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.

 

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Healing Gratitude

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.

Sources:

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.

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

College prep should include mental health awareness

college grad graphic

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

 

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

 

First Aid for Mental Health

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

Imagine yomental health first aidu are out to lunch with a friend, co-worker or parent. As you begin your meal, you notice something odd: she can’t seem to lift her fork. You make a little joke and she responds by smiling on just one side of her mouth. It occurs to you that these are the signs of a stroke. Calmly, you ask her to say something but she can’t put a sentence together. At this point, you know it’s time to call 9-1-1.

Now imagine another, similar scene. This friend, colleague or parent you have known for years has met you for lunch but is behaving oddly. He has just ordered a second drink yet you have never known him to drink at lunch. There is also a change in mood: instead of being excited about an invitation to play golf, he seems not to care. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be able to focus on the conversation. You react by thinking, “what’s wrong with him? Why can’t he control himself?” You may be uncomfortable addressing the situation and simply leave feeling disappointed.

When a person shows unusual behavior, feelings or thoughts, it can be a sign of mental distress. Rather than judgment from friends and family, what that person needs is something akin to “mental health first aid”: someone else to recognize there is a problem and offer assistance in getting the best help.

Because the general public lacks knowledge about basic mental health, it is common for signs of mental illness to go unrecognized for years. Both the person suffering and the people around him may not realize that the symptoms are real, potentially serious and treatable. Unfortunately, the impact of our ignorance is not small.

When mental health disorders go unrecognized and untreated, there are serious implications to an individual’s physical health, quality of life and independence. Consider this: mental illness can take 25 years from someone’s life. That’s more than all cancers combined and possibly more damaging than smoking 20 cigarettes a day. Early intervention can lessen the impact and even prevent the development of a serious disorder that could interfere with education, work and family life.

There is also a corresponding cost to society. The financial costs of mental illness rival that of cancer. Jails and juvenile detention centers are full of individuals who might not be there if their mental illnesses had been properly addressed at the onset. Finally, social services must often intervene to provide assistance to people who can no longer keep a job or were never able to finish school. Basically, our lack of understanding about mental health prevents both the identification and treatment of disorders– a concerning situation especially when we consider that the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that almost 44 million adults had a diagnosable mental disorder in 2012.

While many changes can be made to public policy, there are things each of us can do starting now to be more responsive to mental health issues. It starts by taking care of those around us. Family, friends, co-workers, teachers, school counselors and neighbors are often the first to notice when something is “not quite right” with someone. Each of us can certainly learn to recognize the signs of a mental disorder in the same way we would recognize the signs of a heart attack or stroke.

Here are some key things to look for: recent social withdrawal or apathy, an unusual drop in functioning at work or school including quitting sports, failing or inability to concentrate, dramatic changes in appetite, sleep, hygiene or mood, a heightened sensitivity to sounds, sights, smells or touch, and problems with logical thought and speech. Basically, uncharacteristic and peculiar behavior, feelings or thinking should raise a red flag.

If you become concerned about someone’s mental health, the creators of Mental Health First Aid, Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm, suggest following these five steps: assess for risk of suicide or harm; listen nonjudgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

If you suspect someone is actively suicidal, you can call the Niagara County Suicide Prevention Hotline at (716) 285-3515. For a list of all the emergency phone numbers in Niagara County, you can obtain a Help Book from the Niagara County Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. by calling (716) 433-3780 or going online at http://www.mhanc.com.


Original publication date: March 15, 2015. The column Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

Pamela 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.

Pamela.image

Support groups offer friendly and effective therapy

TitleRe-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

paper cutoutsPicture this: you are facing a crisis. Maybe you just got diagnosed with major depression or a chronic illness, or perhaps you have suffered a significant loss. What do you do? In addition to receiving treatment from doctors and professional, you are likely to seek out emotional support and even advice from family and friends. But sometimes more is needed. When faced with a stressful life challenge, receiving emotional support is an important part of accepting, adjusting and recovering. While your friends or family may be there for you, sometimes they are not able to offer all the help you need or even understand what you are really going through.

So where can you find a safe place where others in the same situation are willing to listen to you, share their own experiences and even offer advice and support?

