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.

Disappointment doesn’t mean you’re done

Shawna Hussey Walz, LMFT

We all know the story: In the beginning of a relationship, we’re infatuated with our seemingly Heaven-sent partner, idealizing them, blissfully caught up in the romance and excitement. We’re captivated, we’re smitten, we’ll do anything to be near them, we think everything they do or say is wonderful and hilarious. We feel like the luckiest person in the world. This is the idealization stage, a euphoric place we’d like to stay.

As time goes on, we start to notice, well, their flaws. (How dare they be flawed!) Things begin to irk us about our partner that we didn’t notice at first -- they don’t arrange the dishwasher neatly, they forget to make the bed or take out the garbage, they go to bed earlier than we do, they listen to bad music. Worse, they disappoint us on emotional levels by failing to pay attention when we tell them something important, or failing to support us well when we’re going through something difficult. How could this person who seemed so perfect suddenly seem so...well...normal?  We had higher expectations for them, and we’re let down, disappointed, disillusioned. We begin to feel discouraged, and seeds of doubt take root. We have entered the stage of disenchantment, or disillusionment.

Unfortunately, many couples get stuck here, frustrated and discouraged by the changing tenor of their relationship, and wondering how they’ll ever return to where they once were. They convince themselves that something is very wrong in the relationship; that they should not be experiencing each other in these ways. They think such things as, “Maybe we’re just not compatible anymore,” or “Maybe we’ve changed too much and grown apart,” and some begin to doubt the relationship can continue. Here’s the good news: This is all normal. Even more than normal -- this is expected, and necessary, and helps you grow!

Before you throw in the towel on your relationship, here are a few things to consider as you navigate the disappointments and work to see your partner and relationship in a new light:

  1. Disappointment/disenchantment is a developmental stage of relationships. You’re supposed to experience this to move from fantasy to reality and form a more comprehensive, accepting picture of your partner and relationship that isn’t filtered through the myth of perfection. This is the path toward a more mature love; rather than think something is wrong, reframe it as a challenging, but absolutely normal and important part of the journey.
  2. Don’t assign blame. It’s easy to blame your partner during this stage, picking out all their flaws and putting the onus of the issues on them. Instead, look at the co-created patterns you two have adopted: how are the ways you’re relating to one another problematic or conflictual?
  3. Shift from fantasy to reality. Romanticized, idealized love is perpetuated in our culture, giving us a plethora of examples to which we compare our own relationship and find it falling short. Recognize how an attachment to fantasy can prevent us from enjoying the “very good” in reality. We are not perfect; our relationship was never meant to be perfect. Don’t let the fantasy of perfection keep you from recognizing and continuing to work on building a good enough relationship that’s grounded in reality.

Is it time to change your filter?

David Olsen, PhD, LCSW, LMFT

Have you ever had the experience of forgetting to change a filter? When you finally pull it out, you realize that it is filthy, and, of course, not cleaning the air or water that it is supposed to be cleaning. A clogged filter does very little good, and can even cause significant problems.

Part of the problem with human communication is the filters that we use to interpret what the other is saying. Traditional communication models suggest that a “sender” sends a message which is received by the “receiver/listener”. The reality, however, is that the receiver hears the message through their own interpretive grid. Tom asks his wife Sharon, “Where did you put the check book this time?” Sharon explodes: “Why are you always so critical of me? I’m sick of you talking to me like I’m a child”. To which Tom responds, “This is why I never talk to you: you are just so emotional!” Within five minutes, they are angry and distant from each other.

What happened is obvious! They each made an interpretation of what the other was implying or “really” saying. Their interpretation, not the communication, caused them to both become very reactive. Was that interpretation correct? Who knows. But the reality is that they responded based on the interpretation they were making without slowing it down and checking it out.

Be aware of how you are interpreting what your partner is saying. Do some reality checks without jumping to conclusions. Try softer, less reactive responses. Had Tom asked the question differently, or had Sharon responded “the check book is on your desk, but just checking to see if you were implying that I lost it”, or if Tom had said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you lost it”, things would have gone differently.

Allow for some confusion and ambivalence in your understanding. Be curious what your partner is saying, question your interpretations, and slow things down! Your interpretations could be a significant part of the communication problems.

Poetry in Relationship: Naming feelings to unlock closeness

Steve Dukenski, MHC Intern

In the 1997 sci-fi movie classic Contact, astrophysicist Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is chosen to take a voyage on a spacefaring vessel. Wondrous images of the cosmos fly by her view screen as she hurls at untold speeds through intergalactic space. She attempts to describe all she is seeing into her audio recorder, but soon gives up. She doesn't have the words to describe her experience.

