Relationship Series: How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Sometimes the hardest thing to overcome in your relationship is not what’s happening right now, but what happened to you in the past and how that affects you today.  This post in my Relationship Series is going to address how the pain from your past hurts your relationship today, and how you can work to overcome that pain so that you can thrive in your current partnership.

I frequently tell my clients that for a relationship to work we need two people who both want to be in the relationship.  If we have that we can do a lot to work through things and make the relationship stronger and able to withstand lots of challenges.  One of the ways that you can do to be present in your relationship and make it more meaningful and fulfilling is for you to do the work that needs to be done to understand how past pain has impacted you and work to release those past burdens from your current partnership.

There are many ways that our past pain can hurt our partnerships. Being aware of how your past has impacted you emotionally will help you to have a healthier approach to resolving conflict with your partner and build the relationship you really want. Here are a few common ways that your past may be holding your partnership back:

  1. Past trauma or abuse has damaged your sense of self-worth

When you have experienced a trauma, such as childhood abuse, domestic abuse (an emotionally or physically abusive relationship), a specific traumatic incident or a major loss that significantly affected you, you may struggle with feelings of low self-worth. This can affect your partnership because when you carry around the burden of these traumatic emotions, you may be seeking a level of validation from your partner that s/he is not able to give enough of to heal that past trauma.

When we struggle with low self-esteem, we feel temporarily better when other people validate us and show us love.  But that feeling never lasts because you still don’t feel good about yourself and you constantly want more validation from your partner. This can leave your partner feeling frustrated or helpless because although they may be trying to express love and support for you, it never seems to matter or be enough.

When you make the decision to face and heal the trauma you have endured and build your self-esteem and confidence, you will not need constant validation from your partner, because you will feel good about yourself anyways. Making the commitment to address this past trauma can be an asset to your partnership, but more importantly, a way for you to heal and release yourself from past pain.

  1. Past betrayals have impacted your ability to trust

Perhaps you have experienced infidelity in past relationships, or even in your current one. Betrayal may come from infidelity, but it could also come from other things, such as issues related to finances, substance abuse, or emotional betrayals. Whatever the source, when we feel betrayed it makes it hard to trust other people, especially your partner.

Regardless of who betrayed you, it may be your partner who feels the impact of that lost trust. Our partner is usually who we want to trust the most, but the pain of past betrayals make that hard. If your partner was not the one who betrayed you, you may need to ask yourself if you are misplacing this loss of trust. Your partner will never be able to make up for the mistakes of another person, and misplaced blame can damage your emotional intimacy. Realigning your hurt and releasing your partner from the responsibility to heal the betrayals that came from other people will enable you to stop past betrayals from impacting your relationship today.

If your partner IS the one who betrayed you, then you have some work to do as a couple to sort out how to overcome that betrayal. This might mean that you have a lot of discussions over time about the impact of the betrayal, but eventually there will come a time when the power of that betrayal needs to be diminished. Ongoing infidelity is a different matter entirely. But when you make the decision to continue on working in your relationship after a betrayal, then it should not be something that gets dragged into every argument or brought up at every conflict. Sometimes counseling is in order, other times you may be able to work through it together on your own.

  1. Past mistakes have left you feeling guilty and defensive

Sometimes you are the one who has made a mistake, either by betraying your partner or due to other mistakes you may have made in the past.  This can cause feelings of guilt and shame, which sometimes manifests as defensiveness. Defensiveness can cause you to be hyper-sensitive to criticism.  You already feel guilt and shame about mistakes you’ve made, but maybe you don’t really want to hear about it from your partner. You may already feel burdened with feelings of shame or disappointment about not living up to your own values, creating problems that could have been prevented, or falling short of your responsibilities. Sometimes this gets taken out on your partner because you already feel so bad about yourself that you don’t want to hear any more criticism, so anything they say gets taken out of context or blown out of proportion. This can cause lots of arguments and often little issues turn into big problems for no good reason.

Part of healing this problem is about forgiving yourself, but the other part is about being able to withstand some criticism about your actions or decisions. Sometimes your partner may need to feel heard, so you need to be the one doing some listening. Other times, you may need to accept that you made a mistake and try to make up for it as best you can. This isn’t an easy solution, because it takes time to build back trust and you will have to withstand feeling uncomfortable as you acknowledge your mistakes. The good news is that sitting with that discomfort, acknowledging your mistakes, and acknowledging your partner’s feelings will allow you release the defensiveness so that you can move past the guilt and shame of past mistakes.

