The realness of depression and anxiety

Speaking with a child recently, she spoke to me of the very real pain she felt from her depression and anxiety.  She shared that one of her parents was embarrassed by her need for medication and therapy.  My heart broke for her, and I wished I could make her pain go away.  However, it is not that simple, and all I could do at the time was listen, so she felt heard.   

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The pain of depression, combined with the constant worry of anxiety is very real.  In fact, most of us have felt depressed at some point to a lesser or greater degree, depending upon circumstances.  In fact, my own experiences have been fairly short-lived, no more than 1-2 years, and I was able to continue on with work/life/education, albeit with great difficulty.  For some, it is a challenging seasonal event, tied to the anniversary of an event, holiday, or winter months. However, for many, depression, and its side-kick anxiety, is pervasive, lasting two or more years.

According to a March 2022 World Health Organization report, since the pandemic, there has been a 25% increase in the prevalence of depression and anxiety world wide, with young people and women having been most affected.  In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health adds that young people, aged 18-25, currently have the highest prevalence of mental illness, a whopping 30.6%.  Furthermore, in another WHO report, globally speaking, one in seven adolescents, aged 10-19, are currently experiencing some form of mental illness. Specifically, in the US, the American College of Obstetrician and Gynecologists reports that one in five youth, aged 9-17 years, are experiencing a diagnosable mental illness.  More sobering, acccording to the same report, suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-24 years old.

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As an educator, parent, and most of all, as a fellow human being, my heart breaks reading these statistics.  It only confirms what I am witnessing and encountering on a daily basis.  More teens and young adults with whom I come into contact on a regular basis are in real pain–whether I am aware of their mental anguish or not.  The most common mental illness among teens and young adults according to several health organizations include generalized anxiety, phobias, and depression.

However, it is not all grim.  Mental illness, especially among teens and young adults, is very treatable and manageable.  There are a wide-array of techniques and support systems designed to address the unique needs of each individual case, no matter the age. 

Treatment often starts with some form of psychotherapy, also known as counseling or therapy.  Therapy may last for only a short period, or over several years, depending upon the person.  It may focus on thoughts and feelings regarding current life, issues in the past, as well as concerns about the future.  Through therapy, the person not only feels supported and less isolated, but typically develops strategies and coping skills designed to address current mental health issues.  Additionally, therapy may also include ways to develop/strengthen specific relationships, overcome fears/insecurities, address past traumas, increase self-compassion and understanding, as well as create a plan for moving forward.

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Medication is often another form of treatment used in tandem with therapy, but it does require monitoring of a psychiatrist or other trained medical doctor.  The most commonly used medications prescribed for depression and anxiety are safe and effective ways to treat mental illness.  Unfortunately, the wait times for such professionals, especially in recent times, can be months long.  

As a result, many school counselors, universities, family doctors, and churches/civic/community centers are stepping up their support for those in need of mental health support. Many universities offer access to free, or nearly, services via in-person, videolink, or phone.  Some church, civic, and community leaders are pooling services to likewise offer hotlines, group therapies, or other activities designed to promote and support mental health. 

Even once a person is diagnosed and in-treatment, progress takes time, and there can set-backs, as well as ups and downs, in the process; however, certain factors do help facilitate treatment/recovery.  These include:

  • Positive support from friends and family
  • Self-direction in determining own direction and goals for recovery
  • Positive environment living/working/educational setting
  • Financial stability
  • Self-responsibility to administer self care needs
The road for treatment, therapy, and recovery may be long and winding with ups and down, but with the right support and environment, a positive outcome can be achieved.

It is worth remembering that the therapy process is unique to each individual.  Those in therapy may not return to where they were before the illness.  Rather, the typical goal of therapy/medication is to increase a person’s ability to manage their own mental health using positive methods/coping strategies while still engaging with life.  

