Preventing Social Isolation to Protect our Mental Health

We are living in an uncertain time. Today’s children will tell their grandchildren about the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and how everything stood still for a period of time: schools and libraries closed, store shelves emptied, and almost everyone stayed home. The purpose of this “social distancing” was to protect one another and stop the spread of disease. 

That’s where we are today, and putting space between us will work to flatten the curve if we all do it. With that said, there are some real downsides of staying apart even for relatively healthy people with safe homes, Internet access, and plenty of food.* Interpersonal connection is a key component to human wellbeing, and social isolation is a risk to mental health. At a time when it is absolutely necessary to socially distance, many more people than usual will experience the rippling effects of loneliness.

Depressed Teen Impacts School Performance

The good news is that there are ways to decrease the effects of social isolation. Here are some strategies for staying well while figuring out this (temporary) new normal. 

  1. Ramp up your virtual communication with friends, family members, and co-workers. This is especially effective if you can see one another, so try using apps like Skype, Facetime, and Zoom for video calls and conferencing whenever possible. We are also seeing an increase in individual and group therapy sessions taking place online so that people can start or maintain mental health care. Here is a listing of virtual recovery meetings, for example: Online AA Meetings During COVID-19
  2. Get outside. Interacting with others even from quite a distance is beneficial to our wellbeing. Waving to people across the street or when biking past them gives our brains the feeling that we are interacting and boosts mood. Try some Spring yard cleanup, pulling the bikes out of storage, or even some apartment building sing-a-longs like we have seen from our friends in Italy.
  3. Create a schedule and shared objectives. It may go without saying that people do better with routines, but did you know that working toward common goals with others is also a protective factor for health? Work on a puzzle with your roommate. Play board games or trivia in teams via Google Hangouts. Create a solo workout plan that a friend will also follow and then check in on your mutual progress each day. Plan, start, and finish a project around the house. (Give an air high-five when you check it off your list!)

Most importantly, remember that this situation is new, and we are all just figuring it out as we go. Taking daily actions to stay connected will protect our individual and collective mental health. And then, perhaps, the ways we pulled together – from a distance – to prevent social isolation will also be part of the pandemic story for future generations. 

What are you going to do to take care of yourself during this hard time? 

Blog written by Sarah Souder Johnson, MEd, LPCC, therapist at Sentier Psychotherapy

*For local readers in the Twin Cities, here are some helpful links to food and safety resources:

Free meals for kids at local restaurants

Child care services division of Department of Human Services; hotline: 651-297-1304

Expanded hotspot capabilities for internet access

Mindfulness During COVID-19 Pandemic

How to Stay Grounded During this Stressful Time

In the United States, we are in the midst of a nationwide response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though necessary, being apart from others comes with a significant risk to mental health. Many people are also experiencing increased health anxiety in general. Others have new or continuing financial insecurity or even loss of jobs. Not leaving the house removes the ability to escape from problems at home when home isn’t a safe place. And the necessary “social distancing” we all have to do promotes withdrawal and the loneliness that can follow. (Read our other blog post about social connection.)

It is normal to feel out of sync with yourself at this time. Thankfully, there are some relatively simple ways to connect with yourself and start to feel better. One way to do so is through a practice called mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is the state of being aware. A leader in the field named Jon Kabat-Zinn says that mindfulness is awareness of the present moment without judgment. It is when we purposely pay attention to what is happening in the here and now without a determination that anything is right or wrong. It helps us respond wisely to things that are happening to us instead of just reacting blindly. Since a lot of things are currently happening to us that are not within our control, we can all benefit from starting – or increasing – our mindfulness practice. 

We wanted to share a few resources we often use in therapy and suggest for our clients at home: 

Here is a basic video describing mindfulness:

Why Mindfulness is a Superpower

Here is a brief video about mindfulness and meditation:

Headspace Meditation Tips

Your breath is one of the most important tools for achieving a calm state. Try this simple Breathing Box technique:

  • Inhale for 4 counts
  • Hold for 4 counts
  • Exhale for 4 counts
  • Hold for 4 counts
  • Repeat

Yoga is a spiritual practice that promotes mindfulness and connection between the brain and body. Here are a few video sites we use:

Cosmic Kids Yoga

Yoga with Adrienne

Yoga Ed.

