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Managing Mental Wellness During Stressful Holiday Times: “Practice Radical Self-Care” with Diane Petrella, MSW

Practice Radical Self-Care. Especially during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, make your physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing your highest priority.   You know the drill. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Eat well. Keep your body hydrated. Limit or avoid alcohol so you don’t go down a slippery slope. Create daily “me” time. Taking even just […]


Practice Radical Self-Care. Especially during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, make your physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing your highest priority. 
 
 You know the drill. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Eat well. Keep your body hydrated. Limit or avoid alcohol so you don’t go down a slippery slope. Create daily “me” time. Taking even just 15 minutes a day to write in a journal, relax with a good book, or listen to soothing music can nourish your soul. 
 
 Never underestimate the power of a rested body, settled mind, and uplifted spirit. Giving yourself these sacred gifts can help you not only better cope with challenging family gatherings but may help you have a nice time, too.


Diane Petrella, MSW is a licensed psychotherapist, life coach, and Reiki practitioner in Providence, Rhode Island. She uses a mind-body-spirit approach in her work with adult clients who are dealing with a range of emotional and personal concerns. With an expertise in childhood sexual abuse, Diane helps adult survivors with obesity, emotional eating, and body image issues to lose weight and create a loving relationship with their bodies.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory? 
 
 
I guess you could say that my career started when I was eleven years old and witnessed the sudden, accidental death of my father. I was emotionally devastated. Later that year — I was in the sixth grade — I read a story about Jane Addams who is considered the “mother” of social work. Beginning in the late 1800s she championed women’s and children’s causes. The way she helped those less fortunate resonated within me. Jane became my role model and even though I was a child, my path was clear: I wanted to become a social worker and help other children.
 
 I received my Master of Social Work degree from Simmons University in Boston where I was trained as a child therapist. Early in my career I worked with traumatized children and developed the first child sexual abuse treatment program in Rhode Island. My clients included child, teen and adult victims of sexual assault and also sex offenders. I provided expert witness testimony in the courts on sexual assault and child custody matters. 
 
 While now my psychotherapy practice is with adults only, my early experience proved invaluable. Much of my work focuses on helping people heal from childhood trauma. I feel blessed to have transformed my personal tragedy into a gift through which I could help others.

With the holiday season upon us, many people are visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy?

I think of a difficult dynamic as families with members who have different personality styles and temperaments that sometimes clash. For example, your brother is outgoing and loves the limelight while you are introverted and quiet. Maybe he gets on your nerves because he’s talking about himself all the time and you get on his nerves because he sees you as withholding and wants to connect. There’s nothing unhealthy about this if handled with grace and non-judgment. People’s personality styles may feel challenging but family members still trust one another.

With an unhealthy dynamic, family members feel emotionally unsafe. They may believe their voice is not being heard, their words are being twisted and what they share may be used against them. Instead of differing personality styles there may be a family member whose basic character is flawed. For example, you walk on eggshells around your narcissistic mother because if you say one wrong word she’ll perceive you as being ungrateful and berate you in front of your entire extended family. 
 
 Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. In families where celebrating separately is not an option, what advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?

Nurture relationships with family members you feel safe with. Be generous with expressions of gratitude. For example, it will warm your dear cousin’s heart to hear you say, “Thank you for being in my life. You mean the world to me. I love you.” Authentic expressions of love and appreciation deepen relationships. 
 
 For family members who may trip triggers, take the higher road without sacrificing yourself. Appreciation can work wonders here, too. Is there one small yet positive memory you have about the person? If so, tell them you remember that moment fondly. Everyone has redeeming qualities. You just have to be open to seeing them.

We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?

The difference between a toxic and an unhealthy family is in the degree of safety — or lack of safety — someone feels. Families with emotional, physical, or sexual abuse are toxic. To me that’s black and white. People — especially children — are not safe when a family member is prone to behaving in these ways. 
 
