the value of a simple celebration.

The column Mind Matters is a regular column of the  Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal. Re-printed by permission.

Pamela Szalay is the Director of Community Education at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc. in Lockport, NY and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.


Gratitude can change the world

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Research has shown that gratitude affects us in very real and significant ways.  Here are some things you can do to start developing an attitude of gratitude:

  1. Look for and notice the good things right around you.
  2. Be thankful for the little things.
  3. Write down what you are thankful for.
  4. Share your gratitude with others – tell people what you appreciate about them!
  5. Build a habit of gratitude –  reflect on, write down or share your gratitude with someone every day.

For more about the benefits of gratitude and how to cultivate it, click here.

The beautiful thing about gratitude is that it easily becomes so much more than a thought or feeling. When we become more grateful, we change and others notice. We feel differently, we talk differently and we treat others better. It seems like the world becomes a better place and, in fact, it does—thanks to gratitude.

-Excerpt from Healing Gratitude by Pamela Szalay



Healing Gratitude

when we become more grateful

Celebrating Thanksgiving is a good for you. In fact, being thankful is connected to higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction, better physical health and relationships. All in all, those are some pretty compelling reasons to celebrate Thanksgiving all year round. So this year, give thanks like you mean it!

when we become more gratefulFirst, more grateful people are less likely to be depressed. They experience greater optimism, joy, pleasure and enthusiasm. Gratitude increases mental strength and resilience, even providing protection against trauma. Among Vietnam War veterans, rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder were lower for those who had higher levels of gratitude.

Grateful people also tend to engage in more positive interactions with others. They are more helpful and kind, exhibit less aggressive behavior and are less resentful of others’ successes. It is not difficult to see, then, how gratitude can lead to stronger personal relationships—which in itself promotes greater happiness and well-being.

On the physical side gratitude has been shown to help people sleep better and feel less bothered by aches and pains. It is good for the immune system and lowers blood pressure. It makes people more likely to take care of their physical health.

There are several reasons why gratitude can be such a powerful force in your life, especially when attitude is coupled with action. Gratitude allows you to shift your focus from the negative to the positive, no matter how bad things seem at the moment. Gratitude changes you, filling your body with feel-good hormones, and inspires you, helping you convert your good feelings into positive actions with others.

Hopefully by now, you are convinced that you need more gratitude in your life and are motivated to do what it takes to reap the benefits. Here are a few tips.

Focus on the positive. It is not necessary to pretend that negative things never happen. However, research shows that dwelling on the negative aspects of a situation does not improve positive outlook, while dwelling on the positive does. To make a shift toward gratitude, first think about past memories and successes. Then shift to thinking about what is going well now. Finally, imagine what good things might come in the future.

Record it. If you really want to build a reservoir of positive thoughts, write them down. Start a gratitude journal that you can go back and read whenever you need a mood boost.

Start small. There is no need to spend hours every day writing pages of positive thoughts to generate enough gratitude to impact your life. During just one weekly session, list three to five things that you are grateful for. According to the research, you could see a significant positive change in your attitude over the course of just two months.

Build a habit. Once you settle into a routine with a weekly gratitude session, work your way toward developing a consistent “attitude of gratitude.” Award-winning author and licensed psychologist, Dr. Deborah Serani, emphasizes that cultivating gratitude and reflecting on positive experiences on a regular basis plays a key factor in promoting good mental health.

Be authentic. Rather than simply listing things you are supposed to be thankful for, like your health or your family, be sure to identify the things that are most important to you—no matter how unusual or specific. You will have a better outcome if you truly feel thankful about the items on your list. This might mean expressing thanks for a physical therapist’s helpful attitude during a difficult session, even though you are not satisfied with your overall progress.

Share it. Spread the benefits of gratitude by making it a point to thank others who have made a difference in your life. Write a thank you note to someone who once helped you out a long time ago. Call or visit a family member who gave you sound advice. This Thanksgiving, look for opportunities to compliment what people are doing well, from preparing a dish, to telling a story, to managing a group of energetic children.

Go deep. According to gratitude researcher Dr. Robert A. Emmons, Thanksgiving provides an excellent opportunity to move beyond personal gratitude to considering all the benefits we have as a culture. After expressing thanks for the food on our table, we can encourage everyone to pause and reflect how our many freedoms and material advantages are available because of the sacrifices of others.

The beautiful thing about gratitude is that it easily becomes so much more than a thought or feeling. When we become more grateful, we change and others notice. We feel differently, we talk differently and we treat others better. It seems like the world becomes a better place and, in fact, it does—thanks to gratitude.


