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8 Steps to a 5 Minute Mindful Breathing Exercise

Meditation

Trigger Warning: If you’ve had a history of trauma, and are prone to flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or are actively experiencing PTSD, this process may set off some of those experiences, which can reactivate feelings of the trauma. There are other mindfulness exercises that involve more grounding that may be a better fit for you, and you may want to skip this exercise.


Please read through all of the instructions before you begin.

  1. Get in a comfortable position. This exercise can be done, sitting, laying, or standing if you wish.
  2. Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  3. Invite your eyes to rest.
  4. Breathe in through the nose (if you can’t breathe through your nose the mouth makes an excellent substitute), out through the mouth, practicing diaphragmatic breathing. In order to practice diaphragmatic breathing,
    1. Inhale deep into the belly, then the chest; invite your belly to expand and the ribcage to open as you inhale.
    2. Exhale out through the mouth, at a pace that is comfortable for you, bringing the belly in towards your spine.
    3. If you find it is difficult to breathe deep into the lungs you may consider resting your hands on top of your head, as this will open up the ribcage and make it easier to breathe deep.
  5. Focus on the breath like a curious observer. Notice the coolness of the inhale, the warmth of the exhale. Notice how the chest rises and falls, and how the air flows through your windpipe.
  6. As you go through this process, you may notice that your mindbody wanting to attend to different sensations, thoughts, or feelings. Perhaps you feel the urge to scratch an itch, or begin planning your to-do list is for tomorrow, or feel bored of this moment attending to the breath. Push nothing away and attach to nothing.
  7. Any time you notice a thought or a feeling, label it and let it pass through your mind as though it were a log flowing down the river of your mind, and return your attention to the breath. You can tell yourself things like, “my mind is planning,” or “mind is judging,” or “body is feeling some anxiety.”
  8. When the timer goes off, take a few moments to wiggle the fingers and toes, blink open the eyes, and then return to the room.

Go ahead now and take the time to complete the exercise, then return to reading.


Was it challenging for you to just breathe and sit still? Did you notice that even though all you’re supposed to be doing is breathing that your mindbody was having thoughts and feelings? I know my mind wandered to planning, criticism and pondering. Did you notice any patterns?  This exercise can be helpful to reduce anxiety, and understand the background content of our minds. It can also be a helpful reminder that we are more than our thoughts and feelings, and we do have some control over how we interact with them. Learning to regulate our interactions with our mindbody can go a long-way to improving our overall mindbody fitness.

Work, Meaning, Office Space and Burnout

Office Space is one of my favorite movies. It really has a great way of depicting a lot of the bullshit experienced in office environments, has a great representation of burnout, and explores the psyche of work.

So, when we talk about work, what are we really talking about? Are we talking about a role that we have, which imbues a certain level of social status? Maybe we’re talking about our manual, physical, emotional, and psychic labor? Or about how we accrue resources to survive in our environment? Perhaps it’s when a force causes a displacement of the point of application, in the direction the force was moving? Or maybe it’s the change in potential energy? The acts of creation and destruction? Is it what we do to find meaning?

What do you do here

The word itself is an absolutely fascinating study in semantic processing, (the brain processing that occurs after we hear a word and encode its meaning) because when words have multiple definitions and values associated with them, they tend to store differently than other words. Hebb’s rule of learning is summarized as cell’s that fire together, wire together. Studies have supported this theory, demonstrating that when we hear the word run, our motor cortex gets activated and when we hear the word sun our visual processing get activated. So what happens when we hear the word work?

Hopefully for you it feels something like this:

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However a lot of people might stop and say…

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And that probably comes in if you’re working at a place that might be sending you towards burnout. Some of the biggest contributors to burnout include when our workload is too much and the resources are too low.

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And when our work conditions don’t align with our values.

what the hell is wrong with you people

Other factors included when the culture isn’t fair,

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When work gets stagnant, or feeling micromanaged or too constricted.

