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Christy Gualtieri

Attitude of Gratitude

Confession time: I don’t like writing thank you notes. I am thankful, of course, for the things I receive; and I very much appreciate the people I receive these things from but as a parent with very little extra time in my day, it’s hard to find the energy to sit down, pull out a stack of cards, and think of all I want to say to thank someone for a gift. And because I am of the unfortunate generation that grew up writing things by hand but transitioned to mostly typing on a computer, just the sheer effort of physically writing the words gets tedious a lot earlier than it used to. (I know exactly how absurd this all sounds, by the way. But it’s true!)

Although I don’t like actually writing them, I do very much love the idea behind writing them, because I understand that buying things – and especially making things – for someone else takes time, and effort, and thought; and it’s something that needs recognition and my appreciation! So this year, after dutifully writing down who gave what gift to each of my family members, I’m sitting down to write my Christmas thank yous; and doing so gave me the chance to think about the idea of gratitude and what it means to be thankful every day of the year, not just on Thanksgiving or after a birthday or when someone does something nice for you.

What does it mean to be thankful when it’s an ordinary day, when there’s work to go to and bills to pay and a family to cook and clean for? What does gratitude look like for you when it doesn’t appear that you have anything to be thankful for? How can we start living lives that are thankful even when there’s no extra reason to be?

Well, one way may be to look beyond the obvious. Sure, it’s easy to be thankful when someone shows up at your door with a gift or when someone helps you out; but we can start much smaller than that: by looking at ourselves. We’re not perfect, and not all of us have perfect bodies, but there’s plenty of things about our bodies we can be thankful for right now. Sure, you may have a bad haircut; but if you’re reading this right now, you have eyes (at least one) that can see this and a brain that can understand it. We can be thankful for that! If you can’t see and someone is reading this to you, then you have ears to hear it! We tend to be fixated on the parts of our bodies that we don’t like, but we can celebrate the ones that do. We can be thankful for our educations, our abilities, and the tiniest things that bring us joy.

We can even take it outside ourselves: there’s our families, our relationships, our cities, our communities. And even if those bring you pain, keep breaking it down to the point where you can find one thing to be thankful for about them. Sooner or later, you’ll find something and when you find one thing, you’re bound to find more.

Everyone knows someone who has been so beaten down by what life’s given them that they can’t see any of the good. If you know someone like that, please, please encourage them. Find something that you like about them and let them know about it because it can make all of the difference in the world. And if that someone is you, try – even just the smallest effort is something to celebrate – to find the closest thing to you that you can be thankful for. Even if it’s not joyful, it will help you learn to look for the good around you instead of constantly turning toward the bad. Slowly, slowly, little by little, we’ll begin to adopt the kind of lives that bring joy to others and to ourselves, so much so, that maybe we won’t just save all the giving thanks for holidays. We can really, truly live it all year.

Until next time, be well!
Christy

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About the author: Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children. Christy also blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com and tweets @agapeflower117. You can  follow her here on eTalkTherapy for inspirational articles and different perspectives as they relate to good mental health.

 

Girl posing against the background of decorated trees
Christy Gualtieri

This Little Light

It’s all going by so fast this year, isn’t it? I guess with Thanksgiving so late, it seems like the whole world is in a mad rush – even more than usual! So many things crowd our minds: what gifts do I need to get for my kids’ teachers? What parties do we have when? Why do I need to see my relatives at dinner, but what would happen if I backed out? What if I get the wrong gift? I worked so hard all year – what if I don’t get any gifts, and I continue to feel so unappreciated?

And why does it have to be dark outside more than it’s light? I leave for work in the dark, come home in the dark!

It all feels like so much darkness!

My husband used to say that his least favorite day of the year was the first day of Summer, because “it all goes downhill from here.”  The days start to get shorter, and we lose the light. You don’t see it much, of course, in July and early August when the sun doesn’t even begin to go down after 8:00 pm, but gradually, ever so slowly (and then all in a rush), it gets dark.

