Winter Mental Health Survival Tips

Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

In the northwest at this time of year there is a dramatic shift in natural light.  We go from having sunny days to gray days–even weeks–without seeing sun or blue sky.  People respond by burrowing into work, homes, and offices and avoiding being outside for longer than it takes to get in or out of their cars. 

It’s no fun to be outside when it’s raining, cold, and windy.  But we still need light and fresh air.  One inexpensive way to add light is to get white Christmas lights and string them up in your home for additional sparkle.  It’s also a good idea to figure out where you sit the most and buy a full spectrum bulb for the light fixture illuminating that spot. 

The need for fresh air is both literal as well as symbolic:  we need freshness in our lives to keep our sense of vibrancy.   Learning something new, returning to a neglected creative activity that once gave us joy, and practicing self care are all life-fresheners.   Self care can be defined simply any activity whose sole goal is pleasure. 

For my fresh-air practice, I decided to expand my musical horizons.  My taste in music is lame.   I was in the sound equivalent of a cooking rut, where I kept reaching for the same three or four CD’s, not because I really liked them but because I kind of liked them and didn’t know what else to try.   Deepening the rut was the fact that my kids take piano lessons so I rarely play music at home because they need to practice morning and afternoon. 

The idea I came up with is to go to the library each week and select a musical genre I know nothing about, check out a CD, and play music at work while I write chart notes, blog, and write monthly receipts.  Over the past several weeks  I have enjoyed piano composed by prisoners at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Germany during World War Two, music by King Bennie Nawahi, a Hawaiian slack key guitar virtuoso from the 1920’s, and as I write this I’m listening to a modern jazz saxophonist named Houston Person.   It’s fun, fresh and free. 

Another self care practice I heartily recommend is getting massage.  My latest happy discovery is the 90 minute massage available through New Leaf Massage in Freemont  The massage therapist, Camille, specializes in working with other massage therapists so you KNOW she’s good.  She starts out with a hot neck pack and foot soak beforehand and it only gets better from there.    When you leave your entire body feels like a giant buttered noodle.   She also sells gift certificates, so if you are looking for a holiday present for your sweetie you could get them a massage or if you want them to get one for you; you can forward them this blog.

No matter what demands your life makes, you deserve to take good, loving care of yourself. 

The Importance of Being Ernest…About Self Care

University Book Store, 4326 University Way NE,...
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I just did my very favorite November activity: I trekked down to the University Book Store to buy next year’s daily planner. For therapists, our daily planner is exactly as important as the Bible to a fundamentalist preacher.  Except we don’t tend to go around shaking it at people.

I slowly poked around the stacks and aisles of planners, comparing sizes and lay outs and covers and brands and arrived, as I always do on my very favorite type: a wildly overpriced weekly planner.

I’m proud to report that I went full-on tacky this year, with a fake alligator (!) pink (!!) cover which says both “attempt at sophistication” as well as “wishes she were a Vegas show girl.” If they had had one with peacock feathers and rhinestones, I would have gone with that in a heartbeat.

Even though I am most of the time a mature adult, I still need outlets for the googly-eyeball-loving kid in me. During this time of shrinking daylight, increased Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the stress of holiday commitments, engaging in little acts of self care can make all the difference between feeling merry and feeling quite contrary.

Right now is a great time to find a self-loving annual November ritual. Do it quick before your calendar is covered with commitments you are too busy to get away from.

Coming Home to You: A Retreat For Mothers

By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW

Joyce Victor is a psychotherapist and parenting teacher who teaches “Parenting the Spirited Child,” a popular parenting class in the Seattle area.   Joyce also happens to be one of those women everyone wants to have in their circle of friends:  wise, calm and kind, she has a that great combination of being highly intelligent as well as deeply committed to social justice issues… so when we started batting around the idea of co-facilitating a mother’s retreat day together, it felt like Christmas morning:  Spending time with a woman I enjoy and admire!  Working with a population I feel passionate about!  Serving a community that is often too busy for self care!  Making money to have fun!  Yippee!

We started planning it, and in no time we had more activities than we could possibly fit into a weekend, much less a single day.  The problem was how to get the word out.  This has been our biggest challenge so far.  So I’m interviewing her to both promote this retreat as well as this woman to my readership (all two of you…you know who you are). 

We spoke the day after Joyce returned from spending three days in (that’s in as in “visiting” not in as in “inmate”) the Monroe Penitentiary volunteering in the Alternatives to Violence Project, a nonprofit group that helps prisoners develop non-violent approaches to conflict.  

Me:  So what is it about group work that is so powerful?

Joyce:  Group work is being together with other people who are searching for answers about life’s predicaments—there’s nothing else like it.  It’s different than talking to a friend because you get the understandings of everyone else in the group.  What they are figuring out enriches you.  There’s a sense of shared community which lasts past the workshop.  This gives the participants a sense of courage to do things differently. 

Me:  One of the things that I’m aware of and cautious about is that by engaging in my chosen profession I am a part of the authority culture that inadvertently encourages people not to trust themselves and their instincts.  I think this authority culture really shows up around motherhood. 

I remember being pregnant and reading that bossy book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and coming across this infuriating sentence:  “With every bite you should ask yourself “is this the best bite for my baby?” and if it’s not then PUT THE FORK DOWN.”  This became the first book I ever threw across the room in disgust.  The idea that a pregnant woman who is reading a book to better prepare for motherhood needs any further installation of guilt and fear still makes my blood boil. 

All this is preamble to this:  We want to create a retreat for mother’s to reconnect with their own wisdom, rather than hand down our own from up on high. How do you share your intelligence with your clients in a way that respects their intelligence? 

Joyce:  That issue is the most important thing I have been working on!  It has made me shift the way that I work in groups.  In groups I try to create opportunities for people to share what they know and learn from each other.  I teach ground rules about brainstorming and then divide them into small groups and have them brainstorm solutions problems someone in the group is having.  Inevitably, when I collect feedback at the end of the course people write that the “best part of class is working with other parents.”  This is great because everyone has a huge amount to offer. 

Me:  What is it about being a mother that begs for time away?   And why is so hard for mothers to admit that they need that? 

Joyce:  Your sense of self before having children and your relationship with your partner is eclipsed by mothering.  Parenting is such a powerful responsibility and joy, it’s a 24 hour job that takes over the time one has for conversation with oneself, as well as the importance of keeping a separate path.  We are required to throw ourselves 100% into being mothers, and then the role tapers out so that we must let our children go and not rely on them for being our source of value or meaning

I think women are afraid of being selfish, but they need to know that children also benefit from seeing and knowing their mother as a whole human being with outside interests who are growing and learning.   This is helpful for both a daughter’s future sense of self as well as for sons who need to know that women are not just taking care of their families.  Women also have an essential life of their own spirit and soul that is going on.  Taking time for yourself is actually helpful to your children. 

Thank you Joyce! 

If a day of hanging out with like-minded soul searching mamas appeals to you, give me a call at 206 375-7690 so I can make sure this workshop is a good fit for you.    Our retreat flyer can be found on Joyce’s website: