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Arleen Fitzgerald - Behavioral Health

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Contributing Experts

Arleen Fitzgerald, L.I.C.S.W.

Behavioral Health

Meditation: Should you try some om at home?

Posted by Arleen Fitzgerald – June 20, 2012

You don't have to be a Zen master to benefit from a quieter, more peaceful mind.

Meditation, an ancient mind-body practice, may do wonders to relieve modern-day stress – and enhance overall well-being.

In general, meditation involves learning to focus your attention. And, yes, it's been done for thousands of years. But, research on the benefits of this practice is still ongoing.

It has been shown to produce positive changes in the body. For example, meditation may:

  • Produce a calming, relaxing response
  • Stimulate "feel-good" areas of the brain
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve blood flow and digestion
  • Increase the ability to concentrate during everyday tasks

Some research suggests meditation may be helpful in easing stress and certain conditions, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Chronic pain
  • Insomnia

Some people with chronic illnesses – such as cancer and heart disease – also use it to help cope with physical and emotional symptoms.

Quiet your mind

If you'd like to give meditation a try, you can learn forms of it from classes, books, CDs, DVDs or online programs. But, you can also practice mindfulness on your own. Some basics for beginners:

  • Find a peaceful place. A quiet, distraction-free zone is best.
  • Get comfortable. Find a relaxing position. You might avoid lying down – if you think you'll fall asleep.
  • Focus your attention. Some people choose a word, phrase or sound – a mantra, such as om – to repeat aloud or silently. Others just concentrate on their breathing – or visualize a pleasing setting.
  • Don't worry about perfection. It's normal to be distracted, especially at first. Masters of meditation say the art is in letting your thoughts just come and go – without mulling them over.
  • Give it time. You might start small – with five-minute blocks of time, for example. As you become more practiced, work up to longer sessions.
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Attention, please! 4 tips for mindful eating

Posted by Arleen Fitzgerald – June 7, 2012

When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, the word is out: Mindful eating is in. But, what exactly does that mean?

We all know its opposite – mindless eating. That's what we're doing when we gobble a turkey sandwich at our computers or munch an entire bag of chips in front of the TV. We're putting food into our mouths without really thinking.

Mindful eating, on the other hand, is recognizing when we're actually hungry – and giving each bite our full attention. Experts say when we do this, we tend to consume less food – maybe as much as one-third less. And, that's good news for anyone who's also trying to be mindful of an expanding waistline.

Asking the question: Am I hungry?

We eat for nourishment. But, many of us also reach for food when we're bored, stressed, upset, lonely or sad – or just because it's there. Sometimes, we may also confuse thirst with hunger.

Tracking what you eat for a few days may help you recognize patterns – and know when you're truly hungry.

Being more mindful

When you are hungry, here are four strategies to help you slow down and fully appreciate your meals:

  1. Put distractions on the back burner. What fights for your attention at mealtime? Maybe you need to turn off the TV or your cell phone. Or, set aside the newspaper, your laptop or that great book you're reading.
  2. Engage all your senses. Arrange a nice place setting – even if you're dining alone. You might even light some candles. And, play some soft music. As you eat, relish the experience. Maybe you notice the distinct aroma of curry, the tang of lemon on seared tuna, the deep red of a cherry tomato.
  3. Enjoy every bite. Cut large items into smaller pieces. Chew thoroughly as you savor each morsel.
  4. Tune in to your tummy. It takes 15 to 20 minutes for your brain to receive the message "That's enough." So, eat at a leisurely pace. Set your fork down between bites. Sip some water. Stop eating before you feel full.
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How to Survive the Holiday Seasons

Posted by Arleen Fitzgerald – Nov. 21, 2011

We were so happy that so many of you took time from your busy schedules to attend the How to Survive the Holiday Seasons seminar on Nov. 16. Here are the questions that I was not able to answer during the webinar:

What are the ways stress affects our bodies?

Stress can affect every body system, cell breakdown, blood pressure; it can contribute to developing depression and to increased consumption of high fat, high sugar foods. It can make managing any chronic health condition, such as diabetes, more difficult. We cannot avoid stress in our lives, but we can learn coping skills for how to deal with stress. Just keep in mind that what may be stressful for you may not be stressful for another person, so don't make comparisons.

