Listen to Your Head… But Listen to Your Gut Too

Did you know that there’s a “second brain” living in your gut? While it might not be responsible for developing thoughts and ideas, it does control the release of enzymes and chemicals that support digestion, control blood flow, and help your body absorb nutrients. In the process, it sends signals to the brain and central nervous system that can trigger mood changes based on our food choices.

“This giant nervous system living inside our digestive system sends a lot of information to the rest of the body and has a huge influence on how we feel physically and mentally,” says Independence Blue Cross (IBX) Wellness Coach Nicole Gonglik, MS, RDN, LDN. “It’s important to be aware of the food that we put into our bodies, as it can have a direct effect on how we act, react, and process the daily ins and outs of life.”

In fact, the brain-gut signals go both ways. While the gut sends signals to the brain, the brain is also sending signals that affect the gut. Who hasn’t experienced a “nervous stomach”? Feelings of anxiety and depression can influence digestion and cause stomach aches or stomach ulcers. However, providing the body with a nutritious, balanced diet can help reduce the negative impacts of our emotions.

Consider That Snack

Someone struggling with anxiety or depression may reach for processed foods and snacks because they satisfy an immediate craving and are easy to eat without planning. However, these “guilty pleasures” are often high in sugar or salt and low in nutrition. They can make us feel good momentarily by releasing chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. But foods high in additives, sugar, and saturated fats can increase inflammation throughout the body and brain, making the symptoms of mood disorders worse.

“While it’s okay to have those foods every once in a while, when someone relies on them to trigger feel-good hormones, it can create a feedback loop,” Gonglik says. “Someone already dealing with behavioral health issues may be limited in their decision-making processes, so being aware of how foods can influence our body and that different choices can be made is important.”

Limiting alcohol is also important to preserving a healthy gut microbiome. Heavy alcohol use can break down the lining of the intestine, causing liver inflammation and damage, and can also contribute to alcohol cravings. In younger adults, heavy alcohol use can have a long-term effect on the bacteria in the gut as well as on social and emotional coping skills.

Have Your Cake, But Eat Carrots Too

While a change in diet might not replace the need to seek out medication or therapy, a diet high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber supports good digestion — and, ultimately, a good mood.

“Adding more nutritious components to a snack or a meal can boost the overall nutritional value, providing fuel to your bodily systems,” Gonglik says. “For example, if a candy bar is an easy go-to for the way you’re feeling, consider also having carrots or an apple for some added fiber, or eating it with yogurt to add a protein element. This way, you’re getting the nutrients your body needs while meeting a mental health need in the moment.”

“While there’s no cure-all diet for your mental health, balancing the right foods and nutrients is crucial for optimal health, including the mind,” says Gonglik. “Try challenging yourself to a more nutritious diet; you might be surprised how good you feel.”

For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

Healing after Community Violence

Our connected world has made us more aware of community violence, and sometimes it feels like the world is getting more dangerous.

Statistics show that crime of all kinds in the U.S., including violent crime, showed substantial declines through the early 2020s. However, the homicide rate rose dramatically (34%) between 2019 and 2021. In the City of Philadelphia, homicides rose by 58% during that same period, reaching a record high of 562 in 2021.

Violence is a Public Health Issue

Violence devastates the families and loved ones of its immediate victims, but also sends shockwaves through whole communities. It can affect people’s health in far-reaching ways. It literally keeps people up at night. It can also:

Racial violence has even been shown to raise rates of pre-term births and low birth weight among infants. And when violence targets people just because of who they are, it doesn’t just traumatize the local community. It affects individuals’ mental health on a national scale.

There Are Things We Can Do to Address Violence Together

The causes of community violence are complex, and different communities are impacted in different ways. But there are proven solutions we can all get behind.

For example, cleaning up neighborhoods has been shown to significantly reduce gun violence. Removing trash from vacant lots, and planting grass and trees, not only reduces crime; it also helps relieve depression and anxiety in the community.

We can all support community-based violence interrupter programs, which have been shown to reduce shootings.

Folks who own guns can practice gun safety by keeping them locked up (free locks are available) and reporting missing firearms immediately.

If you want to talk to someone about gun safety, but don’t know what to say, here are some tips. And there are organizations that can help you say something anonymously if you’re worried that someone may perpetrate violence or self-harm at a school.

At Independence Blue Cross (Independence), we are part of the Coalition to Save Lives, which aims to address the violence crisis in Philadelphia. It identifies violence prevention programs that work and tries to replicate them here. You can learn more by watching this recent interview with the organization’s Executive Director and reading their report on evidence-based solutions.

