The mind can play tricks on us; the brain is the only organ in the body that can ask a question about its own malaise. What are we to do when the thing doing the thinking is sick? How do we get an accurate read on reality when stress or grief or hormone levels are so high, we can’t see the forest for the trees? How do we, quite simply, keep our heads straight for the challenges life throws in our path?
loss of a spouse
Nothing marks the passing of time quite like the loss of a spouse, and few events are as painful, says Rebecca Edwards, therapist and owner of Mind Over Matters. “You may be unsure you’ll ever get over it, and you may feel you have neither the energy nor desire to heal.” Edwards says. In addition to deep sadness, a grieving loved one may experience physical symptoms. Sometimes, a person may feel like they have the flu or a perpetual cold, or have aches and pains. This can be due to a lack of self-care. “When you are sad, it’s so easy to skip meals or gravitate toward bad eating habits,” she says. “Eating healthy and drinking lots of water to stay hydrated is of utmost importance.”
Edwards says when speed is such a big part of today’s world, grief ought to be the last thing we rush; it can take years to process emotions. But we may feel there’s no time, that our friends’ patience for our grieving process might wear thin. Edwards stresses the value of a professional counselor, where there’s the invitation to talk and to move at one’s own pace. “Talking about loss is very therapeutic. It can bring great comfort to remember who your loved one was, to tell his or her story,” she says.
Edwards suggests many ways to honor the deceased: Create rituals around anniversaries, hold celebrations for their birthday, make a memory album, wear your spouse’s wedding ring on a chain around your neck or have it fused with your own, listen to other people’s memories of them. “All these things will keep them alive in your mind and in your heart,” she says.
Kenneth McCain, counselor with KM Group Counseling Services, cautions that our first instinct often is to close ourselves off. “But that’s the worst thing you can do,” he says, adding that a first step should be to call your doctor to make them aware of the situation. While a few days of retreating from usual daily activity is normal, an extended period might indicate a more serious problem. “If after two weeks you still can’t pull yourself out of bed, it’s time to seek help,” McCain says.
He recommends support groups and says that even if a person isn’t religious, they shouldn’t rule out a church group. “Most of us have some kind of spiritual foundation,” he notes.
While some people never consider finding someone else, others are wary of a life alone. But McCain advises caution. “Before we start looking for another person to fill the void, we have to be sure we’ve gone through all the stages of grief,” he says. “That means coming to grips with complexities like guilt—things we said that we shouldn’t have; things we should have said, but didn’t.”
adjusting to retirement
There’s a lot more to retirement than more frequent rounds of golf. But keeping busy, says Monique Waldman of Soul School Counseling, is key to adjusting to life after work. “To keep our souls alive, we have to keep active,” she stresses. “But not just our bodies, our minds as well.” Waldman explains that people in retirement are prone to depression. “They feel that life has passed them by.”
Counselor Sara Hoffstot agrees: “Often, there’s a problem of reconciling one’s dreams with reality. People have ideas about what retirement will look like (golf, travel and so on), but the truth is, once the honeymoon period’s over, there can be a real sense of loss,” she says. Hoffstot cites financial anxieties and loneliness as risks to mental well-being. “You may have retired,” she says, “but maybe your friends haven’t yet. And you may be reckoning with a nest egg that in reality isn’t as big as you thought.” A retiree, she says, even may realize they have to go back to work to make ends meet.
If loneliness is an issue, Waldman says social media can help. “Things like Facebook and LinkedIn can have real value for older people. They may have lost touch with old friends, and it’s a wonderfully easy way to reconnect with one’s root system.”
Both counselors agree that volunteering can provide joy and purpose. “I encourage people to stay plugged in,” Hoffstot says. “If you’re missing structure, getting involved in the community can really help.” She suggests avid readers might help out at the library, a gardener might turn a green thumb to a community garden project. “If you’re a grandparent and love children, volunteer at your grandchildren’s school; if you love babies, sign up to be a ‘rocker’ at your local hospital,” she says.
Waldman says one of her main goals is to help older people feel excited by their lives, and empowered to take on new things. She offers classes in EFT (emotional freedom technique), a process designed to remove emotional blocks and help people move on to the next phase. It is used by therapists, chiropractors and physicians, has roots in Chinese medicine, and involves spoken affirmations and tapping on meridian points, she explains. “Even if you don’t believe it, it really does work,” she says. “Over the course of a single month, you’ll see significant changes to your emotional state and your ability to handle your life.”
Hoffstot’s emphasis, meanwhile, is “to help people fall in love with themselves again,” and she encourages older people to recognize that we never stop growing. Retirement, she says, offers a wonderful opportunity to ‘level up’: “Change, metamorphose, find a new you. It’s terribly exciting.”
hormones and mental health
Women’s health psychologist Dr. Diane Sanford says human beings spend 80 percent of the time worrying about the future and 20 percent regretting the past. “We have to find a way to live in the present moment,” she says. Sanford is owner of Midwest Mind Body Health Center and teaches classes on self-care and stress reduction. She is writing a book about how changing lives, moods and bodies interact. She explains that women often experience life cycle changes around the same time as hormone fluctuations—adolescence, pregnancy, postpartum and peri-menopausal periods—all can influence greatly one’s ability to cope with the day-to-day. During pregnancy in particular, she recommends that women are screened for stress levels because studies show that 80 percent of women who experience anxiety in the third trimester will have a postpartum episode of some kind. Such episodes can range in severity from baby blues to clinical depression, and obsessive compulsive and posttraumatic stress disorders.
Melanie McKean, psychiatrist at St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, says that mood swings associated with ‘premenstrual dysphoric disorder’ (PMDD), a severe form of premenstrual syndrome, ought not be mistaken for bipolar disorder, even though symptoms may appear similar. “Some of the symptoms might overlap and at times resemble those of bipolar disorder, but usually, once a woman’s period starts, they go away very quickly,” she says. PMDD is characterized by depression and hopelessness, anxiety and tension, and irritability or anger. “A woman simply might be unpleasant to be around,” McKean says. While the exact cause of PMDD isn’t clear, underlying depression and anxiety are common and may point to the possibility that the hormonal changes prior to a menstrual period may worsen the symptoms of mood disorders.
McKean says an antidepressant taken mid-cycle in advance of a period can be helpful, as can a hormonal birth control pill “to even out the peaks and valleys.” However, she adds that there are other non-medical avenues to take: A herbal-based pill called Vitex can help with mood for some women, and she recommends relaxation therapies and meditation techniques “to get you to a happy place.” As always, the benefits of good diet and exercise, she says, cannot be underestimated.
Sanford also recommends good nutrition in addition to activity, rest, stress reduction and mindfulness. “It’s so important we pay attention to what’s happening in our bodies and minds,” she says. “And then direct our attention intentionally to the moment we’re in.” She refers to detrimental thought patterns as ‘the tigers within.’ “Our thoughts about our life—the stories we tell ourselves—are what cause us most distress. We have to get out of our heads!”