7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round, by Amy Morin

A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day, by John Tierney

Giving Thanks: The Benefits of Gratitude by Susan Krauss Whitbourne

How Gratitude Combats Depression, by Deborah Serani

In Praise of Gratitude, in Harvard Mental Health Letter

The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier, by Ocean Robbins

The column Mind Matters is a regular column of the  Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal. Re-printed by permission.

Pamela Szalay is the Director of Community Education at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc. in Lockport, NY and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

Mental health workers recognized by MHANYS

2015 MHANYS award winnersLOCKPORT, NY – Two people from the Mental Health Association in Niagara County received recognition by the Mental Health Association of New York State for their outstanding work. Steven Ferguson, director of Peer Services, received the 2015 Staff Leadership Award and M. Patricia Hartmayer received the 2015 Volunteer of the Year Award. Both attended the MHANYS Recognition Dinner in Albany last month.

Cheryl Blacklock, executive director of MHA in Niagara County, nominated Ferguson and Hartmayer.

“I couldn’t think of any two individuals more deserving of this recognition. Pat Hartmayer has been a friend of the MHA for more than 30 years and continues to volunteer for us. Steve Ferguson has taken on additional leadership responsibilities as his job expanded and has done a great job. We’re all very proud of both of them,” Blacklock said.

The Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc. has been serving Niagara County for more than 50 years. They offer many free and low-cost programs that promote mental wellness, provide needed services for those with a mental health diagnosis, and actively work to alleviate the stigma and public misunderstanding of mental illness.

Reprinted from Lockport Union-Sun & Journal 11/20/2015

Are you spending too much time on social media?

Image_3 social mediaThis could be you. You’re at work. You have a few moments free. You reach for your phone to check on the Facebook post you made earlier that day and you get a little rush as you notice there are 15 likes and a couple comments. You think to yourself, “my friends think I’m funny!” You enjoy this moment so much that the rest of the day you keep checking your phone to see if more likes or comments appear.

But when the likes slow down or stop coming, you grow disappointed. You wonder why more people didn’t like your post. Maybe they don’t like you! You start to think about how to get more attention online. You no longer feel happy, but you feel compelled to keep using Facebook.

If this is a familiar experience
then you know about some of the benefits, and potential pitfalls, of using online social networking sites like Facebook. In moderation, social networking offers an opportunity to feel connected with friends and with the world. Yet studies show that we may be happier and healthier without it.

Over the last few years, several studies have emerged linking social media use to poor mental health among children and adults. A 2012 study revealed a connection between online social networking and depression among high school students. The following year, a study concluded that the more time college students spent on Facebook the less happy and satisfied they were. The latest report reveals that children and adolescents who spent two or more hours a day engaging on social networking sites were more likely to report psychological distress and even suicidal thoughts. These are troubling results.

While no causality can be proven, it seems wise for adults and children to limit or reduce the amount of time spent using social media. Instead, they should seek out face-to-face contact or pick up the phone and have a conversation with a friend.

At the same time, it is important to realize the relationship between time on social media and poor mental health could work in the other direction. Researchers suggest that individuals who are already struggling with mental health issues may be more likely to use social media sites. Such individuals may be hoping to satisfy unmet needs such as connecting with and receiving support from others.

In other words, if someone with depression is using social media more than two hours a day, it should be considered that social media is not the cause but a sign of the depression.

This is useful information for parents and other supervising adults who may be monitoring an adolescent’s use of the Internet. If a child seems depressed, limiting access to social media may help but not resolve the underlying problem. It may also be advantageous to seek assistance from a mental health professional.

Frequent users of social media should also be aware of its addictive pull. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is thought to affect over 8 percent of the population. People with IAD crave the dopamine rush they get from interactions on the Internet, including social media sites like Facebook. They become distraught when they are unable to access the Internet, their work or school performance is negatively impacted and their relationships suffer.

While an “addiction to the Internet” might seem like something to joke about, brain scans of people with IAD look very similar to those with addictions to alcohol, cocaine and heroin.

Taken as a whole, there are many reasons for us to take a balanced approach to online social networking. While virtual connections can serve a role in our social lives, we still need face-to-face interactions with people in order to be truly healthy and satisfied.

Originally published as “Social media could impact mental health” on September 20, 2015.  The column Mind Matters is a regular column of the  Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal. Re-printed by permission.

Pamela Szalay is the Director of Community Education at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc. in Lockport, NY and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

Pamela Szalay

Mental Health Summit: Worth Your Time on a Saturday!

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By Dr. Timothy Osberg, Professor of Psychology, Niagara University

We now have nearly 150 participants registered for the “Changing Our Minds: A Mental Health Summit” conference that will take place at the Castellani Museum this Saturday, September 19th from 10 am – 1 pm. We are hoping to “sell out the house” and reach the maximum 200 participants allowed in the CAM main gallery according to the fire code. We all know that mental health problems, among our students and in the broader community, are reaching a critical mass.

