The Wellness Warrior's Guide to Getting Through a Not-So-Happy Holiday

The holiday season is often viewed as a period of joyous celebration with family and friends. The world comes alive with music, smiles with acts of charity, and celebrates togetherness. For some, however, this time of year can trigger feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. In a survey by National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of those surveyed confirmed being affected by the “Holiday Blues,” while 24% reported the holidays affect them a lot.

Individuals may experience:

  • fatigue
  • tension
  • frustration
  • loneliness
  • isolation
  • sadness
  • a sense of loss
  • nervousness
  • stress

These symptoms (or increased symptoms, if one is affected by a mental health condition) can be linked to other holiday-related factors as well, such as less sunlight, changes in diet and routine, increased consumption of substances, financial stress related to gift giving, and conflict with family or friends. Although some of these symptoms may be temporary, it is important to identify and practice ways of coping as some of us seemingly trudge through the holidays.

Here are some tips for managing your mental health throughout the holiday season:

Go to Your Therapy Sessions

The holidays are busy, and the idea of brushing off a therapy session in order to cram in an hour’s worth of holiday errands can be incredibly inviting. However, it can also create more stress and frustration. Being able to pause and reflect is important in maintaining mental health, and the holidays may bring up difficult emotions or experiences that are important to process.

Find a Positive Way to Honor Those Lost

The holidays can bring up feelings of grief as we celebrate without loved ones who have passed. Incorporate a tradition that can allow you to remember and celebrate your loved one in a positive manner. Some ideas may be to write a letter, light a candle, share favorite stories, or play the person’s favorite music. Although it may look different, we can still make those passed a part of our celebration.

Stay Active

I know I say this a lot – and I mean A LOT – but I have not found a better stress reliever than exercise. Even if it’s a short walk or 10 minute stretch, take some time to get your blood moving and get those endorphins pumping. This can also be a time for some mindfulness practice, as we can strive to be present with our bodies and minds throughout movement.

Stay organized

During the holidays, it sometimes seems as if the “To Do” lists never end. Make lists, keep a routine, and practice good time management skills. Staying organized can help ease anxieties, develop realistic expectations, and prevent ourselves from biting off more than we can chew.

Do not Go Broke to Show Your Love

Financial concerns can be the bulk of stress throughout the holiday season. Our society puts intense pressure on gift giving as a way to show that we care, which can cause depression, anxiety, and stress for those struggling with finances. If you are struggling with finances, stick to a budget that can assist with money management. If you have very limited funds (we’ve all been there!), the people who love you will understand. Some low cost/no cost gift ideas might include making a CD, writing a poem, printing and framing pictures, doing an activity or an experience, or re-purposing something.

Relax

Spend extra time checking in with yourself to determine what you need to stay stress-free and relaxed. Self care is even more important during times of high stress and feeling overwhelmed.

Play Well With Others

When we spend a lot of time with family it can create tension, specifically when we have differing opinions or turbulent relationships. Make sure to communicate effectively about your experiences and emotions in order to try and make others aware of how you are impacted turbulent relationships or conflict. If you have the time, check out this article titled 5 Ways to Talk About Touchy Topics with Those You Care About to get some ideas on how to make holiday interactions a little smoother.

My Boyfriend Broke Up With Me…. and I'm Thankful.

In middle school, I desperately wished for a relationship. Each night, I would kneel next to my bed and pray for a boyfriend. “I just want to know what it feels like,” I would tell my God. “I don’t care if it ends. I just want to know what it’s like.” Tears would well in my eyes, and my nose would start to burn. At the time, low self esteem made me believe that having no romantic partner meant that I was unlovable.

Male suitors sprouted as I approached high school, but I worried that my previous prayers had been too selfish and had cursed my love life. I felt frustrated by how fleeting my admiration seemed. I would get bored or restless after a month or two and no longer wish to be tethered down by superficial romance. When these relationships ended, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Long term boyfriends eventually came and, usually traumatically, went. That felt more difficult. The more attached I became to a person, the harder the cut. I had an incredibly difficult time letting go of the people I loved, which led to turbulent off and on relationships involving me begging to make things work and then feeling worthless when the relationship continued to crumble. As each relationship throughout my young adulthood came to an end, I became more and more negatively affected by my perceived inability to keep a boyfriend.

