Why Do I Feel Bad? Understanding Unjustified Guilt

Guilt is a normal, healthy emotion. Experiencing it when you’ve hurt someone or when you’ve made a mistake is a good sign—it means you have a conscience. But sometimes, you may experience unjustified guilt.

Unjustified guilt is when people punish themselves even though circumstances are out of their control, or they did not deliberately hurt anyone.

In the context of the pandemic, we are living in a period where we are reminded daily that our actions have consequences. There are several factors during this pandemic that have made us more vulnerable to unjustified guilt: guilt surrounding bereavement; guilt that your job is secure, or you are in a safe position, while others are not; guilt over parenting decisions; guilt because you cannot do more to directly help others; guilt after going to a social gathering; guilt for not going to a social gathering…the list goes on.

So, what can we do to avoid future guilt?

You may not be able to control the fact that you experience guilt, but you can control how you respond to it.

It is important to acknowledge that you are feeling guilty and identify the reason, then recognize the negative critical thoughts which can lead to a distorted idea of what happened or disproportionate levels of guilt. Try and reframe those negative thoughts with something you would say to a friend if they were going through a similar situation. If speaking to a friend, you would point out the good things they have done, remind them of their strengths, and how much you value them. You deserve this same kindness.

Be gentle with yourself. The ability to look at a situation from another’s perspective is incredibly powerful. It triggers a different set of emotions, the foundation of empathy that you need to be easier on yourself.

If you’re feeling guilty after a specific action, pause and evaluate what you can do differently in the future. It may help to identify what values you want to live by during the pandemic, even writing them down, so you can refer to them when if a situation arises. Remind yourself that you are doing this for your physical and mental safety which is another way of taking care of yourself.

Shirley Bellardo, LCSW, LCADC

How to Create Boundaries for Your Mental Health

The COVID-19 vaccine provides reassurances in keeping us physically protected, yet it does not automatically reduce or eliminate our anxiety, change in that way is going to take time and patience after all we have endured the past 18 months. Everyone is moving at their own pace when it comes to post quarantine; some folks have jumped at the chance to see a movie, go out to dinner, attend a sports event, or host a dinner party. For others, even if they are fully vaccinated, they are experiencing anxiety about relaxing their safety protocols. It is important to recognize and respect that we all have a pace that works best for ourselves.

So, how do you stay in your comfort zone and move at your own pace during this pandemic phase? This may be a perfect time to set and maintain boundaries that make you feel comfortable.

First, decide where you would like to draw the line for you and your immediate household. Do you feel comfortable asking about vaccine status? Do you feel comfortable with an outdoor, distanced, or masked get-together? Once you have discussed and made decisions, communicate this information clearly and with no apologies to your family/friends. 

Second, hold no judgment. It is not uncommon to have different opinions than your family or friends about moving out of quarantine. Using judgmental language or labels is not productive to having open and understanding relationships. Instead, use “I” statements to emphasize your needs rather than the ways you disagree with other’s choices. Centering your statement on yourself helps to take the sense of blame or negativity from the other person so they will not feel defensive. Last, practice what you are going to say so you can present your stance clearly and respectfully. Always remember, you have the right to make your own decisions and set boundaries that make you feel safe and comfortable.

Shirley Bellardo, LCSW, LCADC

How to Return to Work Post-Pandemic

As restrictions start to ease, more and more employees are returning to the workplace, no doubt with anxious feelings, questions, and possible concerns. Feeling dread and uncertainty is perfectly normal…

Will my co-workers be wearing masks?

Will we maintain social distancing?

How will we readjust to being away from home where it has been safe while quarantining for the past year?

First and foremost, it is important to acknowledge that it is normal to feel anxious right now, we went from working remotely to avoid groups of people to an accelerated reopening of the state. It is going to take time to adjust and be comfortable in this re-entry process; the following strategies may help managing back to work anxiety:

Take time to visit the workplace prior to returning to work. This may help reduce the anticipatory anxiety and stress you are feeling. Often the more we avoid a situation, the harder it can be to return to it.

Recognize what makes you feel safe and comfortable at home and try to translate that into your work environment.

Practice mindfulness – do a body scan from head to toe; mentally scanning yourself, you bring awareness to every single part of your body, noticing any aches, pains, tension, or general discomfort.

Visualization – form peaceful and inspiring pictures in your mind; imagine yourself succeeding in feeling calm and relaxed in your work environment.