  1. Past conflicts have built up and created distrust and resentment

Sometimes things just build up over time, and problems seem to fester and resentment grows. Maybe it’s not about any one thing or a specific act of betrayal, but a more general sense of discontentment that comes with life just getting hard and hurtful conflicts building up resentment over time. This can manifest itself in your relationship as frequent conflicts, loss of interest in intimacy, and revolving problems that never get resolved. When this happens you need to reconnect with each other as couple and identify what has been holding you back.  Perhaps there is tension around relationships with your partner’s family, and you felt s/he never stuck up for you enough. That can turn into a resentment about not feeling supported by your partner or thinking that they value other relationships more than your partnership as a couple.

It’s not fun to look at emotions like resentment, jealousy, or anger. Yet those emotions are part of being human, and your partner might actually relate to those feelings when you talk about them.  Acknowledging how those past conflicts and resentments have built up to your partner can help you get to a place where you can renew your commitment to one another by creating a shared vision together of your future, and working towards the goals that you both have for your partnership.

 

How Releasing Past Pain Benefits Your Relationship Today

These are just a few ways that the emotional pain we have experienced in our lives impact our ability to connect with and respond to our partners. No one wants to keeping feeling the pain of the past over and over again, but holding onto negative patterns in your relationship will not help you to heal from those emotional injuries.

You are likely in the relationship you are in because you love and care about your partner and see a future with them. Creating a future for yourself and your partnership starts with healing from past pain so that the past doesn’t define your future. No one should be defined only by their past experiences, good or bad.  This means that good deeds done in the past doesn’t excuse bad behavior today, the same way as bad behavior in the past shouldn’t define who you are and what you care about today. We all just have to keep pressing forward to become the people we aspire to be.

Our experiences shape who we are and they can help us learn about ourselves and what we do and do not want or what we will or will not tolerate in our relationships.  This doesn’t mean though, that those experiences have to define all of our choices in the present.

You can choose to be emotionally vulnerable even though you have been hurt in the past. That is an act of bravery. You can choose to acknowledge your own shortcomings in order to become the person you are meant to be. That is an act of growth. You can choose to acknowledge the ugly parts of your feelings like jealousy or resentment that you don’t feel proud about. That is an act of truth-telling and honesty.

Acknowledging these feelings and expressing them assertively is hard, but it’s a necessary part of building a stronger partnership where you feel heard and where you feel capable of expressing your emotions and building strong communication with your partner. If you feel weighed down by emotional struggles that are influencing your relationship dynamics, think about how things could be different if you really decided to confront that past pain and stop letting it rule over your relationship. This doesn’t guarantee that you will instantly feel better, but it will make you more confident in knowing how you feel and being able to release the pain from your past that doesn’t serve you any longer so that you can have the kind of partnership you want for your future.

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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”  and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

 

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For more posts in this series, please see:

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

In this post for my Relationship Series on the blog I am going to discuss the importance of personal confidence in your relationship.

Confidence and self-esteem are all about you as an individual, but they also play an enormous role in your relationship. The reason for this is because when you feel secure and confident in who you are as an individual, you won’t be looking to your partner to compensate for the way you feel about yourself.

Sometimes couples come in for therapy and as the clinician I may make the recommendation that one or both of the partners do some individual counseling first because there are some individual problems that need to be addressed for the health of the relationship as a couple. This is not to say that the relationship problems are the fault of one person, but it does mean that sometimes the problems in the relationship may be directly impacted by these individual issues.

Why Is Personal Confidence Important In Relationships?
One area where these individual issues are important is in the area of personal confidence. When you don’t feel confident in yourself this will come out in your relationship in one way or another. You may find yourself feeling irrationally jealous or even possessive at times. You could also experience this problem as needing excessive reassurance or needing to know where your partner is at all times.

This is different than just commonplace partnership practices. It’s totally fine for you to check in with your partner, let each other know your schedules, or want to feel emotionally supported by your partner. All of these are healthy and desirable qualities in your relationship.

