I’m going to be starting a new series on relationships, and this will be the first post and cover Couples Communication. I previously did a series on Cognitive Distortions that resonated with many of my readers, so this will be another series in which I will go in-depth to cover a lot of information in one area over a series of posts. Here I will cover the 3 main communication styles and how they impact your relationship, and cover how to use assertive communication for better conflict resolution.
I have worked with countless couples in therapy, and the number 1 thing that couples come in seeking help for is communication. This makes sense, because communication is really the cornerstone of any relationship. In fact, even when I am seeing people for individual therapy, we also often end up going over communication styles and assess what can be improved in the area of communication because it is SO important in every area of your life.
For couples, communication problems are often at the heart of so many problems that couples face. In a relationship, the health and strength of the relationship isn’t measured by how much conflict you have with each other. All couples have some conflict, so being conflict-free isn’t the goal. The problems arise when it comes to how you resolve that conflict. When you learn to communicate well, then you can resolve conflicts in a healthy and productive way that nurtures and supports your relationship rather than in a way that tears down your bonds and causes pain and distress.
What are the 3 communication styles?
Essentially, there are 3 forms of communication, and as a couple you may both use different forms of communication during conflict, so depending on what your tendencies are as a couple both of you may need to do some work to change how you communicate with each other. The first step towards building healthier communication as a couple is learning what kind of communication style you are using and figure out whether it is healthy or if there needs to be some changes.
Communication can be broken down into these 3 styles:
Passive communication is when you are attempting to let someone know how you feel without really coming out and saying it. Passive behavior can mean being avoidant and choosing NOT to discuss problems when they arise, usually because you don’t like conflict or you want to avoid an argument. Passive communication can be giving someone the silent treatment, or it could be using non-verbal cues like rolling your eyes, crossing your arms, giving someone a mean look, or walking around the house huffing and puffing but then saying “Nothing” when your partner asks you what’s wrong.
Aggressive behavior is pretty clear when you see it: yelling, screaming, slamming doors, violence, insults, inappropriate sarcasm meant to cut the other person down, condescending comments. This way of communicating is harmful and damaging to relationships, and damages intimacy and the mental health of both people in the partnership.
Assertive communication is open, honest, and direct when it comes to expressing your thoughts and feelings. This kind of communication feels good because you are expressing yourself and making your points, without attacking your partner or shutting down their thoughts and feelings. Assertive communication is about standing up for your thoughts, feelings, and rights, without trampling on your partner’s thoughts, feelings, or rights.
What does it mean to be Passive-Aggressive?
Some people use the term passive-aggressive to describe themselves or others, but I dislike that term, because what it really amounts to is using passive behavior or communication to convey an aggressive sentiment or emotion. When people say someone is being passive-aggressive, they usually just mean the person did something passive, but they meant it in an aggressive way. Ultimately it’s passive behavior, and it’s still unhealthy for relationships.
What Does Unhealthy Communication Look Like?
Unhealthy communication is either passive or aggressive. These two communication styles are often part of a cycle that builds up over time and conflicts start to sap the energy and joy out of your relationship. You don’t want conflict so you avoid sensitive issues. Then resentment builds up until one or both partners explode.
Passive behavior is unhealthy in relationships because it does not resolve problems, but instead leads to resentment building up as emotions are stuffed down and problems are ignored. This often results in the “volcano effect”, where resentment and hurt feelings builds up over time, but is never addressed, until something triggers an explosion, and then aggressive behavior breaks through and there’s an unhealthy, aggressive argument.
Aggressive communication also doesn’t resolve conflict, because when you are aggressive towards your partner, the other person will do one of two things: they will feel intimidated and shut down, because they are trying to stop or avoid the aggressive behavior, or they will feel threatened and get defensive, also becoming aggressive and escalating the situation further. Now you’re both yelling at each other and nothing is getting resolved. Many couples who argue in this way find themselves highly stressed, often hurt, and insecure about the status of the relationship because it feels so volatile.
Aggressive behavior hurts your partner and reflects poorly on you if you are the one engaging in this communication style. It also has the effect of damaging the intimacy in your relationship and breaking down your emotional connection to each other. It’s harder to trust your partner when they are aggressive, and conflict doesn’t get resolved because the focus ends up on stopping the aggressive behavior rather than resolving the original problem. Aggression also contributes to passive avoidance, because when one person is trying to avoid the aggressive attacks, they do not bring up issues that they have because they are walking on eggshells all the time.
What Is Healthy Communication for Couples?
Healthy communication for couples happens when both people learn and practice assertive communication with each other. This means addressing problems when they come up and understanding how situations impact each other as a couple. When you both practice assertive communication, then when conflict arises you have a discussion, not an argument. Assertive communication doesn’t come easily to everyone, but it is a skill that can be learned and practiced.
Assertive communication involves first understanding your own feelings and being able to communicate your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a way that is open, direct, and honest. This happens when you take the time to reflect on how something your partner did or said made you feel, and then focusing on communicating your feelings, rather than just criticizing your partner’s behavior.
Often the problem is not, for example, that your partner intended to do or say something to upset you, but the way something happened may leave you feeling disrespected, hurt, or confused. It is important to communicate how their behavior or words made you feel, by saying something such as “When you said ……, I felt…..” rather than just ignoring the hurtful comment or responding with aggression such as “Don’t you dare you speak to me like that!”
How Do I Use Assertive Communication with my Partner?
There are many opportunities to practice assertive communication. You likely already do use assertive communication at times, but you may also alternate between passive or aggressive communication depending on the dynamics in your relationship. Focusing on practicing assertive conflict resolution will benefit all your interactions over time, and you will become more confident in how you express yourself.