In the meantime, what can mere mortals do to foster and improve our own mental health? Ireland’s Public Health Agency offers five simple ways worth considering in order to maintain and improve our mental well being.  These include:

  • Connect-invest time in building relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and/or neighbors.
  • Be active– this doesn’t necessarily mean joining a gym, although it could, rather the focus is to move more, especially throughout your day, including walking
  • Keep learning-this boosts self-esteem and self-confidence as well as keeps the mind actively engaged
  • Take notice-increase awareness of the present moment; observe–without judgment–how thoughts and feelings fluctuate throughout the day, and how they may, or may not, affect the physical body
  • Give to others-acts of kindness, no matter how big or small, go a long way in helping others and positively impact personal mental well-being.

Mental illness is a very real thing, affecting nearly 50 million people in the United States, but there is hope. If you are experiencing mental health issues, do not be afraid to seek or ask for help.  And, please know that you are NOT alone. 

Furthermore, if you know someone who is suffering from a mental health issue, support them, offer forms of encouragement, and above all, let them know you care.  With so many silent sufferers in the world, it is more important than ever for us to be the light for one another.  

Now, more than ever, it is important to be the light for others with kind gestures, words, and deeds. ✨

Rest, recovery, and self-care: All important aspects of fitness

Self-care is never a selfish act–it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on this earth to offer to others.”–Parker Palmer

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In previous writings, I have written to encourage reluctant movers/exercisers to find ways to increase movement, mobility, and/or exercise into their daily routine.  I absolutely and wholeheartedly believe in the importance of moving more and sitting less.  There is a vast array of scientific evidence that demonstrates movement and gentle exercise increases mental and physical well-being, decreases diseases, and furthers longevity.  While it doesn’t make you bulletproof, there’s not denying its benefits.  That being said, there is also a time and place for self-care AND rest and recovery days as they are known in the fitness industry.

   Let’s first differentiate between the two as both are worthy and valuable tools.  Technically, self-care can be defined as anything you do to take care of yourself.  Self-care can, and should, include a wide range of activities that nurture your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.  In an ever-evolving world in which more and more value is placed upon hustle, productivity, and work along with the expectation to either pass on vacation days, or if you do, then there is the pressure to continue to work on those days–taking time to care for self is more important than ever.  Plain and simple, self care is vital to the integrity of our own health, so we are more effective both in and out of the work-setting.

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Self care is a practice that can occur on any day of the week or at any time of day. It can be as simple as offering yourself kind words of praise or encouragement when you do something well, such as thinking, “I am proud of you for choosing to do this.”  However, it can also be an entire day, away from work and/or stress, filled with activities that feed your soul, mind, and body.  The point is, self care will vary from person to person and can encompass a variety of actions.

In fact, according to many health experts, areas for which self-care can occur includes many dimensions. Some of the more obvious areas comprise of spiritual, emotional, occupational, and physical well-being.  However, less obvious areas for self-care include intellectual, social, financial, and environmental.  Given these diverse facets for self-care, it creates a vast array of opportunities for self-care activities.  Here are a just a few ideas to get you thinking, but by no means are definitive:

  • Journaling, writing, drawing, creating
  • Spending time outside, gentle walks with pet, hike
  • Spending less and paying down credit cards
  • Reading/listening to books; watching a documentary
  • Change jobs/careers; Clean up that resume
  • Exercise; prioritize sleep; regular medical checkups
  • Volunteer; regularly scheduled social or family events
  • Pray, meditate; read inspirational scriptures; attend the worship service of your choice
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Leaning into daily self-care activities leads to a healthier, more well-rounded life. Just as regular movement/exercise can vary from person to person, and from day to day, self-care will too.  Even when/if current life situations limit time for self-care, a little can go a long way in contributing to our overall well being.

Likewise, rest and recovery days can be part of the self-care plan, and should be essential part of your movement/exercise plan.  Adequate rest and a day or two devoted to recovery offers the body numerous benefits. While our muscles, heart, and lungs become more efficient when we repeatedly complete the same action, such as walking, running, cycling, weightlifting, playing tennis/golf/basketball, or any other sport/activity, it also places stress on those same areas.  Resting and/or a day away from those activities, allow the muscles, lungs, and heart to take a break and recover, allowing you to actually make more progress. 

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Recovery can include completing movements/exercises that are outside of one’s regular routine, such as walkers taking a day to bike, those who play specific sports taking a day to practice yoga, or runners taking a day to swim.  However, recovery can also be a day devoted to rest, or at the very least, a day in which exercise is avoided.  Both types of recovery, in addition to a regular sleep schedule and nutritious eating habits, benefit the body in numerous ways.