TPS reports

And in response to such stressful conditions (conflicting values, expending too much energy, injustice, stagnation, and restriction) symptoms like fatigue, exhaustion set in.

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Burnout also causes cynicism,

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irritability

expressing myself

and social withdrawal.

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So when all of that sets in and we hear the word work, I wonder what if we’re hearing all of those things.

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Or maybe it’s…

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When ideally when we hear about work we should want something that is so important as to include our values, creativity, identity, and resources to feel more like:

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Einstein said that as technology increased, and we could reduce the labor that all people need to do, that we should spend more time pursuing the arts. And as we approach an era where we have 10 billion humans, higher rates of productivity, and increased automation, I wonder how our relationship to work will change. I wonder how we will change our potential energy, into kinetic energy? And as I think about resources, values, money, energy, and labor, I hope I continue to create love, compassion, healing, growth, fulfillment and prosperity. I hope the same for you. Until next time, be well.

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How Stress Works

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What is stress?

Stress is the mindbody’s way of reacting to a challenge. Things that can cause stress are known as stressors. Stressors can be external and arise from the environment surrounding a person, such as the chronic rain of Portland. Stressors can also be internal and stem from thoughts, feelings or bodily functions. As a response to stressors the human body releases a series of hormones; the primary stress hormone is named cortisol.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The Autonomic Nervous System is a control system in the body that regulates heart rate, respiration, digestion, eyesight, urination and sexual arousal. The autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. When a person perceives a stressor, the mindbody responds by activating the Sympathetic Nervous System, an inflammatory reaction also known as the Fight-or-Flight response. The function of the Fight-or Flight is to aid a person in danger. Other common stress reactions include freezing, or fainting.

These reactions were useful tools for the survival of our ancestors when they lived in the wilderness. Amping up the body to fight, flee, or freeze is an excellent response to a hungry jungle cat. Unfortunately, while our civilization, culture, and stressors have evolved our mindbodies haven’t changed much over the millennia. The Sympathetic Nervous System’s response to stress isn’t necessarily the most helpful way to deal with the fact that taxes are due in 4 days and I need to gather my paperwork to get started.

When the stressor is no longer present or has been deemed to be dealt with by the mindbody, the Parasympathetic Nervous System activates. (If you’re trying to memorize these terms, remember when trying to slow down the mindbody activates its parachute, thus it’s called the Parasympathetic Nervous System.) When this system activates the mindbody relaxes and returns to homeostasis, its normal state of existence. This means when the mindbody is no longer experiencing stress the heart rate and respiration slow down, digestion starts back up, muscles relax, the mind becomes more flexible. This process is also known as the relaxation response.

Autonomic Nervous System

How do stress and cortisol affect the mindbody?

Cortisol stimulates glucogenesis in the mindbody. This means that cortisol helps the mindbody turn glycogen (the primary energy reserves in the body) into glucose (the primary fuel of the body). This mindbody creates this energy to deal with the stressor at hand. In response the mindbody increases blood flow, blood pressure, muscle tension, and sweating. The pupils dilate to take in extra light, the stomach stops digesting food, and the bladder relaxes preventing the need to urinate. Stress causes an increase in emotional reactivity, and restricts the focus of the mind to the stresses at hand; often this gets experienced as anxiety, anger, fear, or worry. Intense stressors activate different part of the brain’s decision making processes and focuses on more reflex like reactions. Stress activates the creation of short-term emotional memories which are also known as flashbulb memories. Cortisol also can weaken the activity of the immune system, and slows down the process of wound healing.

These are great responses to imminent danger. These actions help make the mindbody stronger for a fight, and faster to flee. When we freeze, the restriction of focus can help us in making decisions without triggering that big jungle cat; when we faint the hope is that jungle cat leaves us alone because it thinks we’re already dead. Unfortunately, most modern problems don’t necessitate this kind of response.

