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From Penny's Desk...

An ongoing series of informational entries

Our First Blog Entry

Empty Nest Syndrome Explained - August 29, 2021

The transition of going off to college and taking that big step into adulthood should be a meaningful and joyous time for both children and parents. The child, who is now a young adult, is finally spreading his or her wings and starting a life of their own. As for the parent, there is certainly nostalgia as they experience this emotional milestone alongside their child, but there is also a sense of achievement in having completed a significant duty as a parent as they guide their child towards independence. However, as poetic as this moment may seem, it’s not always an easy transition for parents when they must cope with the absence of their child. The “empty nest” leaves parents with feelings of loneliness, sadness, and loss, as much of the identity of a parent lies in parenting their child for nearly two decades. These feelings, and a temporary loss of identity, are so common, and so impacting to the lives of parents. that they have been labeled the empty nest syndrome.

The Environment of the Empty Nest

Empty nest syndrome is considered a transient emotional state, occurring when parents are no longer the primary, full-time caregivers of their young adult children. This transition can cause them to experience various negative feelings and emotions. Feeling some degree of sadness is expected as children leave home, but the empty nest syndrome is characterized by more intense emotions that last a longer period of time and can often adversely impact other areas of the parents’ daily functioning.

Empty nest syndrome can be viewed as an adjustment disorder, where parents must adjust to a new life where they are no longer full-time parents to their child, which can dissolve much of their identity and sense of self. Empty nest syndrome can occur on a spectrum of severity, from mild to severe, with its symptoms ranging from occasional sadness to more severe symptomology similar to that of disorders like clinical depression. Major Depressive Disorder is more prevalent among empty nest older adults.

Risk and Protective factors For Empty Nest Syndrome

Women are often more likely to suffer from empty nest syndrome. However, this risk factor is likely more strongly related not to gender, but to primary caregiving status. Another risk factor related to women is the timing of children leaving home, which often coincides with menopause for many women. The hormonal changes that occur among some women during menopause may, at times, place women at risk for mental health concerns like depression. When other life stressors, like children leaving home, are present, depression may worsen. Another risk factor among mothers includes a history of struggling emotionally when weaning the child from breastfeeding. Other risk factors that can apply to male or female parents includes retirement, unemployment, a poor relationship between parents, or separation of parents. For children of divorced parents, the same risks factor applies if each parent has relationship difficulties with their respective partners.

The protective factors that can help parents cope with an empty nest include professional and personal fulfillment, the regular practice of hobbies and activities, and having support from friends, family, and their local community.

How to Cope

Sadness and loneliness are normal, human expressions of love and longing for loved ones, particularly children who have grown up and are creating lives of their own. It is important for parents to bear in mind that these feelings should be expressed, validated, and processed.

Since prevention is the best medicine for many ailments, both physical and emotional, it can be particularly helpful to anticipate empty nest syndrome, especially if among parents who display some of the risk factors and possibly not enough of the protective factors. Anticipating this natural stage in a child’s life helps parents to prepare ahead of time, put coping skills in place, and gradually get to a place where they can accept the change that is to come and support their child during this transition. 

It is important for parents to begin to discover personal pursuits and activities that bring meaning and passion to their lives. Since social support is so essential during the process of assimilating an empty nest, parents should begin connecting or reconnecting with friends, family members, or maybe other empty nesters, too.

A growth mindset is an extremely beneficial coping strategy, which involves perceiving and interpreting life challenge as opportunities for growth, rather than as a problem or an obstacle. Coping by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and practicing daily self-care can improve or prevent empty nest syndrome. Physical activity is an excellent habit for preventing or targeting mental health issues triggered by empty nest syndrome. Many parents benefit greatly from using their new-found empty nest to rekindle their romance with their partner.

In addition to these coping strategies, many parents also benefit from seeking professional counseling services. Mental health professionals can guide and assist parents through adjusting to this new chapter in their lives.

One of the greatest difficulties parents have when coping with empty nest syndrome is the vivid realization of the quick passage of time. Parents often express that it was only yesterday that their child was starting Kindergarten, graduating from middle school, or learning how to drive. The memories of their child’s growth and development brings about intense emotions, from profound gratitude, joy, and pride to deep feelings of grief and loss. While the emotional pain is intensely felt, the empty nest is also representative of many new beginnings for parents and their child alike.

We are here to help if needed… call us at (516) 804-0448.