Is there a progression of stress symptoms or do they manifest themselves at any time when we are under stress?

There is usually a progression of stress symptoms, but this is a very individual thing. How you respond to a stressful event can depend on your past experiences with the stressor, how you have learned to handle stress, and what your "organ of vulnerability" is-such as getting headaches versus stomach distress when feeling stressed.

The most important thing is to be knowledgeable about how you respond to stress and be aware of signs that your body or mind is sending you that you need to slow down or take a break.

I'm worried about how I'm going to get everything done. Any suggestions?

Being worried already can contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy. What specifically is bothering you the most? How can you best manage those worries? Some suggestions are:

  • Create a "to do" checklist with dates by which things need to be done
  • Follow your "to do" checklist and check in with yourself to see if you are on target. If you are behind, who or what can help out?
  • Set realistic expectations. Nobody has the "perfect holiday"
  • Remember it's okay to say no to requests from others

There are so many tempting foods around the holidays. I'm worried about putting on the holiday pounds. Any recommendations?

You are not alone-gaining weight during the holidays is what leads most people to join a gym or sign up for a yoga class for their New Year's resolution.

    Try to set realistic goal of keeping your weight the same Indulge in two or three favorite foods and keep portions small. Sometimes all we really need is a taste. Be choosy about what you will indulge in. Remember there will be another holiday season when all these foods will be available again next year. Try some of the relaxation exercises recommended in the webinar if you find your willpower slipping. Buddy up with a friend who has the same problem and be a support system for each other during the holidays.

My son is being deployed in the military in January. It's difficult to feel happy about the holidays knowing he will be leaving come the New Year.

It is very normal and natural to feel a sense of loss when anticipating that something will change. Think of what holiday traditions made you happy during your childhood, talk to your son about what is most meaningful for him. Be proactive in having discussions about how you can be a support to him during his deployment. Is he worried about how his family will fare with his being away? Seek help in your community for volunteers who may shovel the sidewalk, rake up leaves or assist in taking the children to their sporting or arts events. Ask your son how he wants you to communicate with him-does he like getting letters, having you send current paperback books and magazines, or is e-mail or Skype the best form of communication?

Think of some things that you can set up now that you can look forward to doing when he is deployed. Search for support in the community or online for how to handle deployments. There is a wealth of information out there for you and military families.

How can I deal with conflicting priorities of work and family and holiday activities? How can employers help reduce stress for their employees?

Many companies are well aware of how stretched their employees are during the holidays and most bosses are willing to let employees take time off to get ready for the holidays. But keep in mind that business needs don't stop because of the holidays. Managers must have a certain number of employees at the worksite even during the holiday times. Some managers will ask their people in September when people want to take off during the holidays and may have to modify approvals since not everyone can be off the week of the holidays. End of year business needs, such as reports and budgets, can also contribute to the sense of conflicting priorities. Be as proactive as you can be in knowing what is expected of you at the end of the year and try to get as many of those things done ahead of time, if possible.

Remember to do the deep breathing exercises, set realistic goals and expectations and ask for help when you need it.

How can I deal with post-holiday letdown?

It is not unusual to feel a sense of letdown after 8 weeks of constant motion and activity. You get back to your usual routine and the house looks empty after the holiday decorations are removed. Daylight is at its lowest peak during the post-holiday period and that can also contribute to a sense of loss and letdown.

  • Set up an activity now that you can look forward to after the holidays such as lunch with a friend, a massage, or a long walk with a friend who has also been busy during the holidays.
  • Keeping to your healthful lifestyle during the holidays can be a big help. Try to eat healthful foods and continue your regular exercise program.
  • Some families save their gift-giving until after the holidays. This may give you something to look forward to and help lessen the sense of holiday letdown.
  • You may want to keep your holiday decorations up longer. No one says they have to be removed the day after the holidays are over. Of course, if they are still up at Valentine's Day, you may have waited too long!
  • Keep expectations of the holidays in perspective and see your family gatherings through a reality lens. A lot of letdown is having unrealistic expectations of the holidays and then feeling a sense of loss when these expectations don't come through.