A mutual aid support group can provide just that. Support groups can be considered “informal therapy” as no referral is required, the meetings are often led by peers, and there is no commitment. A professional may serve merely as an advisor or co-facilitator, and you can be as passive or as active as you’d like. This provides a great deal of flexibility and convenience, which may be exactly what you need to convince yourself it’s worth a try.

How effective can peer-led, mutual aid support groups be? In many situations, research is proving it to be comparable to one-on-one therapy with a professional. One study looked at people suffering from moderate depression and found that there was little difference in the outcome for those attending peer-led mutual support groups versus those working with trained therapists. For bereaved parents, involvement in a support group led to a greater sense of control and decreased depression, guilt and anger. Similar findings were found in groups for the elderly, former mental health patients and those diagnosed with a chronic illness.

The level of participation in a support group does make a difference.Studies have shown that individuals with strong attendance and involvement in the group have the best outcomes. In the area of substance abuse, for example, high attendance at a self-help meeting was related to lower use of alcohol.Additionally, members of support groups who were highly active tended to report higher levels of self-esteem and more effective coping skills.

There are many theories about why support groups work. First, there is the social aspect which contributes to reduced feelings of isolation. There is an instant sense of community when people identify with each other and relate to each others’ struggles.Second, the members of the group offer a pool of knowledge that is a professional is unlikely to have.Support group members have “inside information” cultivated from their own experience, which can be a great help to other members making decisions about treatment, personal matters and more.Finally, there is the effect of “helper therapy”. Those members who contribute to the group by helping others tend to feel better and make better progress in their journey to recovery.

As sensible as all this may seem, people can still find many reasons to avoid attending a support group even if they are struggling. A big reason is stigma.While it can be difficult for people to admit they need help, a bigger fear is admitting this to others. They may feel uncomfortable with nurturing their emotional life and fear that others will view them as week or needy.Worse yet, they may fear being associated with anything related to mental health.

If you feel you could benefit from a support group but have concerns about how people will look at you, remember you are not taking your acquaintances with you to the meetings.They will not be privy to your thoughts and feelings. An advantage of a support group is that the people there are strangers, so you have not reputation to maintain.Plus, a general rule among support group members is “no judgment”. Support groups are places of confidence where you can safely share whatever is on your mind.

Finding the right support group for you may take a little effort, but there are many resources available. Some groups are even available online.The Mental Health Association in Niagara County maintains a list of support groups and even sponsors several in Lockport and Niagara Falls. They also provide periodic trainings for support group leaders and have resources for individuals who wish to start one. For more information, visit www.mhanc.com or call 716-433-3780.


The original publication date was February 15, 2015 under the title Crisis Control: Getting by with a little help from your group. Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

PamePamela.imagela 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.

Science sheds some light on the winter blues

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

snow covered pathI know, I know. You’re tired of this cold weather, the cloudy skies, the miserable commute. You feel shut-up, unable to do your usual activities, reluctant to face the bitter cold even to fetch a gallon of milk or a cup of hot coffee.

This is typical winter weather in our region, and with the end of the holiday season it is literally darker than ever. This is the time of year when some of us really get down in the dumps. Some of us even get depressed.

One of the downsides of the stigma surrounding mental illness is that we tend to downplay the role of emotions in our health. We discount them as irrational or meaningless. But emotions can serve as valuable indicators. If they are causing a disruption to our lives, we may need to investigate them as well as what is happening in our bodies. If you are struggling to get through the day, feeling tired and irritable, not sleeping well, having trouble concentrating, experiencing hopelessness and avoiding people, you may be dealing with more than a simple mood swing. You may have a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D.

Having lived here far above the equator for about 90% of my life, I am statistically more likely to be affected by S.A.D. than someone living in Florida. But is this a sign that I am a wimp? Am I just not cut out for the inconvenience and unpleasantness of our harsh winters?

Whether you identify with my plight or feel inclined to shake your head in pity or disgust, I am pleased to point out that science is here to defend me and all of us battling S.A.D. Research shows that the primary culprits behind moodiness this time of year is lack of sunlight and a disruption of circadian rhythms, and there are tangible physical processes involved that affect both our behavior and our hormones.