Practicing assertive communication also enables you to keep the focus on the conflict, rather than your behavior. Too often, partners can blame each other for their behaviors while arguing, which enables the original problem to slip out of focus while the argument turns into who is in the wrong for their response to the conflict.
To practice assertive communication, start to use some of the following statements when you want to discuss a conflict or situation that needs to be resolved or expressed:
- I feel hurt when you say….
- It is not fair that……
- I feel resentful when….
- My biggest fear is…
- I felt let down when you….
- I didn’t deserve…
- I’m most angry when…..
- I want you to understand that….
- I accept that you…
- I hope that you understand…
- I need to ask you to….
- I need to tell you that….
- I feel scared when….
- I feel supported when you…
These are all the beginnings of assertive statements that center your thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Using these kinds of statements will help you to communicate more assertively, but it will not stop your partner from reacting either passively or aggressively. Both people in a relationship need to agree to work on using assertive communication for you to transition from having arguments to having discussions.
However, you don’t have to wait for your partner to get on board to start practicing your own assertiveness. You still have a responsibility to be healthy even if your partner doesn’t want to change. However, if your partner is not willing to engage in finding solutions to how you both communicate, then it might be time to evaluate whether you both want the same things out of your relationship.
Ultimately, practicing your communication with your partner will help you to become more assertive and confident in other areas of your life. Your partner is who you want to feel the safest with though, when it comes to expressing your feelings, so make sure that you are making healthy communication with your partner a priority.
For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship”.
New Year’s resolutions can be a great way to set goals for the upcoming months and assess your progress from the past year, but many people have become exhausted and cynical about new year’s resolutions, and it’s not hard to see why.
“New Year, New You!” messages bombard us in the media, imploring us to better ourselves and stop using excuses for not achieving our goals. It’s tempting to jump into the latest weight loss challenge or resolve to magically change your life by tidying up. But maybe you didn’t follow through with last year’s resolutions, so this year you don’t even want to try. Or perhaps you just don’t like the pressure of having to declare victory or failure at the end of the year and announce your determination to try again.
I’ve seen many people saying they don’t like new year’s resolutions because they don’t follow through or because it feels like a competition, but they still have goals that they are striving towards. For some, it seems like there’s just a semantics issue that doesn’t change the spirit of practicing reflection and striving for new goals. I think all of us, however, can agree that setting goals and letting go of past mistakes is a good thing.
Personally, I love New Year’s resolutions, despite the fact that I’ve fallen short of many of mine. Sometimes I don’t even remember what it was by March. That doesn’t stop me from continuing to work on my goals every year, I just seem to decide to put the ones I won’t really get to under the title of “New Year’s Resolution”. Maybe that makes it seem less impactful when I don’t accomplish it. Because sure, I fell short of my New Year’s Resolution, but doesn’t everybody? If I put it on my goals list, though, I won’t put it on the back burner.
That being said, I still love the whole spirit of the New Year because it is a chance to step back and reflect on the past year and see how things have changed, and set your sights to making the next year an improvement in one way or another.
It can be hard to reflect on your year and see that you’ve fallen behind in your goals, or realize that your life has changed in a profound way, perhaps not by your own choosing, such as when you lose a loved one. But reflection doesn’t have to be about measuring progress or failures. It can also be about recognizing your strengths and acknowledging your weaknesses. Not because you want to overcome every flaw and become a more perfect version of yourself, but because recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses is part of being your own authentic self.
So for those of you out there who are ready to set your resolutions and smash them this year- resolve away! I will always encourage you to set high goals for yourself and go for them. Just make sure that your goals are centered around what you really want, and not what you think you should be doing to present a picture perfect version of yourself to the world. You’ll be more likely to follow through if you set goals for yourself.
For those of you who can’t stand the idea of making another failed New Year’s Resolution, keep pressing forward with your otherwise named goals and create plans to accomplish them year-round. You don’t need pomp and circumstance and a Facebook announcement or a new challenge to sign up for to keep plugging away at your career/life/family/health goals.
I want to think our culture has broadly shifted away from the high pressure, high stakes, dogged commitment to presenting perfection as the ultimate goal and solution to all your problems in the New Year. I have a tendency to think that’s true, but then I realize that the reason I don’t see those kinds of messages that much anymore is because I choose not to. I have, myself, shifted away from those kinds of high stakes pressures to be practically perfect in every way, so therefore I surround myself with like-minded social accounts and steer clear of any media, businesses, or product lines that cater to a self-critical mentality. Yet I realize that those kinds of messages are still glaringly present for many people, and we are all still susceptible to absorbing negative messages wrapped in a self-care package, particularly young people.
I’m choosing to UnResolve this year. This just means that I’m planning to continue to work on all of the goals and plans that I have and I’m going to continue to value myself, my family, and my community this year. I’m going to reflect on my past year with gratitude for everything I got to experience and accomplish, and I’m going to look forward to everything still to come and make concrete plans to make progress on my goals. But I’m not going to set another arbitrary resolution that sits on the shelf and does nothing but stare at me, only for me to realize mid-June that I’ve been busy working on my goals.
My life continues to flow year in and year out. My goals will never be truly finished, because I will always look for new ways to move forward, and I constantly resolve to try something over again that I haven’t accomplished to my satisfaction, no matter what time of year it is. By the way, I haven’t read Marie Kondo’s book, but I did start watching her Netflix show “Tidying Up” and I find her totally adorable and I’m not sure why she gets so much flack for being tidy. I should probably go fold up my laundry now, though. Happy New Year everyone!