We all dream of a world where we never have to worry about our safety, where so many lives are no longer cut short, and vigils and protests aren’t necessary anymore. And we should all be working to make that vision a reality. But as we do that, we must also take care of ourselves.

What Can We Do to Take Care of Ourselves?

1. Draw Strength From Your Community

Resist the urge to withdraw and isolate. Spend time in public spaces where you feel safe. Give comfort, and take comfort, from the people you care about. They may be having the exact same feelings as you do. There is power in voicing your thoughts and emotions, and it’s not healthy to keep them bottled up inside.

And watch for signs of emotional distress in your loved ones. Do what you can to support the people in your life, especially children. Encourage others to seek help if you think they need it.

2. Limit Your Exposure to Bad News

It’s important to stay informed. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay glued to the news or watch graphic videos. Create boundaries for yourself around consuming news about community violence. When you start getting anxious and angry, give yourself a break. Don’t go back to it until you’ve calmed down.

3. Prioritize Sleep and Exercise

Self-care starts with treating your body right. You need rest in order to cope well. Sleeping can be hard when your mind is racing, but there are things you can try to improve your sleep quality. Exercise is one of them, and it’s also a great stress reliever itself.

4. Practice Relaxation

There are lots of ways to relax besides exercising. Many people get great results from doing yoga and meditating. But relaxing can be as simple as pausing to breathe deeply, listening to music, cooking a meal, taking a walk, or creating something. Whatever works for you, that’s what you should do. For your own well-being.

5. Get Help

There are many resources to help individuals, families, and communities address violence and trauma impacting them, including:

Don’t Ignore Your Stress

If you’re having panic attacks or chest pains, regularly feel irritable, or are getting worried about your mental or physical health, it’s time to get help. Talk to your doctor and let them help you find the best solutions. Or reach out directly to a therapist.

Independence members can get connected with behavioral health specialists by searching our Provider Finder. They can also call the Mental Health number on the back of their member ID card to speak to someone who can help connect them to care.

Everybody Deserves to Be Safe From Violence

We shouldn’t just accept that community violence will always be part of our lives. As Alice Walker — the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Literature for her novel The Color Purple — said, “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

While reducing violence may seem impossible, we can have a safer world if we build it together. And that starts with taking care of ourselves and each other.

Relaxing in Philadelphia Parks: Find Peace in Nature

“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
– John Muir (1838-1914), Naturalist, “Father of the National Parks”

Spending time in nature is a great way to relax and reconnect with your inner self. Did you know that Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park is the largest landscaped urban park in the world? Its system of 63 parks occupies nearly 9,600 acres. That’s a lot of space to enjoy the outdoors.

And Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, which manages all the parks in the city, offers a roster of activities that’s just as impressive.

The Power of Parks

As Muir stated, being in nature, among trees, woods, and rivers, has powerful effects on our well-being. Parks are places of serenity that lift our spirits, inspire creativity, and provide quiet spaces for reflection.

In addition to the parks, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation manages more than 150 recreational centers where people of all ages and abilities can connect while participating in healthy indoor and outdoor activities.

“Whether you’re five years old or 65 years old, that shared sense of community is valuable,” says Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “Parks & Rec is among the city’s most valued services because it connects us to green space, to coaches and mentors, and to each other with activities that promote both our physical and mental health.”

Good for Your Body and Your Mind

Being outdoors — whether playing sports, exploring trails, or enjoying a picnic — is a great way to support mental health and wellness. And, in most cases, it’s no- or low-cost.

“The physiological response to being outside in nature is real, and it’s measurable,” says Michelle Kondo, a research social scientist with the USDA Forest Service. Studies show that being in nature reduces stress, cortisol levels, muscle tension, and heart rate – all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Being in nature is also restorative. It can help us unwind, relax, and refocus.

Build Your Social Network Outdoors, Not Online

Sometimes, being outside can lead to unexpected connections.

Teenagers, for example, are often a hard-to-reach group that faces a lot of mental health challenges. But Ott Lovell said that connecting with teens can be as simple as walking in the park. “Some rec centers host teen walking clubs where participants share things with group leaders that they might not have said face-to-face or indoors. When they were walking along the trail, teens were more willing to engage in real conversations about important issues,” Ott Lovell said.