"They should have sent a poet," she concludes.

These days, most of us would jump at the chance to travel to another state, let alone another galaxy. Even so, the earthbound day-to-day of navigating family life, marriage, and work is complex enough to leave us at a loss for words, unable to express how we feel while we’re feeling it.

When we can't express how we feel, where does that leave our ability to make contact with ourselves and the people we live and work with? Without the words for how we're feeling, we may become stuck inside those feelings and get taken for a ride like we're on a rocket ship without a captain.

Research in the field of Emotional Intelligence tells us that building our vocabulary around feelings or emotions leaves us better equipped to regulate how we feel. When emotions inhibit our ability to think clearly or communicate with our loved ones, taking a pause to stop and name our emotions can help to put us back in the captain's chair and take control again.

We don't have to be poets to learn how to name our emotions. A good start is naming a broad emotion, like "sad," "angry" or "scared." Even better is expanding our vocabulary and thinking through exactly what shade of emotion we're feeling. For instance, what if instead of sad, angry or scared we feel lost, irritated, or panicked?

Of course, you may know all these words, but how well are you able to name them in a moment of high emotion? The presence of mind to name and own your emotions as you're hurling through them is a true measure of your emotional vocabulary. It is a skill you can start to develop now that can improve the quality of your relationships for a lifetime to come.

The Unexpected Gift of Anxiety?

Jonathan Vanderbeck, LMSW, MDiv

These last several months have been a LOT! First it was the pandemic, then the murder of George Floyd. Now it’s talk of going back to school and the election. Lately, I hear over and over: “My anxiety has never been this bad!”

It’s true. There is so much going on right now, that for many of us, the usual anxiety management techniques are not working and we’re suffering personally and interpersonally. From contemplating medication increases to feeling desperate for new tips, everyone is feeling as if it’s all “too much”. For individuals, couples and families alike, the unremitting anxiety is making us all feel like something must be wrong with us, our loved ones, or our relationships.

I argue, though, from a relational and self-awareness perspective, that anxiety is not inherently a bad thing. It’s simply a response to a threat. This means that feeling like you’re more anxious than usual is NORMAL! It doesn’t mean that you’re automatically “getting worse” or that your problem is “unfixable.”

Let’s think about the gift that anxiety may be offering you. Think of anxiety as the “check engine light” on your dashboard. When faced with a threat, our bodies act accordingly – that’s anxiety. When we are trying to “turn off” anxiety, that’s like ignoring your “check engine light,” it doesn’t mean the threat or problem is going away. In fact, this strategy may cause more significant problems down the road. Instead, it can be very helpful to observe anxious responses and to be curious about what might be causing them; wonder, that is, about what the “threat, real or imagined” is that you are responding to. Reframing anxiety in this way helps take the stigma out of experiencing anxiety or the fear that anxiety is automatically getting worse. It can also safeguard your relationships as you focus on yourself and your needs rather than taking your feelings out on a partner or child.

Therapy can help you find ways to feel less reactive to threats, but the reality is, anxiety is normal and, if well-regulated, is actually a healthy response. So the next time you feel like your anxiety is getting worse, allow yourself to be curious.

Does Your Vision Need Correction?

David Olsen, PhD, LCSW, LMFT

One of the difficulties of relationship (both marriage and parenting) is that we think we know our partners/children. We believe that we really know the other, and as a result, act on that assumption. Over time, these pictures can get more rigid and dangerous. Consider these examples:

In all of these cases, the picture was incorrect, and the interactions that followed are simply the result of the narrow picture. There were no attempts made to listen, explore, or allow for an expanding picture!

Relational health is built on expanding your vision. That is, the continued growing of your knowledge of your kids and your partner. Remember the early years when you could talk for hours and kept discovering new things about the other? Remember those glimpses of your kids when you saw them in a whole new light? Keep letting your vision expand. Keep growing. Do something different like taking the Myers Briggs personality inventory and comparing results. Read a book together and compare your observations. Find ways to expand your vision, which always results in increased intimacy.

The late great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, talked about “I - It relationships, vs I - Thou relationships”. “I - it” relationships reduce the other to a category (too emotional, cold, defiant…) and treat them accordingly making them an “it”.  In an “I - thou” relationship, we keep discovering the other anew, and in so doing, encounter both the other and the divine.