 A family with no physical or sexual abuse still may be toxic if people are mean-spirited with each other. Again it’s a matter of degree. Insults feel awful but not necessarily toxic once you learn not to internalize emotional daggers thrown by others. 
 
 I would support someone to cut off contact from a family member if they feel at risk for any degree of physical or sexual harm. Some things are non-negotiable. When that’s not the situation, I advise someone to handle a toxic family member by limiting time spent with that person, keeping conversations light and staying away from controversial topics. And don’t fuel the drama by engaging with their bad or obnoxious behavior. Silence is powerful.

I also help my clients develop compassion — with boundaries — for their toxic family member. For example, when you discover that your abusive father was horribly beaten himself as a boy you begin to understand that he wasn’t capable of giving you a nurturing childhood. This isn’t an excuse but an explanation. You still may want to limit your time with him, but compassion helps you — and your relationship — heal.

Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family 
 member?

I can share a common situation experienced by adult survivors of childhood incest (while preserving client confidentiality). After the abuse is disclosed, family loyalties often fracture and people take sides. Some believe the victim while others don’t. Some think the abuse “wasn’t a big deal” while others feel outrage. These clients no longer feel at risk for being sexually abused but often feel torn about whether to attend holiday gatherings. Despite feeling betrayed, they still want their families. 
 
 In these and other dysfunctional family situations I help my clients create a personal “tolerance meter” with a range from one to ten. This is a guide to help them know their limits and plan in advance what actions to take if their tolerance level is challenged. During the gathering they periodically check in with themselves. For example, if their meter is at six or seven and they start to feel unsafe, anxious, or sad, they excuse themselves and leave with no drama. If their meter is at a four or five and they feel okay enough to stay, they may want to call or text a friend for moral support. If their meter stays at three or below they may choose to remain. The bottom line is they learn to listen to their heart and never sacrifice their wellbeing.

Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although holiday gatherings are only a few days a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?

1) Ground Yourself with Four-Step Breathing. 
 
 
Practice this exercise ahead of time so you’ll know what to do if stressed: 
 
 Inhale gently while simultaneously counting to yourself “one, two, three, four.” Then hold the breath for four counts. Exhale gently for four counts. Hold the breathe for four counts. Repeat this sequence several times. Use often.
 
 Think of your breath as your secret weapon. Focused breathing helps calm your body when anxious and refocus your mind when filled with negative thoughts. It works.

When you start to feel stressed, use this technique. When possible, do it privately in a room with no distractions. But if you can’t, it doesn’t matter because no one will notice. Just remember that feeling calm and composed is only a breath away.

2) Carry Your Courage in a Touchstone. 
 
 
Find a small meaningful object to help you feel grounded and safe. For example, your touchstone could be a bracelet with a spiritual phrase or religious symbol, a crystal to wear as a pendant, or a smooth stone to keep in your pocket. 
 
 After you find your touchstone, infuse it with spiritual power. Hold it in your hand, close your eyes, and say several times, “May this stone (bracelet, pendant, crystal) remind me of my courage and strength.”

Take your touchstone to family gatherings. When stressed, simply looking at it or rubbing it gently can help you feel calm. Think of it as your gentle reminder of the power and courage within you.

3) Visualize a Happy Ending. 
 
 
Visualization is a proven and powerful tool used by high-level athletes and performers to help achieve their desired results. But you don’t have to be an Olympic ice skater to benefit from this technique, too. Before you attend a family gathering ask yourself this question: 
 
 “How do I want to feel at the end of the day?”
 
 Then take about five minutes to close your eyes and visualize feeling proud about how you handled yourself, happy at having had a nice (or at least good-enough) time, and relieved that things went better than you expected. Breathe in these positive feelings. Practice this regularly before each holiday gathering. During the event, periodically call up that picture in your mind to reignite those feel-good emotions. 
 
 When you pre-pave the way with visualization suffused with uplifting feelings, you activate unconscious processes that help you create in reality what you pictured in your mind.

4) Practice Radical Self-Care.
 
 Especially during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, make your physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing your highest priority. 
 
 You know the drill. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Eat well. Keep your body hydrated. Limit or avoid alcohol so you don’t go down a slippery slope. Create daily “me” time. Taking even just 15 minutes a day to write in a journal, relax with a good book, or listen to soothing music can nourish your soul. 
 
 Never underestimate the power of a rested body, settled mind, and uplifted spirit. Giving yourself these sacred gifts can help you not only better cope with challenging family gatherings but may help you have a nice time, too.

5) Let it go. 
 
 Make a decision to not add to drama. Not all battles need to be fought. Not all arguments need to be won. When you’re on the edge of a conflict with your obnoxious uncle who’s egging you on about politics, ask yourself, “Do I want to be right or do I want to be peaceful?” (I opt for peaceful.) Agree to disagree, excuse yourself, and let it go.

Sure, it’s important to express your thoughts and feelings but sometimes it’s wise to be quiet. This isn’t passivity. It’s strength.

Let go of your wish for people to change. Accept who they are. (Remember, as much as you wish they were different they probably wish you were different, too.) You’re in this together. So if you choose to attend a family gathering, make the best of it. Soften your attitude. Let perceived annoyances go and you’ll create an easier time for yourself. You’ve got this.

What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?

Don’t wait for your loved one to seek you out. They may want your support but feel unable to ask. Be authentic and direct. For example, you could say, “I know dinner may be hard for you. What can I do to help?” Support them without trying to “fix” them. This is their road to travel but a lending hand lets them know they’re not alone. Honor their request for whatever boundaries or privacy they want. Perhaps they’ll say there’s nothing they need from you but simply asking the question may help them feel more at ease.
 
 Hopefully your support doesn’t cause friction with other family members but if it does, so be it. If there is a vulnerable family member who needs your help and you provide it in a sincere and respectful way, then that’s the most important thing.

What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?

My all-time favorite quote is from the Buddha: “You could search the world over and never find anyone more deserving of your love than yourself.” 
 
 This quote conveys a truth that I hope my clients ultimately learn in our work together and that I want to spread through my writings. Self-love is your most valuable asset. Every decision we make in life reflects how we feel about ourselves. I see so many people who feel unloved and unworthy. They settle for unfulfilling work, stress-filled relationships, and often neglect their bodies and health. This is especially common for people who experienced childhood trauma. But when you learn to fill yourself up with your own love, healing happens and everything changes. You see the world — and you — through the eyes of love. You then can create a life that inevitably flows with greater ease, joy, and peace.

If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?

I want to see children treated with unconditional love, respect, and dignity. It astounds and saddens me that in some states corporal punishment is legal in schools and some people think it’s okay to use physical discipline at home. If you hit your neighbor you can be charged with assault but if you hit your kid it’s discipline. That’s wrong.

We all need to do our part to help keep kids safe. If you suspect a child is being abused, please call your local child protective services. You don’t need to know for sure. Just tell your concerns and the authorities will decide whether to investigate based on your information.

Childhood trauma is a major public health issue with far-reaching consequences. Learn about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study conducted by Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert F. Anda. This study reveals a link between childhood trauma and not only later mental illness but also obesity and chronic disease. Knowledge is power. Especially if you’re struggling with medical issues, take the ACE questionnaire (you can find it online). If your ACE score is high, discuss this with your medical and/or mental healthcare provider. You owe it to yourself and your body to get to the root cause of your illness.

Every child on this planet is a precious resource. There should be a commandment that says: Honor thy children. Because when the day comes that children are raised in abuse-free, unconditionally loving and respectful families, the world finally will be at peace.

What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?

You can visit my website www.dianepetrella.com and follow my public Facebook page for inspiring tips and encouragement for mind-body-spirit wellness. I also offer a private and free Facebook group for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse who want to overcome emotional eating and lose weight. You can contact me directly about this members-only group. Survivors also can receive my free ebook about this issue and learn more on the sexual abuse page of my website.

Thank you this was so inspiring!

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