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Mental health and physical fitness are important, and a helping hand is always available

By Donald Bierhals

Shannon Stonebrook senses a heightened level of anxiety amongst her clients due to COVID-19 and the restrictions put in place because of it, and she understands that the holidays, in general, can be a tough time for some people

Lance Schrecengost believes people need to get their bodies moving, but also that extreme exercise is not for everyone.

Alicia Bercury wants people to know that working out does not require equipment and using your own body can get the job done.

Beth Gillan agrees that it is okay to not feel okay right now, but there is always help available for those who desperately need it.

Each of these individuals can help provide you with ways to cope with mental health struggles, physical fitness advice, and pertinent information regarding resources that you can rely upon if needed.

“There are people out there that will listen and offer support,” said Beth Gillan.

Shannon Stonebrook, a licensed professional mental health counselor in the Pittsburgh area, believes that the holiday season can be a cheerful and jovial time for many people. Christmas music on the radio, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” on television, and Christmas trees and decorations everywhere can make people think back to their childhood in a way that sparks up nostalgia and makes people feel happy – that is what generally makes this time of year great.

However, Stonebrook thinks that it’s important that others understand “for some people, it’s an extremely sad time of year and the holidays either remind them of loved ones they’ve lost, or they’ve gone through a lot this year”.

One of Stonebrook’s clients understands this feeling all too well, as she recently lost her mother. This will be the first time this client will celebrate her birthday without her mother this month, and she is mostly upset because her mother will not be around for the holidays – her mother loved this time of year as she used to “do a lot” every holiday season.

Stonebrook advised this client to “do what you need to do” to get through this holiday season. For instance, if her client is not prepared to participate as much in holiday traditions with family and friends this season that she needs to “express to others that you’re just not feeling up to it and they’ll understand”. If someone else is struggling with a similar circumstance, Stonebrook wants you to understand that you do not have to do anything to please other people because “it’s not about pleasing others for the sake of yourself if you’re struggling”.

And for those missing a loved one due to the COVID-19 in place – Stonebrook advises virtual interaction if you can. For example, setting aside one day to either cook a meal with someone, or play games with them can be done virtually. She understands it may not be ideal, but it’s better than no interaction at all.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) flares up during this time of year for many. According to Stonebrook, SAD’s symptoms include a feeling of depression that causes people to stay in bed, lack of motivation to do anything, or a “sense of blues” that clouds over people making them not feel like themselves. She says it can last for many months.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), scientists do not necessarily know what causes SAD. However, research shows that a lack of serotonin, a chemical that regulates mood in the brain, overproduction of melatonin, a hormone centrally important for a normal sleep-wake cycle – can cause people to be sleepier, and a lack of vitamin D from either diet or sun could all be contributing factors.

Stonebrook says that talking to other people can be helpful as others may be able to understand and lend advice, however in severe cases and for those struggling mightily she advises to seek professional help/counseling immediately.

Journaling that consists of writing down daily thoughts and occurrences can also be relieving because it acts as a way to “get your thoughts out” rather than holding them in which will not help alleviate stress. To combat the lack of sunlight and vitamin D exposure during the winter months, Stonebrook suggests possibly purchasing a lightbox. Lightboxes are designed to be extremely bright, and a solid 30-45-minute light therapy session lasting between 30-45 minutes, according to NIMH. However, taking advantage of sunny days during the winter is highly important as well.

Stonebrook strongly encourages physical activity. She advises that people find something they like to do, and she tells her clients “if you’re scheduling and putting your calendar together, schedule it in”. Additionally, she tells people to purposely put their gym clothes in places where they will notice them and possibly trip over them as a reminder – possibly somewhere between your bed or bathroom might work. Stonebrook says that you need to “help your chances of success”. She also believes that exercise can “elevate mood” and that can provide people with a sense of accomplishment.

Along with that, she urges that people set realistic goals for themselves. “Instead of saying I’m going to work out every day of the week, maybe say two days a week I’m going to start out.” Essentially, take baby steps and gradually build confidence, the more confidence you gain, the more you can increase your physical activity.

For those that enjoy walking, Stonebrook suggests trying to go for a “mindful” walk. For example, while on a walk it’s important to live in the moment and be present. Take in all your surroundings, whether that be the warmth of the sun, the snow falling from the sky, the sounds of everything around you, or even saying hello to strangers. “People are so worried about the future sometimes that there missing out on the joy of the moment,” said Stonebrook.

To contact Stonebrook: call 412-339-4376

Lance Schrecengost, the owner of Schrec’s Health Club located in Sarver, Pa since 2002, agrees with Stonebrook that walking can be just as beneficial as any extreme workout. Schrecengost, a self-trained powerlifter and competitor, admits that he and others like himself need to walk more.

Lance Schrecengost

Photo by Donald Bierhals

To me, you have to do something where you start moving,” said Schrecengost. He continued, “You’d be surprised at how much people don’t do.” Walking from their house to the mailbox maybe it. That is not enough movement, according to Schrecengost.

Photo by Donald Bierhals

Schrecengost believes that people should do exercises that they like to do and that fits their personality. However, he does suggest that people add some variety into their routine because it is not only good for the body, but a change in general is good sometimes, as it is healthy to work out more than one area of your body.

Schrecengost works with people of all ages, and he understands that each person is different and that what works for some may not work for others. For instance, Schrecengost trains people that are aged 70 and above, and he makes sure that they understand what their limitations are, as some of them have had multiple knee and back surgeries. Being safe while exercising is very important.