When these normal partnership practices become unhealthy is when they become excessive or cause a lot of conflict in the relationship. When one partner is feel so insecure that they need their partner to constantly reassure them that they are loved, wanted, and prioritized, it can put a strain on the relationship.

Sometimes, the partner who is constantly being asked to provide that reassurance feels like it is never enough to their partner. This if often very true, because when you cannot fill yourself up with your own sense of confidence and self-value, you will always need other people to fill you up.

The problem, of course, is that no one can ever give you enough reassurance and support if you don’t love and value yourself first. It will never feel like enough, because you always feel like you are searching for that validation from others, most often from your partner.

There can be a fine line between wanting some normal reassurance and support from your partner, and needing constant validation from your partner. I’ve seen this have negative outcomes, for example, when one partner makes the other person sign up for location apps because they always want to know where their partner is or are constantly worried about infidelity.

How To Know If Low Confidence Is Impacting Your Relationship
It is important to ask yourself if a lack of confidence or feelings of low self-worth are putting a strain on your relationship. Knowing that some of the relationship problems are stemming from individual confidence issues is the first step in learning how to address the root of the problem.

Some questions to ask yourself to help you figure this out are:

• Do I feel rejected when my partner wants to spend time with other friends?
• Do I constantly compare myself to my partner’s ex or feel threatened by people outside the relationship?
• Do we have frequent arguments about where one person is, who they are messaging with, how quickly they respond to messages, et cetera?
• Does one partner feel the other person is trying to have too much control and not enough privacy?
• Does one partner feel threatened by the other person needing privacy?

If any of these themes sound familiar, you might need to thing about whether working on personal confidence would benefit your relationship overall. Note that this is different from having trust issues based on specific issues that have occurred in the relationship. This is about problems that are arising based on personal insecurity, not based on issues of past actual betrayals. Specific betrayals or incidents where trust was compromised is different than having personal insecurity based on other factors.

Personal Resiliency and Partnership
Building confidence and feeling an independent sense of self-worth that is not connected to your partnership is important as a matter of personal resiliency as much as it is for the health of your relationship.

When you feel confident in yourself, you will have an innate knowledge that whatever happens in life, you will be able to handle it and you will be able to count on yourself. Having confidence means that you believe in your own abilities, you believe in your own resiliency, and you believe in your own value. You know that even if you lost your partner for any reason, you would still value yourself enough to work on healing and thriving in your own life.

This is not about denying the need for intimacy or security in your relationship. However, one of the ways that couples can build intimacy and security is by both people feeling confident enough to be vulnerable with one another. When your feel secure with yourself, you are more likely to be able to feel secure with your partner, because your personal sense of worth and value is not solely dependent on the validation of your partner.

Sometimes you may not feel resilient or confident because of past pain from trauma, betrayal, or actual things your partner may have done that upset or hurt you. Being resilient is not about having to just forget these past pains and not let them affect you. This is about having power over your own past pain and not allowing it to infiltrate and negatively affect your relationship now.

How Can I Work On Building Confidence and Resiliency?
If you recognize that your personal feelings of low self-worth, lack of confidence, or struggles with personal resiliency are affecting your relationship, understand that you are not alone and many people have to overcome these feelings to have healthier relationships. Part of being a healthy couple is being healthy individuals. This means that we all sometimes have to do some work on ourselves to make sure we are ready to have the kind of relationship we desire with our partner.

There are several recommendations I have to begin working on building your confidence so that you feel resilient and ready to have a stronger partnership that is fulfilling for both you. Some of these options are:

Start with positive affirmations
Practice gratitude
• Do individual counseling if needed to address healing from your past
• Work on recognizing your cognitive distortions
• Understand internal and external validation
• Practice building emotional intimacy
• Journal or do other forms of self-care
• Practice healthy communication with your partner

Building confidence is part of emotional intelligence, and when you are feeling more confident and practicing emotional intelligence, you will have an easier time with conflict resolution and communicating your true needs to your partner. When you feel confident in your own feelings and have a sense of control and power over your own emotional needs, then you will be free to ask for what you need and have reasonable expectations in your relationship that you both agree on. This will help you both to have a stronger partnership, better communication, and improved emotional intimacy.

