May is #NationalMentalHealthAwareness month, and what better way to celebrate than by kicking stress to the curb? Here are 9 ways you can get started today!
Counseling. You knew it would make the list, right? So let’s get it out of the way. If you’ve got a counselor, schedule a check-in. If you’ve considered counseling but haven’t pulled the trigger, May is a great time to start! Check out my FAQ page to get the ball rolling.
Change your posture. Research shows that our body language can positively affect our brain chemistry! Sit more openly, take a superhero stance, smile, listen to a comedic podcast, watch some stand-up specials on Netflix, or hang out with your funny friends.
Snuggle up. Giving and receiving affection work wonders for stress reduction! You can start with something light, like giving a friend a hug or getting a massage. For the times when you need more, you can have meaningful conversations with someone you trust, or get flirty and physical with your partner. Love is pretty powerful stuff, and neurobiology is seriously cool.
Get moving! The weather in Pittsburgh is making the April showers/ May flowers shift, so it’s a wonderful time for me to get outside, take a run around the block, and dig around in the garden. Whatever your favorite activities are, schedule something this week.
Express yourself. Find a creative way to express your story: put on some music that speaks to you, play with something artsy (or try my favorite messy journal!), get messy, write a blog. Whatever you do, funnel your enthusiasm!
Get by with a little help from your friends. Social time is important, particularly with quality friends who are empathetic, supportive, and authentic. But start small! Greet someone when you pass on the sidewalk or smile at the person in the car next to you. It’s good for you to see smiling faces, and it’s good for the other people, too!
Belly breathing. Yep, it’s exactly as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s something you can do anytime (especially at work since that’s one of the top four stressors in Americans’ lives). Shallow, short breaths are often associated with stress, so slow things down and engage your tummy as you breathe. There are lots of apps to help guide your breathing. (You can check out my instagram for my favorites.)
Let it out. When is the last time you had a good cry? It might be time. Even if you don’t have access to tears on demand, you can always watch a movie or listen to a podcast that brings sadness to the surface. Our bodies cry to release things they can’t figure out how to mange, so why not?
Take a break. (insert naps here) Press pause on non-essentials: social media, social obligations, extra projects, even self-care if it feels like more of a burden than a help. By temporarily stepping away, you free your mind to spend energy on other things, like using different approaches to solving problems.
Give one (or all nine!) of these a shot, and share your favorites with a friend.
Is it cool with you if I use Marie Kondo’s name as a verb? It’s a pretty big compliment, I think– that a person could have such a great impact that simply hearing her name conveys a powerful message. We love you, Marie Kondo, for helping us fold laundry with intention and hold onto things that spark joy.
Back in 2016, Kondo wrote this article about her 6 rules of tidying. One visit to my house, and you’d discover I’m not one of her great success stories. But one visit to my office, and I could show you how crucial her rules are for tidying up our relationships. But why wait?! The day after Easter is a great time to start cleaning house… your emotional house, at least.
1- Commit to the task at hand. Healthy relationships take work. Counseling requires effort. Healing is messy. Progress isn’t linear. But once you commit to tidying your life and relationships, you can partner with professionals and develop strategies to help you succeed along the way. Go all in. That doesn’t mean you’ll do it perfectly; it just means you’re committed.
2- Imagine your ideal lifestyle. More friends? Less drama? More time? Less fluff? More meaning? It’s important to know your “why,” your purpose for Marie Kondo-ing your life. Without that big-picture vision, you’re more likely to fall off the wagon and right back into old habits and toxic relationships. Make a vision board, ‘pin’ things that speak to the future you see for yourself, journal, vlog… whatever your thing is, do it in a way that encapsulates your vision.
3- Discard. This sounds much more harsh when talking about relationships than clutter, I know. Let’s clarify. When Marie talks about discarding, she generally doesn’t intend for people to put everything they own in a dumpster and start over. She encourages people to approach messes with intentionality, only letting things hang around if they meet certain criterion. We can assess our relationships similarly. Are you holding onto toxic relationships just to use or be used? Are there acquaintances in your life who take without giving? (Not to be confused with a person in a difficult season, because I’ll be the first to tell you we’ll all be that person at least once in our lives) I desire healthy reconciliation for virtually every broken relationship, but that doesn’t mean it’s possible. Hope isn’t the same thing as genuine forgiveness and reconciliation. If a relationship is messy, that doesn’t mean it needs to be tossed; it means it’s probably time to reassess your level of investment.