When my depression worsened in my mid-twenties, my self hatred made dating even less bearable. I often found myself shying away from physical touch and emotional connection. I hated texting. I hated first dates. I hated when people talked to me and hated even more when people attempted to flirt with me. I was jaded and trying to resolve my loneliness through one night stands, and I became a professional at “ghosting.” I was also afraid to get hurt, and I thought the easiest way to avoid disappointment was to take myself out of the game altogether.

About a year ago, I began my wellness journey. I started exercising, went to therapy, medicated my depression. I ate healthy and made active efforts to do things that made me happy. My self worth and self esteem increased dramatically, and I felt more stable in my life. I was generally happier and more hopeful. I still felt lonely, but my mindset changed. I felt I wanted a romantic partner, but I didn’t need one.

In therapy, I worked really hard to become open to dating. “You have this goal of settling down and starting a family, but the fear of failure is keeping you from actively seeking this,” My therapist said, “I’m wondering how you’ll achieve those goals if you don’t try and put yourself out there.” My therapist helped me reduce my fear of vulnerability enough to be able to start engaging with others in a more serious manner. After talking to several people through online dating websites, I finally agreed to go out on a date with a real live human being.

Our first date was fun. We went to a comedy show and had a drink. We talked and laughed as he walked me home. We had good conversations and identified some common interests. I felt attracted to him both physically and emotionally- he had enough experiences to have lived three lifetimes, and that intrigued me. At the end of the night, we planned a second date for the following week.

Our relationship continued like that for about another month and a half. We had so much fun together. He laughed at my jokes, said nice things, and cooked for me. He introduced me to his friends and invited me along to parties and dinners. I felt included and cared for. Eventually, we agreed to make our relationship official.

I was content with calling him my boyfriend. I finally felt that I could be my true weird self, something that I had struggled with in previous relationships. Although there were some situations here and there that caused me to wonder if he was a person that I could spend my life with, I was so comfortable that I brushed them aside. In fact, I felt so comfortable that I barely saw it coming when, after about three months of dating, I heard the words, “I’ve been having hesitations and have been thinking more and more about ending our relationship.” With this, we began a discussion where we both laid out our concerns about why our relationship b may have not been working.

I thought I would be devastated when our relationship ended, but instead I felt a pressure lift from my shoulders and experienced a strong sense of freedom. When he rode away on his bike, I felt…. happy. The feeling confused me. I kept wondering, “Why don’t I feel upset?” I sought insight from my sister who had a simple answer to my confusion: “Because he was NOT the person for you.”

I learned that my sister and brother-in-law had apparently been struggling to find the opportunity and strength to tell me that they actually hated my boyfriend. During a recent family gathering, my sister noticed a plethora of unfavorable qualities, such as how he spoke down to people, appeared controlling, and lacked appropriate boundaries. Some of these qualities I did notice, but foolishly chose to ignore.

In retrospect, I can identify moments in our short relationship in which I was truly not enjoying my time. As we would spend more and more time together, and I would find myself struggling to balance my relationship with my life. I would sleep over his house almost every night, wake up late, rush to get ready for work, and feel disorganized. Although there was awareness in the back of my mind, I was too distracted by engaging in fun “couple activities” to realize that falling behind on my self care was having an impact in my mood. I wanted to do so many things- write, draw, meditate, run, do yoga- and yet, I felt that I was lacking the time to do them. When the Break Up Talk was in progress, I actually felt excited for him to leave so I could be myself and plan which activity I would do first.

Along with the feeling of excitement, I felt a sense of strength and growth. The ease with which I accepted the transition from “in a relationship” to “single” is evidence that I am learning to let go, and that makes me incredibly proud. For so long I felt that I needed to hold on to relationships, even if they weren’t exactly what I wanted, because I feared I would grow old alone. Now I realize that I have so much love for myself and from others that that fear is nearly diminished completely.

I can also now acknowledge that I must continue to work on finding balance. Where everyone must make some form of sacrifice in a relationship, it is not fair to put my wants and needs on the back burner, simply because I feel the desire to dive into romance. I am important, and my goals and needs are important. A good relationship should encourage me to achieve my goals, not distract me from them.