Dr. Dan Siegel is a leader in the field of neuroscience and the brain-body connection. His website is full of wonderful resources including Everyday Mindsight guided meditations.

Apps we like:

Mindfulness Daily
Welzen – How Are You?
Insight Timer

Some books we like:

The Gift of Awareness: Mindfulness Guide for Women (it applies to everyone!)
By Caroline Welch

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
By Dan Siegel

I Am Peace
By Susan Verde

This one is great for children! Here it is read aloud by the author:

We hope you will build some mindfulness into each day as we face uncertain times ahead. A person’s body and mind are interconnected; you actually strengthen your immune systems when you use mindfulness, so it’s a win-win! What will you do to help yourself today?

Blog written by Sentier Psychotherapy therapist, Sarah Souder Johnson, MEd, LPCC

Home (from college) for the Holidays

Home (from College) for the Holidays

Winter break is around the corner. You imagine having time to unwind, sleep in, and decompress after final exams. You want to reconnect with high school friends and maybe just hang out with the family pet. Maybe you’ll work at your old job a bit to make some extra spending money for next semester or stop by your old high school to say hello. It all sounds pretty dreamy, but being back at home can be more challenging than many anticipate, especially for first-year college students.

Although many students welcome the thought of spending some quality time with their family, parents can have a much different idea of how much time together constitutes a sufficient amount to be “quality.” The long and short of it is that they might expect things to go back to how they used to be before you moved out. This can be very frustrating for a college student who is in the throes of becoming an independent adult (and seems to be doing a pretty good job at it thankyouverymuch!)

Here are some common scenarios that you might encounter going back and tips for how to handle each one:

  • You are exhausted after a difficult semester, and all you want is to catch up on your sleep. Parents may see this as laziness and wonder if all you do while at school is sleep. Obviously not—you work hard for school because you like it and it is important. Ask them not to come in and open the blinds at 8AM please—this is a VACATION after all—but you appreciate their hospitality and will of course help with some chores later.
  • If you have siblings at home, the family structure might have to reconfigure. For example, the middle sibling is now used to being the eldest, and for them it may be more of a drag than a delight to have big brother or sister home again. Let them know not to worry, because you’ll be out of the house soon enough. A friendly game of Monopoly or a trip to the mall together might break the ice and make it fun to be around one another again.
  • Be prepared to discuss money issues openly. Becoming financially independent is a process—a journey, really—with a lot of opportunities to learn and make mistakes. Maybe you bought 87 pizzas this semester when you only had enough money to buy 64. Budgeting is important—ask your parents to help you out or give you some pointers…not just more money.
  • Again, time may be an issue. You may be grabbing your coat to leave as your flabbergasted parents were about to get in bed. As author Karen Coburn state in Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years, “It’s tough on parents because even though they have grown used to not knowing what time their child comes back to her room when she’s away at college, parents can’t turn off their ‘worry button’ when it’s 2AM and the car isn’t back in the driveway. Parents don’t stop being parents. They worry about their child’s safety. It helps to come to an agreement that recognizes their child’s growing independence, as well as their own need not to worry.”
  • Talk to your parents about your experiences in college. Parents err on the side of educational and professional progress (i.e. asking about grades, teachers, and goals), so tell them about your favorite subjects, books, performances, or pieces of music that changed your life. Tell them the highlights of your semester and how you’ve changed; it can be rewarding for both of you to acknowledge your accomplishments. 
  • Try to make plans in advance. Family gatherings might interfere with social gatherings, so try to talk about things ahead of time so conflict is kept to a minimum.

Basically, the key is communication. Don’t be afraid to express how you like to do more things on your own now and to kindly request respect for your need to develop independence. That being said, try to also respect your parents’ necessity to be parents and to look out for your safety, success, and well-being. Do you feel equipped to head home for the holidays?! Good luck!

