Category: Stress

The new normal: a young girl attending school via online meeting software.

Mental Health and COVID-19: What’s Normal in the New Normal?

The new normal. Over the past few weeks, many of us have shifted to working, learning, grocery shopping, exercising, and hair cutting from home. Instead of spending time in person with friends, family, and co-workers, we talk at our phone and computer screens to stay in touch. The days blend into each other now that we have no places to go or people to see, and we do our best to put some sort of structure to them. And in the time of COVID-19, we consider ourselves lucky if those are our biggest concerns. Some have experienced much more devastating changes due to the loss of jobs, health, and even life. They’ve lost everything, and fear for how much worse it will get before it gets better. This would have all seemed unbelievable just a couple of months ago, and yet, it’s where we find ourselves.

It’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things for all of us, whether it’s simply the loss of our old way of life, or a much more tragic one. And during these times, it can be helpful to understand what we’re going through in the context of grief. When we think of loss in the traditional sense, we think of the death of a loved one or the end of a significant relationship. But our feelings and reactions to this pandemic are much like what we go through when we grieve. We’re grieving the loss of the way things used to be. And just as some people have a harder time working through the grief process, some folks are finding it harder to adapt to the loss of our old way of life. In this article, we’ll explore some of the normal, common reactions to our new reality, and identify some red flags to watch out for. We’ll also offer a few suggestions about how to grieve the loss of the old normal, and shift into the new one, in a healthy way.

Common Reactions to The New Normal

Denial, Shock, and Disbelief

Much like a sudden and unexpected death, the drastic changes we had to make during the month of March seemed to happen overnight. We were caught off guard, and a sense of shock and disbelief set in. We were hopeful that schools and sporting events might start back up at best, in a couple of weeks, and at worst, maybe a month. In those first few days, we just couldn’t fathom that we might be in this for the long haul. The idea that this virus would be so contagious that we’d all need to wall ourselves off from the rest of society seemed like something from a blockbuster science fiction film, not from 21st-century America.

But it wasn’t unlike the denial phase of grief, when we find it hard to believe that a loss is real. Imagine the person, for example, who, soon after a breakup, holds out hope for a reconciliation. When a new way of being is too painful for us to bear, it takes some time to absorb the reality of it. And this denial phase of grief seems to have happened to a lot of us during those early days of quarantine.

But denying that things are different keeps us from doing the things we need to do to stay healthy – in the age of COVID-19, physical distancing, or washing your hands, for example. It can also delay our transition to a new normal, and keep us in a holding pattern of sorts that prevents us from developing new routines. Part of good mental health is having the flexibility to create new versions of our old routines when we’re forced to change our daily lives. For example, just because you can’t go to the gym for six weeks doesn’t mean you have to be a couch potato the whole time. Your new exercise routine might not look much like your old one, but the ability to find ways to approximate it is vital to transitioning into your new normal. Taking a flexible approach when shifting each part of your daily routine is one way to make the overall change seem less overwhelming.

Getting Stuck

As we made the initial adjustment to our new routines, many of us found the extra time relaxing. No more drive time meant we could stay in bed a little longer and skip ironing our pants. Some of us even scrapped the professional look altogether and went straight to sweatpants and ball caps – relaxation at its finest! Hours upon hours at home also lends itself to binge watching TV shows or movies, often snacking while doing so. Downtime is a critical piece of optimal mental health, and many of us weren’t getting enough of it until now. There’s something to be said for our newfound comfort with presenting our “real” selves to the world – long, graying, messy hair, and all. Letting go of our old pretenses around image is a sign of vulnerability, which allows us to connect more deeply with others. Because we’re getting a glimpse into the real world of our colleagues, friends, and family members, we may end up feeling closer to them, because we can see that they’re much like us.

But what happens when the media binges go on so long that we miss sleep or meals, or fall down on the job? Or when one day blends into another so much so that we lose track of hygiene and stop showering or brushing our teeth? These patterns are easy to slip into, and are very common during the grief process. When we’ve lost a critical part of our old way of life, it’s not unusual to get stuck “waiting” for things to return to normal. But putting everything on hold is a signal that adaptation to the new normal isn’t going so well.

Having balance and structure to the seemingly endless days is crucial to maintaining good mental health during these times. You don’t have to create a down-to-the-minute schedule and stick to it; remember that the point is to be flexible during this time. But having some general expectations for each day isn’t a bad thing. It may be helpful to think about this, for example, in terms of physical health, work, and relaxation. A goal might be to aspire to include some work, some rest/relaxation, some movement, and adequate sleep and nutrition. This is just a starting place, though. Think about what’s important to you (spirituality is one example that comes to mind), and consider how that might fit into your daily plan around balance.

Going into Overdrive

What about when your problem is not doing too little, but doing too much? With calendars cleared of extracurricular and social activities, hours are suddenly opened up to devote to those long-delayed household projects. Backs of cabinets and closets have been cleaned out. Lawns are immediately immaculate. And pantries and desk drawers have been organized. Many of us have even taken up new hobbies or returned to old ones. It’s felt good that we’ve been able to make the most of these strange, scary new times by being productive. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But for some, along with all this new productivity came the expectation that they should be doing something fruitful with the extra time, all the time.

It’s not uncommon for people who are grieving to go to such an extreme after experiencing a significant loss. We see a lot of folks who throw themselves into work as a way to cope during the grief process. Staying busy is a way to distract ourselves from painful feelings about the loss. It’s also a way to feel like we’re taking back some control over our lives when it seems like everything has spun out of control. But that busy-ness itself can also spiral out of control, to the point that our mental health suffers. We can start using activities to push down our true feelings of sadness about the loss. Or we can start basing our self-worth on our productivity, feeling guilt and shame when we’re not getting enough done.

It’s important during these times to examine our motives for checking off to-do list after to-do list, and to check in on what emotions we might be using those activities to avoid. Such check-ins with ourselves and others about how we’re really doing with all these changes are vital to maintaining good mental health in this new normal. Don’t be afraid to identify and express whatever you’re feeling, whether on your own through journaling, for example, or with another person. If there’s not anyone in your life with whom you would feel comfortable doing this, please consider reaching out to a trusted professional. From counselors to clergy members, there are people ready to help.

Other Suggestions for Finding a Healthier New Normal

In addition to the suggestions given already, consider limiting time spent reading about the pandemic. It’s good to have information and be up-to-date on the latest recommendations. But given the tragic nature of much of the news these days, information overload can leave you feeling helpless, hopeless, and scared.

Not only can placing parameters on the time you spend consuming COVID-19 information help, but so can giving back. It can easily feel like our sense of control has been robbed from us these days. But helping others, and feeling like you’re really making a difference, can bring it back. Making masks, taking part in a quarantine birthday parade, joining in on a big round of applause for our health care providers, and donating money or food to a food bank are just some examples of ways people have been volunteering their time or resources.

And if you already struggle with stress management or mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, or addiction, or if you’re going through an additional loss during this time, you’ll need to take extra good care of yourself right now. If you need help finding someone to talk to, please don’t hesitate to contact us at Brentwood Counseling Associates. We’d be happy to help you determine who’d be a good fit for your needs and situation. Whether it’s someone in our practice or somewhere else, we just want to be sure you’re getting the support you need during this time.

Gift Giving: Beat the Stress and Maintain the Joy of the Holiday Season

Gift Giving: Beat the Stress and Maintain the Joy of the Season

Stressed to find the best gift during the Christmas season?

Christmas is a holiday of joy and cheer.  Many of us use it as an opportunity to express how much we care for their family and friends through warm wishes, gatherings, and gift giving.

The holiday season is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can easily go from Christmas cheer to Holiday stress. Finding the perfect gifts, attending all of the festive activities, and trying to fit it all in our holiday budget can take a toll.

So how do we prevent our joyous giving from turning into overspending pressures and longing for the season to be behind us?

Why do we enjoy giving?

Let’s look into the psychology behind the pressures to give and why we are so compelled year after year to immerse ourselves into finding the perfect gift, even if it brings on unwanted stress.

According to research we give for many reasons. We give to show gratitude, empathy, and love.  We also give to increase relationship connections and because it makes us feel good.

Dave Ramsey says that the act of giving causes our brain to release ‘feel good hormones’. He mentions the phenomenon of the ‘giver’s glow’ which is that feeling of joy we get from showing generosity toward other people. Generosity comes with so many advantages; not only to those on the receiving end, but to those doing the giving too. Generosity has also been shown to reduce stress and help counteract depressive symptoms, says Ramsey.

There is a great sense of satisfaction when seeing the expression on the face of someone you’ve given a gift to. Its a way to express feelings when you can’t find the words. Giving is a way to say, “I’m thinking of you and you matter to me.”

When gift giving gets stressful

Even though giving makes us feel good, there’s definitely a tipping point. What happens when we start to lose the joy in giving and it becomes a stressor?

Gift-giving can be a mood booster and create balance. However, it can get stressful when you’re struggling to find the perfect gift for friends and family. It’s difficult when trying to find a gift that’s an affordable, thoughtful gift and within our holiday budget. I think the pressure is also surrounding the fact that we recognize gifts are symbolic, so we tend to obsess over the meaning we are trying to convey.

