Health & Wellness Blog

Logging Off: MKE Lifestyle Article Featuring Dr. Lee Hildrebrand

Written by Dr. Lee Hildebrand

Dr. Lee Hildebrand recently collaborated with Lori Acken at MKE Lifestyle Magazine to discuss the importance of logging off and managing your social media and technology use to stay healthy and happy. Read on for the full feature.

Logging Off

A renowned local online addiction expert tells you how much screen time is healthy and how to curtail harmful habits.

By Lori Acken

A few years back when I served as editor-in-chief of this magazine, I began crafting a story tentatively called O Solo We-O. The intent was to examine how much of our once crowd-based lives — restaurants and malls, offices and grocery stores — had morphed into online, at-home enterprises, with everything we wanted and needed digitally or delivered right to our door.

Then COVID-19 forced us into our homes and turned our once-social lives into fear- and safety-based isolation. Suddenly those online enterprises that seemed to me so needlessly reclusive became a godsend, ensuring food, income, education and other necessities at a time when leaving our homes could literally be a matter of life or death.

Two years later, we’ve reached an uneasy truce with the pandemic — a “to each his own” sense of personal responsibility that has some of us masking up without exception while limiting our exposure to crowded situations, and others trusting their vaccines or immune systems to carry them through and avoid infecting others. 

How has that impacted our online experiences? Has a return to in-person workspaces, shopping and social settings presented as welcome relief? Or has our ability to peer into a screen for work, shopping and entertainment turned us into comfortably solitary beings? And what does that mean for our humanity and our mental and physical health?

Online Vs. Real Life

Dr. Lee Hildebrand, a renowned psychologist at Mequon’s Lakeshore Psychology Services with 20-plus years of experience treating addiction, depression, anxiety, trauma and other mental health concerns, says it’s important to first focus on the positives of our online lives. Via social media, we’re able to stay in close contact with family and friends like never before. Through Zoom and other online platforms, we’re able to work and interact with colleagues and clients anywhere on Earth. Most necessities are at our fingertips.

“Then there’s a whole host of disadvantages that we’re seeing that are leading to some pretty severe problems,” Hildebrand says. “Suicide rates have increased in general. Depression rates have increased in general, as well as anxiety rates. And there’s some evidence to demonstrate that technology and social media have definitely played a role in that.”

In part, Hildebrand cites recent news items that show executives at Facebook (Meta), which is also the parent company of Instagram, ignored its own research on the potentially horrific impact of its platforms on mental health, especially that of young people. In response, popular bath and beauty retailer Lush shut down its social media presence until those platforms implement better ways to protect users from harmful content. 

Hildebrand adds that the damage also extends to youths’ ability to focus and to comfortably step away from the constant stimulation of life online. “For young, developing people, there’s some research and discussions in regard to how [that stimulation] affects the mind and attention,” he explains. “They might have a notification over here on their cell phone, but then they’re trying to focus on something related to school on their screen. Then they get an email related to another item. This moving of focus and this fast reactive stimulation to the brain is demonstrating an effect on concentration — and I certainly think it can contribute to attention deficit issues that students are experiencing.”

Rewiring Our Brains

More alarmingly, that constant bombardment of engagement and distraction can actually reconfigure our brains. 

“There’s a neurotransmitter in our brains called dopamine. Each time somebody gets a ‘like’ or receives some kind of acknowledgement in social media, they get a little spike,” Hildebrand explains. “Even when you hear the ding on your phone, it could be someone messaging you — ‘Someone wants to talk to me! Someone wants to pay attention to me!’

“You get these little spikes of dopamine in the brain during the day. Unfortunately, over time, that can be a habitual thing that impacts the way the brain’s wired. Imagine a forest,” he continues. “In the forest, in terms of the neurochemistry of the brain, there are certain paths of reinforcement that, when they happen again and again, wear a path similar to deer trails. The brain will more readily move in the direction of that neural path. 