NOTE: This post was written by Hannah Guzewicz
If you are someone in grief, the holidays can be an interesting time of year. There is so much merriment and joy; anticipation and celebration, and yet there is a natural counterbalance that happens for those who have lost a loved one which comes in the form of support and acknowledgement of your grief that may have been absent before. There are some seemingly universal truths that are experienced in grief but it can also be profoundly misunderstood. Some simply cannot comprehend that grief is not something one can “get over.” Some do understand this and still expect grief to follow predictable paths. Even those who have experienced grief themselves sometimes believe they understand what grief is for another person. If you have lost someone, you have likely counted the days, weeks, months, and years without your loved one, taken time to mark birthdays and death anniversaries, and felt some sort of obligation to keep that person alive in holiday traditions. These feelings and rituals can linger for many people.
Therefore, with any proximity to grief or if you yourself are grieving, you have undoubtedly seen essays, books, and social media dedicated to allowing space for grief during the holidays. There are reminders that you can and should take time for self care and that you do not have to enjoy the holidays. This is all true.
But what if your journey with grief has diverged a bit? My son died 5 and a half years ago when he was only 10 months old. It was unexpected and traumatic. He was happy and smiling in the morning and gone that afternoon. In the aftermath, I experienced all those countdowns and marking the passing of time but eventually the ceremony of all that started to hurt me more. I had to let go of keeping every single milestone sacred to care for myself. Today, while things are different and my choices aren’t what they would have been without loss, the holidays really are a joyous experience for me. I love the celebrations, music, and lights. I cherish the family time and traditions so often I end up feeling guilty that I’m not extra sad during this time of year.
It’s a hard position to explain to people. Losing a child at any point is excruciating and even many years later, trying to talk about that time doesn’t just bring up sadness for me. There is a physical crushing pain in my chest. It is hard to breathe and hard to swallow. The loss was life altering. I have deep wells of patience and grace for others that far exceed any I had before and also some fiery anger, intolerance, and fear that surprise me some days. I am a different person. Different not only because of life lived and lessons learned: different because the loss of my son changed my physical body, my emotional mind, and my soul. I will never be over that day. And yet, I can sometimes feel shame and guilt when people (with the kindest intentions) check in on me during the holidays and I am enjoying the season. In grief, certain times of pain are expected and yet I find the smaller less symbolic moments are when I feel most crippled. Like seeing a brother and sister walking home from school together knowing my daughters will never know their older brother. Or witnessing my older daughter teaching and protecting the younger and feeling so angry that she will never know the care of her older sibling.
The good news is that whatever loss you have experienced, there are multitudes of resources that can help you cope with grief in the minute-by-minute journey of finding how to live with your loss. And it is perfectly normal to experience sadness and stress around the holidays with grief. But despite the universality of grief, it is also deeply personal, so if the holidays are not painful for you, don’t let concern or care from others inject guilt into your experience. Joy, whenever it happens, does not diminish the love you had or the grief you will always carry. Hold onto the moments of joy you have and know that wherever your grief may take you, you are not alone.
We hear a lot these days about how holidays can be stressful and that many people struggle with their mental health this time of year. I’ve written in an earlier post about some considerations for how you can support those loves ones with mental health concerns during the holidays. However, holidays can also be a time to reflect on some other themes that can be truly beneficial to your mental health. It’s important that we remember that the holidays are not a joyous time for everyone, but let’s also look at some of the benefits of celebrating during the holiday season and the positive things that traditions, time with family, and seasonal giving bring to our personal and cultural mental health.
Here are some important ways that the holidays can give you a little mental health boost if you’re feeling burnt out, moody, or disheartened.
- Spending time with family and friends
Spending time with your loved ones is the best part of the holidays. Perhaps you only see some of your friends during that annual holiday party, or maybe your family lives far away and so traveling to see them during the holidays is one of the few ways you can stay in touch. Keeping connections with people that you care about is an important way that we foster positive relationships with our support network. Sometimes, you may only see some of your family every few years, or even longer. This makes the times spent together all the more meaningful and important. Family bonding time is especially important for children, so be sure to call, hug, FaceTime, and spend time with the children in your life, whether that be your nieces and nephews, other close family friends, or your own children. There will be times when you may need to set boundaries with the people that are unhealthy in your life, and make more of an effort to spend quality time with the people that bring positivity into your life. Whether that’s making a trip to see you grandmother or opting to have Friendsgiving with your favorite peer group, the holidays are a great time to focus on the value of the important people in your life.
2. Getting time off from work and/or school
Taking a vacation has proven mental health benefits, whether you do a staycation or travel abroad. Obviously, not everyone gets to take time off at the holidays, so if you do, then recognize that this is a great opportunity renew yourself, even if it is just for a few days. A new study notes that while previous research has validated the benefits of a 7-day vacation, even shorter vacations (4 nights) can result in marked improvements in stress levels, mental recovery, and well-being. These benefits are still effective up to 45 days later. Most Americans could use more time off work, because stress from overwork makes you sick and burnt out and many workers get limited paid vacation time, if any. However, this is the time of year when many people are planning to take some vacation days, travel to spend time with family, and recharge a little before the New Year. So if you have the opportunity and are able to take some time off of work, take advantage of and use those vacation days before the year is up. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be more likely to start the New Year off fresh and ready to tackle your goals.
3. Celebrating traditions
For many people, the holidays are a time to practice family or spiritual traditions. There are certainly times traditions need to be changed up, and it’s always a good time to start a new tradition, but many people find comfort in the practice of their time-honored traditions. Traditions reinforce the value of community, heritage, and memories. The British Medical Journal published research that looked at brain scans and found that the brains of people who celebrate Christmas “light up” in the cerebral areas associated with spirituality, somatic senses, and facial emotion when viewing positive images associated with the holiday. In other words, your brain can actually reflect “Christmas spirit” if you celebrate the holiday. You may choose to continue on with the practices of religious or spiritual traditions that you’ve grown up with, or you may decide to make your own new traditions. Either way, passing on traditions to the younger members of your family and celebrating together can be a valuable way to enhance family bonds. All the while you are hopefully making great memories that will bring you joy and a shared sense of history as time goes on.