Human beings have a complicated relationship with darkness, but it’s fair to say we crave the light. Even when it’s bitterly cold and dark outside, we’re cheered by thoughts of cozying up to warm firelight, or the light of a lamp in the kitchen as we’re eating dinner. We’re innately drawn to – even if we’re suspicious of it at first – a joyful person who exudes a bright personality, and innately shun people who drag around like little Eeyores with dark clouds hanging over their heads.

We like the light, even if the light hurts us. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he introduces the idea of adjusting to light once we’ve seen it and can no longer “unsee” it. Light is knowledge. We have “bright” ideas. We’ve come to realizations and “seen the light.”

You may be walking in darkness right now. If you are, I am so sorry. I’ve walked through periods of darkness in my life, and I’m sure I will again. We’re all human, and that’s what we do. Our lives are made up of the good and the bad – of the fortunate circumstances and the unfortunate ones. Maybe 2019 wasn’t your year. Or 2018, or all the way back to 1999, when the promise of a new millennium was what you needed to start fresh…and it didn’t deliver.

2020 may be your year! Or it might not. And that’s okay. It’s okay because there will be light.

It might not be as bright as you want. It may be a tiny little flicker of hope. But I promise you, it will be there. It may shine from the unlikeliest of places or it may come from you. But it will come. No matter how tiny that little spark is, the darkness cannot overcome it. Draw yourself closer to that light this upcoming year. It may be small. It may be tiny. But it will be the light. And the more you are drawn to it, the bigger it will be; and my hope for you this next year is that you kindle that light until it creates a fire in your heart that others can draw close to to warm themselves – and from there, truly spread love throughout the world.

An ancient Chinese proverb says “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” If you are able to let your light shine, the whole world will be better for it! And if you need yours lit, find that small light in your world and get to know it better.  Then, no matter how dark it may feel in your life, you will not be overcome by it. And if you’re not overcome by the darkness, just imagine how wonderful it all could be.

Until next time, be well!
Christy

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About the author: Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children. Christy also blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com and tweets @agapeflower117. You can  follow her here on eTalkTherapy for inspirational articles and different perspectives as they relate to good mental health.

Don Laird

You Will Be Visited By Three Spirits

An Existential Yuletide Greeting
by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they the shadows of things that May be, only?”

Scrooge. A word that can immediately conjure images of a bitter and heartless man concerned more with greed than humanity; a cultural archetype of someone wanting nothing further to do with his species and one who has no use for words like “compassion” or “care.” Yet, on closer examination, Scrooge’s story reveals some remarkable insights for our modern times. There are facets to his narrative that are ostensibly universal. Yes, a harsh commentary on the mores of his time, but Scrooge is more relevant today than ever.

On its surface, Dickens’ Victorian yarn can be simply read as “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” However, there is much at stake for our cultural and individual well being in this seasonal tale. In fact, I assert to you that Charles Dickens’ seminal 1843 work A Christmas Carol remains one of the finest examples of existential psychotherapy ever written (albeit in fictional form). The tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge opens a time and space for self-reflection for those who want to examine life in a meaningful and in-depth fashion. This is not about instant transformation for the client, positive psychology to sooth the therapist’s fears, or worse, wishful thinking from both parties. It is an existential crisis that is illuminated by one of the key tenets of psychotherapy – fear of death.

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

We all know the story, so it is here that I wish to briefly highlight the other side of Scrooge. No one arrives at a certain point in their development without a back story, and Scrooge’s history is one filled with disappointment and neglect. He is an ignored and isolated child, abandoned even at Christmas by his family and friends. Scrooge knows pain all too well at an early age. The world around him and its inhabitants are not to be trusted. People, above all, should be shunned. They are to be feared as they need and require emotional attachment and engagement. These qualities are easily dismissed by a young man whose growing trust in currency and greed will engulf his life for years.