“We’ll see this play out over time,” Hildebrand says. “If somebody becomes addicted to something like social media, other types of pleasures — a sunrise or a beautiful, brisk day or a conversation that’s not as immediate with the dopamine, like face-to-face over coffee — can become less rewarding to the brain than the dopamine hit from those little [social media-induced] spikes. There’s a numbed pleasure response to other types of stimulation. We see this in pornography addiction and other areas as well.”

And it can chip away at our very being.

Virtual Idealization And Teen Confidence

A September Wall Street Journal investigation, which also quoted internal Instagram reports, noted that social media’s ability to allow users to present only idealized versions of themselves and their lives, combined with its addictive nature, can leave people — especially younger people still developing their sense of self and self-confidence — in real crisis.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” revealed one slide that summarized research. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” read another. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Further studying teens in the U.S. and U.K., Facebook found that more than 40 percent of Instagram users who reported feeling unattractive said the feeling began because of their use of the app, as did a quarter of teens who reported feeling “not good enough.” 

Boys are very much in the mix. In one 2019 study, Facebook researchers reported that 14 percent of boys in the U.S. said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. In another tied specifically to body image, researchers found that 40 percent of teen boys felt socially inferior. One American boy told the researchers that the pressure was constant because “it’s like you can be called out for anything you do. One wrong move. One wrong step.”

Though many of the young people (like plenty of adults) recognize the time we spend on these platforms makes us feel worse instead of better, they feel powerless to stop. Two Wisconsin teens who participated in the WSJ piece said that a full 90 percent of the peers they polled for a science project tied to these issues admitted that social media was bad for their mental health, but fear of missing out kept them logging in.

That’s intentional, says Hildebrand. 

Coded For Addiction

 “Another challenge with this is the [social media] algorithms,” Hildebrand explains. “They’re designed to continue to present you with material that will get the most [prominence] by clicking or continuing to read. It’s not even necessarily positivity. It’s just reactivity — to continue to look, to continue to scroll. These algorithms have played into the polarization of our culture on certain issues.”

Even adults with more offscreen responsibilities and long-developed hobbies and interests fall prey.

“It’s this avatar life in which you have this array of highlights, and many times people compare their behind-the-scenes life with everybody else’s ‘highlight reel’ life,” Hildebrand says. “I’ve seen posts where the wife will say, ‘My husband’s the greatest! This is the most amazing life!’ And they either called me the day before or the day after and were telling me they’re on the brink of divorce. There’s this huge disconnect in regard to the impression management on the socials and what’s really at play in their lives.”

See also the phenomenon of “Instagram Moms” who create no-filter “content” with an unknowing infant participant in glammed-up photoshoots. Though many find social media and “sharenting”  as still a great source of sympathy, empathy and information, woman-centric information and entertainment site Refinery 29 recently found that while 53 percent of new-mom users felt that social media didn’t accurately reflect the mothering experience, 69 percent still suffered insecurities stemming from its use.

Reality Check

So how do we reestablish a healthy balance in our online/offline lives? 

Start by firmly establishing ways in which web and social media activities truly enrich your daily existence, says Hildebrand, who coaches individuals, executives and professionals across the country. Then set firm boundaries around that.

“One of the things I’ve talked to clients about is how they can maximize their attention and their performance. If they’re working remotely, they can perhaps cordon off part of their house that’s their ‘work zone’ and be able to step away from that — otherwise, all these worlds start to meld and that can become very tiring and oppressive.”

Next, Hildebrand says, set boundaries around the time you spend on email and professional social platforms. “I encourage them to pick some time during the evening, if they’re able, and literally turn their phone off and put it away so they can deflect the stress of those constant stimulations. I had to teach myself to do this. Get the information you truly need, and then leave it alone.”

For those who simply default to social media platforms for stimulation, Hildebrand says to accept that the desire is normal, but our brains can be gradually taught to find real pleasure elsewhere — and gradual is the key. 

The need for self-soothing is inherent in all of us, Hildebrand explains, adding that our bodies will fight back hard if we attempt to go cold turkey on our method of choice. “Our bodies will physiologically want to react and may do something really impulsive to overcome that,” he says. “So we need to be intentional about finding the types of [healthier] soothing that work. Try to find as much soothing as possible that has the fewest amount of side effects.”