I also feel a great sense of thankfulness toward my new ex-boyfriend. I am thankful that he had the courage to create a space in which we could both explore our thoughts about the relationship. I’m thankful for my sister and brother-in-law, too. They validated my thoughts about the red flags that I had seen throughout the relationship. Even though I’m still learning how to trust my own instincts, I know that I can trust their guidance.

My father often jokes, “You sure know how to chase them away!” or “You’re just too picky!” When I was younger, this would sting, because I had believed there was something wrong with me. An increased sense of self worth has made me realize that yes, I may be picky…. and it’s important to be.

What No One Tells You About Being a Therapist

A therapist’s office is intended to be a safe, warm space that allows for others to express and process patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s a place where people go to feel better. As a helping professional, I have the privilege of being part of the personal development and growth of my clients. I am deeply passionate about what I do, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I still get goosebumps whenever a client experiences an “Aha” moment. That being said, the mental health profession is not one without challenges.

According to the Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), it’s estimated that about 22% of adults in the city are diagnosed with Depressive Disorder, 16% of adult Philadelphians experience frequent mental stress, and 13.8% of teens experience suicidal ideation.

To paint a clearer picture, these statistics mean that in Philadelphia 1 in 5 adults are diagnosed with depressive disorder, and 1 in 7 high school students have reported seriously considering suicide. These startling numbers are not counting the undiagnosed or unreported cases. These rates have remained consistent within recent years, with the exception of a wild increase of opioid-related deaths and ER visits for drug overdoses. With the growing severity of the opioid epidemic in the United States, an already overwhelmed system seemingly only has so much wiggle room before it breaks.

Community Behavioral Health (CBH) is a non-profit corporation contracted by the City of Philadelphia to provide mental health and substance use services to Medicaid recipients in Philadelphia County. There are about 144 Community Behavioral Health organizations in Philadelphia, and I have worked for and with many of them. Although I love the work that I do with clients, working in community agencies has created an entirely new perspective on how therapists and participants are treated among the Community Behavioral Health system….. and I think we all deserve better.

I remember learning about proper ethics and counseling techniques in my graduate program, bright eyed as I geared myself up for a future as a helper. Looking back, it seems so naive for me to have thought that it would be easy. Admittedly, I often wish I could go back to school and pay closer attention to discussions on how to avoid burnout, but sometimes it seems that in the community behavioral health field, burnout is inevitable. Although it would not have changed my choice of profession, I wish I had been more prepared for the community mental health world.

Here’s what I wish I had known:

  1. There are not enough mental health therapists in the community behavioral health system. It seems as though a major theme within the therapist community is the feeling of being overwhelmed by a bogged down system. Community Behavioral Health has an incredible amount of participants in need of mental health care and not enough wo/manpower to provide the quality of care necessary to treat severe mental health symptoms. This means that the large number of participants receiving services are divided among the limited mental health professionals that exist, meaning higher burnout rates for therapists.
  2. There is a major focus on productivity. Full time therapists are given a certain number of clinical hours that they must provide per month, typically called productivity. For example, in my organization, the month of October held 160.63 available treatment hours. I need to achieve 66% of that, meaning I needed to provide at least 106 hours of therapy to meet productivity expectations. If I don’t, I risk being written up. So when we get into the nitty-gritty of things, my work performance is not determined by the quality of therapy I provide, but by the quantity of services I provide. Where I try to validate myself, it is sometimes hard to focus on my successes with clients when I am consistently reminded of “my numbers.” It also makes it more difficult to be understanding when clients cancel, which is often framed as one less hour toward productivity.
  3. Many organizations are turning to fee-for-service. Fee-for-service is pretty self-explanatory. In fee-for-service positions, therapists only get paid for the sessions they complete. This means that if a client does not show up, the therapist will either not get paid, or will get paid a small percentage of what they would have received. Oh, and fee-for-service therapists don’t get paid for the paperwork or outreach they do…. and let me tell you, in this field there is always a lot of paperwork and outreach to do.
  4. Community behavioral health is behind. Think about all of the ethical guidelines, evidence-based practices, and sensitivity training we learned about in school. Now, try to imagine trying to implement those practices in an organization that always seems 20 years behind the present status quo. This isn’t necessarily community behavioral health’s fault. It simply takes time to roll out new methods given the amount of education and training they require.
  5. Sometimes people don’t listen. I feel like I can talk about ethical treatment and appropriate care until I’m blue in the face, and it still doesn’t feel like I am heard. I often find myself thinking of therapists as the nurses of the mental health field– we have an incredible amount of knowledge, have spent years studying the subject, and care deeply about making sure our clients are receiving proper care… and it still feels like we are spinning our wheels just to be heard and respected.

