Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Emotional Fitness: A Necessity for Wellness

Joining a gym. CHECK. Eating healthier. CHECK. Quitting smoking. CHECK. Taking a daily multivitamin. CHECK. We easily, even casually, commit to self-care habits like these time and time again, knowing that the most effective path to good health is a proactive, preventive approach to wellness. We will follow our doctor's orders to take cholesterol-lowering medications, or our personal trainer's suggestion to try out novel, challenging exercises. But rarely do I encounter folks who consider counseling as an essential part of their overall healthcare regimen.

Re-Thinking the Purpose of Therapy
Why is that? Therapy may still carry a stigma, the message that we are "crazy" or "sick" if we see a counselor. People may consider that mental or emotional pain is "just a part of life" and something we can't avoid or influence. I've heard clients name the expense, the time that would be taken out of their busy schedules, and the belief that therapy isn't "necessary" as some reasons why they don't pursue counseling. Most people seem to seek out help after a life crisis, a traumatic event, or a debilitating experience of anxiety or depression hampers their functioning. But most of us don't wait for a heart attack to spur us onto a treadmill. We've internalized the knowledge that exercise, healthy foods and preventive physical care can enhance our well-being and even lengthen our lives. While emotional suffering may not be as visible as a broken leg or off-the-charts blood glucose levels, we know in a visceral way that psychic pain is as torturous and debilitating as its physical counterpart. Counseling can teach healthy coping skills, mind-body awareness, and help develop insights that allow us to make more positive, productive and authentic decisions in our lives. Therapy has been proven to enhance an individual's emotional resilience, allowing them to bounce back faster after a crisis, and with less lingering negative effects. The empathy people experience through the counseling relationship can provide a sense of connection and self-value that empowers people to feel better able to influence their world. The insights people discover through the therapy process can move us to deeper, more satisfying self-awareness, more meaningful relationships and more fulfilling lives.

Therapy as Part of Holistic Health Care 
We don't need to frequent our counselor's office three times a week or toss back a little therapy everyday with our vitamins. But if we recognize the power counseling has to help us lead healthier, happier, possibly even longer lives, we might consider adding this intervention to our wellness regimen even if we are not currently in crisis. We prize our physical bodies enough to put in the time and effort to keep them working well. Don't our emotional and spiritual selves deserve the same commitment?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Fears and Feelings and Fidgeting: Understanding Children's Mental Health Needs

Our fantasies about childhood include images of freedom from responsibility, long summer vacations, bike riding, knee-skinning and being in a perpetual state of wonder about the world. Most of us don't equate childhood with illness, even less so with mental illness. But just as physical diseases like cancer, diabetes, and epilepsy can occur in children, so too can psychological maladies that can create suffering and disability for the child.

Stay Tuned in to Kids' Moods and Behaviors 
Depression, anxiety disorders, obssessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder are no longer diagnoses used only for the fully grown. Current data from the National Institute on Mental Health indicate that, at any one time, 20 percent of children will have been diagnosed with a mental disorder in the past year. This reality supports the need and responsibility of parents and caregivers to attend to their chidlren's mental health needs with as much care and diligence as we do their medical and dental needs. Most parents schedule routine doctor, dentist and vision screenings for their kids, often on a yearly or more frequent basis. Rarely do we think of mental health as needing the same kind of oversight. I'm not suggesting that we drag our kids to a psychiatrist for an "alls-clear" every year. But staying tuned in to ways that kids communicate their struggles or distress is crucial to being able to intervene in a timely and effective manner. For example, children struggling with depression or anxiety symptoms may often exhibit somatic symptoms. ADD can be difficult to acknowledge if a chld isn't exhibiting the hyperactivity component, but has been labeled as a daydreamer or seems lost in his own world sometimes. Kids don't always use verbal means to communicate their upset; we need to look for body and behavioral cues as well. If your child routinely complains of physical ailments, or demonstrates any changes in behavior that are strange, out of character or distressing to her, you or others close to your child, further investigation may be warranted. A physical exam by a pediatrician to rule out illness or organic disease is the first step. But if the complaints continue, a session or two with a qualified child mental health specialist may
help uncover an underlying trauma or psychological disorder that is preventing the child from functioning at his best.