In the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge exemplifies one of the central canons of existential depression and anxiety, that one has always been this way, and one always will be. There is a loss of agency and caustic determinism quickly fills in this void. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come points at the tombstone, Scrooge understands for the first time that life can be written differently: what seems to be etched in stone isn’t. The specter’s message is powerful; an opportunity for Scrooge to see what life on earth would be like after his death. Scrooge observes his own forgotten corpse as his peers minimize his demise. He watches in horror as strangers quickly sell his belongings, while mocking his death with no regard or mercy. In death, he can no longer be an agent of change. He is a spectator to a cruel and vicious world he created.  Yet all Three Spirits show him that he was and is agent of change as long as he is alive. It is through an encounter with one’s mortality that a fuller life may occur – to know death is to know life. Scrooge accepts the significance of death, so that he may live his final months and years embraced in the richness of his relationships with others.

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

Death anxiety is real; despite those in modern psychology who often relegate the subject of death to the closet of “let’s not go there unless we have to” (even by some seasoned practitioners who should know better). In short, beware the therapist who professes that the exploration of death anxiety is not particularly helpful in therapy. Yes, therapists can spend far too much time focusing on one area while neglecting another. It happens. Not every therapist is well-rounded enough to create a new therapy for each of her or his clients. However, that shouldn’t allow for a wave of “positivity” to sweep us away from Otto Rank’s maxim, “Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death.” Exploration of death and dying serves as a profound catalyst toward some remarkable life changes. It is the confluence of both past, present and future; an investigation of life by way of an awareness and acknowledgement of our finite time here on Earth. In this way, we are all a reflection of Dicken’s vision.

Thus, A Christmas Carol calls us to embrace some definitive questions, “How would the world be different if I were to die today?” and “Do I ever have a true sense of how many lives I’ve touched?” Scrooge’s story may, in fact, provide the answers. Our relationships with others are so intrinsic that our absence creates an entirely different existence – a ghostly existential vacuum, if you will.

In the Victorian era, people saw ghosts and had premonitions. It was a system of supernatural beliefs that was not uncommon. Freud came along and said that this was the result of repressed memories. The dead were reduced to misleading or damaged recollections that resulted in certain beliefs and behaviors. Ghosts haunted the mind, not the house. Yet, there is something within Scrooge’s narrative that calls to us, pushes us beyond cause and effect, beyond determinism, and reminds us that we can be responsible and compassionate with our life choices and that no person is indeed an island.

Be well, and remember to keep the spirit of this season in your heart today and throughout the year.

In good health,
Don

Photos courtesy http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/furniss/xmas.html#cc

Feet in Christmas socks near fireplace
Mandi C. Dalicandro-Turk

Navigating the Holidays

by Mandi C. Dalicandro-Turk

During the holiday season, images of a crisp snow covered lane, with the view into the frosted window of a warm and cozy home, the scene of a blazing fire, a long decorative table filled with scrumptious holiday delights, and loved one’s surrounding the table brings feelings of dissonance for many. The holidays absolutely have the potential to bring feelings of intimate experiences filled with belonging, exhilaration, sharing, and gathering with loved ones. For many, however, there are increases in stress, anxiety, depression, feelings of loneliness, difficulties with grieving and loss, conflict, and contemplation.

There is meaning to the ornaments being unboxed, the candles lit, and the years, many times, decades of tradition. There are customs leading up to the season, feelings of anticipation, significance to the day(s) of celebration, and the letdown after everything is put away.

Mental Health Issues Exasperated
During the holidays, mental health, behavioral health, medical issues, and autoimmune issues that individuals grapple with each day have the potential to become exasperated and contribute to increased symptoms, stress, and feelings of exhaustion. For many, it’s extremely difficult to navigate through increases in symptoms and difficulties with coping. Many times, individuals’ cope with negative coping mechanisms (i.e., alcohol, unhealthy eating habits, lowered self-care, and/or misuse of medications).