Every so often, I watch my grandchildren and see them in a whole new light and it can take my breath away. I never want to lose that. Never let your vision get static!

Putting Effort Over Excellence

Shawna Hussey Walz, LMFT

When we’re in a relationship long enough, most of us find ourselves falling into predictable dances with our partners. For the type A doers, movers and planners among us, it can be second-nature to assume the role of an overfunctioner -- doing too much -- in our relationships. If we’re being honest, we just might have a difficult time letting go of control and letting someone else do what we feel we can do best. While there’s nothing wrong with striving for high levels of productivity and having standards, there’s a line where the need for control might prevent your partner from knowing how, or where, to step in and take action. 

What this looks like in a relationship: You’re saying to your partner, “I need some help,” or “It would be nice if you’d take over the dishes,” and then when they try to help, you have a hard time letting their way be good enough, and you say things like, “Wait, not like that! Do it this way” (read: Do it my way!).

Could part of the problem be that your partner doesn’t know where to start jumping in and taking over? Do you think your partner might be afraid you’ll be quick to correct them, or micromanage? If you relate to this overfunctioner, used-to-being-in-control type, consider these perspectives in attempt to begin to work toward better partnership:

  1. Put the relationship over the need to be right. Yes, you might know exactly how things should be done and trust your own ways of operating more than you trust your partner’s. Maybe your attachment to your own need to be right, though, is coming across as critical and preventing your partner from trying to contribute. Remember that you’re on the same team, which means the relationship comes first. Their way can also be another right way.

  2. Prioritize effort over excellence. Is having an impossibly high standard worth the expense of your partner’s feeling invalidated or less than? If you can back off and let your partner step up, and he/she puts forth a genuine effort, that’s a win for you both. That’s what needs to be seen and appreciated, even if your ways of doing things differ.

  3. Acknowledge the “good enough” partner. You might be capable and confident, but let’s face it -- you’re not perfect, and neither is your partner. When we stop trying to hold ourselves and our partners to an impossibly high standard, we see ourselves for who we are, flaws and all -- the “good enough” partner, whose way of doing things does not have to be wrong just because it isn’t ours. We have to give them space to try, and to both wow us and disappoint us -- because a relationship needs to be able to hold all of that.

Are your childhood defenses hurting your adult relationships?

Erin Belanger, LMHC

Let’s do a little visual thought exercise… let yourself drift back to when you were younger, in your family home. What was it like to be you as a child in your family? Were you the oldest with a lot of pressure and expectation on you? Were you the youngest, feeling alone and left out of the “big kid” activities? Were your parents available to you? Did you feel they understood you and met your needs well enough?

Now think about what you did to “compensate” for those roles and patterns. As an oldest, did you learn to anticipate needs of others and take on extra responsibilities? As a youngest, did you become a bit of an entertainer to gain attention (either positive or negative)? What about if you felt chronically misunderstood, or like your needs weren’t met… did you learn to shut down your need and stop sharing?

Our childhood “survival strategies” are very helpful when we are young. They minimize the negative impact of a role or of trauma. When we are adults, however, these same strategies are typically still at play on some level, only now they are stagnating our growth and preventing connection. The overfunctioning oldest trains their partner to do less, and inadvertently increases their stress and anxiety. The entertaining youngest has trouble connecting on deeper levels that may prevent intimacy. The misunderstood child who shut down their needs continues to be out of touch with those needs and therefore never fully connected to or cared for by their partner.

As adults, understanding our childhood survival strategies helps us to identify the work we need to do to grow and flourish in our adult relationships. Since these patterns can be difficult to fully see, it can be helpful to spend some time with a therapist to make sense of where you are getting stuck, and how to get unstuck.

“Take 60 seconds and get your S… together!” - Alex Toussaint

David Olsen, PhD, LCSW, LMFT

Alex is a highly energetic and very popular Peloton bike instructor, which is an understatement! The music is cranked up, he is yelling at the riders to pick it up, and people are starting to fade as he urges them on. At that point he is fond of yelling to the tired riders who want to slow down, “Take 60 seconds and get your S…. together”. Great motivational move! And it works! Before long, the class is pushing hard to get through the workout and ending in high fives and smiles.

What a metaphor for life! Too often the struggles, anxiety, pressures of life (especially during covid) make us beyond discouraged, and at times cause us to want to quit, or at least take a long nap. It all seems overwhelming!

And while it might seem overly simplistic to have someone yell “take 60 seconds…”, there is an important principle here. As we have talked about in previous newsletters, when we get stressed, and especially when we are hijacked by the amygdala, we can take the stressors of life and blow them out of proportion, forgetting that there are strategies for getting through.