Progressive muscle relaxation – practicing progressively tightening and then relaxing the muscles of your body can help you learn to better control the tension.

Challenge anxious thoughts – ask yourself if you are being realistic, are you thinking the worst-case scenario? Challenge these thoughts with more realistic ones to calm your feelings of anxiety.

Take one day at a time; do what needs to get done today and take care of tomorrow when it comes, tomorrow.

If you continue to worry about returning to the workplace, contact JFCS during daily drop-in hours to discuss other techniques that may be helpful. 609-987-8100.

Shirley Bellardo, LCSW, LCADC

Moving Past the Pandemic: A New Anxiety

One year ago, the World Health Organization reported the COVID 19 virus as a global pandemic and the world changed. Requirements for social distancing, wearing a mask and staying at home, for most, resulted in anxiety. Most of us experienced fear and worry about contacting or spreading the virus; gradually, routines developed, and we cautiously adjusted, still with a good amount of stress.

One year later, as the vaccine rollout quickens, and more and more people are getting vaccinated many folks are having conversations about different fears. A survey released last month by the American Psychological Association found that 49% of adults feel uneasy about returning to in-person interactions once the pandemic is over. Vaccination status did not affect the responses – 48% of those who have already been vaccinated say they, too, feel uncomfortable with in-person interactions.

​These concerns are understandable. In the past year, we have heard over and over that home is the safest place, so feeling anxious about the prospect of being with people outside our “pod” or in larger gatherings is perfectly normal.

Returning to in person interactions while the pandemic is still ongoing is yet another transition.  For those who struggled with anxiety before the pandemic, the anticipation of an impending return to something like normalcy is cause for apprehension. For most, this adjustment will not be easy. Coping skills can help you tolerate, minimize, and deal with stressful situations and managing your stress will help you feel better physically and psychologically.

Coping Skills & Strategies

Review this list to see what might work best for you. It is good practice to implement skills in preparation of confronting changes as you re-engage with social activities.

  • Acknowledge feeling symptoms of stress – anxiety; feeling concerned, irritated, angry; having trouble sleeping or concentrating
  • Gradually resume activities – set small goals, for example, meet a friend for coffee at an outdoor cafe
  • Practice communicating boundaries – saying no if you are not comfortable with an activity
  • Plan and think ahead – is there anything that could make you feel uncertain in this situation?
  • Buddy up – get together with a friend and support each other through the process
  • Stay focused on what is within your control
  • Practice mindfulness techniques
  • Develop daily encouraging mantras – they will keep you mentally strong
  • Exercise/keep active
  • Good sleep hygiene

Anxiety can become a problem that interferes with your daily life.

If you need additional support, please reach out to JFCS at 609-987-8100.

Shirley Bellardo, LCSW, LCADC

COVID-19 Anniversary: Why We Look Back, How We Move Forward

“Remember how far you’ve come, not how far you have to go. You are not where you want to be, but neither are you where you used to be.” – Rick Warren

 

Why is it important to mark an anniversary?

Anniversaries – whether marking a wedding, a union, a birthday, a new job, or other significant milestone – are most often days of celebration. These occasions give us reason to celebrate and reflect on the previous year and how the event being celebrated has added to our lives.

Anniversaries can also mark more somber occasions, this could be the loss of a loved one, or even a larger event in our community or in history. Why is it equally important to mark the passage of time in respect to loss, heartache, or tragedy?

It is important to acknowledge that all significant events make us who we are. A marriage marks a new beginning, a new path forward, as much as losing a loved one can also define a new stage in life. Each experience becomes a part of your story.

Where we may take a wedding anniversary to reflect with our partner on the past year, or years, and reminisce about how the partnership has grown, when we reflect on the anniversary of a tragic event, it is an opportunity to recognize growth as well. What have you learned in facing a loss? How have you shown resilience? How have you learned to cope with grief, or sadness, or struggle?

To the end, any anniversary that you acknowledge has worth, you assign its worth simple by recognizing the event or day as an anniversary. And if there is value to you in that day, then there is value in the emotions and reflection that come with it.

In the coming weeks, we will be reaching the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold of our lives. On March 4, 2020 New Jersey officials announced the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 in New Jersey; two short weeks later, the state entered a near-total quarantine lockdown that brought our lives to a halt.

What do we find by looking back?

