On the path: A miniseries on mind, body, spirit, and relational health

Samaritan Counseling Center

On the Path: Introduction

Erin Belanger, LMHC

Let’s be honest. We’ve all been through a lot, some of us much more than others. I don’t have to tell you about all that we’ve been experiencing… we all know all too well. We at Samaritan have always strived to meet our fellow community members wherever they are at, with whatever they are going through. Our goal is to help support and guide each person toward health and healing with a focus on mind, body, spirit, and relationship.

We know that everyone does their best when they have basic needs met, their quality of life is “good enough”, and their environmental anxiety level is low. High chronic stress and anxiety, as we’ve discussed in previous articles, are detrimental to health and basic functioning. With everything that is happening in the world around us right now, it’s fair to say that we are all under some level of increased chronic anxiety and stress. This means that not many of us are functioning at our best. We see this evidenced in the increased anger and defensiveness coming from every direction. Masks? There’s an argument over that. Police? There’s an argument over that. For every topic that is, at its core, based on rational and moral reasoning, there’s an equal and opposite level of irrationality on both sides with the reasoned voices being drowned out by the chaos around them.

For all of these reasons and more, we have decided to start a miniseries to address topics related to basic wellbeing in a time of chaos. Our hope is that we can provide a thread to hold onto and some thoughts to play with as we all take small steps on the path leading to presence of being, depth of thought, and peace of mind. So, grab a cup of coffee, tea, or a protein shake and reflect each weekday on the day’s article on mind, body, spirit, and relational wellbeing (and catch up or review again on the weekend).

Have you been Hijacked?

Erin Belanger, LMHC

It’s getting late. You’ve had a tense day, and you’re tired. After putting your child back to bed for what feels like the umpteenth time, you just want to find a few minutes to relax before falling into bed yourself. And this is the moment your partner picks… this one moment in which you stand a chance of relaxing a tiny bit… this is the moment they choose to tell you that their parents are coming to visit for the week… again.

Your pulse quickens as your breathing rate becomes more rapid and your breaths more shallow. You snap back a cold, disbelieving look and ask, “What?” as though you may have heard wrong. No… you didn’t hear wrong. Your partner is now irritated with you and says, “I wish you were more open to my family. They love you and they feel like you don’t like them.”

Now your blood is beginning to boil, veins are popping, and your face must be turning red because it feels like it’s on fire. You’ve had too much, and your partner has pushed too far for how little rope you are hanging on by. It’s over - your rational self has been hijacked! You begin to yell and make all sorts of statements about what kind of family your partner has… the kind of statements that you’ll regret saying because they are not really true and they are hurting your partner. You can’t help yourself, though. Your rational thinking is no longer in control… your amygdala is now in charge!

All of us have been hijacked by our amygdala (the fight, flight, freeze center of our brain) from time to time. Sometimes it happens in an emergency situation, which is good. We need heightened senses in an emergency, and we need the boost of adrenaline to make it through. When we’re upset with a partner for not being more aware of what we need, though, having that primitive functioning in control is not a good thing. Instead, it damages our connection and intimacy as we act out of pure emotional reactivity.

Next time you feel the way this hijacked soul feels, don’t engage… take a breath, tell your partner you need to talk about it later, and do something to calm down. It takes significant discipline to walk away, but you’ll both be grateful you did.

Are You a Catastrophe?

David Olsen, PhD, LCSW, LMFT

2020 has been anything but easy! Since the advent of COVID, its rapid spread, the confusing information, as well as a poor national response, anxiety has gone way up! How’s that for an understatement?

Families were stressed by the pressure of homeschooling, and now the pressure of what happens to school in the fall, despite each district releasing its plan. Couples have felt the strain on their relationships. Families have cancelled vacations. Business leaders are worried about their futures. Is that enough anxiety yet?

In times of anxiety, it is easy to Catastrophize, to borrow a word from cognitive therapy. Catastrophizing makes us take everything to the worst possible conclusion, and feel hopeless and out of control. The more anxious we become, the greater the catastrophizing, which then ratchets up our anxiety even higher so that everything really feels like a catastrophe.

What do we do to stop catastrophizing and feel more grounded?   

The crisis is far from over, and anxiety will be around for a while. In the midst of it, work at not catastrophizing, and practice some of the strategies outlined here to improve your own mental health and the health of your relationships.

Are you using your scale enough?

David Olsen, PhD, LCSW, LMFT

No, I wasn’t referring to the one in your bathroom where you periodically weigh yourself; leave that one alone. I’m talking about a very different scale. Think of scaling as helping to move you away from the edge of the emotional cliff when you feel hijacked by emotion. Scaling can help put things in perspective and help you problem solve better.

I talked previously about catastrophizing: the way in which we can blow problems out of context, until minor collective irritants feel like a catastrophe! At that point, problems seem unsolvable and we can feel out of control. In the previous article, I talked about strategies to partialize the problems that can seem overwhelming.

One additional strategy is to find a way to scale every problem. Rather than catastrophize the problem, ask yourself, on a scale of 1-10, how serious is this problem really. Most likely, the problems do not feel like a 10, and once you realize the problem may not be quite as catastrophic as you thought, it will become easier to problem solve. This helpful scaling exercise can help quickly put things in perspective.

