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.

 

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

 

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.