Something for Everyone

Whether you’re into biking, hiking, or learning about local plants and trees, there are hundreds of healthy activities sponsored by Philadelphia Parks & Recreation that can boost your mood. Other offerings include swimming sites for Philadelphians with physical disabilities, a wide variety of indoor and outdoor activities for seniors (including the popular Philadelphia Senior Games), and a week-long summer camp in the Pocono Mountains for city youth.

Sheep Shearing Day at Fox Chase Farm? Coffee with the Birds at Wissahickon Environmental Education Center? A summer job as a lifeguard? Volunteering at a community garden? Sign us up!

For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

Original photo: Daniel Knoll for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®

Finding the Right Type of Mental Health Provider

The demand for mental health services has skyrocketed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the U.S. faces a chronic shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. As a result, 65 percent of mental health organizations reported having to cancel, reschedule, or turn away patients in 2020.

In order to fill the gap, some primary care offices have developed collaborative care models. With these models an affiliated psychologist or social worker provides therapy and patient management and consults with a psychiatrist on medications. Other health care providers are undertaking additional mental health training to meet patient needs.

Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Therapist: Which Do You Need?

Determining the right mental health provider can be confusing. Should you see a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a therapist? What exactly is the difference? The first difference is whether a professional specializes in prescribing medication, providing therapy, or both.

Prescribers and therapists are both mental health professionals whose expertise is the mind and the way it affects behavior and well-being. They often work together to diagnose and treat a patient. For example, a patient might see a psychiatrist who prescribes medication for depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or bipolar disorder, and also work with another mental health professional for psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or counseling.

Prescribers

Psychiatrists are physicians (M.D. or D.O.) who specialize in the assessment and treatment of the biological, psychological, and social factors that lead to behavioral health conditions. A psychiatrist may prescribe medication and may provide therapy as well. Often, the psychiatrist prescribes medication and acts as the leader of a treatment team that may include other professionals who provide therapy.

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are another kind of professional that can prescribe medication for behavioral health conditions. They have a master’s of science in nursing or doctor of nursing practice degree with specialized focus on psychiatry. They provide diagnosis and therapy for mental health conditions and can prescribe medications independently or under the supervision of a medical doctor, depending on the state.

Therapists

Psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy, or just “therapy”) helps people deal with various mental illnesses and emotional difficulties. Therapy can help eliminate or control troubling symptoms so a person can function better. Depending on the issue, therapy can be short-term (a few sessions), or long-term (months or years). Psychotherapy is often used in combination with medication to treat mental health conditions. Therapy can be provided by several different kinds of professionals:

Psychologists have a doctoral degree in psychology and know how to evaluate and treat behavioral health disorders, but generally are not licensed to prescribe medication. In order to receive their license, psychologists also complete an internship with specific training in behavioral therapy and other methods of treatment. Once licensed, a psychologist is qualified to provide psychotherapy, counseling, psychological testing, and mental health disorder treatment.

Master’s level professionals

Licensed clinical social workers have a master’s or doctoral degree in social work and also complete two years of postgraduate supervised clinical work to become licensed. They are trained to evaluate and treat mental health issues, provide individual and group counseling, and like other therapists have varied specializations.

Licensed professional counselors and licensed marriage and family therapists are qualified to provide counseling or psychotherapy for mental health treatment. They have a master’s degree in psychology, counseling, or a related field, plus at least two years of postgraduate training working alongside a qualified mental health professional.

This list is not exhaustive and requirements often vary by state. It’s also important to note that your behavioral health is often best managed by a team that communicates well and uses each area of expertise to take care of you as a whole.

Getting Started

Your primary care provider is a great place to start discussing your mental health concerns. They are well-equipped to assess mental health needs and prescribe necessary medications, or to refer you to an appropriate specialist for counseling or psychotherapy.

In addition, many Employee Assistance Programs can be a source of mental health services to help employees with emotional and substance use issues, interpersonal relationships, legal problems, or financial difficulties. These services might be delivered in person, by telephone, or via online platforms.

There are also companies available, like Quartet*, that use specialized technology to help people more easily find and access care that’s right for them. Quartet does not provide direct mental health care. It works with health plans, like Independence Blue Cross, to match members with licensed mental health providers and programs that meet their needs and preferences, and accept their health insurance.

In summary, there are different types of support available to people seeking mental and behavioral support, and there are professionals skilled in getting you to the right provider. It all begins with that first call.

For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.*Quartet is an independent company.

Act to Curb Election Anxiety

Feeling anxious about the upcoming midterm elections? You’re not alone. Prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, more than two-thirds of Americans surveyed reported that the election was a significant source of tension in their lives. People across the political spectrum felt anxious, including 76 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Republicans, and 64 percent of Independents.