The coronavirus outbreak impacted major aspects of our lives: working remotely at home, online education, and religious services. We had to get creative entertaining outdoors with a minimum number of family and friends staying six feet apart, drive-by birthday greetings and Zoom parties. Suddenly we were wearing face masks and washing our hands so often our skin became red, sore, and dry. Families were not able to visit loved ones in nursing facilities or attend to funeral rituals due to the need for social distancing. And travel was not happening.

Although none of us could have prepared for such a tragic period during our lifetime, there is value in recognizing the anniversary and in reflecting on what we have experienced in the past year.

There has certainly been much lost in the past year…

The start of school, graduations, weddings, funerals, sitting Shiva are all time-honored rituals and traditions that COVID severely disrupted. The lack of physical expression (hugs, kisses) has left a void in the way we process grief. A challenge during this time has been creating new rituals so we can partake in these significant occasions. Connecting on Zoom, social distance get-togethers, lawn signs to express congratulations to a graduate or celebrate a birthday demonstrate how resourceful and creative we have been establishing meaning to special events.

It is important to acknowledge our losses. Feeling sad is a normal part of grieving and it’s important to give yourself permission to be sad and to acknowledge the other emotions you might be feeling. Remember to take care of yourself, this could be sitting with a cup of tea listening to your favorite music, eating healthy, or journaling your thoughts and feelings.

Where there was loss, there was also gain…

Reflect on personal accomplishments – did you start a new hobby? Secure a new job? Spend more quality time with family? Learn a new skill? Prioritize your mental health?

Now, not all of us will emerge from this quarantine with a healthy sourdough starter on the counter, fully reorganized closets, filled with newly crocheted blankets, and that’s ok too. Simply getting through each day, maintaining your health, being able to move forward during this challenging time, that is an accomplishment to be proud of as well.

Beyond our personal spheres, there are positive takeaways to be found from the last year in how communities banded together to help the most vulnerable during the pandemic. Around the world folks came together to support their family, friends, and community by providing emotional and financial support, food, protective gear, and social justice.

Food drives were organized, masks hand-sewn and delivered to seniors, neighbors shopped for each other to keep crowds out of stores, we stood on balconies to applaud the herculean efforts of frontline workers, grassroots efforts launched food pantries and meal distributions across heavily impacted communities.

Looking for more inspiration? We can look at the global scale and celebrate that in the past year…

How do we look forward with hope?

We may feel as our lives are indefinitely paused because we don’t know how life will look after the pandemic, but we can have hope. Hope is a belief that things will get better, it is linked to the power of our mind and plays a vital role in giving us the benefit of emerging from adversity. This is not an opinion, it is science.

Hope takes away the burden of the present moment making it less difficult to bear. It helps us to believe in a better tomorrow. I am hopeful that you can be hopeful and look for that better tomorrow.​

Have you hit the wall? Feeling exhausted by uncertainty, isolation, fear?

We are all dealing with the ongoing impact of the pandemic, some of us more than others. Even as the vaccine brings hope, we now face the frustrating process of registering for the vaccine – scouring websites, making phones calls, seeking new resources and information. After wave after wave of challenges, many of us are at the breaking point.

To combat the potential spiral into frustration and anxiety, first, recognize there is only so much we can control – this makes us human, but not powerless. What can we control? We can acknowledge our feelings, we can show ourselves kindness and compassion. Compassion for oneself is no different than compassion for others. Instead of pushing aside pain, concerns, anxieties, pause and tell yourself ‘this is really difficult right now.’ Then ask, ‘how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?’

Let’s walk through a simple Self-Compassion Practice that can help build mental and emotional resilience…

The following exercise is from resilience expert Linda Graham for shifting our awareness and bringing acceptance to the experience of the moment. It helps to practice this self-compassion break when any emotional distress is still reasonably manageable, through practice, you can create and strengthen the neural circuits that can do this shifting and re-conditioning when things are really tough.

When you notice a surge of difficult emotion – boredom, anger, stress – pause. Put your hand over your heart (this activates the release of oxytocin, the hormone of safety & trust)

Empathize with your experience. Say to yourself “this is upsetting” or “this is hard!” or “this is scary” or even, “ouch, this hurts!”

Repeat one or more of these phrases, or try a variation that works for you…

May I be kind to myself in this moment.

May I accept this moment exactly as it is.

May I accept myself exactly as I am in this moment.

May I give myself all the compassion I need.

These simple mantras break the negative thought loops.

Continue repeating the phrases until you can feel the internal shift – the compassion and kindness and care for yourself becoming stronger than the original negative emotion.