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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”  and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

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For Other Posts In This Series See:

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

 

 

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Emotional intimacy is the feeling that brings us closer to one another and allows us to be vulnerable and build trust with our partner.  Yet this is often the most difficult part of building a relationship for many people, precisely because of the vulnerability that building emotional intimacy requires.

Building emotional intimacy in your relationship is something that happens over time, but it can wax and wane over time during the course of a long-term partnership. Sometimes a couple may feel very close to one another in the early stages of a relationship, only to find that the intimacy is drained over time as life’s responsibilities take precedence and tensions heighten due to conflicts. Other times, there may be conflicts that arise in the course of building a partnership that have roots in a fear of vulnerability and an unwillingness to open up and be vulnerable with your partner.

Establishing and nurturing the emotional intimacy in your relationship is a key part of having healthy communication, healthy conflict resolutions skills, and restoring trust in times of turmoil.  Building emotional intimacy requires a few things though, including:

  1. Facing the fear of vulnerability
  2. Understanding your feelings
  3. Taking responsibility for your own feelings
  4. Knowing your own value
  5. Being willing to take risks

Understanding the power of vulnerability and the work that you need to do as an individual to be ready for emotional intimacy can help you strengthen your bonds as a couple and build trust and partnership.

Facing Your Fears: Why Is Vulnerability So Hard?

Vulnerability is very difficult for us as human beings because we have an innate need to protect ourselves, which includes protecting ourselves from emotional pain.  None of us want to risk being emotionally vulnerable with someone only to have them violate your trust and hurt you in some way.  We protect our emotional vulnerability because it hurts so bad when someone rejects or mocks or exploits that vulnerability. This can make it hard to build trust in our relationships, especially if you have been hurt by someone in the past, which is true for many of us.

I always like to take a look at the sociological reasons behind many of our behaviors, problems, and needs.  In this case, the fear of vulnerability can be trace to our deepest instincts for survival.  As humankind evolved over the millennia, being vulnerable or too trusting could be dangerous.  If you put misplaced trust in someone, it could mean death.  We have evolved to look for threats and make calculations about when we should trust someone and when it could be too dangerous.

This translates into our relationships now in many different ways. You may not want to tell your partner about something in your past because you fear being judged harshly. You may also fear that they will look at you differently or treat you differently.  You may not want to talk to your partner about your insecurities, because you worry they will see you as weak, or perhaps violate your trust by using your insecurities against you.

There are many ways that our fear of vulnerability factors into our relationships, but ultimately the cost is that emotional intimacy is not as strong as it could be and this could cause conflicts.  Facing the fear of vulnerability and recognizing how important being vulnerable with your partner is will help move you forwards to building stronger bonds as a couple.

Understanding Your Feelings

If you don’t understand your own feelings, it will be impossible to communicate them to your partner.  Learning to identify how you feel and communicate that feeling is a key step in building emotional intimacy. This may involve you really looking deeper into your own emotional life to examine and express your feelings to your partner.

This is where it becomes important to distinguish between a thought and a feeling. “You’re being an asshole” is not a feeling. This statement is a thought or an opinion, not a feeling.  So when you say “I feel like you’re being an asshole” you are actually not expressing your feelings at all. Try to examine how you actually feel before you communicate those feelings to your partner.  “I feel disrespected when you speak to me in that way” is a better way to communicate and express what you’re really feeling.

You need to know how you are feeling when conflicts arise so that you can actually say what that feeling is.  Many conflicts can be resolved not by deciding who is right or wrong, but by listening to how an event or statement impacted both partners on an emotional level.

Taking Responsibility for Your Feelings

Part of building a strong emotional bond with your partner is taking responsibility for your own feelings, as well as understanding the limits of your partner’s impact on you.  This means that while your partner’s words and behaviors certainly have an impact on your emotional life, you are ultimately responsible for how you handle your own feelings.

Your partner cannot be responsible for making you happy. You have to take responsibility for your own happiness, because if you leave it up to anyone else, you will always be disappointed.  Of course our relationships impact our mood and our general life satisfaction. Relationships with others in general are arguably the # 1 most important factor in how happy people are. You can have all the money in the world but if your relationships with other people are terrible, you will still be lonely and unhappy.