Try it relationally as well. When you are very upset with something your child/teenager has done, ask yourself on a scale of 1-10 how serious it really is, and why you may be blowing things out of proportion and potentially overreacting and over-disciplining. Try it with your partner as well. Think about the things that really bother you, and put them in perspective by scaling. When you identify how big the problem is on the scale, ask yourself what it will take to move to one point better. For example, if your partner didn’t do the dishes again, this may be a 3 in the grand scheme of things. After recognizing where on the scale this problem falls, ask what it will take to get to a 2.

Where has all the nuance gone?

Erin Belanger, LMHC

Chronic anxiety (you know… the last 5 months of our lives) does nothing good for us. In fact, it is very damaging to our mental, physical, spiritual, and relational health. One of the many ways it worsens our functioning is by driving us toward “black and white” thinking. This means that we are not likely to see the “grey area”, making us more reactive to even the most basic of interactions with friends and family.

At home, and in our society as a whole, we have been having more of these black and white “discussions”, or false dichotomy arguments, and feeling worse for it. These arguments wrongly state that there are only two options, and so we end up arguing these two options rather than slowing down, stepping back, and trying to see other perspectives and more nuance.

We watch this play out in couples as one person frustratedly snaps at the other saying, “Your parents ask too much of us… I can’t take this anymore. Either you’re telling them to leave us alone, or you don’t care about us.” This two-sided argument wrongly suggests that there is no creative opportunity to meet everyone’s needs. Unfortunately, the equally stressed partner usually does not slow this conversation down, but instead typically snaps back something equally unhelpful.

Over time, partners can create limiting pictures of each other based on these interactions, making their spouse into a black and white representation of themselves, and losing all nuance. The sad reality is that this picture sticks even when their partner does something different. Once nuance is lost, the relationship is in serious trouble.

To stay in touch with nuance, or grey area, slow down and try the following:

  1. Think about what you are feeling right now and identify the feeling. (“I’m feeling overwhelmed… frustrated… worried… etc.”)
  2. Identify the trigger for that feeling, or the need that is not being tended to. (“I’m needing more time with you… more support for… reassurance that… etc.”) 
  3. Now, state the need and the feeling created by that need not being met… calmly.
  4. Finally, invite help from your partner by asking for input, and be willing to be influenced and then brainstorm together options that could lead to a win-win without forcing an immediate decision.

The couple’s argument redone with nuance might look like this: One says, “I’m feeling overwhelmed by the amount your parents ask us to do and I’m not getting enough done around here, or spending enough time with you because of it. How can we balance this better?” The other is much more likely to respond with compassion and attempt to find creative solutions to meet the need. With nuance comes a fuller understanding of others and an increase in creativity.

How to Argue: Using vulnerability to your advantage

Erin Belanger, LMHC

We’ve all been there… overwhelmed, hurt, and feeling alone… and too often our go to feeling is anger and attack. The last thing we may want to do is move from anger to  being vulnerable and open with the person who hurt us. Unfortunately, shutting these emotions down or reacting to them with an attack can both wear down a relationship. Here are some guidelines for how to argue without damage to your relationship:

Pick a “good enough” time, start slow and be soft and vulnerable in your approach and responses.

Know your role in the relationship and how you can get triggered so that you are ready to consciously do something different. Read Renewing your Relationship: 5 Necessary Steps for more on how roles, patterns of interaction, beliefs/pictures, and family of origin are all connected.

Recognize when you are getting flooded by emotion and becoming reactive instead of responsive.

Find compromises and make repair where needed.

How to make sure no one listens to you

David Olsen, PhD, LCSW, LMFT

Quite often, I hear people complain about their partners and friends and state “no one is listening to me”. They feel hurt, frustrated and misunderstood, and they blame their partner or others for their pain. They are convinced that the people in their lives are terrible listeners.

It is rare, however, for someone to consider that the way they talk might be the reason that they don’t feel understood. Consider some common strategies for making sure no one listens:

In reality, all problems of communication are two person problems, and both parties are equal in their contribution to the problem. So ask yourself, (or if you are brave, your partner or friends) “What is my contribution to the communication breakdown?” and work on changing that contribution.

Is your but in the way?

David Olsen, PhD, LCSW, LMFT

Is it possible that your use of “but” might be a major problem in your relationships? Your but could be a major relationship obstacle and be blocking intimacy and deeper understanding. Here are a few examples:

Once you interject the word but into the conversation, the other person will immediately feel defensive, and conclude that you don’t really understand. The word suggests that you are not really listening, or not really apologizing. Instead, it suggests that you are thinking about yourself and your response and therefore, tends to invalidate your apology or attempt at understanding. Inevitably, the other will not feel like you understand and your “but” will always block deeper understanding.

If your goal is to display deep understanding or make a sincere apology, then the goal is to attempt to fully understand your partner’s subjective experience without arguing, or interjecting your own perspective. Work at detaching from your own arguments, check your defensiveness, and work at understanding the other.

This is very difficult work, but is the key to deeper understanding. Try replacing your “but” with:

Try to get your “but” out of the way, and work toward deeper understanding of the other.