Uncertain times mean navigating changes in your life that you cannot control.

They may mean doing things differently, even reaching out for help — that’s part of being resilient, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

If you need additional support, reach out to JFCS at 609-987-8100.

Feeling stressed about the election? How to cope with anxiety & uncertainty in the days and weeks ahead

You may be experiencing symptoms of Election Stress Disorder.

The 2020 election season would have been a stressful one even during normal times but, compounded with a pandemic it is creating, for some, incredible stress and frustration. If you find yourself experiencing what has been described as Election Stress Disorder you are not alone; according to a study recently conducted by the American Psychological Association, 68% of Americans are feeling significantly stressed by this presidential election. For some, tomorrow and the weeks ahead will be highly emotional, so it is essential to consider how to manage your mental and emotional wellbeing.

Below are a few suggestions that could provide you with a balance:

Try to keep things in perspective.

It’s common to experience strong feelings of distress related to elections. To help you cope, validate whatever emotions you’re experiencing, while working to reframe intrusive thoughts like hopelessness or despair. If you are feeling discouraged by current events, remind yourself that situations may shift in the future.

Set boundaries with family and friends.

Having boundaries means offering one another the space to celebrate, mourn, and process feelings as needed. Avoid minimizing or judging other people’s reactions, especially if those reactions are different than yours. Give people space to cope in the ways that best suit them.

Try not to dwell.

Instead of dwelling on fears by letting your mind run wild, ask yourself if there are any action steps you can take to improve the situation and/or your mental health. Anxiety functions to make us feel powerless; doing something – anything – can help empower and bring us back into healthy coping.

Self-monitor your emotions.

Prepare for delayed results; it may take days or weeks, self-monitor and respond appropriately to your emotions. If the outcome is not what you were hoping for, find peaceful and adaptive ways to advocate for what you believe in.

Limit your news consumption.

Make opportunities to disconnect from the media, particularly if you find yourself becoming distraught, anxious, or emotionally reactive. The news is sure to be more exhausting in the coming weeks, which is why a plan for consumption can be beneficial.

Tomorrow, Election Day.

On the day of the election, start off with a moment of gratitude and self-care; this may look like journaling, a short meditation or being in nature.

Shirley Bellardo, LCSW, LCADC (Director of Clinical Services)

Are you feeling the winter blues? Darker days affecting your mood?

Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder During the Pandemic

As we brace for the winter months when the days will grow shorter and become darker, the psychological effects of the lack of sun can go beyond “winter blues” to a form of depression known Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD).  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer. Depressive periods linked to the summer can occur but are much less common than winter episodes of SAD.  It is estimated that SAD effects five percent of the U.S. population each year. With the additional complications and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of SAD may be more pervasive than usual this year.

Why is sunlight so important?  Exposure to sunlight is believed to increase a hormone in the brain called serotonin which is associated with boosting your mood and helping you to feel more focused and calmer. The darker lighting at night triggers the brain to make another hormone called melatonin which is responsible for helping you sleep. 

Symptoms of SAD are similar in nature to the symptoms of any other depression: feelings of sadness, difficulties getting out of bed, sleep problems, low energy, loss of interest in activities, difficulty concentrating and feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of death or suicide. In addition, SAD symptoms might include a craving for carbohydrates, overeating, turning to drugs, alcohol or tobacco to cope, self-isolation/distancing more than what is recommended.

To avoid or at least minimize SAD symptoms, it would be helpful to start now and establish good mental health habits rather than wait when the shorter and colder days are upon us. Here are some strategies to try:

If you cannot go outside, bring the sun indoors.

Light therapy can be a great way to fool your brain into making more of the chemicals that make you feel good — the same chemicals that you’re missing during a bout of seasonal depression. Search for lights that mimic natural light or light therapy boxes.

Healthy body and healthy mind.

Eat healthy, get plenty of exercise, meditate, engage in spiritual connectedness, and stimulate your intellectual curiosity by exploring new ideas.

Essential oils.

There are a variety of essential oils that are recommened to help relieve symptoms of SAD; such as, bergamot, lavender, sandalwood, sage, basil, chamomile, lemon, peppermint, jasmine, and orange.

Do what you enjoy.

Make time for your hobbies – music, cooking, playing an instrument, dancing, drawing or journaling.

Balanced life.