Consider individuals grappling with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), “Twelve month prevalence of GAD is .9% among adolescents and 2.9% among adults in the general community of the United States” (American Psychiatric Association, p. 223, 2013). Individuals have the potential to experience symptom increases (i.e., difficulty concentrating, irritability, difficulties controlling worry, levels of fatigue, muscle tension, and issues with sleep), which complicates discomfort and difficulty in managing symptoms (American Psychiatric Association, p. 222, 2013).

Additionally, individuals contending with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) grapple with an array of symptoms (i.e., fear of negative evaluation, being humiliated, and/or rejected), many times, avoiding social situations (American Psychiatric Association, p. 202, 2013). During the holidays, it’s difficult to avoid all social situations and associated symptom increases.

Furthermore, consider the significant impact and issues with functioning associated with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), “Twelve month prevalence of major depressive disorder is approximately 7%, with marked differences by age group” (American Psychiatric Association, p. 165, 2013). Symptom increases (i.e., feelings of sadness, hopelessness, minimal interest and pleasure, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, diminished concentration, and issues with sleep) complicate already difficult daily functioning and increase the probability of grappling with each facet of holiday obligation and interactions.

Conceptualize the experience of comorbidity of GAD, SAD, and/or MDD with or without substance use (and/or any mental health diagnosis) and its associated symptoms, with the presence of holiday stress, pressures, and the impact physiologically and psychologically. It’s best to seek out therapy prior to the holidays to develop positive coping strategies, realistic expectations, awareness to pressures, work through increases in symptoms, and to decrease the probability of underlying issues being triggered.

Engaging and Balancing Conflict — Differing Views vs. Differing Values
Some families benefit from closeness and healthy working dynamics. However, even when this is present in the environment, there is potential for conflict and tension during high pressure and high stress times; including desirable ones during the holidays.

Inevitably, there will be internal triggers experienced when engaging with others, which has potential to feel agonizing. In this environment, develop awareness to balance what degree of engagement feels healthier. At times, lighter conversations will assist in minimizing triggers. In the event, stress and discomfort become too overwhelming to engage, take a few moments to walk outside for some air. Take a few deep breaths and allow the increases in oxygen to balance parasympathetic response, and increase oxygen to the brain to assist with feelings of relaxation, (Wolford, p. 2, 2015). Furthermore, spend time with younger family members; if this is enjoyable. Children and adolescents have potential to bring a different perspective and magic to the holiday, which increases fun and increases relaxation.

Additionally, avoid family conflict. There are two primary areas of focus. First, refrain from engagement, debate, and argument regarding issues of contention between family members and/or friends in general, and where estrangement is present. At times, there may be pressure to choose sides. There is psychological benefit in refraining from choosing sides, treating each person with respect, and engaging with each person individually, if necessary. Reflect prior to being in the shared environment on personal values and feelings regarding the dynamics surrounding conflict. The cognitive process of reflection has potential to increase levels of confidence to support disengagement in the conflict, while dually engaging with others in regards to the positive aspects of relationships and holiday gatherings. This will lower stress, and minimize increases in mental health symptoms.

Lastly, it’s reasonable to have different views; it’s a driving factor of being human. Many times, human’s enjoy debating these views. There is a level of cognitive stimulation, fun, and strategy involved. With this being said, individuals must consider individual motivations, and how each message is given and received. There are distinct differences in the motivations of debating in positive banter with loved one’s out of pleasure, mutual understanding, and respect, even with the presence of opposing views and/or a heated discussion. Equally, it’s beneficial to refrain from debating in negative, critical manners with a family member and/or friend of differing values where high tensions are present. During holiday gatherings, consider each individual relationship, underlying motivations, and feelings. When tensions are high and values are vastly opposing, different views have opportunity to be debated at another time. In this situation, it’s best to refrain during holiday gatherings. However, in a cohesive and healthy environment, enjoy the banter. Individuals possess varying levels of impulse control. Develop awareness of strengths in impulse control, areas of grappling, and the resulting behaviors of each; then, gauge the best course of action accordingly. In each interaction, engage with respect and graciousness.