Schrecengost has clients with bad knees and backs, and he modifies their workouts differently so that they do not have to do exercises on the ground if they have trouble getting down and up off the ground. A standing pushup using a wall to push off instead of being on hands and knees might be a safer option for some people.

He could not stress this enough – any movement is a good movement, but it starts with the first step which is the hardest step to overcome.

“Moving is life. Once you’re done moving that’s when you’re done being alive,” said Schrecengost.

Schrecengost likes listening to his music while working out and training others. He tailors what music is played based on what clients are in the gym because each person’s personality varies and understanding what music they like might help make their workout session easier.

For example, one of his clients enjoys listening to church hymns and when she comes to workout “so, we listen to church hymns for that half-hour,” said Schrecengost.

He understands that each person is different, and he loves getting to know his clients and build workout routines for them – but you must be willing to put in the work.

For children at home right now due to Covid-19 restrictions, parents need to keep things fun! Strenuous and more sophisticated exercises that adults do may lose a child’s interest quickly, according to Schrecengost, and that is why working out a child’s motor skills by doing fun activities can be more effective. If the weather permits, go play basketball if you can, or any other sport that can be done at home, do it! Get creative and keep it fun.

Contact Schrecengost at 724-353-1200.

Alicia Bercury, from Slippery Rock, Pa, is a health and nutrition coach, personal trainer, and yoga/Zumba instructor. “In the mainstream world yoga is mind and body, it’s connecting your mind to your body while staying in the moment,” said Bercury. Very similar to Stonebrook’s concept of being mindful on a walk and living in the present.

For beginners and new clients, Bercury describes what exercises a workout session would include below. Equipment is not required.

For help understanding yoga poses, visit Yoga Journal (www.yogajournal.com).

How much a person can do of each exercise will be different for everyone. Bercury suggests that people need to go at their own pace – a gradual pace and easing into it is best to avoid injury. Know your limits.

Alicia Bercury

Photo by Erica Dietz Photography

For people who want to have a healthier diet, Bercury does not advise quitting “cold turkey” on your habits, rather “keep eating whatever you’re eating, instead of subtracting from your diet lets add to it with healthy foods,” said Bercury. For example, if someone eats fast food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day – add a piece of fruit to your diet either after a workout, or dinner, and replace your daily unhealthy snacks like chips and candy with healthier options and eat those instead when you are feeling hungry.

Bercury also suggests drinking more water, while slowly eliminating sugary drinks such as soda.

In the grand scheme of wanting to exercise more and eat healthier, Bercury suggests that people need to seek out supportive individuals to help along their journey. A workout partner to hold you accountable and keep you motivated might be a start.

For support with your dietary habits, do not just “eat less and workout more,” rather consult a professional like herself who is trained to help you.

“Any eating plan or any type of eating style, I think a lot of it is individually based,” said Bercury. Meaning, a diet plan that works for your friend may not work for you, and if you are thinking about completely changing your diet, it’s best to consult with a professional or your physician before doing so – safety first!

Contact Bercury call 814-758-2767

Beth Gillan is the regional executive director at the Center for Community Resources (CCR) in Butler, Pa. CCR’s primary focus is to “make a difference in everyday lives…and connecting people to local resources and supports for that to happen,” said Gillan.

CCR provides people with services such as early childhood development support for children with learning disabilities, drug, and alcohol rehabilitation, and as she described it a “robust” crisis and mental health program that provides services to 15 counties in Pennsylvania.

For 46 counties in Pennsylvania, CCR is also a call center that takes calls on the national suicide prevention lifeline which is available 24/7. Gillan says “we have made it very easy” if you need to reach out and desperately need to talk to someone. On CCR’s website, there is a toll-free 800 number and a texting option that is available as well. Along with that, there is a chatting service readily available on the site. If a situation requires face to face communication currently, proper COVID-19 precautions will be taken to make that happen (walk-ins are strongly encouraged during normal times).

Gillan wants to reassure you that “real people” will be the ones talking with you, whether that be a phone call, text, website chat, and face to face. “You’re going to be listened to, don’t be afraid – we’re not going to take you to a hospital or get the police involved”. That would only be done in extreme circumstances that warrant that type of action to be taken.

Gillan cannot stress it enough, “there’s a person that’s going to listen with empathy and compassion and help sort through whatever is going on”.

Not only this year but CCR provides food and financial assistance as well “give us a call,” said Gillan.

If you need a coat to stay warm during the cold winter months, CCR will provide you with one. Each year CCR puts on and an event called Bundle up Butler, where winter jackets are provided to those in need. This year, they had it at Butler Memorial Park. People placed their order, showed up, and orders were ready for people upon arrival.

When asked what she loved most about her job, Gillan said “those stories where we can make a difference”.

Recently, a principal from Moniteau school district in Butler County made a phone call to one of CCR’s directors, Hailey Merchant, regarding one of her students.

The child had broken her glasses and needed a new pair, and along with that, the school district had been providing the child and her family with food assistance as well. The principal had reached out to another entity about helping the child get a new pair of glasses, and after three weeks to a month, he got no response or help.

After the principal’s phone call with Hailey Merchant, CCR was able to provide the child with brand new glasses and food within 48 hours! “We make it happen,” said Gillan.

For immediate assistance and contact information please visit https://ccrinfo.org/  or call 800-292-3866 for crisis services, text 63288 to talk to a trained crisis professional, and 844-360-4372 for information referral. You can also visit this contact page https://ccrinfo.org/contact-us/

For those who are feeling stressed right now and down in the dumps, Shannon Stonebrook suggests practicing gratitude as a coping mechanism to relieve that stress. “Wake up and think of 5-10 things you are grateful for today,” said Stonebrook. The benefits may surprise you.

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