Make an effort to achieve balance between your personal and professional life and treat them as two different worlds.  This is especially important for anyone working from home because of COVID-19. Try and keep separate spaces for work/school and relaxation; remember to “log-off” after your usual work day and disconnect fully when transitioning to your personal time.

Get support.

If your symptoms are affecting your daily life and functioning, a licensed therapist can provide you with a variety of coping skills and support to improve your mental health well-being. JFCS is here for you. Call 609-987-8100 to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed professionals.

You can also be immediately connected with a counselor during our Phone Drop In Hours:

Monday, Wednesday, Friday 10 AM – 12 PM

Tuesday & Thursday 5 – 7 PM

Shirley Bellardo, LCSW, LCADC (Director of Clinical Services)

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

Suicide is a major public health concern. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there were 48,344 people who died by suicide in the United States in 2018 and 1.4 million suicide attempts.

Feeling suicidal is not a character defect, and it does not mean that you are weak, or flawed. It means you are experiencing an overwhelming amount of pain than you cannot manage at this time. When you get the right support and begin to talk about your feelings, you can overcome your problems and the pain and suicidal feelings will pass. Emotions are not fixed – they are constantly changing. How you feel today may not be the same as how you felt yesterday or how you’ll feel tomorrow or next week.

The best way to prevent suicide is to recognize the warning signs: 

Someone at risk for suicide may exhibit or express emotional signs…

  • Empty, hopeless, trapped, or having no reason to live
  • Extremely sad, more anxious, agitated, or full of rage
  • Unbearable emotional or physical pain

There are also changes in behavior that may indicate someone is at risk for suicide…

  • Make a plan or research ways to die
  • Talk about feeling helpless or having no reason to live; “I am better off dead,” or “I wish I was never born.”
  • Withdraw from friends, say good bye, give away important items, or make a will
  • Take dangerous risks such as driving extremely fast
  • Display extreme mood swings
  • Eating or sleeping more or less
  • Using drugs or alcohol more often
  • Recent trauma or life crisis

If someone says they are suicidal, or behaves in a way that makes you think the person may be suicidal, don’t play it down or ignore the situation. Many people who die by suicide have expressed the intention at some point. You may worry that you’re overreacting, but the safety of your friend or loved one is most important.

How to get help: seek out a trained professional as quickly as possible.

24/7 Resources

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)

New Jersey Suicide Prevention Helpline 1-855-654-6735

Crisis Text Line Text HOME to 741741

The Trevor Project (crisis intervention & suicide prevention support for LGBTQ+ youth)

1-866-488-7386 / Text START to 678678

Veterans Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255 PRESS 1

How to Manage Screen time during COVID-19

Is it possible to practice digital wellness during COVID-19?

Many parents have expressed concerns that their children have been spending too much time in front of screens during COVID-19. The American Heart Association is urging parents to drastically cut the hours their kids can use their phones, computers, tablets, television, and video games.  A recent study from Common Sense Media reported that pre-teens are spending six hours a day in front of a screen and teens nine hours a day.

Parents are challenged with new circumstances as screens are everywhere and children are now learning and playing online. As the school year begins, many children will now be required to spend time on devices for a majority of their school day, which makes it even more important to establish a balance during their recreational time. The reality is everyone needs to be flexible in setting rules and to consider the purpose and benefits of the devices our children use (and ourselves!)

Let’s look at a few suggestions: 

  • Most importantly, parents should model healthy digital behavior by limiting their own screen time and putting their devices down to engage with their children.
  • Set rules around the use of screen time. For example, preview programs, games, and apps before allowing your children to view or play with them; or, consider watching, playing, or using them with your child.
  • Establish time limits for screen use and stick to them! The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends setting hours-per-day limits for children/teens and suggest use of the media time calculator to determine an appropriate amount of time based on the child’s age.
  • Designate a screen free day where physical activity, reading and spending time outdoors is encouraged.
  • Create media free zones such as no screens in the bedrooms and no device use during mealtimes.
  • Plan for screen breaks. Frequent breaks can stop the brain from becoming over stimulated and combat screen addiction.
  • A good rule is to stop all exposure to screens and devices one hour prior to bedtime.
  • Provide alternatives to screen time; play a board game, go on a hike or a bike ride.

Allowing your child to be involved in creating a plan that works for your family is important, it will help them stick to it. Setting limits now will help your child properly manage their screen time and develop digital wellness skills.

Shirley Bellardo, LCSW, LCADC (Director of Clinical Services)