How to maintain the joy and pleasure in gift giving

Here are some helpful tips to remain mindful of what’s important about gifting and how to maintain joy this Christmas season.

Keep it simple

Not all gifts have to have a huge monetary value. If you enjoy spending extra on someone, go for it. Although, before you make a large purchase ask yourself, “Am I buying this because it’s more expensive or because I feel it’s what they would truly prefer?” The most meaningful gifts are sometimes homemade. In a society obsessed with commercialism, it can be refreshing to offer something more personal. Some example may be handmade cards, homemade essential oils, fresh baked goods, or wooden toys. If DIY-ing isn’t your thing, you can always gift your time such as a car wash or free babysitting.

Create some giving boundaries

For many of us, this is the season to splurge and indulge. However, it can be helpful to create some boundaries as it relates to giving to maintain our sanity and our bank accounts. So, be realistic but stick to your holiday budget as much as possible. Things like setting a budget for individual gifts and tracking your spending can be helpful.

Practice gratitude

Gift giving is not the only way we can show appreciation to others during the holiday season. Write a gratitude letter. This letter can be written to a significant person who made a positive difference in your life. This can have the same effect as a holiday gift letting them know “I am thinking of you and you matter.” Describe in specific terms what the person did and why you’re grateful.

Remember what’s important

According to an article by The Society of Happy People, when people are asked what makes them happiest about the holidays, most said connection with family and friends. So, let yourself off the hook a little bit. If you are able to spend some quality time with your loved ones, know that your presence is just as valuable as a gift.

We gain happiness around the holidays from spending time with loved ones by giving gifts, sharing meals and attending holiday festivities. It helps to remember that the holiday season is about being with the people we care about, not about giving gifts, unless giving gifts is what makes us happy.

holiday anxiety counseling brentwood tn

Holiday Anxiety

They’re baaaaaack! It’s hard to ignore the holidays when we’re constantly reminded of them by the music, ads, and store displays all around us. But this season of gratitude, togetherness, and joy can also be a hectic and stressful one. For some, that stress is felt as an increase in anxiety, ranging from stress headaches or muscle tension to problems sleeping at night. Read on to learn more about what drives that holiday anxiety, and some tips for managing it.

Unrealistic Expectations

For some, it starts with the holiday cards. Family photos must be taken while the trees are still green and the sun hot enough to make you sweat in your holiday best. But that’s only the beginning. There’s the Thanksgiving meal to plan, the travel arrangements to be made, and the holiday decorating to do. And don’t forget all the holiday parties and those can’t-miss family entertainment options that only come along once a year! There’s an awful lot to pack in to these few weeks, and there’s a lot of pressure to pull it all off without a hitch. If you’re stressed out by the demands of creating the perfect holiday:

  • Make it YOUR holiday. Find out what’s most important to you and your family by talking about favorite holiday memories. This will reveal your “must-do’s,” and help you prioritize the most important things. Pour your heart into those few things instead of spreading yourself too thinly over many.
  • Be a critical consumer of social media and advertising. Remember that those scenes of holiday perfection aren’t so often found in real life. But if you still feel like your holiday doesn’t measure up, consider limiting time spent on social media, or taking a break from it altogether.
  • Practice gratitude. If you are on social media, you’ve probably noticed a recent trend in the month of November where folks share one thing each day that they’re thankful for. The candid nature of these posts is quite refreshing: one day the writer might be thankful for veterans who risked their lives for our country, and the next for dinner delivery kits that make life easier on busy weeknights. Such an everyday expression of gratitude, whether for things great or small, can ground us to what’s really important in life.
  • Give back. Never are volunteer opportunities more plentiful than during the holidays. Whether it’s sponsoring a less-fortunate family during the season, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or spending time talking with the elderly at an assisted living facility, seeing beyond our “first-world” holiday expectations can keep things in perspective.

Stressful Family Situations

“My family is not normal.” I’ve heard this from clients countless times over the years. And family relationships marked by a history of maltreatment or even outright abuse should never be considered normal. But many families simply have longstanding strain that, having gone unaddressed for so long, creates tension when everyone’s together. Throw the stress of the season into the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for one awkward, uncomfortable holiday. Consider these tips when you’re just about ready to walk out on your family celebration:

  • Have a game plan for awkward family discussions. Unfinished business between family members has a way of rearing its head when everyone’s together. Or someone might bring up a hot topic such as the recent election, or politics in general. Regardless, it’s worth giving some forethought to how and what you want to say should these delicate issues come up.
  • It’s also not a bad idea to plan a few escapes from too much family interaction. Locate a quiet place you can retreat when conversation goes south. Or plan an activity to do together instead of just sitting around the house talking. Unresolved family issues will still be there to work on after the holidays.

