Mental Health Tips

Mary Holt-Paolone, MSRN 
Clinical Nurse Counselor, MDA/ALS Center of Hope

During August, known as National Wellness Month, many people focus on improving self-care, managing stress, and promoting healthy routines in their lives. These topics can be helpful for anyone, but when living with ALS, they are even more essential to maintaining some emotional and mental balance from day-to-day. And just as important as they are, we also know it can be very difficult to make self-care and stress management priorities due to the rollercoaster of feelings and experiences you may be facing. In this article, we hope to offer some easily accessible, practical, and useful tools to allow you to positively manage those moments when situations are "getting the best of you." 

As a starting point, it can be helpful to understand a bit of how the brain/body react under stress. When the brain interprets an experience or thing as a potential threat/stressor to the system (whether physical, personal, financial, time, emotional, etc.), its main focus is survival. In a matter of seconds, regions of the brain are alerted, and stress chemicals are released out into the body to protect us by either fighting against, fleeing from or freezing to the potential danger. Known as the Stress Reaction - very important in real trouble, but can be harmful when chronically activated. An interesting detail as well is that our brains cannot tell the difference between a real saber tooth tiger coming at us versus some negative thinking. The same cascade of events can happen in the body, depending on how we perceive or think about our experiences. 

So what can we do? Here are some tools that can quickly down-regulate the body and help us shift gears on the high-speed stress train. 

  1. Notice: We can't make any changes in our lives unless we are aware of what is happening first. Notice what signs your body gives you when feeling stressed - muscle tension, irritability, stomach/head pains, less tolerance, anxiety, etc. Use these as cues, and once aware, we can do something different if needed/wanted.

  2. Pause (if possible): Pausing can help to interrupt the stress reaction train and give us a moment to refocus.

  3. Breathe: Some people hold their breath when feeling distressed. Deeper, slower breaths can help to activate improved oxygen flow to the brain and decrease heart rate, blood pressure, etc., which can effectively down-regulate the body in just a few minutes.

  4. Five Senses: Repeatedly checking into even just one of our senses (see, hear, taste, smell, touch) can also help us refocus, come back to the here and now, interrupt the stressful mental train of thoughts that can occur and allow our bodies/minds to relax a bit.

  5. Mantra/Phrase: Some people benefit from choosing a positive-feeling phrase they continually repeat to themselves during times of stress to stay focused on hope and engage their inner strength. Examples of such phrases are:

      • "I/We can do this."

      • "What can I do now?"

      • "One step at a time."

With practice, any of these tools can bring about benefits, and when used together, the effects can be even more successful in giving you a bit of calm and balance in those crazy moments of life.

For any questions about these tips or any mental health issues, please feel free to reach out to Mary via email: or phone: 610-733-5573.