While it might take more than 60 seconds to get it back together before we melt down, scream at our partners, swear at our boss or want to sell one of our children, there are some principles we have talked about to get it back together. Those are:

At times, life feels exhausting! It can be easy to get overwhelmed and lose perspective. At the risk of oversimplifying, though, take the advice of Alex, or at least the modifications suggested here to try to keep things in perspective.

Stressful Conversations: Changing your role

Luke Jackson, MA MHC

Two partners, heading down the road on a quiet morning are excited to have some quality time away camping and hiking. As they begin their trip, the passenger gets caught up in scrolling on instagram and begins to see (once again) several posts about today’s current events. Deciding to bring up one of the posts, the partner asks the other what they think about it. Fast forward three minutes into their conversation and they are raising their voices at one another, furious with how insensitive the other’s perspective is, and are on the verge of turning around and cancelling their weekend away.

In our current world there are plenty of sensitive, difficult, and stressful topics to communicate around. How can we have these conversations without hurting the ones we care about? Or, to take it a step further, how can we increase closeness with our partner through these conversations?

We know that it’s fruitless to try to change someone else, and we know that if you change your response, your partner may follow. So, here are couple of adjustments to try and reflect on as you look at your role:

  1. Validate your partner’s feelings and experiences before responding to them about the conversation topic. Prioritize your partner feeling heard and cared for in this moment rather than pouncing on any disagreement or differences in perspective about the content of the conversation. Use nonverbal and verbal communication skills to let your partner know that you are working to understand where they are coming from, and that you care for and respect them.
  2. Once you do respond, establish that you are still on the same team. While sharing your perspective about the topic, communicate that you are still on the same team. As you monitor your way of reacting to your partner, notice how you react most intensely in the moments where you are questioning whether your partner is still in your corner. Will they take our kid’s side on this one? Are they choosing them over me? If we don’t see eye to eye on this, what does this mean for us?
  3. Communicate clearly about where to go from there. If you begin to notice your temperature rising and stress levels increasing, you would do well to request that you park this conversation for now. Make sure to also decide on a time to resume it when it works well for both of you. If your conversation involves taking actions, communicate what expectations are involved, and double check all of this with your partner.

Validating your partner as a person, reassuring them that you are still on the same team, and having a clear path following the conversation can all serve as helpful adjustments you can make in your role in a relationship you care about.

Calming the Chaos with Self-Care

Shawna Hussey Walz, LMFT

You can hardly have a conversation about the weather these days without it inadvertently turning to the trendy topic of self-care. In the past few years, this concept has found its way front-and-center in our culture, our conversations and, of course, our social media. If you’ve somehow managed to miss this trend, you need only pop open Instagram to verify its undeniable widespread fame, where we can find millions of posts with “#selfcare” to try to garner some inspiration on how others prioritize themselves. We certainly get the concept – prioritize your mental and emotional health, do something that makes you feel good today – but, where do we even start?

Here are some tips for integrating consistent self-care into your routine:

It should be enjoyable for you. The last thing you want to do is add one more obligation to your already full plate, so choose things that appeal to you, not things that you feel you have to do. Remember when you were a kid and did things simply for the sheer joy of the doing, without worrying about any standards or measured outcomes? The whole point is to be present in the moment and feel refreshed, enjoying whatever you choose.

There are many different types of self-care. We’re complicated: we have bodies and minds, emotions and needs, desires for independence and connection. Taking care of ourselves, then, means we tend to our various needs.

  1. Sometimes we need to do something physical to feel grounded and good about ourselves -- run, yoga, walk, whatever form of exercise we prefer.
  2. Sometimes we need to tend to our emotional side, with activities like journaling, reading something inspiring or encouraging, talking to a trusted friend or therapist, or meditating or praying.
  3. Sometimes we feel refreshed through mental stimulation, such as a riveting book, article, or podcast.
  4. Sometimes it’s relational. You know those real moments of genuine connection with another person, where we feel seen and heard and loved for who we are, and we walk away from the interaction with a little more sunshine in our souls and peace in our hearts.

This differs for all of us: the important thing is that we choose things that speak to who we are, and decide what we need in that moment.

Embrace stillness. Sometimes, all we need is to just be. Forget the run, the book we started or the craft we wanted to make. Sometimes, we need peace and quiet to feel recharged, refreshed, and centered. Whether this is an intentional quiet time, a car ride, a bath, or even just a cup of coffee before everyone else wakes up, taking a few moments to ourselves in the midst of our hectic lives can provide a little bit of calm in the chaos.

