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When is the best time to begin counseling? There is still some stigma around seeking support for emotional well being, despite it being more accepted than it was 20 or 30 years ago. If you Google counselors in the greater Portland area, the list will be so lengthy it might be too overwhelming to choose one. It is a booming business, and many counselors accept behavioral health insurance, so the cost is manageable as well. Yet there is still some hesitation, some self-consciousness associated with taking this step.

It isn’t unusual for me to meet with people who are under extraordinary stress, who are struggling to breathe amidst all the pressures of their daily lives. They know they need to take the time to sort through what is happening and how it is negatively affecting them. When they finally feel overwhelmed enough to make the call, setting up that first appointment can be challenging. They don’t want anyone at work to hear them on the phone; they can’t leave work for a counseling appointment, so everyone wants that precious 5 PM time slot. It’s a secret they hold close to avoid the embarrassment of having to confess that they need emotional support. Even though they know it will help them feel better, they postpone until they feel like they are in crisis.

Imagine, if you will, that you have a toothache. It is bothersome, and it is getting worse. It creates stress for you. It distracts you from your work and interferes in your being able to enjoy life. Would you be embarrassed to call and ask for an appointment? Would you be afraid to ask for time off to have it addressed? Would you tell your dentist that you can’t leave work for an appointment so it has to be after work hours? Would you think, I can’t deal with this now – I’ll wait until I feel better? How is emotional well being any different?

We live in a funny time. Many common health issues are a result of our lifestyle choices, and we acknowledge them without embarrassment. But when life feels overwhelming though no fault of our own, we feel awkward and uncomfortable asking for help. Seeking a professional to help you feel better in your emotional life is just as important as taking care of your physical body. If you are feeling anxious or depressed, or if you are facing a loss or an unexpected change, think of it like a toothache. Don’t wait for it to go away on its own. Let’s normalize emotional self-care and make the very most of each day.

Be well,



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Sometimes people believe there must be something “wrong” with them in order to seek counseling. There may still be some stigma involved, so counseling is something whispered about, and kept a secret from family and friends. I remember thinking that counseling was a bit like what Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were doing in “Annie Hall”: laying on a couch several times a week, bearing your soul, all the while remaining stuck and miserable in your relationships. Of course, many people know this is fiction. Professional mental health counselors, licensed by the state and nationally certified, offer valuable services to support people from all walks of life who are coping with both long-term mental illness and every day worries.

As our population ages, we are faced with a crisis of caregiving. We are living longer, and often with multiple health issues and significantly more cognitive loss. Most older people who remain in the community are able to do so because of the assistance of family and friends. Even when family members are happy to help, these caregivers are at risk. Research studies have proven that people who are caregivers have less effective immune systems. They heal more slowly from wounds; they respond less efficiently to flu shots. These studies indicate that caregivers are experiencing a stress response which, when ignored, can jeopardize the caregivers’ physical and emotional well-being.

So where does counseling fit in? Caregivers, especially those assisting someone with cognitive loss, have taken on a demanding task, which can leave them overwhelmed with emotions. It’s not unusual to experience anxiety, depression, grief, frustration, anger, guilt and fear – all in one day!  Witnessing the changes that aging can bring, with or without dementia, may leave family members grieving for someone who is still present. Caregiving occurs within the microcosm of the family, and when a parent needs assistance, those childhood roles, hurts and resentments can jump right back into the front seat and start driving our actions. It isn’t only the loving, wonderful parents who develop dementia either; parents who were never nurturing now need to be nurtured, which creates strong feelings of ambivalence for even the most dedicated family members. To say our emotional buttons can get pushed may be putting it mildly. And all the while, the caregiver is putting their own needs last in order to take care of someone who needs them.

There are terrific social service organizations that provide information to caregivers, and there are support groups for those who want to connect with others. A counselor who understands the issues of aging, dementia and caregiving can provide something unique: a place for people to understand this new role and how it is affecting them, to identify their strengths, reframe their experience and actively choose how to care for themselves while they care for someone else.