4. Seasonal giving and charity
The holidays are the time of year when many people make their annual donations to charity and practice a spirit of generosity by giving gifts to their loved ones, or volunteer for organizations that they care about. Some charities are only able to do the work that they do because of the influx of donations they get during the holiday season. Recently, practices like Giving Tuesday have been developed to encourage people to think about supporting the non-profits that work for causes they care about. Although charitable giving can be done year round (and I encourage you to support causes that you care about whenever you can and are able to afford it), holiday giving can make you feel good and generate some positive energy in your life. Studies have shown that there are health benefits associated with charitable giving, including less depression, lower stress, and increased happiness. Volunteering has even been shown to increase longevity and results in older adults being less likely to die within the next 5 years when they volunteer. Charitable giving may even help you release more mood boosting brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, resulting in a “helper’s high”. When you support programs that you care about, you will undoubtedly feel more gratitude for what you have and shift your focus onto what you are able to do for others. This builds on your own strengths and fosters a sense of contentment and gratitude that is good for your mental health. By all means, give and volunteer for the good of the organizations and causes that you care about, but there’s nothing wrong with recognizing the benefits it brings to you too!
5. Reflection on achievements and goals
At the end of the year, you might find yourself reflecting on how the year went, whether you accomplished your goals, and what goals you have for the next year. This is a great time to take stock of your achievements and give yourself some credit for all the work that you’ve done. If you find yourself struggling to see your own accomplishments, you can still reframe any hardships that you’ve experienced and recognize the strength and resiliency that was required for you to overcome some of the obstacles you’ve faced. Then, set new goals for yourself, and remember that starting over or continuing to work on something you haven’t achieved yet is fine too. Try not to get mired in what didn’t go your way this year, and instead focus on everything you’ve learned and what you’ve accomplished.
As you can see, there are many ways the holidays can be good for you, in spite of the stress that holidays can bring. Sometimes it can be hard to deal with the overwhelming pressure to create a picture perfect holiday for yourself or your family, and even lead to feeling inadequate when you scan through your social media feeds. However, you’ll have a better chance of getting through the holidays with a little more cheer and a little less stress if you focus on what is most important to you, and let go of the stuff that doesn’t serve you well this time of year. That might mean focusing more on experiences with the people you love, and less on trying to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list.
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This post is going to outline the best strategy I have for my clients to manage an acute panic attack when they do not have a prescription medication that they use to manage their symptoms, or are waiting for their medication to kick in.
For people who experience regular panic attacks, medication is often a necessity, but as I’ve discussed in other posts about panic and anxiety, you will likely need several strategies to manage your symptoms. For others that have only occasional episodes of panic or anxiety attacks, you may not need a regular medication, but you may want to have a PRN medication that you can take as needed. Others will find that they can employ non-medical strategies to combat their symptoms and they can manage their symptoms without a prescription.
Panic attacks are a distressful and uncomfortable set of symptoms that can range from mild to severe and which often require intervention of some sort. Individuals may experience a panic attack in many different ways, but during an acute panic attack, you may experience:
- Tightness in your chest
- Difficulty breathing
- A sense of dread or overwhelming stress
- Increased heart rate
- Uncontrollable tearfulness
- Feelings of choking
- Nausea or stomach pain
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of dying
Those who have experienced panic attacks know that they can be very upsetting and when they happen you need to take action or symptoms may worsen. The strategy I’m outlining here uses 3 coping methods in combination to combat an acute panic attack when you feel one coming on. I’ve talked about several ways to cope with panic and anxiety in this post, where you can read more about other strategies to use.
What to Do
The most effective way I know of to manage an acute panic attack aside from medication is a combination of:
Breathe deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. When you inhale as deeply as possible, pause for a few seconds before releasing your breath out again. Continue with these breathing exercise as long as necessary and try to focus only on your breath and release other thoughts and fears you may be having in the moment.
While you are doing this breathing exercise, get up and walk at a comfortable pace. Walking helps you to get rid of the excess energy that comes along with a panic attack and distracts you so you don’t feel like jumping out of your own skin.
- Essential Oils
The oils here are the extra boost that can provide that additional relief you need when you’re experiencing a panic attack. There are 3-4 oils that you can use that have been demonstrated to be effective in managing anxiety, and which can be used safely during a panic attack. The best oils to use are Lavender, Frankincense, Bergamot and Black Spruce .
To use this method:
- Rub a few drops of Lavender Oil onto your chest or décolletage area
- Then take a few drops of Frankincense Oil and rub it onto the back or nape of your neck and across your shoulders/traps
- Rub a few drops of Black Spruce Oil orBergamot Oil onto both wrists or inner forearm area
- Begin walking at a comfortable pace, preferably outdoors if possible, and taking deep breaths.
- Bring your wrists up to your face as you walk and inhale deeply
- Take at least 10 deep breaths with your forearms up near your nose and continue to walk
- You can continue with this process until you feel calmer and your symptoms start to recede
As always, if you have a medication that you take for panic attacks, you can and should use your medication as prescribed to combat your symptoms. However, this method can be used to help relieve some of your symptoms while your medication starts to kick in. If you don’t have medication for panic attacks and need another way to help you when you begin to feel panic coming on, this is the #1 method that I teach and recommend to my clients who have anxiety and panic attacks. I have used oils for years myself, and I have recommended lavender oil in particular to all of my clients with anxiety problems for quite some time now. This particular method I learned partially from consulting with a friend of mine who is a wellness advocate for doTerra. I personally use doTerra oils whenever I can because of the quality, environmental, and corporate social responsibility policies. However, doTerra doesn’t offer a Black Spruce oil so I’ve purchased that one through different brands as needed.