What it’s not. We can lean on unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, drugs, binge eating, over-exercising, or other compulsive behaviors. It’s important to note that these are not examples of self-care. If you find yourself falling into this category, consider how you can start leaning into healthier coping activities, and maybe talk to a friend or a therapist to help you change your perspective and choose healthier behaviors.

Letting Go to Hold On

Shawna Hussey Walz, LMFT

"Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don't." - Steve Maraboli

If there’s one thing we’ve been forced to face recently, it’s accepting that which we cannot control. So many aspects of our daily routines, occupations, hobbies and interests, and even our relationships, underwent extreme shifts, and we felt powerless to do anything about it. I don’t know about you, but dealing with a global pandemic and navigating so much social and individual stress and anxiety forced me into some deep introspection over the question of what is in my control vs what is not.

Feeling “out of control” carries connotations of a loss of certainty, powerlessness, and the feeling of being untethered. Focusing on the things we can’t control, though, causes us to lose sight of what we can control. This is where anxiety takes hold. This can be true of many areas of our lives, including our relationships, if we don’t learn to differentiate between what is ours and of what we have to let go of and simply accept. Here are some things to consider when differentiating between things in your control vs things out of your control in your relational functioning:

When we focus on the things we have the power to control, we begin to feel more empowered and encouraged as we see the positive results and outcomes. Learning to lean deeper into those areas of our lives and less into the things we have no influence over can reduce our anxiety and help us stay present and grounded. You can plan the party but you can’t control the weather, so focus your efforts on making a really great cake, and pray for sunshine… but pack the umbrellas, just in case.

Is Stress trapped in your body?

David Olsen, PhD, LCSW, LMFT

We have talked repeatedly about anxiety and chronic anxiety during the COVID crisis. As the world has continued to get more anxious, and the news worse, we have seen our own anxiety rise. In this past month’s articles, we’ve talked about some strategies for decreasing stress: including not catastrophizing, scaling, watching your “anxiety meter”, tracking and naming feelings, and many other relational skills.

Outside of these mental, emotional and relational skills to help manage anxiety, there is another important focus. Stress and anxiety at some point become physical: that is, it becomes trapped in your body. We see this impact most clearly when it results in muscle tension, high blood pressure, cardiac problems, and other chronic conditions. Complicating it further, we sometimes turn to substance abuse as we use alcohol to decrease our perception of anxiety. Unfortunately, this actually worsens the negative impacts of stress on the body and decreases our ability to function well under stress.

Depression and Anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms, a newsletter from the Mayo Clinic released in 2017, suggests that regular exercise helps ease emotional stress in a number of ways which include:

Regular participation in aerobic and resistance exercise just twice a week could lead to a significant decrease in depressed mood. In fact, regular exercise was found to lead to a remission in clinically significant depression for people who were not experiencing relief from an antidepressant alone! On the opposite side, maintaining a sedentary lifestyle can increase your perception of stress, which will negatively impact your mood and ability to function well under anxiety.

On the Path: Wrap-up

Erin Belanger, LMHC

The path toward mind, body, spirit, and relational health is long, life-long in fact, but it allows us to find meaning, well-being, and joy amongst the grief. Our individual and societal anxiety and depression eases as we better connect to ourselves, our loved ones, and to our neighbors, near and far. Accepting that the very nature of life is impermanence allows us to accept that we are not in control and cannot keep anything… not even our own lives. If we fight for control and power and construct artificial permanence, there is ultimately little meaning, and significant anxiety and depression on that path. This is why we suggest you walk with us as we move along the path of mind, body, spirit, and relational health and connection in the midst of a changing and uncertain world.

Even though this month provided a “mini article” each weekday, the articles take time to digest… certainly more than a day or two. We suggest keeping the link handy to continue reflecting on the articles, as each one will speak to you more powerfully at different points along your path.

Inevitably, we all get stuck from time to time, and articles are not always enough to get us unstuck. We suggest that this is the time to reach for a hand and ask for help. That might look like reaching out to a partner, friend, neighbor, or to a therapist. The most important part is to start by identifying that you are not ok and that you need help. Then, talk about you, your experience, and where you are stuck so that your navigator can help you move forward.

Thank you for sharing the journey with us this last month! Take care as you move into whatever September will bring us, and please do not be shy about asking for help if it brings you more than you feel you can handle well.