I'm already getting family pressure to host the next holiday, but I really don't want that level of responsibility. Help!

You may not have much control over this year's holiday hosting, but you can set the expectation that you won't be doing this next year. Having a sense of humor can be helpful. When others ask why you won't be hosting next year say "why should I have all the fun? " Let family members know that you will contribute to the holiday celebrations, but not be the host/hostess. Remember the story of the family that always cut off the end of the roast because "that's the way we've always done things". If you don't make a change and give them plenty of advance notice, chances are nobody in your family is ever going to volunteer. Take turns rotating the host/hostess duties.

How do I handle a remarriage in the family where there are now step-children involved?

Ask the parents what would be a good gift for the new family member. Select one name to buy for and let others shop for other children.

Give a family gift such as a puzzle or family game.

Can lay-a-way shopping lead to impulse buying?

Anything that makes shopping easier for us can lead to impulse buying. Have a budget established before the holidays and keep track of where you are with those goals. And just remember, the store won't let you take anything you haven't paid for by the time of the holidays. You may have to give a few items back if they don't fit into your budget.

I wish my husband would like to go shopping with me, but I always end up being disappointed with him. He does not get into the shopping excitement and usually hangs back.

There are people who enjoy shopping and those who hate it. It appears that your husband is in the later group. Expecting him to change will probably continue to lead to feelings of being disappointed.

Instead, why not ask him to come up with "guy gift" ideas and you shop for them? Or you could tie your holiday shopping with something that is pleasurable for him such as shopping followed by attending his favorite sporting event.

How do you let go of your holiday expectations?

Keep the holidays in perspective and work with your family to determine what is meaningful and important for you. We cannot control the expectations that others have, but we can control how we respond to them.

How do you know when holiday stress has become holiday depression?

You would be experiencing the following symptoms for at least two weeks-depressed mood, change in sleeping or eating habits, decreased interest, fatigue or having problems with concentration. If you or someone you know experiences this, have them check with their doctor and follow their recommendations.

How do I handle a mother-in-law that goes crazy with giving my kids expensive gifts each year?

Both you and your husband should sit down now with your mother-in-law to explain that you are trying to teach your children the value of money and the expectation that they will work for expensive items they "want" to have. Give your family advance notice that the holidays will be different this year. If your children are young, you can space out the gift giving and still have some left over after the holidays. Young children look forward to something that is new and different rather than being overwhelmed with so many gifts all at once.

How long do I have to stay at the upcoming family Thanksgiving dinner? What is a polite time frame after dessert?

Your host/hostess will certainly appreciate you providing some help with cleaning up. If everyone tends to sit around the table for 20 minutes after dessert, you be the one to say it's time to start cleaning up and get up from the table. Others will get the hint.

How can I help someone who is experiencing holiday stress?

Give them the website for source4women.com and have them listen to the webinar on how to survive the holidays. All the webinars are archived and you or they can listen to them at any time. Share some of the coping skills you learned in the webinar. Be a supportive listener. If you have concerns they may be depressed, help them get an appointment with their doctor.

Where can I find templates/checklists for getting organized for the holidays?

There are many resources available online by doing a general search for holiday organization. Local bookstores will also have books available on how to get organized for the holidays. Work with your most organized friend and get their suggestions (and maybe a copy of their checklist) for holiday organization. Create your own checklist this year to be ready for next year's holidays.

I've recently been diagnosed with depression. Should I significantly cut back on my usual holiday traditions?

Listen to your body and mind for clues of what they are telling you. Be choosy this year about what is truly important to you and learn to say "no" to things or invitations that are not. You may have to let go of one or two of your expectations this year, especially if you have just started on an anti-depressant. Keep in mind they usually take 4-8 weeks to get the full effect. Keep to an exercise routine and healthful eating during the holidays as that will help considerably with improving your depression. Perhaps this year, get the family out for a walk to see the neighborhood decorations rather than the usual drive-around. Back to top
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