Loneliness, Isolation, Grief, and Change
At times, there are shifts in family, friends, supports, and a sense of community. Death, illness, and/or divorce are difficult to navigate through in daily life, and exhausting during the holidays. New traditions that have yet to be created and resistance to shifts in traditions that are no longer possible are common. For divorced partners with children, there are the adjustments for each in regards to splitting time. In the most amicable situations where partners remain respectful and possibly friendly, difficulties, stress, grief, and negative feelings have potential to arise during the holidays. Negotiating for wellness of each individual involved is imperative to maintaining balance and decreasing the probability of future issues.

The loss and associated grieving of a deceased loved one is an excruciating and extensive process. Many times, significant changes to meaningful traditions are a painful reality. Developing awareness that grief will resurface intermittently, many times over, and during meaningful interactions is imperative. Finding ways to honor the deceased loved one will assist with holding on to the meaning of significant traditions, and decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness; including traditions that will inevitably change over time. Grieving is an individual process, the time frame varies from person to person, and is based on the significance of the relationship. It is vital to develop self-compassion and to seek out supports.

Preventative measures
Start with being honest about limits physically, mentally, and emotionally. When there are children in the home, balance spending time with children, and with family and friends. Schedule visits on days close to the holiday celebration instead of over committing in one day. This will increase enjoyment of holiday events and decrease feelings of obligation, and potentially, resentment. Additionally, the gatherings may become a tradition and special day to look forward to for each individual involved.

Reflect honestly
Many times, thoughts, feelings, and ruminations in regards to family dynamics, divorce, death, estranged relationships, and the focus of seemingly endless obligations increase stress, anxiety, and/ or depressive symptoms. It becomes overwhelming for individuals and difficult to balance. Most times, it is beneficial to ask for help, which has the potential to reduce stress and increases the capacities to function well throughout the holidays.

Having awareness that there will be stress assists in setting realistic expectations. Many times, a few simple changes will allow flexibility, while dually honoring traditions (i.e., cooking the meal in advance, offering for each person to choose a dish to bring, setting boundaries to time spent at each gathering, and/or planning finances and budgets a year or more prior). At times, the more an individual attempts to take on without assistance or planning, the more emotional and psychological difficulties are experienced, creating an exasperation of mental health, behavior health, and/or medical issues.

Balancing Obligations and Desirable Engagements
Balance obligations and spending time with loved ones; especially, loved ones with a significant role in life. Plan each day by writing each event, commitment, obligation, and list of items needing completed in a planner. While doing this, implement a block of free time to decompress, and to balance unexpected shifts and obligations along the way. Each will reduce stress and assist in balancing emotions, energy, and mental health. Consider taking vacation and/or personal days if they are available and will not contribute to more stress at another time of the year. Doing so will allow for balancing commitments, downtime, and increase the opportunity to decompress after the holiday.

Continue nutritional habits (refrain from inflammation supporting foods), regular exercise, activities, and incorporating healthy sleep cycles. For long trips, bring snacks and water. In addition, when offered to stay with family and/or friends, consider personal comfort. For example, if one partner feels uncomfortable due to personalities, temperament, family dynamics, and/or if children get tired and need rest, consider staying at a hotel for the night. Make it fun for the family and have awareness of individual feelings, thought processes, and how daily function is potentially impacted. When setting boundaries, be kind, gracious, and genuine. Avoid using children as an excuse – be accountable for individual feelings, emotions, comfort, values, setting boundaries, avoiding “ the shoulds,” and saying no when necessary.

When the Ornaments Are Boxed
After the ornaments are put away, and daily life moves forward, it’s important to consider what to do with unprocessed feelings and emotions, and the grief and loss of the passing season. Begin to navigate the cognitive steps towards healing by seeking out the support of family, friends, community, and a therapeutic relationship. Focusing on gratitude (what is present over what is void), resuming daily activities, and seeking out strong supports assists with this process greatly.