Take a walk — even a short one — during the day to enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of each season, he counsels. Join trusted friends or family members for a meal, some group exercise or a social outing, and put your phone down for the duration and stay focused interacting with others. 

Hildebrand shares stories of running with friends, calling out gratitudes as they scale hills, and a visit to Door County as recent joyful experiences. “We sat at the breakfast bar with other locals and started talking, and it was like the old show ‘Cheers,’” he says. “Those little nuances and that sense of community are rich experiences you can’t get through the socials.”

If you’re really struggling to re-establish a life away from your screens, Hildebrand says that qualified, professional help is available in more ways than ever before. Even online resources and support groups are fine if they help you break unwanted and negative behaviors. 

The key aspect he says is “accountability — being able to dialogue about the vulnerability of the weakness and getting support from others.” MKE

Resources

Lakeshore Psychology Services, lakeshorepsychologyservices.com

Addiction Center, addictioncenter.com/drugs/social-media-addiction

Smartphone/Internet  Addiction, helpguide.org/articles/addictions/smartphone-addiction.htm

Online Gaming addiction, olganon.org/home

View the Article on MKE Lifestyle Here.

Navigating Holiday Stress

Written by Jeremy Schumacher, MA, LMFT

It’s the most wonderful time of the year” goes the famous Christmas song, and yet, for many of us, the holidays are some of the most stressful times of the year. Even for those of us who love the holidays, there can be a lot to get done in a short amount of time. Here are some helpful tips and tricks to help get the most out of the holidays this year.

Set Realistic Expectations

Setting realistic expectations is a useful skill year-round, but holidays can really ratchet the pressure up on our expectations. Maybe we want to give the best gift ever, or we normally send out the earliest Christmas cards, or host the most fashionable dinner party, but many of us are competing against an idealized version of the past, or maybe against a fictional version of reality we saw on TV or in a movie. We would all love to have the perfect family gathering, but if every year Thanksgiving devolves into political debate or airing of grievances, then we can safely assume that will likely happen again. One of my many mantras that is great for setting expectations: Plan for the worst, hope for the best, and somewhere in the middle is most likely to happen.

Schedule Breaks

Giving yourself permission to take some time to breathe, to de-stress, and to invest in your mental well-being is so important. When we feel busy or overwhelmed, the first thing we tend to cut is our recreation or feel-good activities, but the reverse is typically more useful. As our stress levels go up, our stress relief also needs to go up. If we have a lot of presents to wrap or shopping to do, a useful tip can be what I call “chunking,” which is simply breaking large tasks (i.e., wrapping all the presents) into more manageable chunks (wrapping presents for the kids today, doing presents for extended family tomorrow). This allows us to balance our time with tasks we need to get done with some time to reset and rejuvenate. Motivation feeds on success, so if we feel good crossing smaller tasks off our list we will stay more motivated to keep working through our to-do list.

Have An Escape Plan

Sometimes we can get overwhelmed even without any clear, obvious stressor (introverts, looking at you). We may love our family and love to get together, but we still might need to step outside for a breather or find a few minutes of peace and quiet. For some of us, we may have a family gathering with that side of the family (you know the one), and feeling comfortable saying we need to go for a walk or make a trip to the store to give ourselves a break can be the difference between a good family gathering and a terrible one. If your family leans into more toxic interactions (grandpa constantly asks you why your are not married yet, or Uncle Bob wants to argue about climate change), give yourself permission to not stay in that environment for long. You can make an appearance, say hi to everyone and catch up without needing to commit an entire day or even half the day to a potentially toxic environment.

Focus On What Is Best About the Season For You

Finding peace of mind during the craziness of the season can be a struggle, but focusing on what you enjoy about the season can help you not get bogged down by negatives. Practice gratitude by highlighting what is good about the season, and set boundaries around what you feel is most important about the holidays for yourself. Maybe your family wants all day for Christmas, but you really want to see your friend before they leave town. Give yourself permission to prioritize what means the most, even if it doesn’t align with other peoples’ hopes or expectations.