September 9, 2021

Our Second Blog Entry

Coping with COVID Stress:

Part II of the Pandemic We Thought Was Behind Us

Just when healthy and safety restrictions were becoming more lenient, businesses were starting to pick up again, and we were beginning to enjoy mask-less outings, COVID cases have begun to not only increase, but rise in a manner very similar to last year. In many ways, the 2021 pandemic is more concerning, given the fact that this time around, many Americans are vaccinated, but we’re still faced with variants of COVID that put us all at risk.

We’ve learned so much from the struggles of last year. We’re far more prepared, knowledgeable, and able to cope with the possibility of a repeat of 2020, but then there are the ongoing debates—about masks, vaccination mandates, school protocols—that escalate the already present

stress and uncertainty we all feel. It’s dizzying—and frustrating. Below we will discuss some of the most common 2021 COVID stressors and how you can use the valuable lessons from last year to cope now.

If you’re feeling emotionally exhausted, worried, and overwhelmed by it all, know that it’s not a sign of your inability to cope.

In fact, COVID stress—and the negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions that come with it—is a very normal response to the paradox and chaos of the past year-and-a-half. In your continued effort to get through these tough times, make sure to regularly acknowledge and validate the fact that you should feel the toll of these strange times we’re experiencing—and of the financial, social, emotional, and personal consequences of this seemingly endless pandemic.

When you acknowledge and validate your struggles, you make room for, and allow yourself to express thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Letting emotions out—and continuously reminding yourself that it’s okay to have them—paves a path towards coping in a healthy manner; towards acceptance of what you can’t control; and ultimately, towards recovery and resilience. So, be gentle with yourself when feelings and emotions are intense, when your thoughts become negative, or when you feel hopeless. Use these moments to observe and reflect on what you’re thinking and feeling. Give yourself some compassion. You’ll be amazed at how temporary thoughts, feelings, and emotions really are, and the healing effects of allowing them to just be.

The upcoming inevitable circumstances: Back to school, colder weather, and more time indoors.

The “big 3” stressors for most people right now include the start of the new school year, the change of season, and an overall decrease in outdoor activities. Since last year, we’ve learned that the more time we spend breathing the same, circulated air as others, the greater our likelihood of getting infected. Avoiding crowds and being outdoors are protective factors against COVID infection—protective factors that many people may not have access to pretty soon.

While you might not be able to avoid certain settings and scenarios (e.g., sending your child to school, going to work), you can still control (and minimize) your exposure to other non-essential activities. This is the best way to cope with the other circumstances you can’t avoid—by focusing on and working with what you can realistically control and prevent. What causes many people to put themselves at risk, even in situations where they do have a choice, are certain attitudes/mindsets that portray a sort of “I give up,” outlook. Consider whether one or more of the following statements sound like something you’ve either said to yourself or out loud lately.

• This pandemic will never end. I can’t stay locked up forever.

• I haven’t gotten sick so far, so I should be fine.

• I’m vaccinated now, so I can go back to my regular, pre-COVID activities.

• I already expose myself to so many people at work, so what difference does it make if I go out?

While there is some truth to these words, these attitudes/mindsets have one main thing in common: They feed into an overall lack of acceptance of the way things are right now and they enable apathy and helplessness. Although this pandemic feels like it’s been going on forever—and seems as if it will never go away—remember that nothing stays the same. The pandemic is a passing stressor like all others. Difficulties and struggles come in and out of our lives; they are temporary states that have a function and purpose; that teach us important life lessons and help us to develop resilience. Remind yourself of the transient nature of the current sacrifices we all have to make. This will help you to adapt, accept, and cope.

We’re all dealing with our own stress and other people’s stress, too.

All you have to do is take a brief look at the comments on a Twitter or Instagram post about COVID and you can get a glimpse of how highly charged people’s emotions are; the extent of the polarization that’s present regarding COVID-related opinions; and most of all, the impact the pandemic has had on people’s emotional health.

Despite masks, social distancing, and the availability of the vaccine, infection rates continue to increase—as does the ongoing conflict among people with differing views. Those who are not involved in the conflict are just trying to survive right now; keep themselves and their families safe; and stay afloat mentally and emotionally. It can be confusing and frustrating to witness people focusing on—and fighting over—topics like mask wearing and vaccination.