Take Action and Vote!

“The best action to take for election anxiety? Volunteer, talk to people about the issues that matter most to you, and vote!” says clinical psychologist Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D.

The American Psychological Association offers the following additional evidence-based advice:

  • Uncertainty is stressful, so don’t dwell on things you can’t control. Avoid imagining worst-case scenarios.
  • Focus on what you can control. Monitor your media consumption, and limit highly charged content.
  • Engage in activities or issues that are meaningful to you.
  • Stay socially connected. Spend time with friends and family.
  • Stay physically active.
  • Realize that you might not know the election results right away. Keep busy with other activities and social support, so you aren’t continually checking for “bad news.”

Recognizing Tension

Stress affects us in a variety of ways. “We notice it in our bodies, the tension in our shoulders,” said Robert Bright, MD, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, of the stress leading up to the October 2020 presidential election. “Sometimes people get GI [gastrointestinal] upset or headaches. People have trouble sleeping. There’s a lot of sleep disturbance going on right now — tossing, turning, and worrying, and not being able to get to sleep — or having bad dreams about the election.”

Dr. Bright added that television, radio, and social media ads flood us with catastrophic messages about the candidates that heighten our sense of anxiety and can feel overwhelming. “And it affects our emotions after a while. So, we start getting irritable and short, and snapping at people, not trusting people, seeing people as [either] the other or as the same. And that starts affecting our relationships at home. It starts affecting our work.”

“Our stress level is something we need to take seriously,” says Dr. Chansky. “Many of us never got that much-needed re-set from the earlier years of the pandemic. And we’re also still dealing with ongoing COVID cases, climate crises, war, and disruption. Even if these events don’t seem to be affecting us directly, we’re still processing them — and our emotional and physical resources are being strained.”

Check Your Facts and Have Hope

Compartmentalization is a key skill for emotional well-being,” Dr. Chansky says. “Particularly when something is causing us ongoing stress, it doesn’t help to think about it all the time. But it does serve us to address it at designated times — what we may think of as ‘worry appointments.’

“At those times, write out your feelings about the election and fact-check them against what you know,” Dr. Chansky advises. Choose to have hope, she suggests, even if it’s not your natural inclination. Hope is not about imagining a particular election outcome. Rather, it’s a way of life and a continual commitment to not give up.

For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

De-Escalating Stress For Improved Mental Health

After two years of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, people are feeling stressed. We have less patience for slights that we used to shrug off. We want people to listen to us and support us, but we sometimes may forget that they probably want the same things from us.

We might also feel we don’t have the bandwidth to extend more support to others. We might be a little less kind than we could be.

But in today’s reality, small annoyances can mushroom into big conflicts. We’ve seen shootings over parking spaces, people yelling at each other for wearing masks or not wearing masks, and a frightening uptick in violence throughout Philadelphia and across the country.

Sensational Headlines Can Raise Our Stress Levels

The smartphones we carry around often add to the tension. Social media, television, and radio programming often thrives on conflict and emotion. We are fed a steady stream of provocative headlines, whether they’re about the war in Ukraine, politics, or racial injustice. Even sports updates and weather forecasts are often presented in dire terms.

It’s important to be mindful of how these stories may upset us and try to avoid getting overwhelmed. Otherwise all this negative news can raise our blood pressure and increase our risk of heart disease or stroke, weaken our immune systems, affect the quality of our sleep, and generally worsen our mental health and sense of well-being.

Take Back Control

There are a few things we can do to de-escalate the level of stress in our lives.

Start by practicing love and kindness to yourself. Affirmations — positive statements we repeat to ourselves to help us overcome negative thoughts — can be a useful tool. Repeat gentle affirmations in your mind, such as wishing happiness and freedom from suffering for you and the people you care about. It sounds simple, but studies show that this kind of practice helps us feel connected and supported and increases our patience.

It’s also important to take breaks. Give your phone a rest and go outside. Take a walk, play with your dog, or say hello to your neighbors. Get together with friends in person.

And consider reading the news rather than listening to it. You’ll be able to better control which stories you read. Take them in at your own pace, and stop before you become overwhelmed.

Finally, remember that most people are having a hard time, so resist the temptation to assume the worst about them. If a friend, stranger, or co-worker makes an insensitive comment, it may be because they’re experiencing a lot of stress themselves. A well-meaning compliment or kind word from you could change their whole attitude and lead to a more positive relationship.

For more information about mental health self-care strategies and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.