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 a free chapter from the book, subscribe here and I’ll send you a copy of Chapter 11: POWER COUPLES.

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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: 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 Other Posts In This Series See:

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

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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 a free chapter from the book, subscribe here and I’ll send you a copy of Chapter 11: POWER COUPLES.

*****

 

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 a free chapter from the book, subscribe here and I’ll send you a copy of Chapter 11: POWER COUPLES.

*****

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

 

5 Ways to Support Mental Health this Holiday

5 Ways to Support Mental Health this Holiday

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:

  1. 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.

  1. Ask

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Re-engage

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.

  1. 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.

How a Gratitude Practice Can Boost Your Mood

How a Gratitude Practice Can Boost Your Mood

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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)”.

  1. 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”.

  1. 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!

The Therapeutic Benefits of Nature

The Therapeutic Benefits of Nature

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

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.

  • Decreases Stress

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.

  • Improves Attention

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.

  • Improves Gut Health

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.