A very helpful way to cope is by doing what you can to detach from the madness—stay away from, or do your best to avoid, conversation topics, places, media, and people that trigger negativity, feed into pointless drama, and drain your energy.

Now more than ever, it’s critical to be very guarded of who or what you let in. Instead, place your attention and energy on the people, places, and things that inspire and motivate you, and that bring you joy and meaning.

As we learned from last year, when many of the distractions that keep us occupied are gone, we’re called to turn inward, reflect, enjoy simplicity, discover sources of gratitude, and focus on our personal growth and self-development.

Our Latest Blog Entry

Coping with Change - October 1, 2021

Knowing how to cope with and adapt to change is likely the single most effective method to prevent stress, anxiety, depression, and to overall enjoy better quality of life. While the uncertainty that comes with change can trigger a variety of emotions—from fear to sadness, dread, grief, or even total avoidance of the impending transition—change is also what brings so much beauty, joy, and meaning to life. Without it, we wouldn’t have opportunities to learn and to experience growth and progress. Many people consider themselves as having a total aversion to change. This is a quite common circumstance that typically stems from negative experiences you’ve had with change where you endured a great loss or, you might have not had the coping skills at the time to fully manage it. However, it’s likely that you’ve also enjoyed many positive encounters with change where it has improved your life in one or more ways. Nonetheless, it’s the negative confrontations with change that can stay with you, often being very traumatic even. It’s the hardships and the scars caused by change that can leave you feeling like you’re totally unequipped to handle any sort of deviation from your current way of life.

Think of the most recent, major life event you experienced that involved change and that impacted you emotionally. Maybe it was the loss of a job or of a relationship; the death of a loved one; a big failure, setback, or disappointment; having to move to another city or maybe facing major financial or health struggles. These are all examples of some the most difficult life events that involve change—sometimes a total, drastic change from the previous security, comfort, or happiness you enjoyed. If you examine this major life event—and you consider what exactly made the change so difficult and distressing for you—it’s likely that your resistance to the change had a lot to do with the emotional toll it took on you.

Resistance is, of course, a normal and very natural human response. In fact, it is biologically engrained in human beings to resist change because, long ago, before the modern times that we now know, human beings had to work much harder to maintain their own survival and that of their loved ones. Threats that are now one in a million—or non-existent—were common causes of death or serious injury for much of humanity in generations past. Moving from a piece of land from one side of a mountain to another, for instance, was a change that, for our ancestors, represented many unknowns, such as whether or not there would be access to water, food, appropriate shelter, and safety from enemy tribes. Nowadays, although moving is a change that can be stressful and also full of many unknowns, it’s not a threat to our survival in the same way it was for our ancestors. A major change thousands of years ago represented a very real threat to safety and wellbeing. So, sameness, routine, and structure meant that life was predictable and predictability ensured survival.

Today, our way of life is drastically different because we don’t have those same threats to our survival that existed long ago. But, we are, in many ways, genetically very similar to our ancestors, meaning that we are prewired to dislike and avoid change. Another major difference between now and way back, thousands of years ago, is that in our current civilization, we actually need to be able to approach change and cope with it in order to progress and succeed. So, a sort of opposite scenario has taken place whereby those who embrace change are now more likely to enjoy a better life in many respects. Embracing change is the new way to survive.

How to Start Embracing Change

It’s a bit challenging, at first, to work against what we are very much biologically programmed to do, but so long as you understand that part of being human is to resist change, then you’ll be able to go around many of your human tendencies. This is essentially how you can reprogram yourself away from the biological drives of fear and avoidance of the unfamiliar to instead, reinforcing a desire to try out and experience new things. Sure, change won’t always result in positive outcomes—the hardships will still be there sometimes—but so long as you appreciate the greater importance of embracing change, you’ll be able to gradually get comfortable with approaching it without fear. Below, we’ll discuss 4 critical strategies that can help you not only cope with change, but also invite it into your life.

1) Practice acceptance as a way of mentally preparing yourself for all the possible outcomes that can result from change; good or “bad.” This way, your fear and avoidance of change will diminish and ultimately, disappear. Acceptance involves a mindset shift where you begin to look at all life circumstances and situations with an attitude of nonresistance. Acceptance is your willingness to go with the flow, but not in a passive, I-don’t-care, apathetic way. Instead, you commit to putting forth your maximum effort and energy into everything you do, but then you willingly allow circumstances to play out and for life to take its course. This mindset also involves a lot of trust and a belief that what is meant for you—and what is best for you—will be.