Blog was written by therapist Sarah Souder Johnson, MEd., LPCC 

DBT Therapy – What is it?

DBT Therapy – What is it?

Everyone’s talking about DBT, but what is it, exactly?  

You tell your friend about the recent behavioral issues your teen has been having, and they tell you that their child was in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and that it really worked!  They tell you that you should consider putting your child in DBT.  Your doctor refers your teen to DBT after he discover she has been cutting herself.  Your cousin, who is a therapist, suggests you look into DBT for your daughter after your daughter has an emotional outburst at the family reunion.  

Young teenager girl typing and messaging on her smartphone

You Google “DBT” online and find the same information over and over: It’s a cognitive behavioral treatment that was originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder and people who were chronically suicidal.  It’s now been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and substance use disorders.  It teaches mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness skills.  While all of the above is accurate and informative, chances are you still don’t have a clear understanding of what it is your teen will actually be getting out of DBT or how it will help your teen.  Let me try to help.   

DBT is a treatment approach meant to help those who might be more emotionally sensitive and reactive than the average person.  What do I mean by emotionally sensitive?  People who are emotionally sensitive tend to experience emotions more frequently and more intensely than others.  For example, when the average person gets cut off in traffic, they will likely feel frustrated or mad for a short time and then go back to thinking about what they were thinking about before they got cut off.   A person with high emotional sensitivity, however, may react by cursing, flicking the person off, and speeding up to pass and cut them off.  They may think about the event for hours after it happened. Another example is a person who plays the wrong key at their piano recital.  The average person would be embarrassed or disappointed in themselves, think about it for the evening, but sleep on it and move forward within the next couple of days. A person with high emotional sensitivity may become depressed, suicidal, and internalize this mistake by telling themselves that they are a screw up, a failure, and don’t deserve to be alive.  These intense feelings and thoughts may lead a person to engage in behaviors such as isolation, self-harm, substance use, or other unhealthy behaviors.  

The examples above show how being emotionally sensitive can negatively impact a person’s life. However, being emotionally sensitive can also be a very positive quality.  Feelings such as love, happiness and joy are felt more often and more intensely.  People who have high emotional sensitivity often exhibit characteristics such as kindness, creativity and empathy.  The goal of DBT is not to get rid of a person’s emotional sensitivity, it is to help a person learn how to manage these extreme emotions.  

A full DBT-intensive outpatient program includes weekly individual therapy, phone coaching calls between client and therapist and a weekly skills training group.  Typically these programs are anywhere from 6 months to 14 months in length.  Some programs, however, adapt DBT to fit the population in which they are serving.  For example, there are DBT groups that have been developed specifically for people struggling with substance abuse.  Many eating disorders treatment programs have been incorporating DBT into their programming to address problems specific to eating disorders.  We have adapted DBT to be more teen-friendly and meet the needs of adolescents who don’t need an intensive DBT program. What this means is that we don’t do coaching calls, we only meet once per week, and the teen is not required to be in individual therapy to be in the group. Our model is less intensive, more user friendly for today’s busy teens, and focuses on learning skills. Click here for more information about our next Teen DBT group in St. Paul.

This blog was written by a therapist at Sentier Psychotherapy

My Spring Break Was Cancelled 2021

So your spring break was cancelled. Possibly for the second time.

The first lockdown in Minnesota was in March 2020, right around spring break time. And experts still advise against travel. But you definitely deserve a break.

Here are some ideas to make the best of your spring break 2021:

Travel virtually

Here is a list of virtual tours that you can do of museums, landmarks, national parks, and more.

If you virtually travel abroad, really get into the experience by cooking some of what would be local cuisine.

Download the World Walking app

Take a walk somewhere local but be transported to someplace else through virtual tours of places all around the world.

Do a scavenger hunt

Download the Let’s Roam app and do scavenger hunts in Minneapolis or St. Paul with friends.

Go on a staycation

Get creative here! You can create a paradise at home!