Chronic stress, stress that never resolves can lead to physiological, mental, and spiritual problems. It can cause headaches (including migraines), muscle tension and pain, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomachs, urinary problems, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, anger, depression, loss of interest in activities of pleasure, and a lack of motivation. Chronic stress may also cause gingivitis, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, insomnia, aggression, rashes, hair loss, poor concentration, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and suicidal thoughts. Long-term exposure to cortisol can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for regulating memory and spatial navigation. Common behavioral maladaptations to chronic stress include overeating, undereating, social withdrawal, overworking, sleep problems, and drug abuse.

Exposure to extreme stressors, for short periods of time can be harmful. Specific phobias (irrational persistent fears), Panic Disorder (persistent panic attacks), Acute Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may occur as a result of exposure to intense levels of stress.

Is all stress bad?

Not at all. We need stress in order to motivate us to develop, grow and survive. Without stress you would never feel the need to acquire food, learn, or to adapt and cope with the everyday challenges our ever changing lives present. Stress that leads to a positive outcome is known as eustress, whereas stress that leads to negative outcomes is known as distress. A common example of eustress is the acquired knowledge a student gains by taking time to study and master material before a big exam. Properly dealing with stress leads to the experience of positive emotions and activates the parasympathetic nervous system allowing our bodies to relax. Thus it is important that we develop coping mechanisms to deal with stressors on a day-to-day basis.

What are specific coping mechanisms to deal with stress?

You use coping mechanisms to deal with stress every single day. Sometimes you use your problem solving skills to tackle a situation head-on. You might laugh, take a walk, read a book, create some art, or solve a puzzle. Exercise is a great way to alleviate the problems associated with stress. Sometimes people relieve stress by communicating with friends and family; research shows that social support helps ward off the negative effects of stress. Other ways to deal with stress include slowing down, relaxed breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga. Participating in meaningful activities is another great way to destress.  Different people are able to discover their own ways of relaxing and destressing.

How do I perceive stress?

There are many models that help explain how people interpret and deal with stress. One of the more popular models is known as Lazarus and Folkman’s Transactional Model of stress and coping. The first time a person is presented with a stimulus they undergo what is known as the primary appraisal. That means the individual takes in the stimulus and then decides if that individual stimulus is considered a stressor or if it is benign.

If it is a stressor the person then makes a secondary appraisal and decides how to deal with the stimulus. In this stage the person uses their coping mechanisms, both problem solving and emotional to deal with the stressor. If the person resolves the problem the stressor she experiences a positive emotion and we call the stressor eustress. If the person is not able to resolve the problem or comes to an unfavorable solution she may experience distress or reevaluates the stressor and we call the stressor distress.

Stress Model

The most important thing to remember from this model is that depending on the type of stress and our available coping mechanisms we will either interpret a stressor as eustress creating positive results, or we will interpret the stressor as distress and experience negative results.

 

Other factors that may play a role in stress.

Factors that have been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the human body include:

  • Magnesium
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Music therapy
  • Massage Therapy
  • Laughing
  • Black Tea
  • Dancing
  • Exercise and Yoga
  • Meditation

Factors that have been shown to increase cortisol levels in the human body include:

  • Caffeine
  • Sleep Deprivation
  • Intense physical exercise (often to create the energy required)
  • Burnout
  • Trauma
  • Anorexia
  • Calorie Restriction
  • Continuous Consumption of Alcohol

ACT and Ants

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In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it’s important to make committed actions based on your values. And just before writing this, I was thinking about the sacredness of life and how it’s so important to protect. But suddenly in the kitchen there was a swarm of ants, and I wanted nothing more than to commit a mass genocide via chemical warfare. That’s the tricky thing about values, they are flexible and they can change moment to moment.

And that’s a huge challenge right? The me of 30 seconds before seeing the swarm had a really different perspective on the sanctity of life than the version of me facing the swarm. ACT promotes ongoing non-judgmental contact with internal and external environmental events as they occur, so I can observe and describe the experience of homicidal rage towards ants –I experience muscle tension, it’s a hot energy, my mind blames of the ants for not having a nice apartment, and it presents images as borax- as ongoing internal events. Meanwhile my external environment I see thousands of ants working in dangerous conditions to try to bring food back to their family, a dirty counter top, and notice that it’s 70 degrees in the apartment. I didn’t notice the calming feeling of the air until I took that time to step back and ask myself “what’s happening in this moment?”