If you are thinking that giving up the first part of this Saturday is not worth attending a dry conference on a troubling societal problem that makes you uncomfortable – think again! It will not be that kind of conference as detailed below:

  • NU alum Maryalice Demler (Emcee), President, Fr. James Maher, and State Senator Robert Ortt, a champion of mental health in the Niagara County community, will help open the conference.
  • A dynamic keynote speaker, Eric Weaver, a former Rochester police sergeant, and founder of, Out of the Darkness, will present on overcoming stigma and mental illness.
  • Niagara University Theatre students, directed by Doug Zschiegner, will enact engaging situations that highlight how we need to respond differently to the subtle signs of psychological disorders that those around us might reveal.
  • There will be a panel discussion comprised of key local mental health professionals, from our campus and in the community, as well as peer advocates from the local area.
  • There will be a Resource Fair with key local mental health agencies represented.
  • Live musical entertainment by Nick Reding will be on hand, as will light refreshments (coffee, cookies, brownies, flavored water) during the conference.
  • Stay around and network afterwards, have some pizza for lunch, and make requests to our talented local acoustic guitarist!
  • And, yes, I am presenting at the conference on recognizing the signs of mental illness and supporting someone into the helping system.

If you care about the growing problem of mental health issues at NU and in our community, please consider attending! To register, click here. (Students, staff and faculty of Niagara University can register by emailing me at Also, please forward this email message to people you know, so that we can form a community partnership on this critical problem!

I hope you will consider starting off this Saturday in the tradition of St. Vincent! We can all “Do More” to foster mental health in our community!


“Mental disease is no different than bodily disease and Christianity demands of the humane and powerful to protect, and the skillful to relieve, the one as well as the other.”

~St. Vincent dePaul

Summit will raise awareness about mental health

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In response to growing mental health needs in the community, the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc., is teaming up with Niagara University and Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center to present “Changing Our Minds: A Mental Health Summit”. It is open to the public and is recommended for anyone who wants to be more aware and better prepared to respond to mental illness, both in the workplace and in everyday situations.

The summit will take place on Saturday, September 19, from 10 am to 1pm at Niagara University and the cost is $15 per person.

This compelling and engaging program will include dynamic speakers and presentations, demonstrations, useful training materials and more. Attendees will learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness in those around them, and learn how to respond in a supportive manner in assisting people in accessing the mental health services they need.

Eric Weaver, a retired sergeant with the Rochester Police Department and the founder of Overcoming the Darkness, will be speaking on the importance of overcoming the stigma of mental health. Maryalice Demler, news anchor for WGRZ-TV in Buffalo and an alumna of Niagara University, will serve as the Master of Ceremonies. The event will also feature a resource fair composed of vital local community service agencies, providing an opportunity for attendees to become familiar with the people and programs that support mental health.

Dr. Timothy Osberg, a professor of psychology at Niagara University who will be speaking at the summit, said mental health issues have been growing on campus as well as in the community.

“It is critically important that more people have the willingness and skills to help others in crisis so that fewer tragedies occur,” Dr. Osberg said.

Osberg believes the summit will provide all attendees — whether they are faculty, staff and students of Niagara University or members of the larger community — with the needed skills.

Mental Health Association in Niagara County Executive Director Cheryl Blacklock notes that with the rise in suicides among youth and the prevalence of mental health in general, the conference will play an important role in addressing the stigma of mental illness.

“We have to have open discussions about mental health if we are going to improve prevention and treatment,” Blacklock said.

“Educating and sensitizing members of the community is a vitally important task,” said Christopher Kijowski, LCSW, supervisor of outpatient behavioral health at Niagara Falls Memorial. “Compassion is an important value, as it helps to confirm the belief that the transformation of the mind and heart are possible for every human being.”

Businesses and other organizations are encouraged to send at least one employee to attend the summit, and to designate that person as a “mental health ambassador.”

For more information, call the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc., at (716) 433-3780, ext. 304. To register online, visit

The Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc. is funded by the New York State Office of Mental Health, the Niagara County Department of Mental Health, the United Way of Greater Niagara, the United Way of the Tonawandas, grants, memberships and voluntary contributions.


College prep should include mental health awareness

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Graduation is typically a day of hope, but parents should help prepare recent high school grads for the stresses of college, says Mind Matters columnist Pamela Szalay.

Do you know a young person going off to college for the first time, or returning to college this fall?

This is an exciting time for students who have spent years preparing academically. Yet despite that preparation, most students will encounter significant amounts of stress while in college to the point of feeling overwhelmed. Some even report feeling hopeless. Mental health issues are a growing concern on college campuses. According to Dr. Timothy Osberg, a psychology professor at Niagara University, college students are arriving on campuses across the nation with more frequent and more severe mental health problems. Reports over the last several months have been alarming as high suicide rates have been reported at the University of Pennsylvania, Tulane University, Appalachian State University, and the College of William and Mary.