However, it is not your partner’s responsibility to fill you up and make you happy. I have seen some couples where one person is bending over backwards to make their partner happy and yet there is still conflict and tension because the other person is ultimately not happy with themselves.  You have to own your feelings and take responsibility for your own emotional health rather than requiring your partner to always say or do the exact thing you need in order to feel happy.

Sometimes this means expressing your needs rather than expecting your partner to know what your needs are. You may have to be really clear about what your needs are, because your partner may sincerely not know. If you want more verbal reassurance from your partner, you need to be able to say “Sometimes I just need you to listen and tell me it’s going to be okay because we’ll get through things together”.  Expecting them to know exactly what you need to hear to feel better is not always a fair expectation.

Knowing Your Own Value

Another important building block of emotional intimacy is knowing your own value.  Sometimes, those feelings of insecurity and fear of vulnerability brings conflicts into our relationships when we don’t know our own value and want others to show us that we are valuable.

Certainly you want a partner that values you and expresses that to you.  However, just as with owning your own feelings, you ultimately have to know your value and be able to feed yourself the confidence you crave rather than expecting your partner to fill that void. Being confident in yourself allows you to create emotional intimacy because it helps mitigate the risk you take when you open yourself up to be vulnerable. When you know that you can be vulnerable because no matter what you still love and value yourself, then it is easier to open up to others, especially your partner.

Willingness To Take Risks

Once you understand and own your feelings and feel confident in your own value, then you need to be prepared to take risks with your partner to create that emotional intimacy you want.  This means actually doing the work of facing your fear of vulnerability to let someone know when you feel hurt or devalued in reaction to something that has happened.

Opening up to your partner to be vulnerable is a risk, because it is always risky to let your guard down and let someone else into your emotional space. Yet it is precisely this act of being vulnerable and open with your partner, even when it hurts and you fear they may not give you what you need, that the deep emotional bonds are created. The beauty of this risk is that sometimes you will take that risk and be vulnerable, which allows you to find out that your partner not only validates your feelings, but also opens up in return.

This shared expression of vulnerability is the process by which emotional intimacy is built and strengthened. When you have more of these intimate moments together, you will create a stronger bond together as couple and will feel safer with each other because you understand each other on a deeper level.  That is what most couples are seeking when they are looking for someone to share their life with, and that is what the power of vulnerability will bring you.

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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”  and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

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For more posts in the Relationship Series, check out:

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

 

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Shared Values

This is the second post in my Relationship Series and will cover the importance of shared values in your relationship.  Values are important in your partnership because values are going to help define what is important to you as individuals and as a couple.  This doesn’t mean that you have to agree on everything, but it is important that you agree on the issues that you define as most important.

We get our values from many different places.  Our parents, our communities, our beliefs, and our broader culture all help to shape our value systems. The great thing about values though, is that as you grow and learn more about yourself and the world we live in you will get to decide what your own most important values are.

When you enter into a relationship with another person, you might find that you share a lot of common values and beliefs, or you may find that you clash on some issues.  However, learning to refine and validate your own value systems will help clarify for you as a couple what is most important for your future together.

When I work with couples in therapy, we often spend time defining those shared values and learning how to use those values to strengthen the relationship and find common ground to work through conflicts. We do this by going through a few steps to explore and clarify those values. You can also work on clarifying values with your partner by processing what your most important values are, exploring how you developed those values, and deciding how important your individual values are to your relationship as a couple.

Clarifying Values

Look over the following values and number them 1 through 10 as to what is most important to you. You should do this individually, and then talk together about your responses and see if you both have similar priorities.

  • Love
  • Financial Wealth
  • Respect
  • Career Success
  • Education
  • Family
  • Power
  • Friends
  • Freedom
  • Independence
  • Spirituality
  • Religion
  • Political beliefs
  • Peace
  • Fun
  • Beauty
  • Free time
  • Morals
  • Honesty
  • Humor
  • Stability
  • Fairness
  • Achievement
  • Recognition
  • Nature
  • Wisdom
  • Relaxation
  • Safety
  • Popularity
  • Intimacy
  • Trust
  • Adventure
  • Loyalty
  • Reason
  • Variety
  • Discipline
  • Self-expression
  • _________
  • _________
  • _________

 

If you share a lot of these values and rank them similarly, this means that you have a great strength in your relationship that you can use to guide you when you have conflicts.  If you find that your answers are extremely divergent, then this tells you that as a couple you may often have clashes over significant value differences, and it may be difficult to reconcile those divergent values.