ACT also teaches that we should accept reality for what it is, without avoidance if we can. My rage towards the blasted ants won’t change the fact that there are no potted plants inside my home (even though my partner and I removed them because they kept building colonies inside them), it will only serve to feed my rage and take me away from present moment awareness. If I look at the facts, the fact is, there are a bunch of ants clinging to the free food left for them like good scavengers, and I am experiencing the desire that they would not be here.

ACT also teaches the concept of cognitive defusion, which is a fancy way of saying recognizing that my unhelpful thoughts are just thoughts, and not necessarily reality. My experience of such a thought in this moment comes from the weighty experience of judgment labeling myself a murderer and therefor a bad person for the act of ant-homicide I’m about to commit. But labeling myself as a potential murderer and a bad person doesn’t help me at all, it just serves to create my own set of psychic torture. I can be someone who both respects the sanctity of life in one moment, and wants to end life of a different species I’ve labeled as vermin the next moment. My mindbody has the ability to hold these two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas or even behaviors – I am a healer after all – and I don’t need to label things in an all-or-nothing context.

Another tenant of ACT is recognizing the self as context. I’m the territorial creature who wants to protect my home. I’m also a moral thinking creature that wants to act in the best manner. I also exist in a culture where extermination of other creatures by chemical warfare is totally legit. I also recognize that though I exist in such a culture, I need not engage by my cultures rules given that historically most cultures tend to get some things wrong when it comes interpersonal or inter-species relations. When I take time to look at myself in different contexts, I can see why I can have seemingly conflicting motivations.

How I choose to respond to the hoard of ants in my home, whether via chemical warfare, cleaning, or some other method, is up to me. If I connect with the present moment, my values, see myself in the context I exist in, engage in cognitive defusion, accept reality for what it is and then make a committed action based on my awareness of those factors, I can make my best choice possible that is true to me and my values. These 6 factors are the basis of Acceptance Commitment Therapy and aid in developing cognitive flexibility, accepting the bad, good, and everything in between, and living by our own values.

Mental Health Stigma

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Mental Health Stigma (hereby referred to as stigma) are the negative attitudes, stereotypes, and beliefs that people hold towards folk living with mental health disorders. Stigma can be external (held towards other people) or internal (directed at oneself). Stigma motivates people to fear, reject, avoid and discriminate against people with mental health issues.

There are plenty of examples of stigma in the public domain. This happens when we blame mass murders by White men as mental illness, but other acts of killing as terrorism, war, or standing ground. It happens when we blame traumatized people who struggle with addiction for not having stronger willpower. The effects of stigma are likely present each day when 22 veterans kill themselves and do not receive the help they need.

Stigma happens behind closed doors too. It plays a role when a doctor dismisses a patient’s pain concerns as hysteria, only for her to discover after years of suffering that she actually has had fibromyalgia all along. It occurs when a teacher assumes a child with a learning disability is lazy or stupid instead of connecting them with the assistance they need. It’s present when a guy gets bullied for being a coward, because his panic reaction is so severe his nervous system causes him to freeze with tension. It’s the casual statement of some obscene act being labeled “cray cray.” There are widespread beliefs that people with mental health issues are more dangerous, have high rates of criminality, are lazy, and are more likely to be incompetent compared to people who do not.

Meanwhile the evidence demonstrates that mental health disorders are normal stress reactions and not indicative of character flaws. People with mental health disorders are more likely to be the victims of violence, not the perpetrators of it. And we know that mental health issues are incredibly common, about 25% of Americans will experience a mental health issue, that’s 3 times as common as asthma. Furthermore about 78-89% of adults polled believe mental health issues can be treated effectively. Would we be so callous as to blame the people with asthma for their breathing problems?

