Finding balance in the new year with Stacey Pawlak, PhD

2020 may be over, but the stressors presented by the pandemic and current political and world news are still here. As we navigate a new year it’s as important as ever to take care of your mental health and focus on resiliency in your daily life.

Watch Clinical Psychologist, Stacey Pawlak, PhD, help guide us as we work toward finding balance and resiliency this year.

Please note that this broadcast is for informational purposes only. If you feel concerned about your mental health, please contact your primary care provider.

You can also read the following edited transcript of the video. Answers were condensed from unscripted responses to the questions asked in the Facebook Live broadcast.

Are the winter blues real? How can people avoid these kinds of feelings during the cold Iowa winters?

  • The winter blues are like episodes of depression or low mood that coincide with shortened days during the winter months
  • When it reaches the level of clinical diagnosis it can be called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
  • In clinical diagnosis, most days you have low mood, you do not enjoy the things you normally enjoy, and could experience fatigue, low energy, and concentration issues.
  • People believe there are chemicals in the body or hormones that have something to do with the seasonal component of this depression.
  • Melatonin, serotonin, and vitamin D seem to have a role in it.
  • What’s interesting is that beyond just depression, it has this hibernation-type quality. Here are some things you’ll notice beyond depressive symptoms:
    • You want to sleep a lot more.
    • You want to stay inside.
    • You feel tired.
    • You aren’t reaching out to people.
    • You’re eating a lot, maybe gaining some weight.
  • On the opposite end, there’s summer-specific, which can cause people to get more agitated and anxious, as well as to eat less and sleep less.
  • Some things that can help with the winter blues:
    • Light therapy: Go outside into the sunlight, or just the natural light if the sun is not shining. You can also get a light box, which most doctors will talk to you about as an option.
    • Psychotherapy
    • Medications

Could you talk about the importance of taking breaks and allowing ourselves to step away from the TV or from constantly scrolling on our phones?

  • Social media, our phones, TV, and any news source can be almost addictive.
  • We start to wonder if sources have come up with different ways of thinking, or we want to know if anything has changed, and it can be overwhelming.
  • We need to remember that when we’re looking through our device, that’s a filter through which we are seeing the world. We’re seeing things through someone else’s eyes, explained with someone else’s words.
  • We need to remember to live in our world, and to see what’s around us instead of looking at the world through our device or our news source.
  • Taking breaks from the news is really important.
  • We recommend focusing on your immediate world, your loved ones, your work, the things that give your life meaning, and refocusing on those things so you don’t get overwhelmed by things you can’t control.

Do you have any tips for how people can cope? When we’re lacking a sense of control, is there a way to make that feeling less bothersome?

  • It’s normal for people to want to make sense of the world around them and understand why things happen the way they do, to put some sense of routine or logic to the events in our lives.
  • That sense of control is really about understanding what’s happening in our world.
  • It’s important to pull your focus back to your little world and the things you can control. For example, you can control:
    • How you think
    • How you react
    • How you behave
    • “What if” thinking
    • Not jumping to negative conclusions
    • How kind you are to other people
  • Focus on gaining knowledge about positive things or things that are meaningful to you.

Is it normal to feel overwhelmed by or upset about something that you may not have been physically affected by?

  • You can definitely experience what is called secondary or vicarious trauma, where you witness trauma indirectly by watching someone else experience it, hearing about it, seeing it on your TV or device.
  • When you watch a scary movie, it’s easier to separate that from ourselves because we know it isn’t real and we’re watching a movie.
  • It’s harder when you’re watching a news broadcast or a video of something that has happened in real life.
  • It’s important to remember that although it is happening in the world, it is not happening in your little world. Keep that sense of separation.

What are some tips for taking a step back from social media?

  • Turn the notifications off on your device.
  • Take short breaks from it.
  • Remember that you won’t miss anything. The news will be there later.
  • During those breaks, make time to do other things you enjoy doing and spend time with people you love.

What is self-care and what should it accomplish? How do we know if our self-care activities are helping?