First, it is important to understand what a circadian rhythm is. It’s a process that the body goes through along a 24-hour cycle and it can be reset by an external influence. The sleep cycle is an example of a circadian rhythm which is influenced by light levels. When darkness is detected, the hormone melatonin is secreted from a gland in our brain. Melatonin modulates sleep patterns according to circadian and seasonal rhythms. More melatonin is secreted as darkness increases, so as we are experiencing some of the darkest days of the year our levels of melatonin are changing. Our bodies may produce it either earlier or later in the day, causing unusual shifts in our mood.

There is a complex chain of events that can result in undesirable levels of melatonin. As scientists begin to understand the process, they are gaining insight into how to adjust these levels to help people suffering from S.A.D., major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

While the future looks promising, there are also many options available right now for those suffering from S.A.D. For example, light therapy is effective for 50 to 60 percent of people. You can try to soak up as much natural sunlight as possible by getting on a consistent sleep schedule and getting up early to catch the morning rays. A broad spectrum light box can be used as well. For faster results, aerobic exercise is recommended. A brisk walk outside is especially helpful, as it increases exposure to sunlight while improving mood and reducing stress.

Diet also plays a role. You may be craving carbohydrates, but sugary foods only cause a temporary energy spike followed by a crash. To avoid this rollercoaster in your mood, satisfy your craving with complex carbohydrates like rice or potatoes or healthy simple carbs like fruits.

Also, it is important not to isolate yourself, as tempting as that can be when your mood is low. Staying active and interacting with people will boost your mood.

Finally, if you suspect that professional help is needed, therapy and medications can be very effective. These are available by talking to your doctor.

The overall message, beyond the importance of treating mood disorders like the winter blues, is that to maintain wellness we must consider our bodies and our minds. If we want to live life to its fullest, we cannot afford to allow fear and stigma of mental health issues to prevent us from taking care of all aspects of our health, including our mysterious moods.


Mind Matters is a regular column of Greater Niagara Newspapers. The above article was published on January 18, 2015 in the Niagara Gazette, Lockport Union-Sun Journal and Tonawanda News.

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.

Re-casting our view of the holidays for better health

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.ornament msoffice

The holidays are here! Time for parties, shopping, gifts, amazing food, fun entertainment and kisses under the mistletoe!

Or….spilled drinks, carpet stains, poor sleep, cranky children, arguing spouses, overtime hours, meddling family members, heavy traffic, bad directions, late arrivals, ingratitude and over-spending.

With each holiday season, we often have an image about what we would like it to be. We tend to dream and plan for the best possible scenario, and tend to be influenced heavily by images we see in advertisements. We see warmth and beauty, togetherness and cheer, and sometimes begin to feel that we need to re-create those scenes in our own lives in order to be happy. Of course we may know those images in the media are misleading, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t influenced.

Furthermore, we are influenced by our own family customs and how we have celebrated in the past. While we may have many good memories, circumstances often change that make it difficult to reproduce all the pleasant emotions of previous years. Perhaps cherished family members are unable to be part of the annual gathering. Maybe you have recently moved, changed jobs or lost a partner. These things can be significant sources of stress in life and can affect your view of the holidays. You may not even feel like celebrating.

You can prevent a holiday let-down by approaching the holidays with a sensible plan. You can get yourself into trouble emotionally when you become attached to one view of the holidays, or form an unrealistic expectation about them. While you may have participated in the same activities for the last ten years, it’s possible that this you are not feeling up to it. If you are grieving or simply stressed out from certain challenges in your life, it’s perfectly reasonable to need something different—and you can give yourself permission to pursue what you need without guilt or regret.

Since pressure at this time of year can vary from person to person, assess what you need to stay emotionally healthy. Adapt traditions and favorite customs to fit your current needs whether that means serving foods that are easier to prepare, going away rather than staying home, or spending less money on gifts. Give yourself permission to relax and enjoy being with people you care about. Rather than wishing for more, regretting what is not there, or feeling bad about thing beings “different”, take a moment to appreciate the good things around you.

This is especially important to remember for those who have recently experienced a personal loss, whether through a break-up, divorce or death. Those individuals may wish to avoid familiar activities because they are painful reminders of the past, or they might appreciate a quite cup of coffee and pleasant conversation rather than a loud, festive gathering.