The problem is, is that there are some pretty significant effects of stigma. Stigma, when internalized, can be a major source of shame. Such shame can be so severe that it prevents people from seeking out and receiving the treatment they need. It also tends to increase the severity of anxiety, depressive, traumatic, and hallucinogenic symptoms. According to NAMI the average time between the onset of mental health symptoms and receiving professional intervention is an 8-10 year waiting period. Of the approximately 63 million adults who experience a mental health disorder this year, only 41% of them will seek treatment. That means over 37 million people, more than 10% of the entire U.S. population will struggle with a disorder that impairs functioning and causes distress without treatment. In a society of such great abundance and knowledge, that seems like a fact worth changing

Cultural and demographic groups in the U.S. react to stigma in a variety of different ways. For example, Hispanic and African Americans will seek out treatment for mental health issues at 50% of the rate of Caucasian Americans. Asian Americans tend to seek out mental healthcare even less, only 33% compared to Caucasian Americans. As a group, African Americans tend to look upon mental health treatment more favorably than other groups. As for gender differences, it’s been observed that on average males will wait longer, and develop more severe symptoms before they seek treatment compared to females. In one study, men cited embarrassment as the most common reason they did not seek out treatment, whereas women cited the cost. Some theorize our cultural norms and toxic masculinity are likely causes for such gender differences.

Not only does stigma affect how people approach (or rather avoid) getting treatment, it affects the way that communities treat people perceived to be having mental health issues. People are more likely to create social distance between themselves and persons with a mental disorder. This reaction results in a rather vicious cycle of events. The people experiencing mental health disorders become isolated, which in itself exacerbates the disorder making the symptoms more severe. As a result there is a desire by the community to create more social distance and there tends to be a void with regards to ensuring suffering people get sufficient human contact and dignity. Research shows that persons with mental health disorders that live within inclusive and accepting cultures tend to have less severe symptoms and distress compared to people who live in other cultures. Other research demonstrates that Americans who have an education about, or a solid relationship with someone who has a mental health issue, stigma decreases significantly.

Stigma has a pretty significant impact on our health and economy as well. Problems with mental health are the number one cause of disability in the U.S. Additionally people who are living with severe mental health issues – roughly 1 in 10 Americans – are at increased risk for developing chronic health issues, and more likely to die of treatable physical conditions. Their life expectancy is 25 years shorter than the average Americans. Mental health problems cost the U.S. economy approximately $210 billion annually due to reduced productivity for people at work, and increased absenteeism. It’s pretty clear that mental health disorders, and the stigma associated with them cause a lot of illness, suffering, stress, and challenges with productivity.

The good news is, there is a lot we can do about stigma. Studies demonstrate that stigma significantly decreases when people receive education about mental health, or have experience with a friend or family member who experiences mental health symptoms. If we foster an attitude of openness, provide support for people experiencing mental health issues, embrace educating ourselves and each other about mental health we can normalize common mental health problems. We can be less stressed, healthier, more productive, and happier as a collective. That would be pretty awesome.

To review, mental health stigma are the negative attitudes and beliefs that people hold towards persons living with mental health issues. Despite the fact we know that mental health disorders are incredibly common, and normal stress reactions, stigma persists. Stigma exacerbates symptoms of mental health, takes a toll on the economy, causes significant distress, and tends to isolate people living with mental health disorders. We know that when people gain exposure to knowledge about mental health issues stigma declines. Will you help in the battle against stigma and create a healthier community?


Sources

Pacesepe, A.M & Cabassa Leopoldo J. (2013) Public stigma of mental illness in the united states; a systematic literature review. Administrative Policy Mental Health 40(5) doi: 10.1007/210488-012-0430-z

DHHS (1999) Mental Health: Culture, race, and ethnicity. A Report of the Surgeon General.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (2018) Mental Health by the Numbers. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

Abizu-Garcia, C. E., Alegria, M., Freeman, D., & Vera, M. (2001) Gender and health services use for a mental health problem. Social Science Medicine 53(7) 865-878

St. Michael’s Hospital (2014) Men, women use mental health services differently.

