On the Record

Coping with isolation

On the Record with Margo Milano

Dr. Margo Milano, owner of Life Solutions: Integrative Healing in DeKalb, licensed clinical professional counselor and animal assisted therapist, poses for a photo with her Irish setter, Mr. Chewy (aka Chewbacca).
Dr. Margo Milano, owner of Life Solutions: Integrative Healing in DeKalb, licensed clinical professional counselor and animal assisted therapist, poses for a photo with her Irish setter, Mr. Chewy (aka Chewbacca).

DeKALB – Margo Milano is the executive director of Life Solutions: Integrative Healing, but she jokes that her real boss is her puppy, Obi wan Kenobi.

Milano, a licensed clinical professional counselor and animal assisted therapist, said that during the coronavirus outbreak, Obi has been especially helpful. Clients at Life Solutions: Integrative Healing, located at 1500 E. Lincoln Highway, Suite 1, in DeKalb, can touch and snuggle Obi during their sessions with no restrictions.

Life Solutions also offers teletherapy, which is hosting counseling sessions through video conferencing, at reduced rates. For information about teletherapy, email kelly@lifesolutionsgroup.org or call or text 779-201-8006.

Milano spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about the importance of counseling and therapy during the coronavirus outbreak and tips to stay mentally healthy during self-isolation and quarantine.

Milton: What are some benefits of staying at home?

Milano: Oh wow, teletherapy is hugely popular. I have taught online since 2005, so when the practice started, offering teletherapy was an easy transition. We’ve done it since the first month of being open, and it is hugely popular. Prior to COVID, many clients preferred to meet online for appointments because it’s so easy, convenient, comfortable and confidential.

Milton: How can people stay mentally healthy at home?

Milano: Health is biopsychosocial. To be healthy at home, we need to focus on all parts of functioning. We all know that eating healthy and exercising boosts mood, so at home, we all got to keep doing that. ... It’s confusing when it feels like a never-ending weekend. Think of it this way: Do you want to improve or reduce your likelihood of getting sick? Overall, it is crucial we don’t get emotionally dragged down into the drama, despair and chaos. I keep fighting it off, too. The worst reaction you can have is feeding into the chaos and focus on how bad it is. What we focus on becomes reality to us. I’m scared, too, but if I allow myself only to think about the worst, it takes away precious energy that should go toward making the best of it, somehow and someway. Psychological stress reduces immunity and increases risk of sickness, so take this seriously.

Milton: What is a way to stay positive at this time?

Milano: Think about the bigger picture and what you want to be in place in your life six or 12 months from now when this is over. Get a super detailed idea of what you want it to be like for you in every part of life after this is all over. Keep thinking about that every time you sense the stress coming. Start writing it out. Next, focus only on how the heck you are going to make that happen despite this dang virus. Focus only on that. Stay away from people who are fixated on the chaos. This is not to say you should not respect the seriousness of the virus, but rather, should avoid excessive, negative focus on the virus.

Milton: What are psychological habits that will help?

Milano: Healthy habits are easy and challenging at the same time. It comes down to acceptance of the situation and the choices we make. Allow yourself to accept that this is happening rather than ruminating about how horrible it is, which is resistance. We can’t change that the virus is here, but we can change our response to it and our own health. These are the most important points right now.

Milton: What are small changes that can help?

Milano: I’m an advocate for making micro changes, because huge changes are so dang difficult. Tiny, micro habits add up to big changes. Start meditating just a few minutes a day. Say one or two things a day you’re grateful for. Don’t drink excessively or at all. Take one short walk. Read something positive for just a little while. Increase slowly. At first, it is hard to make choices to do healthy things. After you do it several times, it gets so much easier. Trust me. I struggle too, so don’t make the same mistakes I’ve made. Oh, and it is important to avoid watching scary or upsetting television programming. This was a hard one for me! Research shows that watching scary movies, negative news casts or dreary programs will bring you emotionally down and will keep you there the longer you do it. This is a hard habit to break for some of us who love our ‘80s horror movies, but it’s a healthy choice.

Milton: What are ways people can socialize while at home alone?

Milano: Socially, relationships are critical for life well-being. Oodles of research supports this. We must stay social because our brains and bodies are designed to need and nurture relationships. Being social in positive ways will help us be calmer during the COVID crisis, and after. We already have countless social tools like Facetime, Skype, teletherapy and phones. I’ve noticed an increase in kindness and positive social interactions right now, which is common during crises. Many more people are smiling and acting kinder. Contribute and soak it up. Do something social so you get a dose of kindness too. I recommend doing something nice for someone because it will improve your mood immediately. And the more kind acts you do for others the more payoff you’ll get toward your happiness. Send a nice email just to say hi. Write a note to a neighbor that says you are there to help. Call an elderly relative or friend and check in. When you’re taking a walk, say hi and smile at others or wave to someone driving past. Please do this because we all need kindness right now, not gloom and doom.

Milton: What is the importance of exercise and being outdoors during our mandated stay at home order?

Milano: Research overwhelming shows exercise and nature are helpful. Just 20 minutes outside can significantly reduce stress and tension. I’m an advocate for going outside and walking around because it is social also, yet still easy to stay distanced from other people. We go on walks all the time and chat with people, without getting close to them.

Milton: What if it’s been a while since you last exercised?

Milano: What I want people to know is that if you don’t regularly exercise now, it is OK. Don’t start big. Take a short walk or do a little bit of stretching. Make tiny additions to your physical activity each day so you don’t get overwhelmed. The benefits are well worth it: reduced stress, improved relaxation, healthier body functioning in every way. We all need that. Physical activity will ultimately make your life happier and healthier.

Milton: Is being creative and productive important when not in school or at work?

Milano: Absolutely. COVID is an ironically great opportunity to use creativity to boost mood. Creativity decreases stress, reduces negative emotions, and helps the immune system, which we all need. Arts and crafts are obvious ways to be creative, but there is so much more. Switching furniture around in a room is creativity. Repainting walls is creative. Even yardwork and gardening are creative and provide the same health benefits. Creativity even expands to re-organizing things, which is one reason why many people love to organize.

Milton: Do you have other advice?

Milano: Overall, everyone needs to use this as an opportunity in some way or another, even if you are laid off work. Do anything that is productive in your space. Have a teletherapy appointment to learn more about how to cope and work on creating your desired outcome to this all. Make tiny positive changes and keep adding to those. Do not, do not, do not drown in anxiety and sadness. There are very easy things you can learn to do to push that despair away. … I want to help everyone come out of this on top. Let’s all support each other, be kind, and be healthy. All we ultimately have is each other.

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