Our Kids Trust Us to Help Them 
Not all mental illness requires medication, nor does it necessarily include long stretches of psychotherapy. Finding experienced professionals, often available by referral from the child's pediatrician, who can assess and treat the child and even possibly the parents and family, is key to restoring and enhancing our child's mental health. It's our responsibility as the rearers and protectors of children to care for their whole selves, body, spirit and mind.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Teacher Under the Breakfast Table

I am the Ebeneezer Scrooge of pet owners. I loathe trudging through the rain, snow and dark of night to take my dogs on their thrice-daily constitutionals. I resent the hair on my sofa, the muddy paw prints on my wood floor, and my pets' craving for toilet paper. (I'm constantly surprised by my dogs' willingness to include all varieties of non-nutritive substances in their diet.) I'm not even especially fond of cuddling with my pups, as their hair makes me itch and their drooly kisses evoke just the tiniest shudder of disgust. But one look in their sad-looking puppy dog eyes brings up the same rush of maternal feelings as watching my son trot off to his first day of kindergarten. My tiny shih tzus bravado when they taunt the Doberman next door is a secret source of pride for me. I love that they see themselves as mastiffs in miniature bodies, capable of all forms of destruction and bullying normally reserved for real-sized dogs.

I've long been aware of the benefits that pets bring to our health: lowered blood pressure, tempering stress levels, companionship. But it turns out our canine compatriots are teachers in the spiritual realm as well. Dogs live in the moment. They don't struggle with attachment or clinging to the past or what we wish would be. They enjoy all food without worrying about the effect on their waistlines or their cholesterol. They know the value -- indeed, the necessity -- of a long nap. They love, freely and completely, and with all that they have. The human journey abounds with opportunities to learn and grow. I've realized that life's teachers can include beings with four fuzzy legs and a fondness for using my son's backpack as a chew toy. Next time I embark on a walk with Niki and Desi, I'll shelve my mental to-do list and my ruminations about the shortfall in our household budget. I'll try to be in the moment with them, whether we are slogging through a muddy walkway or yapping at squirrels well beyond their reach in the treetops. Our pets remind us that the simple, present, everyday moments can be full of intense joy and knee-buckling gratitude. Just look at your dog's face when you reach for the treat jar. THAT is pure bliss.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Rewired -- for Happiness

Much news has been made over the past few years about the plasticity of the human brain: the brain's ability to physically, neurochemically and emotionally change throughout our lifetimes. Previously, we had believed that the brain, and therefore ourselves, stopped growing once we reached full adulthood, and we were "stuck" with the responses, neural pathways and neurochemical realities of our "grown-up" brains from then on. Now we know that experiences, brain training and even therapy can "re-shape" the brain and affect the way it functions.

Brain Training 

Even simple exercises can influence our brains. For example, scientists purport that our brains don't know the difference between real-time experience and remembered experience. If we set aside two minutes to write down a meaningful recent event in as much detail as possible (like snuggling with my dogs on my couch under a fuzzy blanket, watching the afternoon sunlight glinting off the snow in my yard, as I'm doing now) our brains will experience the memory we are recalling as if it was happening in the moment. Pleasurable sensations will flood our bodies, neural pathways will trigger emotions of contentment, pleasure, gratitude, joy. Scientists maintain that we can change not only our moods, but the physical structures within our brains by utilizing exercises like the one I've sketched above.

Benefits for Body AND Brain 

Most of us would welcome more pleasure and peace in our lives. Science is suggesting that working out our brains in ways that recall and focus on happy experiences can actually create positive changes that increase our brains' functioning for happiness. We make resolutions to spend more time at the gym to stay physically healthy. Now, it seems, a little effort training our brains toward happiness may bring us the equivalent of a healthy body -- a brain more attuned toward joy. An added bonus -- you can do this workout without breaking a sweat.