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.

Advertisements

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

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.

Child’s Diagnosis Leads to Joining Mental Health Association Board

Rebecca Wydysh

Rebecca Wydysh

By Rebecca Wydysh, President of the Board of Directors at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County.

People often ask me why I decided to join the MHA Board of Directors.  I don’t work in the mental health field, or any medical field, for that matter. My interest is much more personal and first hand…

In 2008, my daughter was your average third grader.  She had lots of friends, received great grades and all her teachers said she was “a pleasure to have in class”.  Virtually out of nowhere, things changed. She started adamantly and ferociously refusing to go to school, with no real reason or explanation.  She simply DID NOT and WOULD NOT go!   And there was no making her…she would act out emotionally and physically, to the point it would have been dangerous for her (and me), if forced.

While the school staff was extremely supportive, and tried to help in any way they could, it was clear there was no real program in place to help us.  We were given several suggestions and even ended up staying overnight at a hospital emergency wing, where we were ultimately told “good luck” and released.  We spent several frustrating days contacting our own doctors, insurance company, friends and family, just trying to get her the immediate help she needed.  Many counselors had a wait of several weeks or a month just to get a first appointment.  We felt alone and useless to help our daughter.

After several months of counseling attempts, a diagnosis of “Generalized Anxiety and School Refusal”, in-patient treatment, and home schooling, she was finally able to return to class.  Most of this might have been avoided if we had just had a better support system and treatment plan from the start. It was a difficult few years of ups and downs, but I’m happy to say that she has grown so much (in age and wisdom) and now has very little trouble going to school every day.

During our journey, I saw just how frustrating it can be to navigate the mental health system, especially where children are concerned, and I wish I had known more about the MHA and the programs we offer.  I had just started my position as Deputy Commissioner of Jurors in Niagara County with the New York State Unified Court System and was lucky to have very supportive employers and co-workers.  I cannot imagine how much more difficult, or even impossible, it would be for a parent dealing with their own mental health diagnosis during that type of crisis.

It was shortly after this experience, in 2009, that I was invited to join the Board of Directors.   I joined without hesitation, in the hope of helping in any way that I can, big or small, to support other children in our community to receive the care they need, while also supporting the parents that love them. 

I am honored to be the current Board President at MHA in Niagara Counyt, and will do all I can to raise awareness for the organization and further the crucial programs our staff works so hard every day to develop and expand.  ◊

Visit www.mhanc.com to learn more