Why Does This Work?
Plant oils and other preparations such as herbal supplements have been studied for their medicinal properties, and some have been proven to be clinically effective with certain symptoms. Lavender oil has been demonstrated as an effective intervention through research to reduce anxiety. Black spruce and Frankincense both have grounding properties that help with that overwhelming feeling that comes along with a panic attack. Lavender has a sweet, calming scent that makes you feel relaxed and calmer, and Bergamot has a citrus scent that is uplifting and refreshing.
Black spruce smells somewhat like a Christmas tree and has a property called bornyl acetate that can have a relaxing effect on the musculoskeletal system, which could be why it is so effective for anxiety as well.
Frankincense has been used medicinally and ritually for thousands of years, and has anti-cancer, anti-inflammation, and anti-microbial properties. It has a sweet and spicy scent that can be comforting and calming. Frankincense stimulates the limbic region of the brain, which may help regulate stress. Most of the research on frankincense has focused on its healing properties for cancer, skin conditions, and arthritic conditions. However, more research is being done to study its effects on emotional health as well.
Your reaction to essential oils is individualized as well, and thus it is a good idea to make sure you try out the scents by inhaling them from the bottle first before you apply them topically on your skin. These oils are all safe to use topically, but if you have very sensitive skin you can use one to two drops in a carrier oil to reduce any skin reaction. I have had clients who have not enjoyed the scent of Black Spruce or Frankincense, and so for those clients I’ve recommended sticking with Lavender and Bergamot, because those oils are pretty universally enjoyed. However, I think that the grounding properties in Black Spruce and Frankincense are really powerful because of the heightened state of arousal that occurs during a panic attack. Make sure that if you use this method that you are using essential oils and not fragrance oils. Fragrance oils are synthetic compounds made in a lab, whereas essential oils are distilled from real plants and contain the properties of those plants, making them a natural and concentrated element of that plant. Fragrance oils will not do anything for you and will likely result in a headache if you try to substitute with them.
Panic attacks are very real and require real solutions. This method is the best way that I’ve found to help my clients who suffer from panic attacks and need a concrete method to combat those symptoms when they occur. While everyone may have a different experience, most of my clients with anxiety are willing to try new methods to help combat their symptoms if they haven’t found success with other methods. I’m most interested in making sure my clients have all the tools possible to manage their symptoms, so this is one way that I can encourage people to try something new that might just help them find some relief when needed. As always, if you have a panic disorder or other mental health condition, please seek support from your mental health providers or primary care doctor to consult with about ways to manage your mental health symptoms. As a licensed clinician, I can provide advice and suggestions, but this is not a substitute for consulting with your own providers. That being said, I do hope that you will try this method and see if it works for you if you are suffering with panic attacks or anxiety.
Many people struggle during the holidays for a lot of different reasons. The holiday season may coincide with anniversary of the loss of a loved one, or may be a reminder of the estrangement or difficulty of family relationships. Despite the fact that these conditions are true for many people, suicides rates actually decrease during the holidays. The CDC reports that suicide rates are lowest in December, contradicting much of the information published about depression during the holidays.
However, despite the fact that suicide rates may not be spiking during this time of year, it remains a fact that you or someone you know may be struggling emotionally during the holidays. How can we all be more supportive and make sure that our hearts and homes are open to those we care about this season? Just as importantly, how can we make sure that we remain connected and caring throughout the new year as well? Here are some things to keep in mind as you think about mental health awareness during the holiday season:
- Reach out
If you notice that someone you care about has withdrawn or if you know a person that struggles with their mental health, this is a great time to reach out to them and let them know that you’re available. Ask if they have plans over the next couple months and let them know when you know you’ll be available. Lots of people have events, parties, and trips scheduled this time of year, but letting those you care about know when you’ll be around will make it more likely they will reach out to you as well during those times. It can be hard for people who struggle with their mental health to reach out for help, and they may be especially disinclined to do so during the holidays because they may feel that they are intruding on others during their holiday plans. For those that do not have a lot of plans, it may feel like an isolating time. One way to be supportive is to think about all of your friends, family, and neighbors, and ask yourself about who could use some company this holiday.
As mentioned above, it is often hard for people with depression, grief, or other mental health struggles to ask for help when they feel isolated or sad. When you reach out to others, ask how they are doing and if they are getting their needs met. If you know that they have been grieving or may be feeling upset due to an anniversary, invite them to talk about it if they want to.
- Respect Needs
While most people will appreciate your actions when you reach out to offer support, some people may need to have some personal time or withdraw from some of the holiday festivities. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Isolation and withdrawal may be necessary self-care strategies for people who are struggling. These strategies only become unhealthy when people are thinking about self-harm or who want connection with others but are unable to have that connection for any reason. If someone tells you that they feel like they need some alone time, respect their decision but just reiterate that you are there if and when they need support or company. Let them know that they do not have to talk about what they are feeling if they don’t want to, but that you can always just hang out to have some good times together as well.
When people want some space, you can give them some time to have privacy, but this doesn’t mean you need to disappear forever. You can reach back out after a couple weeks or after they have verbalized that they are ready for company or contact again. Just re-engaging with them may allow them to start moving past their seasonal slump. Again, this is a time when people who are struggling with their mental health over the holidays may be ready to be around others or enjoy company again, but they may have a hard time reaching out and asking for help if they have already asked for space. Just remember that people’s needs change, and being open and adaptable is the best way to be supportive.