How To Know What Is Important

Clarifying your own values can help you figure out if there are conflicts that you have been having as a couple that are not really in line with what your most important values are.  For example, if Peace is a really important value to you, but you find that you are having a lot of arguments over things that are less important to you than peace, then this tells you that perhaps you have been placing too much emphasis and wasting too much energy on those conflicts.

Alternatively, if you are having significant conflict over perhaps the division of chores in the home, you may discover that Fairness is really important to one or both of you. While arguing over chores may seem petty from afar, if this is a value that is not being upheld in the home, this presents an opportunity to talk as a couple about how that value can be better incorporated into your relationship so that there are fewer conflicts in this area.

The good news is that you as a couple get to decide what is most important to both of you.  Understanding what is most important to your partner as well can help you to find common ground and understand each other better, which will lead to better conflict resolution.

Where Do Your Values Come From?

Another important step in understand your shared values is to understand where your values came from.  You may have learned to value certain things because of your parent’s values, or because of certain experiences you have had in your life.

For example, if you have ever experienced poverty or economic instability in your life, this could be an important part of why financial stability is important to you. While some people may say or believe that money is not important to the relationship, you may find that your individual experiences shape why your values may be different in some areas.

You may also discover that your own values do not necessarily line up with the values that society imparts on all of us, or you might discover that while your parents may have upheld certain values when you were growing up but you no longer share all their beliefs or values.

Ask yourself what values are important for you to live by, and then ask yourself if you are actually living by those values.  If you find that you value respect, but you know that you have not always been respectful to your partner, then this is an area that you can start to work on so that you are more closely living by your own values.

Using Shared Values to Resolve Conflict

Once you have talked as a couple about what your individual and shared values are, then you can move on to discussing how to apply those values to the conflicts that you are having. Have a discussion about how any conflicts that you have had related to the values that you have decided are most important to you.

This may also mean that you recognize that a conflict you’ve had actually doesn’t reflect your values, which means that you can use that information to change how you resolve conflict in the future.

For example, let’s say an argument occurs because one partner brought home some friends late at night that their partner didn’t know or feel comfortable around.  One partner may rationalize that they should be able to bring home whomever they want to their home, and feel irritated at their partner for getting upset. However, if through a discussion they can recognize that this act didn’t live up to their shared values of safety and respect, then they may be able to better understand their partner’s discomfort at the situation. Understanding the importance of shared values and the role they play in the strength of your relationship can help you both make decisions that are a good reflection of the values you want to uphold.

No one feels good when they fall short of their own values.  We can often feel shame, embarrassment, or defensiveness when our actions do not match our own values.  Recognizing that your values are an important part of who you are and making conscious attempts with your partner to center your shared values in your relationship will help strengthen your partnership and resolve conflict in a healthier way.

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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”  and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

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For other posts in this series, check out:

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

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:

  1. Passive

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.

  1. Aggressive

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.

  1. Assertive

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.

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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” and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

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For more posts in this series, please see:

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

Un-Resolving in the New Year

Un-Resolving in the New Year

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!

Grief Is Happening, Holiday or Not

Grief Is Happening, Holiday or Not

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.

 

The Mental Health Benefits of Holidays

The Mental Health Benefits of Holidays

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.

  1. 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.

The #1 Way to Manage a Panic Attack

The #1 Way to Manage a Panic Attack

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
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Feelings of choking
  • Nausea or stomach pain
  • Dizziness
  • 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:

  1. Deep-breathing

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.

  1. Walking

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.

  1. 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 LavenderFrankincenseBergamot and Black Spruce .

To use this method:

  1. Rub a few drops of Lavender Oil onto your chest or décolletage area
  2. Then take a few drops of Frankincense Oil and rub it onto the back or nape of your neck and across your shoulders/traps
  3. Rub a few drops of Black Spruce Oil or Bergamot Oil onto both wrists or inner forearm area
  4. Begin walking at a comfortable pace, preferably outdoors if possible, and taking deep breaths.
  5. Bring your wrists up to your face as you walk and inhale deeply
  6. Take at least 10 deep breaths with your forearms up near your nose and continue to walk
  7. 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.

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