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Cats, cuddles and yoga: Mental health treatment options beyond therapy, medication

The Day - 9/19/2023

Sep. 19--Inside a darkened studio at the Norwich Fitness Center on a recent Thursday evening, Chris Green was sunk deep into his happy place, lengthening his thigh muscles with a yoga pose as gentle music tinkled in the background.

"This is what helps me detach from the stress of the day, to achieve mindfulness," the 55-year-old Norwich resident said after a 75-minute session with three other participants. "This is the highlight of my week. I leave here with my tank full and ready for the weekend."

While traditional talk therapy and medications are still widely recognized ways to improve mental health, they're not the only or necessarily even the best ways to reduce stress.

"People should treat their bodies like house plants," said Katherine Hughes, a licensed clinical social worker with the New England Medical Group in New London. "Pay attention to diet and exercise and get outside in the sunshine."

Hughes said the field of mental health treatment has evolved rapidly just in her 13 years on the job, particularly around the stigma of seeking care. She attributed the willingness of people to reach out for help in part to the number of high-profile celebrities and athletes publicly sharing their stories.

"That normalizes the process and people end up saying, 'Hey, I feel that way, too.'" Hughes said. "We've gotten to a point where depression and anxiety screenings are part of a primary care visit."

And just as types of mental health issues can vary widely from one sufferer to another, so can the treatments.

"It might be traditional therapy for one person and just going out to running at Harkness Park for another," Hughes said. "It's whatever is interesting to someone and keeps them grounded, whether its yoga on YouTube, a stress app on a phone or a teletherapy session. Fill your cup with whatever works for you."

Filling that cup for some might mean hanging out with a Maine Coon cat and taking part in a little cuddle therapy.

Cats and cuddles in Columbia

Inside her Columbia Better Mind Meditation residence/studio, Ashlin Emerson, her sleeves pulled up to display a scarab wrist tattoo, tempted her cat, Nannerz, from under a bed with a packet of cat nip.

Emerson, a 32-year-old certified meditation and mindfulness instructor with a background in massage therapy, has crafted a bespoke therapy she's dubbed "EMPSR," or emotional, mental, physical, stress reduction, which brings to bear various breathing, meditation and touch techniques to combat a client's stress and anxiety.

"Some people do come in here knowing what they're looking for, to reduce stress and anxiety," she said. "During COVID, I saw an abundance of people with both separation issues and loneliness."

Emerson said she uses Nannerz as a kind of welcoming beacon, a living invitation into a welcoming space.

"She'll many times jump up on the bed with the client while I'm guiding them through breathing techniques, so it all doesn't feel so clinical," she said. "A lot of what I do is talk since so many people don't feel they're being heard these days."

In addition to traditional Reiki and other practices, some clients request "cuddle" therapy.

"It's a way to ground someone, to lie down next to someone and bring in a sense of reconnection with the body, to help them get out of their heads," she said. "The whole point of this is life is hard enough as it is, and I want people to leave here learning not to take life so seriously."

Burpees and mental health

Norwich Fitness Center owner Gina Tamborra Facchini said she's no stranger to the effects of depression. She's seen that struggle play out among her comrades in the Army National Guard and during her six years in the fitness business.

She said a recent tragedy "close to home" prompted her to plan a Sept. 16 "Break the Stigma" event at the gym's parking lot.

"We're having a 1,000-burpee challenge where individuals and teams will get sponsors and all the proceeds will help our staff and members and the community, if we get enough sponsors -- become mental health first aid certified," Facchini said ahead of the event. "We're in an exposed setting here and I believe this training for myself and the staff will help us recognize a potential issue and help us assist someone with navigating that."

Facchini, 34, said that simple act of connection could make all the difference to a person in crisis.

"A lot of people just think if someone needs help, they should just ask for it," she said. "But it's not that simple. People need to be aware of the resources that are out there, and we want to be able to get that information out there and make sure it's easily accessible."

Facchini, even with her years of training, said she still has to constantly remind herself to recognize the needs of her body and mind.

"I've set a reminder up on my phone to take 10 minutes and go sit somewhere, even it's just listening to music in my car and being present in my body," she said. "I force myself to take 25 full, deep breaths where my diaphragm expands. It feels awesome."


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