The holidays can bring other stressors as well, such as grieving the loss of a loved one, processing past trauma, and confronting unhealthy family dynamics. If these issues cause major mental distress, it may be appropriate to seek more formal professional help.

Holidays can truly be a season of giving thanks and merry-making, and by setting healthy expectations and boundaries we can get the most out of the season.

Wishing you and yours the very best this holiday season,

Jeremy

The Power of Being Intentional

Written by Dr. Laura Kaae
Dr. Laura V. Kaae
Dr. Laura Kaae

The season of changes is majestically upon us here in the Midwest.  With the turning of the calendar there is a new crispness to the air as we keep an eye out for the colored leaves as we drive, signs of fresh apples and squash at the farmers markets, and the scents of pumpkin spice in our neighborhood coffee shop and favored bakeries. Rarely do we stumble upon these items in the fall, instead we have trained our senses to find them. We choose to turn the focus of our attention to the trees, the fields, the temperature, (and ok, the coffee line too) in October and get to experience the joy that follows. Therein lies the power of being intentional. When we choose to focus our attention on certain things, that intentionality soon becomes second nature and is a powerful tool in mental wellness. 

Being intentional, making something a priority, can be profoundly life changing when you incorporate it into your day by deliberately pruning away parts of life causing stress or anxiety or by purposefully incorporating things that you know will be beneficial to you.  Here are a few ways you can choose to live more intentionally this season.

Relationships

Being intentional in your relationships could look very different for each person, but it’s likely you already have an inclination of where your relationships need improvements.

Growing Your Friendships

Friendships are hard in 2021. A pandemic has wreaked havoc in our interpersonal time with anyone who doesn’t live with us. Past high school and college it can be a challenge to maintain healthy friendships. Often the common interests that may have joined you and your friends in younger years don’t apply as much anymore. Still, cultivating strong relationships is imperative for well-being. Start being intentional with your time with friends, whether that is a well-timed text, get together or phone call. Hold yourself accountable to make time in your schedule for these relationships and be intentional in making the connections happen. For some individuals, this may mean picking up that sport you used to play together in college. For others, it may mean finding a new hobby together such painting, cooking or joining a new gym or dance studio together.  Once you start intentionally pouring into the relationships around you, you’ll be amazed at how good it feels to both love on others and be loved in return.

Setting Boundaries

In toxic or dysfunctional relationships, be intentional about setting a healthy boundary and sticking to it. Listen to your gut instinct on this one – if you have a relationship in your life that you know is causing extreme stress or anxiety, it’s time to rethink how much time you’re allowing yourself to spend in this relationship. This could mean limiting time, calls or texting with someone who does not have your best interest at heart. (For more information on toxic relationships, see this short video on Coping With Toxic People). When you put yourself first and make it a priority to protect your own time, you’ll see what a huge difference it can make to intentionally limit these relationships – and how freeing it can be!

Growing a Healthy Relationship

If you are currently in a healthy relationship, where do you know that the relationship needs strengthening? For some couples, this might mean being intentional with protected time together. For example, put away phones/laptops/work and get cozy with your significant other for some old-fashioned cuddle and talk time. Perhaps your relationship is stable, but lacking in fun and joy together.  In this case, have a deliberate sit down with your partner and decide how you can incorporate fun back into your lives! It doesn’t have to be an expensive date night – the beauty of being intentional is that when you start to hunt it down, you’ll find it all around you. Start with something you know always made you laugh and is easy to throw together such as a shared favorite sitcom or movie and progress from there. Try tickling, Truth or Dare, old stories from when you first got together. Really anything that lets the stressors out and gets you laughing with your partner is the key. As you start to see the relationship strengthen with this pursuit of fun, continue to be intentional about what you and your partner need and how to thoughtfully make it a priority.