4- Tidy by category, not location. Take inventory of all you’ve got. Check out your friends lists, your recently texted contacts, your followers, the people you may know. Popularity isn’t the same as emotional depth or security. So, where are your messy spots in life? Where have you taken in too much? What areas have you neglected? Check yourself and make sure you’ve been investing in real relationships with real people, because when the (hopefully-not-)real crap hits the fan, you’re going to need real people in your corner.
5- Follow the right order. To be clear, save the most emotional stuff for last. If you want to practice healthy boundaries, it’s wise to start by saying no to someone at the grocery store, not taking a bold stand at a family dinner (although that’s sometimes necessary, too). If you’re in an abusive relationship, plan first. None of these things are meant to be done in haste.
6- Does it spark joy? This is probably the single phrase Marie Kondo is best known for. I’ve often advised clients in criris: “If it doesn’t bring peace or joy during this difficult season, then don’t do it yet.” It’s not about what you’re pushing out of your life, it’s about the things and people you’re keeping closest to your heart.
Have you taken inventory and tried to clean house in your personal life? Share these ideas with a friend and try Marie Kondo-ing things for a while. PS: counseling is a great place to come up with a game plan!
I recently had the privilege of speaking to a group of Pittsburgh women about grief, loss, depression, and the effects these things can have on all of us. Truthfully, grief is everywhere, and today I’d like to make space for some of the most common losses as well as specific types of grief that don’t usually get the attention they deserve.
The death of anyone close to us can shake our worlds, but grief isn’t always so straightforward. What about broken relationships? Loss due to moving or changing jobs? Do we validate people who have lost pets? Unborn children? We grieve expectations when life doesn’t go as planned. We grieve phases of life as we let go of the old and step into the new or unknown (singleness, menopause). We grieve roles as we lose them (parent, spouse, child, sibling). We grieve spiritually as well, especially if there has been wounding in our church. Other types of grief exist, so let me lay them out for you.
Anticipatory grief. This refers to the drawn out period when we know death of a loved one is imminent. A blogger once wrote: “To suffer a loved one’s long death is not to experience a single traumatic blow, but to suffer a thousand little deaths, tiny pinpricks, each a shot of grief you hope will inoculate against the real thing.” There’s a heaviness we carry for that extended period of time that we hope will be enough…and then it’s not.
Traumatic grief. We are not only experiencing loss, but are also traumatized by it, such as a violent, unexpected, or deeply painful death. Our fight, flight, or freeze responses kick in. Logic shuts down, and life becomes about survival.
Compounded grief. This occurs when grief piles up over a period of time and negatively affects the way we experience emotions and cope with life. We become numb, irritable, shut down, irrationally in denial, checked out, or even manic. Piles of grief are overwhelming to all our senses.
Ambiguous loss. There are two types of ambiguous loss. The first is when someone is psychologically present but physically absent, such as when a loved one is deployed. They’re present in our minds even though they’re physically somewhere else. Singleness also fits into this category when someone desires to be in a relationship because a person’s mind can be focused on the idea of a future spouse even if the person has not shown up yet. It’s particularly difficult because there is room for hope as long as a person lives, so the only solution is the thing being longed for. The second type of ambiguous loss is when a loved one is physically present but psychologically absent, such as when someone has dementia. They’re bodies are in front of us, but psychologically they’re not. It’s very difficult to have one foot on each side of the line, both present and absent.
Disenfranchised (aka Invalidated) grief. This type encompasses losses that often aren’t seen as being worthy of grief. A non-death loss, like relocation, fits here. Loss of a relationship that is stigmatized fits here too, such the divorce of a partner following an extramarital affair. It’s easier to vilify and dismiss that person than to help a friend grieve the relationship. This category also fits losses where the mechanism of death is stigmatized, such as when a person completes suicide, suffers an overdose death, or loss by abortion. And what about when the person grieving is not recognized as a griever? Co-workers and ex-partners usually fit here. When the people grieving are stigmatized (ie: if they have no outward grief response or have extreme grief responses), the usually fall into this category. See how many people have been falling through the cracks when we don’t make space for them?
Odds are, we’re all grieving something at almost every stage of life. Make space for your mess, make space for the messes of others, and let’s face all of it together.
It’s painful to watch someone struggle, especially people we love. People may struggle with mental illness for many reasons: genetic predisposition, body chemistry, life circumstance. No matter the reason, there are ways we can help.
1- Know potential signs of mental illness. Although these things aren’t exclusively signs of mental illness, it can be helpful to keep these things in mind: Feeling sad or down. Confused thinking. Reduced focus and concentration. Excessive fear, worry, or guilt. Mood highs and lows. Significant increase or decrease in sleep. Paranoia. Impulsive, risky choices. Drug or alcohol abuse. Suicidal thinking. Excessive anger, hostility, or violence. Major changes in eating habits. Reduced pleasure in activities. Inability to cope with daily stress. If you see some of these showing up in a friend’s life, keep reading.