Recovery days reduce the likelihood of injury and allow the muscles to rest and repair.  It also reduces muscle fatigue that can decrease performance and reduces muscle pain and soreness. Adding an active recovery day, allows our bodies and minds to experience and try out new forms of exercise. While days completely devoid of exercise allows the body and mind to rest.  Both types of recovery improve your ability to sleep soundly, promote longevity, and reduce stress. 

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In the end, increasing daily movement and activity as well as the implementation of a regularly scheduled form of exercise are important, but more isn’t always better, especially for those who are competitive or prone to over-doing it.  As with most things in life, the key to any wellness program is finding the right balance that works for Y-O-U, and that may change from season to season and from decade to decade.  

Taking care of your body, mind, and spirit are important and worthwhile investments.  After all, each of us is a creation of the Divine, but we are only given this one life.  Let’s honor our Creator by respecting the unique creation that is each of us, and live our lives to the fullest, imbued with the vitality of a healthy mind, body, and spirit!

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Shamrock Green Smoothie

“No matter when you start, a diet that is focused on plant foods will help you work toward the prevention of many illnesses and feeling better overall”–Julia Zumpano, RD, LD

Diet choices have long been debated.  From Adkins to Keto, 7-Day Rotation to Whole 30, Paleo to Low Carb, Mediterranean to Pritikin, and all variations in between, regardless of the varying diet trends, there’s no denying that fruits and vegetables are nutritionally sound food choices for promoting health. Experts may argue about which fruits and vegetables are the so-called better choices, but most will agree that eating unadulterated food from the ground is more nutritionally sound than eating chemically enhanced processed foods.

In fact, when going through the research, numerous medical clinics, cancer centers, and disease prevention sites recommend Americans increase their intake of fruits and vegetables.  It makes sense too.  All those different colors offer a wide array of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and anti-inflammatory properties that cannot be found naturally in processed food.  

“Eating healthy food fills your body with energy and nutrients. Imagine your cells smiling back at you and saying: “Thank you!”.” – Karen Salmansohn

Think about it.  Fruits and vegetables don’t need a label that says, “Vitamin-D enriched” or “Fortified with 12 essential vitamins and minerals.”  They don’t need it because they naturally contain a wide array of vitamins and minerals–depending upon which plant you choose to consume.  This is why, “eating the rainbow,” is an often quoted expression.  If you eat a wide variety of colorful plants throughout your day and week, Mother Nature, thanks to the infinite wisdom of our Creator, provides all the nutrition your body needs for healthy functioning and vitality. 

Like many, since March of 2020, I have become increasingly more focused on what I eat.  Keeping my immune system running high, and my inflammation low, seems more important than ever in the era of living in a global pandemic.  While I’ve been a plant based eater for nearly ten years, I find myself more attentive to daily consuming dark leafy greens and/or cruciferous vegetables as part of my desire to remain healthy and avoid COVID.  While I recognize that eating well isn’t the only protective act I need to do when dealing with a highly contagious virus, these vegetables have long been established as possessing cancer and disease preventive properties, reducing oxidative stress, and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Additionally, they increase bone health, protect eye health, and boost the immune system.  Plus, their varying shades of green are chock full of fiber and a wide array of vitamins and minerals.  

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“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”–Thomas Ediso

Below is a green smoothie recipe I drank throughout most of March that features leafy greens and cruciferous.  After such an extraordinary winter with snows, ice, and then flooding, drinking a bright green smoothie felt like a personal manifestation of spring. Furthermore, since March was also the month in which I was wrapping up 12-weeks of training for the Virginia Beach Shamrock Marathon, this smoothie felt like extra-nutritional insurance for remaining healthy and ready to run. 