Media Influence

What we flood our minds with throughout the day has such a huge influence on our mental well-being. Being intentional about the media (news, social media, music) that you surround yourself with will absolutely have an impact on your mood. Watching news on media outlets that you may disagree with politically or philosophically may be triggering and have a negative impact on your emotional health. Be intentional with the media you choose to surround yourself with. Consider a break from the news or social media, or limit the amount of time you spend to an hour a day. Alternatively, decide which outlets or followers bring you the most joy and delete the rest. Be choosy and stand bold in your choices! If you fill your day with uplifting messages, follow friends or positive influencers on social media, and listen to upbeat music you are intentionally setting your mind and body up for success. 

Gratitude Practice

Ever met an eternal optimist? These individuals seek out the good in many of life’s seemingly difficult situations.  Although you may not think of yourself as an optimist, the good news is that anyone can become more optimistic and positive in their thought lives. Optimists are choosing to find the joy, the positive, the silver-lining in their lives by seeking out hope in dark places. If this sounds overwhelming to you, consider a quick way to start seeing things in a new light by doing a gratitude roundup. Try starting each and every day with a short list of things you are grateful for. This list could include big things (your health, your spouse, your job) or small details (comfy bed to sleep in or a hot cup of tea). Once your brain starts to learn the method of searching for gratitude, it will become second nature and you’ll find yourself searching for the good. In turn, this sets the tone for your mood and emotional health.  You’ll be amazed at how intentionally seeking gratitude can impact your day.

Managing a Relationship Break-Up

Written by Jeremy Schumacher, MA, LMFT

What can I expect after a relationship break-up?

The first and probably most obvious reaction, you’re going to be sad, frustrated, or maybe angry. You might cycle through these emotions over different days, or have them all in quick succession. Following a break-up your emotions will be a little all over the place, and they will be more powerful than normal. Your brain takes the sudden end of a relationship (even if you knew it was coming) almost like a physical injury and it goes into protection mode. While your brain is in protection mode, your body has to deal with potential loss of appetite, extreme fatigue, or the inability to sleep. These reactions are all normal, but you need to be aware that eating and sleeping are very important. While you don't have your usual urge to seek these things out, you’ll have to make conscious healthy choices for your physical well-being.

Physical symptoms can last for two weeks up to a month. Symptoms lasting longer than that may require a conversation with your doctor or a professional counselor. Sometime during that initial month, your brain will start to feel better and come out of its shell to take stock of your life post-relationship. Typically, at this point, the intensity of your emotions will wane and you will start to sleep and eat in a more typical fashion. The emotional fallout can last anywhere from a month, for shorter relationships, to over a year for longer relationships.

What are some tips to manage the emotional fallout?

  1. Set a Schedule: A schedule will help you to better manage physical symptoms to get sleep and maintain healthy eating habits. A schedule makes it more likely that you will make healthy choices for your body, even if your brain isn’t sending those signals to eat and to sleep like it typically would. A schedule also will limit your downtime, which limits potential time spent ruminating on the past.
  2.  Take a Break From Social Media: If you can use your socials to seek out useful, constructive, and specific support from friends or family, that’s great! However, for most of us the temptation to track our ex or to process old memories through the lens of the current break-up is very strong, and those behaviors simply are not helpful. Your brain is going to be reminded of them constantly by hearing your old song, or seeing the same type of car they drive, or any other mundane daily scenario your brain ties to them. Many people find a temporary limit to their social media is helpful not only to not see their ex, but to have time and energy for new healthy habit formation.
  3.  Engage Deeply In a Hobby: This isn’t the cliche “go out and try something new!” This is more about being intentional with your time. You want your brain to be focused on something that isn’t your ex. For some people, this might need to be a new hobby, but for most of us our favorite hobby will suffice to capture our attention. If your favorite hobby is linked closely with your ex, try to find a friend or family member to join you, or look for local community groups centered around that specific hobby. Most of our hobbies we enjoy because of the activity itself, not just because of who we do that activity with. A good hobby will help you stay busy, and will help you to feel like your normal life continues even after the end of a relationship.
  4. Use Your Support System: Get together with friends, or go visit family for a weekend, or just for dinner. Obviously, this fits with the previous tips as it helps to fill your schedule, keeps you off social media, and can certainly include some favorite hobbies. Your friends and family will want to help you feel better. Even if they don't know what to say or how to say it, the reminder that people care for you and want you to do well is incredibly powerful, especially when you’re feeling down. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional counselor or psychologist for more coping skills and a boost in your recovery time. They are trained in offering helpful support and strategies to assist you with the situation.