- Be Personal
Sometimes it can be hard to know what the right thing to say is to those who whom you know are struggling with depression, grief, anxiety, or other emotional struggles. The best way to approach this is to just be sincere and to be personal. You don’t have to be vague or general when you talk about mental health. You can ask about how they are handling the anniversary of their loved one’s death, or if they want to talk about the feelings that they experience during the holidays. You can also offer some of your own personal thoughts and about how you relate to or understand their feelings. That can be immensely helpful for people who may not know that others around them have similar feelings or struggles.
The most important thing to remember is that while the holidays are filled with joy and gratitude for many people, there are also those for whom the holidays can be challenging. Although more people are aware now of this problem, we sometimes don’t always know what to do to support someone whom we know might be struggling. Remember that you don’t have to have the solutions to all the problems to be helpful. Just knowing that people care is sometimes the only thing that can make things better.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, where you can get crisis intervention, free confidential support, and resources for you and your loved ones.
It’s Thanksgiving, so it’s naturally a time of year when we think about gratitude and being thankful for what we have. We love to make an extra effort this time of year to give thanks for what we have, but many of us don’t carry that practice of gratitude throughout the year. This year, take some time to think about how an intentional gratitude practice can benefit your mood throughout the year. This is the perfect time to kick off an intentional gratitude practice to boost your mood throughout the holidays and into the new year as well.
Some people struggle with negative thought cycles that keeps their mind occupied with the things they wish they had, or the things they wish they didn’t have, or the problems they may be facing that seem overwhelming. We all struggle with these negative thoughts at times, but when negative thoughts take up the majority of your mental energy each day, it can lead to depression, anxiety, fatigue, and hopelessness.
What Are the Benefits of a Gratitude Practice?
Gratitude is an appreciation of what is valuable to you. Gratitude also benefits your mental health in very tangible ways, and research supports the benefits of this practice. Gratitude reduces negative thoughts, increases life satisfaction, and boosts self-esteem. Practicing intentional gratitude can also reduce negative rumination, improve overall well-being, and is a form of self-care.
Incorporating a gratitude practice has been shown to benefit people who have PTSD, those will serious health conditions, and in general has resulted in positive impacts for participants across the past two decades of research. Researchers have shown that an intentional gratitude practice actually trains your brain to be more altruistic, making people more likely to give to charitable causes. This research suggests that practicing gratitude can have an actual impact on our brain’s inner circuitry. As with all habits, consistency can wire your brain for change, bad or good. There is even some preliminary research that suggests that gratitude journaling could reduce inflammation in the body, which is a common source of many negative health conditions.
How To Start A Gratitude Practice
There are many ways that you can start to implement intentional gratitude into your daily life. Everyone can benefit from starting an intentional gratitude practice, but if you struggle with negative thoughts cycles, depression, anger, past trauma, or low frustration tolerance, you especially may want to start a gratitude practice to combat some of the mental impacts of these problems. Here are some options for how to do this:
- Start a gratitude journal
You can simply keep a daily list where you jot down one thing that you a grateful for every day, or you can journal a little more thoroughly and really process why you feel appreciative of the people, places, and things in your life. You can challenge yourself to do this daily for a certain period of time, such as 30 or 100 days, and then try to keep it going as a daily reminder to live in gratitude. You can include anything in the world that you feel grateful for: friends, family, a job, your pets, lessons learned, a kind word you received, your home, your neighbors, food to eat, opportunities to grow, et cetera. When you start to recognize how much you have to be grateful for, you will begin to live with that appreciation in your heart.
- Do a mental affirmation each morning or each evening before bed
Start each day with a mental affirmation like “I’m grateful to be alive today and I’m committing to living today with that gratitude in my heart”, or you could end your day with a similar affirmation, such as “I’m grateful that I was able to make a difference today in my (job, family, community, et cetera)”.
- Think of specific traits of the people you care about that you appreciate, and then tell those people how grateful you are for the positive things they bring to your life
Note the very specific things that you appreciate about the people in your life and what those qualities bring to your life. This could be things such as “My best friend is super fun to hang around and she always cheers me up”, or “My partner is really patient, even when I’m feeling overwhelmed and frustrated”, or “My children are so funny and interesting, even when they challenge me”.
- Make a list of all the things you DON’T want that you DON’T have
This list could go on forever, really, but sometimes it’s helpful to think about all the things that you do not have to live with that others unfortunately do. There is nothing wrong with feeling gratitude that you have escaped some hardships that others have had to endure. These could be things such as “I do not live in a war zone, I do not have a terminal illness, my life is not made harder due to a disability”. Of course some people do have to live with these circumstances, and so if you are lucky enough to be one of those that do not, then gratitude is in order for the ways in which you benefit from not having to struggle with those issues.
Cultivating gratitude is something that can improve your overall quality of life and boost your mood when you feel stuck in a cycle of negativity. Gratitude is not about wearing rose-colored glasses and pretending you don’t have any problems. Nor does it mean that you don’t still need to do the work to change the things about yourself or your life that you find unsatisfying. Gratitude is about recognizing everything that you DO have. It is about looking at your life from a strengths perspective, and noticing everything that you have going in your favor instead of worrying about everything that you have working against you.
If you want to start a gratitude practice and start living a more mindful life, you can start with a small challenge to incorporate gratitude into your daily routine. I’ll send you a free 30-day Mindfulness Journal that includes space to journal your gratitude daily, along with daily inspiration, places to track your habits, and journal about your progress. Get started today to incorporate the benefits of gratitude in your life!
Recovery from trauma can be a complicated, long, and difficult process. In truth, a traumatic experience is not always something that a person can get over, but there are ways to heal and work through a traumatic experience. Trauma recovery is about stabilization, healing, and building back mental and emotional strength that may have been damaged by the trauma.