  • Self-care means something a little different to each person.
  • Self-care is doing more things that make you feel good and doing fewer things that make you feel bad.
  • Some examples could be:
    • Taking a bath
    • Lighting a candle
    • Playing some music
    • Petting an animal
    • Talking with a friend
    • Talking with a therapist
    • Going for a walk
  • Make a list of things you enjoy doing, that make you feel good, make you relax, that you would want to do if you had a day all to yourself. Keep that list around, because those are probably the best examples of your own self-care!
  • Make an effort to do a few of those things every day if possible.
  • You’ll know it’s working if you start feeling better all-around. It’s just about taking care of yourself and making time to do things you care about and enjoy.
  • Sometimes it’s up to us to do the things that make us feel better.

Do you have tips for supporting a friend or family member that has depression?

  • If you’re concerned that they’re suffering from anxiety, depression, or even just stress, here are some questions you can ask them:
    • How are you feeling?
    • What’s going on?
    • What is your mood like?
  • Most people will be glad to talk about something once you open up that door of communication.
  • Let them know you are there if they need anything.
  • Alternatively, before you decide to let all your feelings out to someone, it can be beneficial to ask if they are in a good enough space where you can vent to them.

What are the signs that it might be time for someone to seek help from a professional?

  • The two major components are mood and functioning.
  • Mood:
    • Is the person sad or anxious?
    • Do they not look like their usual self?
    • Are they sleeping less or more?
    • Are they eating less or more?
    • Are they gaining weight or losing weight?
  • Functioning:
    • Is the person getting to work?
    • Are they talking to friends?
    • Are they paying the bills?
    • Are they taking care of themselves?
  • If you’re noticing that in one or both of these categories your friend or loved one is falling behind or showing symptoms, it may be an indication they need to talk to someone.
  • If they don’t feel like their friends or family member network can understand them or help them, that may be an indicator that they should speak with a professional.
  • There is never a wrong time or bad reason to talk with a therapist, social worker, counselor, psychologist, or anyone.
  • As hard as we try to remove the stigma around mental health and talking to someone, it’s still there.
  • By the end of a therapy session, people are usually glad they came and realize that any fears they had about the process didn’t actually come true.
  • A lot of people already have really good coping skills and strategies, we just want to enhance those and strengthen them.
  • People come to therapy for very specific skills they want to learn and things they want to change, behaviors they want to do differently, and some people come because they just want to talk. It’s a very individual process.
  • The American Psychological Association has a good summary on its website about what to expect from a therapy session, what it may look like, why you might want to go to therapy.

What are gratitude, compassion, and grounding? How do they help with mental health and resiliency?

Gratitude

  • Gratitude helps us to remember even in the hardest times that we have things that we do still have in our lives that we’re grateful for.
  • It can be easy to take things for granted, especially seemingly simple things such as having food in the refrigerator, or a house that you live in, or eyes that see and legs that walk.
  • A good exercise is each night before bed, either to yourself or with a partner, run through the things that you are grateful for.
  • Gratitude can help us stay grounded.

Compassion

  • Compassion does not mean that you agree with someone else. It does not mean that you even necessarily support what they’re saying or doing.
  • Compassion means that you’re willing to listen and willing to acknowledge someone as a fellow human being who has needs and feelings that may be very different from your own.
  • Research shows that showing compassion increases your sense of happiness and decreases depression and anxiety.

Grounding

  • Grounding is this idea that you focus on the present moment.
  • Too frequently we’re kind of thinking about what’s already happened or what’s going to happen, and neither one of those things can we really change.
  • A good grounding technique is deep breathing, some people call it diaphragmatic breathing.
  • People doing meditation or yoga do deep breathing.
  • Deep breathing kicks in your parasympathetic nervous system, and you can’t have that fight or flight response that causes you to feel panicky and anxious.
  • There are also sensory exercises, where you go through each sense and ask yourself, “What can I see, smell, hear, feel, and taste?”

Do you have any words of encouragement or insight for people who may be feeling as though their mental health struggle will never end?

  • In the midst of struggles, it feels like they are unending and we will never get out of them.
  • It can be helpful to remember a past struggle you experienced that you felt would never end, but eventually did.
  • Time never stops, things never stay static.
  • You don’t have to have the answers right now about how you’re going to get through it. Just know that you will get through it.