What can be done to protect young people? Awareness is the key. Students and parents should realize that mental health issues are a real concern on today’s college campuses. But they are very treatable— and the sooner, the better. Also, students should learn how to manage stress in healthy ways and take advantage of additional resources if needed. They should never hesitate to seek help.

Unfortunately, many students do not seek help. Instead they cope in unhealthy ways such as ignoring the problem or turning to substances. Students may need coaching in developing healthy responses to stress, such as meditation, deep-breathing, regular relaxation, maintaining social supports and getting more sleep and exercise. They will also need to be made aware of campus support systems such as wellness centers or counseling services. They need to know who to turn to when they are feeling alone, anxious or depressed.

Ideally, all campus staff and students should be educated about recognizing and responding to early warning signs, such as a loss of interest in typical activities, social withdrawal, lower performance in school, or changes in mood or appetite. Early intervention can prevent more serious issues from developing.

To prepare for success in college, add this to your list: find out what mental health resources are available on campus. For example, what protocols are there campus-wide for responding to mental health issues? What kind of training do Residence Hall advisors have for recognizing a potential mental health crisis?

Also, find out the exact location and name of the campus counseling or wellness center.

Get the phone number and make sure it gets posted in your son or daughter’s dorm room and even programmed into a cell phone contact list. Label it with something easy to remember, like “counseling” or “help on campus.”

Another important contact to add is the local crisis services* phone number or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Prevention and awareness are critical in supporting the mental health of college students. Armed with some basic self-help knowledge and the assurance that there is a caring support system in place, students are given a greater chance of succeeding and thriving in higher education.

*For assistance in Niagara County, NY, please call the Help Line at (716) 433-5432 or visit the online Help Book.

Original publication date: July 5, 2015. Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

Pamela SzalayPamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

To download an easy-to-print version of this column click here.

Mind Matters Column July 5 2015 College


Video clips that help reduce the stigma of mental illness


It can be challenging to talk about mental health issues, but that is one of the reasons stigma survives. These clips can help make it easier to start a conversation, as they feature famous celebrities from the world of entertainment and sports who are willing to share openly about their own struggles. There are many things we can learn from hearing their stories, including the lesson that mental illness is treatable!

First, here is Demi Lovato speaking out about Bipolar Disorder and the difficulties of having a mental health diagnosis. Length: 8 min

In this next clip, numerous celebrities discuss the stigma of mental health and how it affects us all. Length: 3.5 min

Here is a great slideshow featuring celebrities over the years who have suffered from mental health disorders. Length: 13.5 min

For an helpful overview of mental health, here is a short clip from Australia with great graphics. Length: 2.5 min

We hope you find them useful, and please let us know what other videos you have found helpful by leaving a comment below.

10 tips to mental fitness

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

While mental fitnessstress feels unpleasant, it is also unhealthy. This is because our bodies are involved as well as our minds, responding to stress by moving into a state of readiness, a heightened, stress induced state. The consequences include an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, depression and anxiety. Stress is also related to lowering immune defenses and brain function. Research supports making certain lifestyle changes to improve health, adding both quality and quantity of years. As May is Mental Health Month, here are 10 tips from the Live Your Life Well program of Mental Health America.

  1. Turn to family and friends. To feel supported, valued and connected, allow yourself to accept help or a word of advice and encouragement.
  2. Stay positive. Studies have shown that optimists have a lower risk of dying.
  3. Get physically active. While experts do not know exactly how this happens, exercise can boost mood!
  4. Help Others. Forget your troubles by helping someone else with theirs.
  5. Get enough sleep. Stress is often the culprit in preventing a good night’s sleep, yet sleep is so important to helping us cope.
  6. Create joy and satisfaction. Give yourself permission to participate in fun, relaxing activities on a regular basis.
  7. Eat well. Nutritious food boosts your brain power as well as your mood while helping to fight disease.
  8. Take care of your spirit. There have been correlations to longer life among those who regularly attend religious services while meditation has shown to increase activity in the feel-good part of the brain.
  9. Deal better with hard times. A healthy way to deal with a difficult life challenge is to talk through an issue with a friend or adviser to explore options and choose a course of action.
  10. Get professional help if you need it. If you are not able to feel better on your own, don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek professional help. Call the Mental Health Association in Niagara County at (716) 433-3780. If you feel you have reached a point of crisis please call the Niagara County Crisis Services Hotline at (716) 285-3515. I hope you will consider making healthier choices starting today!

Original publication date: May 24, 2015. Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

Pamela SzalayPamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

To download an easy-to-print version of this article click here: 10 tips to mental fitness