And finally, none of this would matter if we didn’t care. Professionals typically don’t join the mental health field if they don’t care about the well being of others. This makes it even more frustrating when we can see that the overall focus is not on the quality of care we provide, but instead, on the success of the business. Although I can recognize that the business aspect is important, it just does not feel right to put the needs of the business before the needs of people. Helpers feel passionately about the injustices within social systems, because we care about the outcomes of the people we work with. It can be incredibly frustrating to see the above factors as barriers to doing what we love most– helping people.

The Power of Breath

There are several actions that occur in our body without clear direction and effort from our brain. A heart beat, for example, is a powerful and- barring any serious health issues- automatic rhythm that plays a vital role in keeping our bodies alive. My brain always visualizes Osmosis Jones running around inside my body to ensure that every task is being completed without my having to consciously perform them. It makes things, like breathing, seem effortless.

Although we may be accustomed to the effortlessness of breathing, how often do we truly take a moment to mindfully connect with our breath? In meditation, attention to the breath is a method of becoming fully present. By changing breathing pattern, we can produce different states of mind, such as increasing overall energy and relaxing the body and mind. The endorphins released by the body during deep breathing also serve as a natural mood boost. These effects make deep breathing a widely used coping mechanism in managing symptoms of various mental health diagnoses.

Deep breathing does more than influence our emotional state; it can impact our physical health, as well. If you are someone who has a regular exercise/cardio routine established, you have probably realized the importance of having a close relationship with the breath. In distance running, I have learned that the more I pay attention to my breath, the more in tune I am with the rest of my body. Promoting slow, deep breaths can assist in keeping a safe pace to prevent our heart rates from climbing to dangerous BPM’s. Additionally, attention to breath can increase control and power behind movements in strength training.

As stated earlier, through deep breathing our body releases endorphins, which act as a natural pain reliever. By increasing our oxygen flow, we are also improving digestion and detoxifying our bodies through both releasing carbon dioxide and speeding up the lymphatic system. So, next time you meditate, you can visualize the release of toxins along with that negative energy that spews out with every exhale. So whether you’re stressed, overwhelmed, in physical or emotional pain, or experience a variety of physical health concerns, controlled breathing can be a step to a greater overall sense of well being.


Here are a few simple breathing exercises to get you started:

Box Breathing

This breathing technique can act as a powerful stress reliever while heightening performance and concentration.

Begin in a comfortable position. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4 seconds. Hold your breath for a count of 4 seconds. Exhale through your mouth for a count of 4 seconds. Repeat cycle as many times as needed.

Bellows Breathing

This is a rapid breathing technique aimed toward increasing energy and alertness.

Begin in a comfortable position. Inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose while keeping your mouth shut. Breaths should be as short as possible, but equal in duration. The diaphragm should move quickly. Do this for a cycle of 15 seconds, gradually increasing time with each practice. Breath normally after each cycle.

4:7:8 Breathing

This breathing technique promotes peace and tranquility. This exercise can also be used to more easily fall asleep. It may cause one to feel slightly lightheaded.

Begin in a comfortable position, keeping your back straight. With your mouth closed, quietly inhale through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound, to the count of 8. Complete cycle 3-4 times, gradually increasing the amount of cycles with continued practice.


As always, Wellness Warriors, feel free to provide feedback and share your experiences if you choose to practice these skills. My hope is that these breathing techniques empower you to love and care for your breath while harnessing the art of controlled breathing. Until next time!

Half Marathon Training: Week 4

When I decided to train for a Half Marathon, I wanted to utilize training as a way to incorporate a more stable running routine into my lifestyle. I knew that the following helped: being outside, being around people, exploring the city, exercise, listening to music, taking deep breaths. With running, I could do all of these things at the same time. These simple pleasures coupled with the influx of endorphins are a major component of what keeps my brain from feeling like sluggish mush buried under 10 feet of black goop.