2- Be a person who assists in getting help. To start, you can offer to help make phone calls and screen counselors using online services. You could babysit while your friend attends therapy sessions, or even volunteer to go with him if he feels nervous going alone. Encourage your friend to see a primary care physician for regular screenings and medical care. What about when things escalate or you see symptoms increasing? If you’ve browsed my website, you’ve probably seen my extensive list of crisis resources that covers everything from PFAs to domestic violence shelters that accommodate pets. But if you’re ever unsure where to start, please call the Re:Solve Crisis Network (888-796-8226). They want you to call “before a crisis becomes a crisis,” so you don’t need to feel weird about it. They can help make sure your friend is safe or point toward resources that might be a better fit. Re:Solve is also an option if you’re unsure whether your friend is in immediate danger or may be expressing an intense emotional experience without intent to complete suicide. It’s not your judgment call, so just contact someone at Re:Solve. Oh, and please don’t be afraid to call 9-1-1 (or drive to the hospital) if someone is in danger.
3- Avoid cliches. Pray about it. Just have faith. It could always be worse. Isn’t it about time to let that go/ get over it? God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. You get it. If you’ve never suffered with mental illness, don’t pretend to know what your friend is going through. It’s better to say other things, such as, I wish I knew what to say. Can I sit with you? I’m here with you, and you aren’t alone. Here’s a funny meme I saw yesterday.
4- Don’t use illnesses as adjectives. Can we acknowledge how simple yet profound that is? When you see someone struggling in a social situation, don’t call him autistic. When that guy at work is acting totally self-absorbed, don’t call him a narcissist. Stop calling your friend bipolar because she was happy yesterday but feels sad today. When said like that, it sounds like you don’t understand the diagnoses associated with such disorders. Plus, you aren’t qualified to diagnose your friend, and even if someone else has talked to her about that diagnosis, she is not her illness. So cut it out. Oh, and don’t use the “c” word (‘crazy,’ in case you needed clarification). Admittedly, that has been the most difficult one for me to shift. It has become so normalized in our culture that it’s difficult to remove from the vernacular. Instead try to say things like, “That game last night was intense!” or, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and unsteady right now,” or, “Her behavior has seemed erratic to me lately.” We’ve got options, not excuses. For more examples of words to avoid, here’s a list. The reason this language shift is important is because it will eventually lead to a cultural change and end stigmas attached to mental illness. No matter the type or severity of a friend’s mental illness, that person doesn’t need to feel sensationalized.
5- Belonging. Include your friend when making plans. Invite him to hang out even if you’re sure he will say no. Save a spot for him at the table, and then allow him to sit in silence if he needs to. Making space for someone who is struggling is invaluable, especially when they’re entering into that space with authenticity and vulnerability. Companionship fights the lies that thrive when a person is isolated.
6- Love. This looks different for everyone. If you’re comfortable enough with the person to ask, then consider something like, “I’m trying to find a way to express to you that I care about you and that you aren’t alone in this. Can you think of any specific ways I could do that which would be particularly meaningful to you?” But, maybe not. Maybe your friend feels unlovable, can’t put words to what she needs, or isn’t responsive. Luckily, the five love languages aren’t just for sweethearts. If you know your friend’s love language, focus your efforts there. If you’re unsure, try something in each of the five areas and see what sticks. Or, if you’re comfortable enough in the relationship, just ask. Again, seeing your friend as a person beyond the mental illness is key here. Allow your friend to have a voice wherever possible.
7- Boundaries. This may be more important than you realize. (Check out my detailed blog about boundaries here.) When it comes to supporting friends struggling with mental illness, the more the merrier! Nonexistent boundaries will leave us burned out and exhausted. Rigid boundaries shut out our loved ones. But with a balanced approach, we spend as much time investing in self-care as we invest in caring for others. It’s the old put on your oxygen mask before helping the person next to you analogy. A wise step here is to align yourself with the primary caretakers. If your friend is living with parents or a spouse, ask those people how you can be helpful, or share concerns with them when you see things that are a little off. And definitely support your friend’s family! Take a meal, bring coffee, send a text, write a note: the possibilities are endless.
8- Grace and understanding. Plans may change at the last minute. A yes may turn into a no. Leave space for that. Treat a friend with mental illness similarly to how you’d treat that friend if he or she had a cold or the flu: graciously.
9- Nonpredatory behavior. This should probably go without saying, but don’t take advantage of people suffering with mental illness. Don’t use your friend’s phobia to prove a point. Don’t use someone in a manic state to finish painting your living room. Don’t use someone who has been traumatized to normalize your own experience. Don’t use your friend abusing alcohol to have a party buddy when you feel lonely.