Trauma occurs when an event or series of events happens to a person that threatens their safety, or they witness trauma occurring to another person, or it could also occur when an intense emotional loss happens. These situations can happen in the course of an act of violence, a natural disaster, the loss of a loved one, especially in disturbing or unusual circumstances, or after experiences of abuse.
Trauma causes recurring, intrusive, distressful memories or thoughts related to the trauma, flashbacks or nightmares of the trauma, and physiological reactions such as fatigue or insomnia. The psychological impact on those who suffer from trauma-related symptoms can be intense and painful. Recovery from trauma involves learning to live with the new reality created by the trauma, processing the event and the emotional response to the trauma, and learning to both release the emotional pain and simultaneously accept that there may always remain some pain. It can be incredibly daunting for people who feel vulnerable and injured from a traumatic event.
Whether you have experienced a trauma yourself, or you know someone who has, it is important to understand some of the things trauma survivors need in order to recover and heal from a traumatic event in their life. Here are some of the most important aspects of trauma recovery that I have found are needed to support those who have experienced a trauma:
Trauma often involves a threat to personal safety or the safety of someone you care about. This can happen due to exposure to war or other civilian violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, or childhood abuse, or in the case of the death of a loved one or the near death of yourself. That threat to safety causes survivors to live in a state of hyper-arousal, due to an ingrained instinct for survival. When your safety is threatened, you have to drop everything and try to achieve a sense of safety again before you can move forward with your life. This is why is is so important for trauma survivors to feel safe. This might be accomplished by increasing security at home or other areas, or by avoiding areas that trigger a sense of fear or safety threat. It may also mean building a sense of emotional safety by setting boundaries with others or limiting contact with people who have been abusive.
A major barrier to healing from trauma is when survivors are not believed when they talk about or report their experiences. When you have experienced a traumatic event, and then are told that you are a liar or that you are exaggerating your experience for attention, this causes further trauma. A world that already doesn’t feel safe feels even more threatening. Survivors may feel that they are being blamed for their own victimization, or that their own word about their personal experience is not valid. If you are not in the position of a court of law that needs to make judgements about an event to determine legal procedures, then you do not need to appoint yourself as the judge and jury of someone’s experience. Leave the evidence questions to the courts, and be supportive of the people you care about. If you have been traumatized, seek support from those who do believe you, and limit your engagement with those who express disbelief or judgement about your trauma. It can be incredibly painful when those who are supposed to care about you do not believe you, but there is support out there from professionals and advocates that can help.
People who have experienced a trauma need to be understood in addition to being believed. Validating someone’s experience by listening to their story and understanding why the experience has impacted them in the way that is has is key to trauma recovery. Trauma survivors need to know that the people around them that care about them are listening and understanding them, so that they feel safe expressing themselves and working through the process of healing. Validation can be provided by family, friends, caregivers, helping professionals, and communities. Feeling validated that your trauma is understood by others to be real and impactful can help you feel supported when you are trying to recover from a traumatic experience.
Empathy is different from sympathy, in that sympathy means to feel sorry for someone, whereas empathy means to really understand how someone is feeling. Trauma survivors benefit from receiving empathy from those who have experienced similar traumas, or who can relate to the feelings a trauma survivor is experiencing. This can be done through support groups or through group therapy, or by talking to a friend who has gone through a similar experience. Being engaged with others who truly understand your trauma can help you feel less isolated and more validated throughout the healing process. You don’t have to experience the exact same thing to be empathetic, though. If you want to help by empathizing with a trauma survivor, you can do so by trying to relate to their feelings of fear, shame, loss, and uncertainty. This doesn’t mean that you need to relay all the times when you have felt those emotions as well, as you don’t want to turn the conversation back around to yourself when you’re trying to be supportive. But it can mean just saying that you understand what is is like to have those feelings, and you want to support their healing throughout their recovery process.
Traumatic events often occur with an accompanying loss of control. If someone has been violent towards you or violated your rights, you probably felt out of control during the event because your power was taken from you at that moment. If you have experienced a loss or are grieving, you may feel out of control due to an inability to prevent a death or other losses from happening, and knowing that you do not have the power to bring them back. Reinstating power in other areas of your life can help you regain that sense of control that was lost during the trauma. This might mean reclaiming your right to set boundaries with other people or systems, or it might mean learning to say NO in stronger and more assertive ways in response to things you don’t want to do. It may also mean finding ways to heal through advocacy, such as mothers who have lost children to drunk driving do when they join an organization like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Finding ways to exert your power in a healthy and productive way can help the trauma recovery process. If you want to support someone who has been traumatized, helping them to reclaim that power and respecting their choices about how to reclaim that power can be one way to support those individuals.
Trauma recovery is a unique process for each person who has been through a traumatic event. While the recovery process might involve therapy, support groups, learning new coping skills, advocating for needed changes, and reclaiming lost power, each person’s needs will be different. Some people may find power in forgiveness, while others may feel that they need to hold onto their anger for awhile. That has to be okay, because no one should dictate how a trauma survivor recovers. When we dictate how trauma survivors find their path to recovery, we actually disempower them, which is counter-productive. Instead, listening and supporting people without judgement or attempts to convince them what they need to do is more effective and helpful. Keeping these 5 needs in mind when we try to support the people in our lives who have experienced trauma will help us all to be better friends, family members, and neighbors to those who have already been through enough trauma.
Many people report that they feel better in a variety of ways when they spend time in nature. Hiking, walking, going to the beach, gardening, outdoor sports, and camping all have tangible benefits to your mental health. Nature helps us disconnect from the stressors of our everyday lives, reminds us of our connection to the earth and the cycles of life, and facilitates spiritual connections by engaging our senses and quieting our minds.