In conclusion, the holidays are layered with complex emotions and meaning; simultaneously filled with the potential to grapple with increased symptoms of mental health and medical issues, stress, loneliness, and the innate desire to connect, share, give, and experience intimate feelings of belonging. Consider the benefits to being mindful that each person’s life experiences, environment, genetic predisposition, personality, temperament, supports, family and friends, and dynamics are different. Ultimately, develop awareness and engage realistically regarding the pleasures and difficulties associated with the holidays – allow for positive interactions to happen organically towards a more genuine and enjoyable experience. 

References
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Benson, H. 1979. The Mind/Body Effect. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Benson, H., & Klipper, M. Z. (2000). The Relaxation Response. New York: William Morrow.
Wolford, K. (2015). Relaxation response: Herbert Benson. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health.

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Mandi is a therapist with over 6 years experience working with adults, couples, older adults, adolescents, and first responders. Mandi works with an array of issues, and is passionate about supporting others. She feels strongly that human-beings benefit from the experiences of learning, growing, and developing throughout each stage of life.

People are celebrating Thanksgiving day
Christy Gualtieri

Holiday Self-Care

It’s that time of year again! Pumpkin-spiced everything’s been overtaken by chocolate peppermint; the sun won’t come out all day again until March; and shopping malls are striking up the Christmas songs and lining families up for photos with Santa.

It’s time for family gatherings, class parties, and office gift exchanges – and before you know it, it’s time to meet up again for celebrations ringing in the New Year. It’s a lot, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed!

The holidays can be difficult for everyone for a wide variety of reasons.  Here are a few tips to help you through the next few weeks!

  1. Breathe. I know, I know. It sounds so basic. But aside from it being the most important thing you ever do (…because what happens if you don’t?), it’s important to do it slowly.  Slow breathing is key to calming your overexcited nervous systems and keeping your mind clear. (For a visual, it’s helpful to slowly breathe in like you’re luxuriously smelling a flower, and to breathe out like you’re blowing out a candle.)
  2. Give yourself space. If you’re at a gathering and you need a break from time to time, take one! You don’t need permission – you’re a grown-up! Just do it. When you’re eating a sit-down meal, seat yourself (or ask to be seated – I don’t know how fancy the party is!) at the end of the table or nearest the doorway so you don’t have to crawl over fifty people to get some fresh air. Take a few minutes to yourself, also with some calming breaths if you need them, and rejoin the activity when you’re ready – not when someone else is dragging you back in.
  3. Share your feelings – either with yourself by writing them down or drawing them in a sketchbook, or by opening up to someone who is close to you and who you know will try their best to help you feel better. Getting your fears, worries, frustrations, and your grief out in the open will keep you from bottling them up inside and making you sick.
  4. Drink more water. Full disclosure: water is my least favorite drink and I know how hard it is to make an effort to drink more if you don’t like to, but it really is important. It flushes out stress hormones and really cold water will give you something to focus on as a distraction from over-anxiety. It’s also a good idea to drink a glass or two in between samplings of holiday punch!
  5. Look at a calendar. Because shopping is such an integral part of the American holiday experience – and because companies essentially lose an extra shopping week due to a late Thanksgiving this year – holiday sales and holiday everything seems to be in the air for an extremely long amount of time. It’s perfectly okay to realize that the holiday season, if it is a hard time of year for you, will end this year. Hanukkah does last for eight days and there are twelve days of Christmas, but the celebrations will eventually come to an end…and there is a brand new year just around the corner waiting for you to enjoy it.

No matter how you spend your holidays, remember to find something in your life for which you’re thankful. It may be family, it may be your home or your job or something as simple as your streaming service subscription – but no matter the thing, focus on the thankfulness – and keep looking for more!

Until next time, be well!
Christy

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eTalkTherapy - talk with a counselor online

About the author: Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children. Christy also blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com and tweets @agapeflower117. You can  follow her here on eTalkTherapy for inspirational articles and different perspectives as they relate to good mental health.