10- Be present, and ask your friend. As with many issues in our culture, the most obvious answer is often the most overlooked. Show up! keep your word and follow through. When you’re not sure what your friends need, just ask. They may not have clear answers right away, but it’s worth a shot. At the end of the day, there’s no perfect formula. Here are some conversation starters to consider:
What have been helpful things you’ve done for a friend? How has someone helped you? Spend some time today thinking about a specific person in your life and how you might take a balanced approach to supporting that person.
Today’s guest blogger is Heather McCutcheon, an advocate for autism acceptance, understanding, and inclusion. Her now 4-year-old daughter Bella was diagnosed with autism at age two. Since then, she has devoted much of her time researching and learning about ASD so she can be the best caregiver possible to her daughter. She has another daughter, a 1-year-old, and keeps her on her toes, as toddlers tend to do. Heather and her husband are raising their daughters in Central Florida, which means they get to frequently visit local theme parks (their favorites are Disney World and SeaWorld, of course!) as well as enjoy fun outdoor activities together such as boating, hiking, and going to the beach. Heather spends most of her days taking care of their two beautiful children and driving to school, therapies, church activities, ballet class, soccer practice, and other activities. Heather has a degree in Health and Biomedical Sciences, and she works part time at a local hospital where she has the opportunity to share her heart and care for people outside of her own family as well. Please join me in learning from her family’s story, her firsthand wisdom, and the knowledge she has gained from years within the community.
Happy April! We have survived the tricks and pranks of April Fools Day, and I’m writing this on April 2nd, World Autism Day. This day was sanctioned by the United Nations as an official day of observance for worldwide autism awareness and acceptance in 2007. The entire month of April, in fact, is recognized as World Autism Month among most advocacy groups.
Believe it or not, within the world of autism advocacy, there is lot of divisiveness and disagreement about exactly how one should go about raising awareness. Some people are against using the word awareness at all, and prefer to replace it with acceptance. Personally, I use a combination of both terms. Some will “light it up blue,” but because that campaign is associated with Autism Speaks, an organization that many advocates for autism and actual autistic individuals have spoken out against for a number of reasons. Some people go #redinstead, or will represent support by donning a ribbon with a multi-colored puzzle piece pattern. Again, nothing is universal and therefore some advocates reject the puzzle piece symbol as well, particularly autistic adults, citing reasons that it portrays autism as something that only affects children, and that autistic individuals are people, not puzzles. These groups often use an infinity symbol in place of the puzzle piece. There is even a debate on terminology- is it person with autism, or autistic? Professionals trained to work with children on the spectrum (therapists, educators, etc.) are taught to use person-first language, while many adults on the spectrum prefer identity-first language (i.e., autistic). On social media, the hashtag #actuallyautistic is used frequently by adults on the spectrum. The debate really boils down this: there are some who view autism spectrum disorder as just that- a disorder. Therefore, it is implied that autism is something wrong, that needs to be fixed. The opposing view of that is the idea of neurodiversity. That autistic people just have a difference in the way their minds work, but are not broken. The thought is that autism is simply a normal, natural variance in the human genome. Steve Silberman, author of the New York Times bestselling book Neurotribes – The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, explains it this way: “the concept of neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.”
Regardless of the differences in the world of autism advocacy, the bottom line for most is to educate more people about autism, in order to make the world a more accommodating place for autistic individuals. The awareness aspect should focus on speaking out against discrimination against individuals with autism. The goal should be about promoting a kinder and more accepting outlook on autism. As an advocate myself, my goals are to promote understanding of what autism truly is, and to encourage inclusion for individuals on the autism spectrum. For example, far too often you will see a news story of a teacher or aide who has physically mistreated an autistic student. If you see these stories on social media and read the comment section, time and again commenters will say something to the effect of “a child like that shouldn’t be in a public school anyway, they are a distraction to all the normal kids!” Seriously, I see comments of this nature so often. Proof that we are nowhere near a place of acceptance and inclusion. Another example, is that an unfortunate attribute of children on the spectrum is the tendency to wander off. This trait combined with a lack of fear, and an attraction to water often results in tragic endings of accidental drowning deaths. These devastating stories are on the news far too often. Leave it to the keyboard warriors though, to comment about these tragedies that they have more to do with neglectful parenting than anything. The people who say this clearly have no real knowledge of what autism is and how it affects children. Again, a clear indication that we have a long way to go to help educate the public.
I’d love to take this opportunity to share some ways you can help.