Some people intuitively know that they need that time in nature or outside in the fresh air in order to keep mentally well. But sometimes we forget that nature is a powerful healer, and if you did not grow up in an environment in which exposure to nature was routinely encouraged, you might not have considered how much of an impact that exposure can have.
In the field of mental health, therapists and doctors are used to making clinical recommendations such as medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and support groups to help clients on the path to mental wellness. In outpatient settings, there is attention given to building coping skills such as meditation and exercise, but we don’t always do a good job of encouraging our clients to spend time in nature as a valid practice to improve mental health. This is unfortunate, because nature provides so much that can boost mental health and it does so for free in most cases.
How Does Nature Benefit Your Mental Health?
Research supports the positive benefits of nature exposure in a variety of ways. One study found that neighborhoods that had more green space such as forests and parks had lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. This was found to confer benefits to communities in many ways, including encouraging physical activity, increasing social interaction, and protecting against air and noise pollution. Another study found that patients who were in a nature-based horticultural program saw more improvements in their levels of depression, anxiety and stress, and that those benefits lasted longer once they completed treatment.
Here are some of the benefits that exposure to nature provides:
Sunlight provides us with Vitamin D, an important vitamin that helps us stay well. Vitamin D has deficiency has been associated with poor cognitive function, depression, and anxiety. We know that exposure to sunlight boosts your mood, because of research done on the phenomenon of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD occurs in areas that do not get exposure to sunlight for many months out of the year due to their proximity to earth’s poles. People in these areas often experience depression during those months because of the lack of exposure to sun. The treatment for this disorder actually involves using light boxes to transmit the necessary benefits of light to people suffering from SAD. This study found that workers who had exposure to natural elements and sunlight in the workplace reported less depression and anxiety and more workplace satisfaction. In fact, exposure to direct sunlight was the dominant predictor for anxiety traits; so if you have anxiety getting exposure to sunlight could be key in managing your symptoms.
Mental stress is a primary factor in anxiety and depressive conditions. The more stress people are under, the more likely they are to experience anxiety, depression, burnout, cognitive decline, and physical manifestations of their mental health problems. Research continues to build support for nature’s ability to decrease stress, improve mental clarity, and reduce symptoms associated with mental health problems. One way to use this information to your benefit is to try and fit in a walk outdoors before, during or after your work day whenever possible. Even small amounts of outdoor activity can build up to give you improvements in your quality of life that will boost your mental health.
Everyone knows that when children can’t pay attention to a task, you send them outside to play for awhile. We live in a time where we are increasingly disconnected with nature. Surveys have shown that Americans on average spend 90% of their time indoors. Screen time and consumption of media has increased exponentially, and this has had an impact on our collective mental and physical health. However, a review of the research reveals that exposure to nature has the ability to actually restore our attention. Excess concentration can lead to “attention-fatigue”, which most of us have probably experienced, like when you stare at a page and read the same paragraph over and over again without retaining the information. Getting out into nature can reset our attention span by provoking fascination, which allows us to recover from mental fatigue.
Getting dirty has tangible mental health benefits too. Getting dirt under your nails and inadvertently into your mouth can increase the good probiotics in your gut. A healthy gut has been linked to good mental health because your gut is connected to your brain through your central nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Traditional thinking maintained that psychological conditions did not have a biological origin, but the latest research is finding that our mental health is actually very much connected to our bodies and specifically our gut. The bottom line is that exposure to nature, specifically getting dirty, can improve your gut health which has demonstrable benefits to your mental health. For more on this, read my post on Gardening for Mental Health.
- Fosters Spiritual Wellbeing
Nature has long been a place where people go to restore their spirit and reflect on their connection to the earth and the universe we inhabit. Observing natural wonders such as the beauty of the plants, the unique qualities of wildlife, or the power of water and wind forces us to realize how small we really are and how short our time here on earth is. These kinds of reflections often lead to feelings of gratitude and serenity. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of nature, but many religious writings have revered nature throughout history. Traditional Native-American spirituality wholly incorporates reverence for nature into religious practices. Spirituality is highly individualized, but many people rely on their spirituality to help them cope with mental illness. Thus, the spiritual restoration that time spent in nature seems to provide is an important benefit conferred upon those who seek spiritual refuge in natural spaces.
How Can I Boost My Mental Health through Nature?
It’s not hard to understand why being cooped up indoors for most of the day with little exposure to natural light and fresh air can leave you feeling sapped for energy, mildly anxious and a little depressed. Given all the benefits of nature to our physical and mental wellbeing, everyone should be making an effort to make time spent in nature a priority. Particularly if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems, spending more time in nature can help you gain improvements in your symptoms and keep you more balanced overall.
To put this into practice, first take an assessment of your resources. If you live in a rural area, you probably already know where to go. Whether you can hike local trails, wander in the nearby forest, or spend time near the closest lake or ocean, plan to get outside more and spend time really getting to know the natural spaces near where you live. You can journal outdoors, take pictures of natural wonders, or just use the time to process your thoughts and feelings and get some clarity about your goals and intentions. This may be more challenging if you live in an urban area, but there’s still plenty of options. If you live near a park, plan to take walks there. If you have few natural spaces around you, bring nature to you. Buy some houseplants and start doing some container gardening. If you have a porch or a deck, make that a little outdoor sanctuary with plants, bird-feeders, or a mini-fountain for a water feature. Even just taking a walk around the block can give you a boost. You’ll still get exposure to sunlight, and you can take time out to observe any bird or other wildlife that is hanging around. Most importantly, get creative and look for the opportunities that you have to foster your own relationship with nature and support your own mental wellness.