As you re-imagine your vision of what a “happy holiday” is, spend a moment to picture yourself in those alternative situations. Of course, you can expect people to notice that you are not celebrating the same way. Prepare close friends and family ahead of time by letting them know why you are making the changes and how they can support you. For example, inform them you don’t feel comfortable attending a certain gathering or that you will attend but may excuse yourself early. Also, picture the potential highs as well as the lows: what will be nice about the new way of celebrating and what might be difficult? How will you respond to questions?

As you take care of yourself this holiday and approach the celebrations on your own terms, you may find peace, joy and comfort in ways you never imagined. By removing the pressure to experience the holiday in a certain way, or as you always have, you are more likely to enjoy the moments that present themselves. You are now free to appreciate the new experiences and the caring people around you! You may even inspire others to follow your lead and re-imagine for themselves the “perfect” image of the holidays.


Note: This article was first published for Greater Niagara Newspapers (Lockport Union-Sun Journal, Niagara Gazette and Tonawanda News) on December 21, 2014.

Pamela 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.

Facts over fear: The myths and truths of mental health

Group of Friends with Arms Around Each Other

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

How common is mental illness? Chances are you know someone who suffers from some form of a diagnosable mental health problem. Every day you may encounter people at work, at school, at the mall and maybe even at home. Does this seem possible?

The reason the prevalence of mental illness comes as a surprise to many of us is that we just don’t understand what mental illness is, we don’t talk about it and, as a society, we tend to buy into the myths instead of the facts. The National Institute of Mental Health asserts that nearly 20 percent of the adult population in the United States had a diagnosable mental illness in 2012—about 44 million adults. This number includes people who are minimally impaired. So while you may interact with people who suffer from depression or anxiety, the illness is not obvious.

This has a couple of implications. The good news is that if you realize that mental illness is common and does not necessarily disrupt a normal life, then you might start viewing mental illness as less threatening. On the other hand, if it is so common, then why do we know so little about it? Why don’t we talk about as easily as we might talk about physical ailments? Why don’t we have more support systems in place to help the millions of individuals who are dealing with mental illness in all its forms?

At the root of all these questions is the problem of stigma. Misconceptions and stereotypes about mental illness prevent us from dealing with it openly and honestly. We take the fear instead of the facts. As a result, many people avoid addressing issues with their own mental health and people with a diagnosis suffer from discrimination.

Many of our fears are based on the misguided belief that all mental health disorders are life-long, debilitating ailments that have no effective treatments. The facts are that many disorders may last less than a year, can have mild symptoms that do not impact work, and can be resolved with proven solution-centered talk therapies in a reasonably short period of time. In many cases, no drugs are needed.

Another common myth is that mentally ill people are dangerous. However, statistics have shown that the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime rather than the perpetrator. Sadly, the headlines in the media often dramatize the opposite message. As a result, we reinforce our negative stereotypes and build another reason to fear mental illness.

Still another myth is that people with a mental illness are weird, crazy, socially awkward or inappropriate. We think we would be afraid around them, and may even avoid people when we learn they have a diagnosis. Yet in reality, there are “normal” people all around us who might battle depression, cope with a phobia, take medication for bipolar, or receive regular therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Someone with a mental illness can hold a job, raise a family, or be a volunteer. They may seem more well-adjusted and less stressed than you feel. They may even have better coping skills as a result of training and cognitive-behavior therapy.

Since the topic of mental illness is not a comfortable topic for most people, the myths remain unchallenged. Those with a diagnosis are reluctant to admit it for fear of being treated differently. Yet this leaves the misleading impression that mental illness is not relevant to all our lives. Worse yet, people who need help are often afraid to ask for it, and may not even know where to start getting help.

In the months ahead, I will continue to explore myths and truths about mental health, all in an effort to break down the stigma of mental illness and encourage people to get the help they need. If you need assistance, please call the MHA at (716) 433-3780. We are here for you!


Note: This article was first published for Greater Niagara Newspapers (Lockport Union-Sun Journal, Niagara Gazette and Tonawanda News) on November 16, 2014.

Pamela 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.