2) Get prepared and plan ahead. Yes, you can practice acceptance, but still plan ahead for upcoming changes so that you’re ready to take on the new things in store for you. You can prepare for change and plan ahead by setting goals; anticipate potential issues and roadblocks and work on solutions; asking others for help or advice; or making sure to keep other aspects of your life pretty structured and predictable so that you can just focus on the one, major area where you’re undergoing change.

3) Remember your strengths by always reminding yourself of who you are. Whenever something in your life causes you stress, worry, or fear, remind yourself of your personal strengths, qualities, and attributes. Focus on the tools you have—not on what you lack—to confront those issues that feel so much bigger and more powerful than you. Fear can make you feel small, but this is an illusion that is very much fueled by those biological drives that try to convince you to stay away from uncertainty and anything unknown. This is, after all, the purpose of fear—it’s an internal warning that functions to make you want to run back to your safety zone where you’re more likely to “survive.” Reminding yourself of your power—of your strengths—helps you to snap out of that illusion and back into the reality that you have what it takes to handle the change in front of you.

4) Allow yourself to feel afraid, overwhelmed, or saddened about change. Your journey towards accepting and coping with change isn’t linear, and you’re not supposed to be enthusiastic about change all the time. Learning to cope with change and implementing these strategies isn’t about perfection or a flawless performance all the time. In fact, the real proof of your strength and ability to handle change lies in those moments when you want to run away from it—when you want to stay within the safe confines of what you know—but you challenge yourself to push through the fear and embrace change instead.

Our Latest Blog Entry

The Value of Giving Thanks: How Gratitude Can Enhance Emotional Health - November 1, 2021

Giving thanks this holiday season has a significant and unique meaning. Similar to last year, Thanksgiving 2021 will bring us a lot to reflect on as we end year two of a pandemic that has brought so much hardship, loss, and struggle.

Aside from the fact that gratitude is important for personal and spiritual self-development, research has demonstrated significant mental health-promoting and healing benefits of giving thanks. Whether you’ve struggled with depression or anxiety, or just experience typical daily stressors, spending time every day reflecting on (or journaling about) what you are most grateful for in your life works as prevention and/or minimizes the impact of negative thoughts and emotions. Plus, research has found that practicing daily gratitude has a cumulative effect—meaning that you’ll reap more mental health rewards with time and practice.

There is a reality about gratitude that cannot go unmentioned; the fact that during challenging times, many of us simply don’t feel it. In the back of our minds, we know we should count our blessings, particularly when the holidays roll around; when we’re gathered around the dinner table, sharing quality time with loved ones, and reflecting on how we are so much better off than a lot of people despite the issues we’ve faced the past couple of years. However, if the pandemic has brought you your fair share of difficulties, you might feel a form of empathy fatigue—or even gratitude fatigue—whereby you struggle to acknowledge the plight of others and have trouble seeing the positives in your own life because your burdens have been weighing heavily on you, maybe for a long time now.

If you feel like you’re in a bit of a gratitude rut as Thanksgiving and the holiday season approaches, here are a few ideas that can help you express—and feel—more thankful for enhanced emotional wellbeing.

• Write a gratitude letter every day. Aim to write one starting now until the end of the holidays. Jot it down on paper or type it up on your computer or smartphone. Research has shown that this simple exercise stimulates certain brain regions and has lasting effects on the brain, alleviating negative thinking, stress, and helping you to more easily express gratitude down the line. You can read more about this interesting gratitude study here.

• Express your “thanks” to loved ones, even for small, daily actions or routine gestures. Verbalizing gratitude for actions you typically may not acknowledge serves to remind you of the support and love you have in your life. This act also impacts those around you, prompting your loved ones to be grateful to you and others in return. The pandemic has brought many work-related and financial stressors, which for many people means less spending and less buying during the upcoming holiday season. This small act of gratitude is an excellent way to remind yourself of the importance of who—not what—you have in your life.

• Spend a little time remembering where you were and how far you’ve come. Although you have likely experienced many moments during the pandemic that you’d like to forget, it’s important to dedicate some time to thinking back to the struggles you have overcome, what your life difficulties have taught you, and how far you’ve come now. These reflections will fill you with gratitude, motivating and inspiring you to continue pushing forward with the courage, strength, and resilience that you’ve gained through life’s challenges.