Household Guests & Changes to Routine

No, you’re not just old and set in your ways. We all benefit from structure, and the holidays are prime routine-disruptors, particularly if you’re hosting houseguests or are one yourself. Whether it’s college students returning home for an extended break or out-of-town guests just staying a couple of nights, most people bring their own preferences and routines right along with their luggage. To avoid extra stress from attempting to accommodate everybody’s needs:

  • Don’t be afraid to discuss some general house rules and expectations up front. College students, for example, frequently have later curfews than they did when they still lived at home. On the other hand, small children staying with you may need quiet for bedtime a lot earlier than you’re used to. Upon arrival, talk with your guests about their needs, as well as yours, to avoid after-the-fact misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
  • To maintain some sense of normalcy within your bustling holiday inn, pick one or two pieces of your daily routine that you’re not willing to part with. Maybe it’s your daily workout, meditation, or devotional. Or maybe it’s your bedtime. What do you do normally that grounds you, relaxes you, or rejuvenates you? The holidays are no reason to give those things up, and in fact, may actually call for a little more of them.

These are just a few ways you can reduce some of the inherent stress at this time of the year. But if you find that your anxiety seems to be out-of-proportion, or if it lasts beyond the holidays or interferes with your functioning at home or on the job, reach out to a trusted professional for more support. We at Brentwood Counseling Associates are ready to help.

the science behind stress

The Science Behind Stress

by Jay Tift

What is Stress?

Simply put, stress is the way that we respond to the stuff that happens in our world. The things that are happening are called stressors. I think it’s important to mention right here at the start that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Really, it is how we think about it and respond to it that can get tricky. Stress can actually be a great thing. When we’re engaged, motivated, excited, energized, etc., we are appropriately stressed. Of course, when we generally think about stress, when we say “I’m stressed,” we mean we’re overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted, and burned out. Think about it on a spectrum, when there is not enough stress then we’re bored, disengaged, unmotivated and uninterested. When there is too much stress, we’re overwhelmed and “stressed out.” We want to figure out how to get into that sweet spot where we have the right amount of stress and are feeling energized

Fight or Flight vs. Rest and Digest

So let’s talk about what’s happening physically when we’re on the overstressed end of that spectrum. Most people have heard the term “Fight or Flight.” The fight or flight response is governed by the activating half of the part of our nervous system, called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), that handles many of our automatic processes. The other half of the ANS handles the recovery response or “Rest and Digest.” Really these two halves of the ANS can be thought of as the gas and brake. When we’re on the overstressed end of our stress spectrum, we’ve got the gas pedal stuck on the floor. Blood pressure and muscle tension go up, digestion, immune system, and ability to think go down, and we start to wear out. Think of it this way: your body is responding to danger. As far as it’s concerned, you’re being attacked by a lion. If you’re actually in danger, this is a great response. So, you’re almost run over by a car, a building is on fire, somebody jumps you in a dark alley…that’s what it’s there for. However, we tend to turn on the same response for relationship problems, excess work, financial problems, etc. What’s worse, we keep it on for long periods of time, and it’s really not meant for that.

Chronic Stress

The problems with stress come when the excess/negative stress becomes chronic. At this point, a number of pretty unpleasant things start to happen. Chronic stress can have a negative impact on our sleep, appetite, mood, immune system, digestion, relationships, memory and ability to learn. Over a long period of time it can lead to high blood pressure, reduced heart health, increased risk of heart attack, and functional digestive problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Essentially, our bodies start to fall apart from the wear, and our ability to reach out to others for support falls apart. What’s worse is that it becomes a cycle. We get overstressed, so we are less able to deal with excess stressors, which makes us more stressed, etc.

How to Deal

So what the heck do we do about it? Life is stressful, are you saying to get rid of stress in your life? No. That’s not reasonable or even useful. The goal is to learn how to manage it effectively to keep yourself in an energizing state of positive stress, which can actually counter many of the negative effects I mentioned above. The good news is that stress management does work…if you actually use it. What is important is to learn what works for you that you can effectively incorporate into your regular daily life.

In future posts, I will talk about the many ways one can approach stress management in order not only to reduce chronic stress, but to fully engage positive stress in an energizing way.

The new normal: a young girl attending school via online meeting software.

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Gift Giving: Beat the Stress and Maintain the Joy of the Holiday Season

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