Be well,


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In the fall of 2012, I noticed a Canadian goose was left behind along the riverfront in Westbrook. He moved alone along the edge of the groups of ducks that live there, vying for breadcrumbs from passersby. Upon closer inspection it was clear that he had a broken wing, with one feathered area sticking out at an awkward angle. It seemed very sad. I imagined that he was lonely for his kind, and wondered what would become of him. It broke my heart to think of him spending a winter cold and alone.

When spring came and the path along the riverfront had cleared, I once again walked the path. Much to my surprise, there was the goose, feathers still awkward, swimming with the ducks and even seeming to have a duck partner. All summer long he continued to live among the ducks and they accepted him as one of their own. Although the sight of him still pulled at my heartstrings, knowing his wings were essentially clipped, the fact was he stood as a remarkable example of resiliency.

How many of us lose faith when bad things happen? Even something small, like a harsh response from a friend or someone cutting in line, can ruin our day. There is much to be learned from this goose – and from the ducks that accepted him. We are all truly connected, and within each trouble we face, there is an opportunity to learn something, adapt and become an even better version of ourselves.

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Here we are again at the start of a new year! A character in the movie “Forrest Gump” remarked that she loved New Years because it was like everyone gets a brand new start. What are your thoughts as we close 2013 and enter the fresh beginning that is 2014? Many people make resolutions with high hopes, only to feel disinterested or discouraged by February. Setting goals for a new year is a wonderful idea, as long as those goals are specific, measurable, and realistic. For example, “I’m going to get more exercise” is a goal most of us make at some point, but it is too vague. How can you make it into a solid plan? “I’m going to go to the mall after work and walk for 30 minutes 3 days per week” may be clearer to plan for and stick to. Whatever your goal, be very clear and reasonable with yourself, ask others to support you and celebrate your successes!

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The holiday season arrives just in time as far as I’m concerned. By early December, as the days get shorter and colder, I start to crave twinkly lights. There is something nurturing and warming about gentle sparkle as the afternoon swiftly shifts into darkness. Tree lights, window lights, candles all provide a welcome balance for me. I spoil myself with these throughout the winter months, and almost forget about how many hours of daylight I am missing. That being said, we really do lose the benefits of sunlight in the winter, here in Maine especially. I have found that light therapy in the morning is essential. There are many options online for full spectrum lights. They don’t have to be big or expensive to be an excellent substitute for sunlight, at least as far as the brain is concerned. The brain requires full spectrum light all year round, along with vitamin D, so take your supplements too. It’s up to us to give our brains what they need so we feel good despite the shorter days of winter. Nourish your brain this winter, and keep the lights sparkling.

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When someone receives a diagnosis of any type of progressive dementia, it isn’t just the person with cognitive loss who is affected. Dementia challenges each member of the family, individually and as a group. Family may mean blood relatives or families designed by choice. Some families thrive as a result of the diagnosis; they pull together, make a plan for care and support both the person with the diagnosis and each other. Other families collapse like a house of cards; they struggle with denial and disagreement, bring their own agenda to the table and reignite previous dysfunctional patterns. No one can predict how any particular family will respond. What we can all do, as providers, family or friends, is be aware that dementia may leave wounds on family members that are not visible to others. Learn about resources and supports for caregivers in your community. Ask family members how they are doing. When they tell you how the person with dementia is doing instead, gently ask again how THEY are doing. Suggest they take care of themselves; contact a support group, or a mediator, or a counselor. Dementia forever changes families. It’s important for all of us to encourage the caregiving family to survive and thrive.

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Did you know many people actually experience a great deal of ambivalence during the holidays? Despite knowing there is much to be thankful for, holidays also remind us of loss. We miss people who have moved too far away or have died. We may miss the sound of young children who have grown. For those who live alone, there may not be the holiday cheer of yesterday in an empty house. If your family is coping with serious illness or dementia, the challenge of caregiving may interfere with holiday joy. The dark days of winter also may bring a sense of gloom that takes the glow off of any celebratory mood. Then we feel guilty for feeling down. Here’s something the TV specials may not tell you: it’s ok to feel down during the holidays. In fact, it may be a normal and expected reaction to changes in your life. What’s more important is how you respond to feeling this way. Be patient with yourself. Get enough exercise and rest. Connect with others, whether it’s family and friends or volunteering. Honor your losses and talk to people about how you’re feeling. Celebrate in ways that work for you.