Doherty, D. T., & O’Doherty, Y. K., (2010) Gender and self-reproted mental health problems: predictors of help-seeking from a general practitioner. British Journal of Health Psychology 15(1) 213-228

Watters, E. (2010) The Globalization of the American Psyche Crazy Like Us. Free Press, New York, NY.

10 (A)typical Signs of Depression

pexels-photo-262218.jpegMany people are familiar with some of the classic symptoms of depression. These include having a relatively persistent sad or empty mood most days of the week, pessimism, overwhelming feelings of guilt or worthlessness, sleep problems, challenges managing home, work, or social life, and at its worst suicidal ideations or attempts. There are a lot of symptoms that are signs of depression that many people are unfamiliar with. Here are some of the most common ones.

  1. You’re experiencing fatigue, or a lack of energy. Does it seem like you’re more fatigued than you ought to be, or that normal activities take more effort than they used to? Feeling worn out? This could be a sign of depression.
  2. Social withdrawal is another sign of depression. Do you notice you’re starting to become more isolated, finding reasons not to see friends and family, or just don’t feel like being around others the way you used to? Isolating thoughts and behaviors are common with depression.
  3. Problems with concentration and decision making are often signs of depression. If it feels hard to stay on task, sustain effort, or make decisions depression could be the reason.
  4. Irritability or frequent anger are another sign of depression. For some people, instead of the classic sad or empty mood, some people develop a short fuse, find themselves easily agitated, or experience an increase of rage as a result of depression.
  5. You’re developing a lot more headaches, backaches, digestive issues, or chronic pain issues that you did not used to have in the past. Depression can present itself in physical symptoms that often get brushed off as another concern.
  6. It seems like you’ve lost your motivation. This tends to go hand-in-hand with the fatigue and problems with concentration. Depression often saps people’s normal motivation. Some people blame themselves for a “lack of motivation” when really the culprit is depression.
  7. In contrast to number 6, becoming a workaholic is also a sign of depression. Some people tend to cope by driving themselves into their work. This phenomenon also increases risk of burnout.
  8. You’re having problems with memory. Depression can affect both short and long-term memory. This can be having problems remembering events of the past, your day-to-day schedule, or an increase in forgetting where you left your keys.
  9. Increase in substance use. Does your evening beer, wine, pot use seem to be increasing? This often is a sign of depression.
  10. Your appetite has changes. People with depression often experience appetite changes. Some people have an increase in appetite, others have a decrease. Unexplained changes in eating behavior might be a sign of depression.

Experiencing any of the issues above? Wondering what you can do?

Having any of the symptoms above may be an indicator of depression. The first question to answer is, are the symptoms having a negative impact on any areas of your life, or causing you distress? If no, you may just want to monitor the symptoms and keep track of any changes. If yes, here are some ways to help treat and prevent depression.

  • Practice good health behaviors. Getting regular amounts of sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet can go a long ways towards treating mental health issues.
  • Get rid of any unnecessary stress. If there are some life stressors that are weighing you down, and you can let go of them, delegate responsibility to someone else, or take care of the issue, you may see a significant improvement in your mental wellness.
  • Seek out counseling. Mental health professionals can help you navigate depression and work with you to get to a place of mental wellness.
  • Practice relaxation. Invoking the relaxation response activates our parasympathetic nervous system and helps your mindbody recover. Practices like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, reading, writing, taking nature walks, acupuncture, massage, or listening to music are great ways to relax.
  • Reconnect with family and friends, and talk to them about what’s going on. We are social creatures, and it’s important to connect with our support systems.
  • Check in with your doctor. Depression can often be a side-effect of other health conditions. If you haven’t seen a physical health doctor in a while it may be good to check in.
  • Know that being depressed doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. It means you’re having a pretty normal mindbody response to some kind of stress.