I failed to estimate the challenges of caring for sore muscles, using intense mental energy, attending to detail to avoid injury, REMEMBERING TO STRETCH. But the Buddha said if there is pleasure there must be pain, and so here we are- completing Week 4 of Half Marathon Training, noticing the pain, but focusing on the pleasure… and adding in some hard hitting speed and strength training to really squash that Week 3 plateau before heading into some serious recovery work.

Here’s what Week 4 looked like:

  • Sunday: Run 7 miles
  • Monday: Yoga
  • Tuesday: Stairs (a mile distance)
  • Wednesday: Arm Strength Training
  • Thursday: Yoga
  • Friday: Sprints
  • Saturday: REST

My most intense workouts for the week were stairs and sprints. I join many city residents at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, channeling my inner underdog to mindlessly run up and down the Rocky Steps.

These are the rear Art Museum steps

I usually do about 11-15 rounds of the steps, which usually equals about a mile of stairs. As for sprints, this cardio addition is just a way to increase overall pace. Similar to the speed workout in Week 3, Sprints include alternating between running and sprinting from block to block until I reach my distance goal.

Lesson of the Week: Acknowledge the pain, but focus on the pleasure. I love running for the improvements in mood that I have experience since adding regular exercise into my routine. I have been so thrilled with feeling both physically and mentally healthier that I sometimes fight the urge to push myself too far. Remembering that a major part of training for a half marathon is avoiding injury so I can actually do the half marathon has been the key for me to monitor my pain and take extra care of my body.

Which leads me to my question for the runners out there in Wellness Warrior World: What is your key to avoiding injury?

How to Stay Motivated

My dad always says, “Find something that puts a fire in your belly.” Teenage Me would often roll my eyes, turn up the volume on my latest self-burned punk/emo mix CD and let Travis Barker’s drum beats muffle the unappreciated wise words of my father. As an adult, I can finally understand the sentiment of embracing motivation and passion while pursuing goals. I can also recognize a possibly unintentional deeper meaning here- if left without fuel, fires burn out.

Establishing a goal is the easy part. Hard work comes with actually following through with the steps required to achieve that goal. Maintaining motivation can be difficult, and I always say that building motivation is somewhat of a catch-22. The best way to increase motivation is to just do it (insert Nike symbol here). We feed motivation by reflecting on how we feel as we complete steps toward a goal. Even if the motivation begins as a small flame, we can turn it into a bonfire. Here are some tips for building and maintaining motivation while working toward goals:

  1. Remind yourself of your goals.
    • Write your goals down and display them in a place you look at often. Make sure they are specific and detailed to better organize steps necessary. Take away the “Oh, right, I forgot I wanted to do that” moment and shoot directly for goal achievement. Goals can be easily pushed to the side and forgotten about if we don’t make a point to keep them in our focus.
  2. Discover the WHY.
    • Any task has a number of good reasons behind it. Even small things can be analyzed to find something good. Consider washing dishes. We don’t complete the task for no reason- we complete the dishes in order to have a greater sense of cleanliness and organization (and it helps keep little pestering pests away, but that’s a different blog post). It’s all helpful in creating an image of the bigger picture we are striving for.
  3. Partialize your goals.
    • If we view our goals as one large chunk, it can become overwhelming and cause a person to shut down or give up. By breaking goals down into smaller pieces, we can more easily set targets and obtain a greater sense of achievement. Additionally, developing a deadline for each step can be crucial in maintaining momentum.
  4. Acknowledge your achievements.
    • Track your progress and celebrate benchmarks along the way. Congratulate yourself when you have completing a smaller chunk of the overall goal. Acknowledging progress made toward your goal can propel you forward to the next step.
  5. Be flexible.
    • I have said this so many times that I feel like it should be my new tag line, but: BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF. If something is not working, be flexible and try it a different way. If you find yourself frustrated, stressed, or overwhelmed, be flexible enough with your deadlines that you can allow yourself a moment to step away and regroup. Achieving a goal looks differently for every person. Don’t just find a process, find YOUR process.

What helps you stay motivated?

Do You Even Gram?

Follow me on Instagram at @the.wellnesswarrior to get a little snapshot of my day-to-day life.

Here are some examples of what you’ll see:

My food experimentation

Me being active

My travels

My feelings turned into cartoons

My face

Urban exploration

My DIY projects

Positivity