I like to think of smoothies as a blended breakfast salad.  When made fresh at home, I am the controller of ingredients, calories, fiber, and nutrition.  I keep my smoothies whole food and plant based food based in order to start my day off on the right foot–especially since I would otherwise, at least during the work week, skip breakfast.  While I often add healthy fats in the form of nuts or seeds to smoothies, I personally do not with this one, but you could.  Instead, I tend to add a teaspoon of greens powder for an extra boost of concentrated green goodness, and sometimes matcha (ground green tea) if I feel I need a boost of energy and focus.   This smoothie fuels my morning and keeps me full until lunch.  The flavor is bright and tangy, and it’s super refreshing to drink.  

Here few other tidbits and factoids I have learned while refining my smoothies techniques:

*  Put greens and liquid in the blender first and blend well, this is especially important, if, like me, you don’t have a top-of-the-line blender.

* Spinach is always the sweetest greens, which is why I often blend it with other greens such as kale and swiss chard.

* Riced cauliflower, fresh or frozen, works well as a “green” since it’s cruciferous and makes smoothies extra smooth and creamy.

* Lightly peel/cut away any citrus fruit, leaving part of the pith (the white part).  It is high in fiber, vitamin C, flavonoids–which boost the immune system–and it is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial.

* Ginger and turmeric are both known for their immune boosting properties, reducing inflammation, and decreasing chronic pain.  Fresh ginger and tumeric–both are roots–offer the most benefits, but ground versions are still beneficial.  Therefore, I tend to add both spices to not only nearly all of my smoothies, but also incorporate them throughout the day.

I hope you’ll give this vibrant green smoothie a try. It is an easy way to increase your fruit and vegetable intake.  Plus, you’ll start your day fueled with the power of green!

From my home to your, I wish you health, vibrancy, and vitality.  Be well, and, if you do give this, or any of my other smoothie recipes a try,  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shamrock Marathon Green Smoothie

Ingredients:

1 cup water

1 cup of your favorite greens, fresh or frozen, feel free to combine 2 different ones (think spinach, kale, 

½ to 1 apple, quartered (I use granny smith apple.)

1 lemon, peeled, quartered & seeds removed 

1 mini cucumber or ½ large cucumber, quartered

1 stalk celery, quartered

1 ¼ teaspoon ground ginger or 1” fresh piece

¼ teaspoon turmeric or ¼” fresh piece of turmeric 

Dash of salt

Optional add-ins: 1 teaspoon greens powder and/or matcha powder, 1 tablespoon hemp, chia, or flaxseeds, and/or 1 scoop favorite protein powder 

Makes 1 generous serving

Steph’s Blues Busting Chocolate Green Smoothie

“If you have a chronic disease — such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, (arthritis, cancer, dementia) or back or joint pain — exercise can have important health benefits.”— “Exercise and chronic disease: Get the Facts,” Mayo Clinic Staff

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COVID has taken away many so-called practices and habits that were once societal norms.  I think it is fair to say that many of us, from time to time, have felt weighed down, a bit angry, and even bereaved over the loss of the “way things used to be.”  In fact, now that we’ve begun traveling down this new road of living, I suspect there may be many things that will never return.  However, on the positive side, there are a few things that have evolved from this swift shifting of life.

One such personal benefit began during the quarantine period of 2020 as I reflected on my own health.  As I recently shared in other pieces, I have a genetic predisposition to colon cancer and heart disease.  Therefore, in an attempt to boost my immune system against these two inherited threats as well as COVID, I began to dial in my focus on the benefits of cardiovascular exercise and plant based eating, while still continuing some strength/flexibility/mindfulness practices.  None of these attempts have been perfect, but they do provide a sense of personal empowerment–a worthwhile feeling in a world that often feels out of control.

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Of particular focus for me was a renewed desire for out-of-doors exercise; however, the ever-present battle with two bulging discs and an extra vertebrae was/is a never-ending reality.  Therefore, towards the middle of May 2020, I began researching ways to strengthen my back and core muscles while simultaneously gradually working my way from walking to running in order to increase my cardiovascular fitness level. While there is nothing wrong with walking–in fact, I love it, and I honestly believe it is one of the safest and best forms of exercise–there is something about the heart pumping vigor of running that leaves me, well, breathless!

All kidding aside, I do not want to give the illusion that I run fast.  Speed is not, per se, part of my goal; instead, I focus on increased endurance.  In particular, I put greater emphasis on my resting heart rate.  The lower my resting heart rate, the better I sleep, and the less stress affects me–especially at bed time.  