Get into your bathing suit, put up pictures of beaches, lay on a towel in your living room, decorate with seashells, play ocean sounds, light an ocean scented candle, and make tropical smoothies.

Find a local event

The Wintertime LED Light Show is happening through the end of March.

Start planning your spring break for 2022

Just planning a vacation can bring joy. Create a vision board of your dream vacation on Pinterest. Gather ideas of places you would like to visit and what sights you would like to see!

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: COVID-19 has taken so much from us.

So much that we were looking forward to, like trips, got cancelled. It’s okay to feel mad and disappointed about that.

And you can also make your spring break as fun and as relaxing as possible.

What will you do for spring break 2021? Connect with us and share on Sentier’s Instagram.

My Parent Died: What do I do?

They say it’s the mother (or father) of all losses. Nothing can truly prepare you for it, no matter your age. But when you’re a teen and your parent dies, it can be very disruptive to an otherwise normal process.

In adolescence – that sweet spot between childhood and adulthood – one of the things you naturally do is separate yourself from your parents.

You want to explore your own interests, spend time with your friends, figure out what you believe about life, and make your own decisions. It’s part of human development to want independence and to rely less on your parents!

coping with the loss of a parentAt the same time, parents are usually loosening the reins and giving you space in order to help you transition from the kid they’ve known into the adult you’ll be become.

If a parent dies, you are forced to do without them instead of slowly separating as you become an adult.

If you’ve been in conflict with your parent, which is also totally normal in adolescence, you likely have things left unsaid or undone.

Those “what ifs” and even regrets are all part of grief. It is important to know what normal grief looks like so that you can learn to live in a new way.

Disclaimer: We recognize not everyone has a healthy parent relationship. It’s natural to grieve whether or not you had a close bond with the parent who died.

So, what is “normal grief” for a teenager? There are four big things we tend to see in therapy:

  1. Under Construction. The teen years are all about building, much like a construction project, but when you lose a parent, it can change the whole plan. The solid foundation your parent may have built for you can shatter. If you had an unhealthy or abusive parent relationship, it can feel devastating not to ever get that chance. You might feel like you aren’t sure where to start. Grief becomes part of the (re) building process.
  2. Intense Emotions. Grief is a very complex process that is hard to control. Most teens feel confused and lost when their parent dies. It is common to have symptoms of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and lots of crying. Anger is a very normal part of the grieving process as is disappointment. Parent loss can lead to uncertainty about who you are without your parent, and many grieving teens struggle with self esteem. It’s common to cycle through emotions, and they generally become less intense over time.
  3. Isolation. Death is hard, and we don’t always do a very good job of talking about it “in public”. Adults can be some of the worst offenders. Some will believe you don’t want or need to talk to an adult about it. Others may try to keep your time together lighthearted since they assume you’re sad the rest of the time or need a “break” from your grief. Unless they have experienced grief themselves, some of your friends are likely so uncomfortable with the idea of death that they avoid it altogether and never bring it up. All of that can lead you to feel alone.
  4. Academic Ups and Downs. It can be hard to focus on school work when you’re grieving. Afterall, you don’t get to choose when you are or aren’t grieving. If your parent had been really involved with your school, you might not yet know how to keep on top of your work on your own. Other teens pour themselves into school work as a distraction and actually perform better in school than before their parent died. Whatever it is for you, maintaining structure in your life by at least getting to school each day and interacting with peers will help in the long run.

how to deal with the loss of a loved oneWhile all normal, none of those things is easy. With support and understanding, you will learn how to function with the new normal in your life.

Peer support groups can be very helpful as can talking about it with a school counselor, clergy person, family member, or therapist.

Grief takes a winding course and it changes over time, just like being a teen, so the most important thing is to try and recognize when you’re grieving and be gentle with yourself.

Ask for what you need from others. While no one can replace your parent, you don’t have to do it alone.

What have you found to be helpful on your healing journey?

Blog written by therapist Sarah Souder-Johnson, MEd, LPCC