1. Educate yourself! Start by watching Temple Grandin’s TedTalk. Then, choose a book about autism to read this month. Here are a few book recommendations: The Reason I Jump by Naomi Higashida. Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism by Barry M. Prizant, Ph.D. Odd Girl Out: My Extraordinary Autistic Life by Laura James. Neurotribes by Steve Silberman. Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin, Ph.D, and The Autistic Brain, also authored by Dr. Grandin. Another favorite of mine is Life, Animated by Ron Suskind. Life, Animated was also made into a documentary of the same name that is available on DVD through Amazon and is worth the watch!
2. Educate your children. Teach them young about differences. Teach them about inclusion. Encourage them to be kind to the boy who doesn’t communicate verbally, or the little girl who flaps her hands and never makes eye contact. Teach them why that little girl has those behaviors that are a bit unusual. Teach them to be friends with those children. Take them to those kids’ birthday parties. If you have toddler or preschool aged children, I would suggest introducing your child to the Sesame Street character, Julia. Sesame Street recently developed a wonderful initiative to teach children about autism. There are great tools at autism.sesamestreet.org to help parents teach their children about autism. Another thing I recommend is getting the children’s book The Girl Who Thought in Pictures by Julia Finley Mosca. It is the biographical real life story of Dr. Temple Grandin, renowned animal scientist, livestock consultant, college professor, author, and autism advocate. Grandin herself has autism, and this fun little book explains a bit about her childhood on the spectrum.
3. Get involved. Take action by supporting programs that provide resources to autistic individuals. Learn about the programs or organizations in your local area and find out ways you can help. There are resources that help parents of newly diagnosed children navigate their way through the foreign territory of therapies and IEPs. There are scholarship programs designed to help students with special needs attend private schools that may be a better fit for their needs. There are camps for children with special needs. There are organizations who help with job placement for autistic adults. The list goes on, and I encourage you to research the programs like these in your area and reach out to them to learn how you can help.
4. Don’t jump to conclusions. 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with autism. If you speak to a child and the child doesn’t respond or make eye contact, don’t assume the child is being rude. Stop to consider that they may be autistic. The same can hold true for adults on the spectrum too. If you see an uncontrollable child throw a tantrum in public, don’t assume the child is a spoiled brat. You may be witnessing an actual sensory meltdown happening to someone with autism. If you don’t like seeing children with screens in front of their face in public places, consider they may have sensory issues, and the only way they can tolerate being in a restaurant or grocery store at all is by using a phone or tablet as a distraction from the loud noises, the bright fluorescent lighting, the crowds of people, and other factors that can lead to sensory overload. Please try not to judge children and parents in similar scenarios to these, as you simply don’t know their story. Autism is very complex. I could never even begin to break down the misconceptions about ASD that I have encountered in just four years of parenting an autistic child. The bottom line is, instead of passing judgment and making assumptions, learn more about autism and always be kind.
As an advocate for autism acceptance and a mother of an amazing autistic child, my main goal is to make the world a better place for my daughter to grow up in. Autism is a spectrum, meaning every person on that spectrum will be unique. This is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis, and it can be really difficult to navigate in the early years after a diagnosis is made. Doctors don’t hand you a guidebook when they diagnose your child with ASD, and parents are left navigating their way through uncharted territory. I quickly realized, the best tour guide of this journey would be our daughter. The best way to learn about autism is to know and love someone on the spectrum. My 4-year-old child’s brain is fascinating. She doesn’t always respond when people speak to her. She doesn’t typically look people in the eyes. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t listening. Bella has some seriously impressive memorization skills. She memorizes books after we read them to her only two or three times. She memorizes entire movies, every word! She has amazing talents and I’m excited to discover more of her strengths and abilities as she grows. The reality is that despite these strengths, people will tend to see her differences as weaknesses, and those will overshadow everything else. I don’t want her to be isolated because she is different. I want the world to recognize her differences as something to celebrate and embrace. I hope Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month will continue to educate people about acceptance and inclusion. In Temple Grandin’s TedTalk on the topic, she summarized it best when she said “The world needs all kinds of minds.”
Callahan, M. (2018, July 12). ‘Autistic person’ or ‘person with autism’: Is there a right way to identify people? Retrieved from https://news.northeastern.edu/2018/07/12/unpacking-the-debate-over-person-first-vs-identity-first-language-in-the-autism-community/
Robison, J. E. (2013, October 7). What is Neurodiversity? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/my-life-aspergers/201310/what-is-neurodiversity
Silberman, S. (2015). Neurotribes. St Leonards: ALLEN & UNWIN.
United Nations, main body, General Assembly. (2007, December 18). Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/ga/