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Therefore, without belaboring the point, I found a program for strengthening the back and core called, the Mckenzie Method.  Using some of the exercises from this back method and combining them with exercises from my time spent in physical therapy and practicing yoga, I cobbled together my own DIY daily back/core care routine.  Additionally, while researching this method, I ran across (See what I did there?) a book/training entitled, Run Your Butt Off, about which I have previously written.  This running program offers a plan to help a walker go from walking for 30 minutes, to running for the same length of time in 12 weeks (or however many weeks you decide to take it).  

Since completing the Run Your Butt Off plan, I have continued running 3-4 times per week. On the days that I run, I sleep much better–even if I don’t have the time to sleep long.  Even more exciting is that I have signed up to run a virtual half marathon.  Due to this, I have put greater emphasis on personal nutrition for the purposes of reducing inflammation and fostering recovery as the running mileage increases each week.

“Choosing plants will help all your body’s systems work the best they can.”–Heather Alexander, The University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center

One way I am doing this is by continuing to eat plant-based.  While plant based eating does not have to mean that you will completely forgo meat and dairy, it does mean that those foods are dramatically reduced.  However, my personal choice, other than my occasional indulgence of black bean nachos, I choose not to consume meat and dairy products.  Additionally, I have (once again) committed to breakfast smoothies during this time period rather than skipping breakfast.  These smoothies are whole food, plant based powerhouses with no added sugar.  Every ingredient contained within them is full of fiber and a solid source of nutrition.  

I know that many people are opposed to drinking calories, and I understand abiding by that rule. However, I simply do not have time to commit to a sit-down breakfast, plus my stomach is often a queasy mess in the mornings.  A premade smoothie that I make ahead of time is a portable package of sound nutrition that my stomach can tolerate a couple of hours after rising.  They fuel me through my morning, and by lunch, I find I am not, per se, ravenously hungry.  

Additionally, by the time I head for my after-work runs, even if I am mentally exhausted, once I force myself to my running destination, I have plenty of fuel in the tank to complete the run.  Afterwards, I ALWAYS feel better, and even if everything else about the day seemed like it went wrong, at least I did two positive things for myself: fed my body good nutrition and exercised.  In my book, that’s a win. COVID changes be danged.

What follows below is one of my newest smoothie creations. (I’ve got a few more recipes I’m refining!)  No matter how frazzled, frustrated, or dissatisfied I may feel with external situations, this recipe has a way of mentally picking me up with its bright flavors and hint of chocolatey goodness.  Feel free to play around with and/or change the ingredients and/or the amounts to meet your personal dietary needs and taste preference.  Additionally, serve it up in a nice glass or even canning jar, and don’t be ashamed if using a straw (I use metal, reusable straw.) to slurp up all of the goodness at the bottom of the glass!  

From my home to yours, I wish you much happiness, health, and harmony even during these challenging times.  

Steph’s Blues Busting Chocolate Green Smoothie

Ingredients:

½ cup favorite milk or water (I use plant based milk.)

1 cup (75 grams) chopped romaine lettuce

1/2 ripe banana (I buy them ahead of time and freeze once ripe.)

2 tablespoons flax seed (Can use hemp or chia seeds.)

**2-4 tablespoons of Dutched cocoa powder, depending upon how chocolatey you want it.

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean powder

1 ½  cup (45 grams frozen; 85 grams fresh) chopped spinach 

1  cup blueberries (Can use frozen.)

½ cup cherry, pomegranate, or pomegranate/cherry juice

Dash of salt (I use a twist of ground pink himalyan.)

Optional: Add 1-2 teaspoons of favorite sweetener if desired, such as pure maple syrup, molasses, or honey (I do NOT add any sweetener, but I know others prefer a sweeter smoothie.)

Place in a blender in the order listed and blend until smooth.

Divide between two glasses.

Can be served immediately or stored for later use in the fridge.

Makes 2 servings.

**If you are not a fan of chocolate, you can skip the cocoa powder altogether.  However, you may want to consider adding, at the very least, 1 tablespoons of it.  Cocoa powder has numerous health and nutritional benefits.