Whether you just called it off, or you’re a month out and still emotionally raw, know that break-ups are hard. Working through all the emotions in a healthy way is a worthwhile experience, and growth is always possible following a major life change.

Coping With the Covid Delta Variant

Written by Dr. Lee Hildebrand

Aren't We Over Covid Yet?

Following the Covid pandemic with lockdowns, virtual schooling, and social limitations; many people have started to feel like they were “somewhat back to normal life.” Students and adults that I have been assisting with the stresses of Covid seemed to be moving into a period of restored living and general well-being. They have resumed activities, visited with friends, reconnected with family members and begun participating in many events without masks or other limitations.

What about the Delta Variant?

However, the Delta Variant of the Covid 19 virus brought a pause to some of the exhalations of relief by many. Due to the reportedly more contagious Delta Variant, Covid 19 cases are rising again in certain regions, breakthrough infections are reported in a small number of vaccinated individuals, and some indoor mask mandates have been reinstated. People are finding the reprieve that they were experiencing from pandemic-induced anxiety coming to an end.

How Do I Emotionally Deal with the Delta Variant and Societal Reactions?

In dealing with these changes, it is important for each of us to go back to the toolbox and utilize the skills that we’ve already learned from the first round of the pandemic. I have discussed many of these strategies in my past blog article and YouTube video, "Coping with the Stress of COVID-19.” In facing the Delta Variant, courage involves taking steps forward even amidst some fear of the unknown. Fear solves nothing. It limits us and holds us back from being present in a given situation and deciding what to think and what to do next. Execution without fear is a state that we can aspire to in dealing with these challenges. Let’s look at a few tips in regard to coping with the latest developments.

  1. First, maintain your healthy life disciplines in order to keep your mind, your body, and your life as consistent as possible. Get appropriate sleep, exercise, spend intentional time with your family, continue to make progress on your “to do list.” Engage in spiritually and emotionally healthy activities, such as meditation, prayer, reading, and connection with others. Make your bed. Take out the trash. Do the little things that continue to keep things running in your household and your life.
  2.  Second, find soothing with the least side effects in coping with the current stresses of the situation. We all need some kind of soothing, or “feel goods,” in our lives. I recommend finding the most effective “feel goods” that you can with the fewest side effects. Sometimes we can be drawn to soothing activities which feel good in the moment but can become excessive, like drinking alcohol, eating, watching TV, engaging in social media, or watching the news. Take care not to become overly reliant on soothing activities which have side effects, as some can attest, for example, to a “Covid 19 weight gain” during the more restrictive segment of the pandemic. Some examples of “feel goods” with little side effects are exercise, walking, good conversation, reading, the arts, faith expressions, fun home projects, and music. I recommend being intentional about your coping and continuing to foster positive approaches to dealing with stress.
  3.  Third, make your best decisions and live with them as you’re navigating your choices in regard to a response to the Delta Variant. I would recommend that you don’t become overly reliant upon social media, the news media, or others’ opinions to decide what’s best for you and your family. Where you have a choice, consult with reputable sources when obtaining information and utilize them the best that you can. Then, consider the options thoughtfully and make your best choice. Be understanding of your neighbors and friends as they are doing the same to make their best choices. Avoid getting into debates with others who are making different decisions than you are as this can cause undue stress and harm your relationships with others.
  4. Lastly, try to foster positivity in your life as you’re moving forward. As you know, there will be many other challenges in addition to Covid that you will face as you live your life. Foster mental resilience and positivity as often as you can. Talk to positive people. Read positive and uplifting things. Listen to podcasts, videos, and other sources which can help you with your momentum. One of the most important freedoms that we each have is to choose how we think. Take responsibility for who you are and what you’re going to think about your current situation. The worst things in life are not what happens to us, it’s the negative things we think about what is happening to us that can be most damaging. Stay on a positive track as you navigate the new challenges of the Delta Variant.