Thursday May 6th, 2021
Over the last year, the pandemic has impacted our well-being and the well-being of our loved ones. One of the underlying reasons for the high levels of stress endured over the last year can be attributed to transitions. Transitions are defined as the process of changing from one state or condition to another. The reason that therapists work closely with couples to focus on their transitions in the therapeutic process is because transitions are stressful (Note: even the positive events such as school graduation, purchasing a home, wedding planning, etc.). Remember, when we are stressed, some of our unhealthy habits, tendencies and behaviors start to resurface. As this pandemic continues, there is a good chance that many more transitions will come our way. It is critical for couples to keep these three skills in mind and work together to reduce relationship strain:
- Identify Stress Triggers: It would be helpful for you and your partner to open up and honestly identify recent triggers that have caused stress. Sharing this information prevents each partner from feeling alone when trying to manage stressors. Your partner becomes aware of how the stress is affecting you emotionally. As for the triggers that may relate to the relationship and/or parenting, when identifying your triggers, share them in a non-judgmental way, express how the trigger is impacting you by using descriptive feeling words, and share what you have been doing to cope. Trust me, that amount of information is helpful and allows your partner to empathize and work together with you. That’s teamwork!
- Use Stress Management Techniques: Even outside of couple therapy, both partners should take advantage and utilize the basic techniques of stress management. These techniques include: sleep hygiene, nutrition, exercise, deep breathing, meditation (and yoga), relaxing activities (e.g., reading, coloring, aromatherapy), etc. I know reading this, most folks are confused, as in “tell me something I don’t know.” I am not sharing these techniques to insult anyone’s intelligence, but basic techniques tend to be often overlooked. These techniques are sometimes more accessible and effective in stressful moments than trying to implement all-out clinical interventions.
- Implement Stress Check-In: This is an idea that I have stressed (no pun intended) when working with my couples. The idea of a stress check-in works similarly to a couple emotional check-in. A stress check-in during a transition allows you and your partner to gain insight as to where each partner may be on the stress scale. There is no uniform scale to use. Whatever method you want to use to identify your stress level during a check-in is fine (e.g., numbers, colors, weather reports, etc.). During a transition, check-in more often than not and make sure there is space for each person to identify where they are on their scale. Follow up by asking them “Is there anything I can do to help relieve stress?” Reply with something basic for your partner to do. It’s a win-win!
Handling abrupt and stressful transitions can be quite overwhelming. Especially during the pandemic, it is important for couples to have a plan for how they want to remain emotionally transparent with each other and handle the stress using a team-based approach. Let’s make handling our life transitions less stressful and lean on each other to make it happen.
by Jannel Thomas, LGMFT
April 1st, 2021
You may be asking: what is a support system and why is it important to have one? Well, a support system is a network of people who can provide you with emotional and overall support. Research has shown that having a strong support system can have many positive benefits including better physical and mental health, the reduction of depression and anxiety symptoms, and a decrease in stress. A support system is important because it can help you manage everyday stress, combat loneliness, assist with making difficult decisions, and provide hope to find solutions for problems you may be experiencing. If you struggle to understand what your support system should look like, here are a few ways to build and strengthen it:
- Identify family and friends who you can reach out to. Think about people who you love, trust, and care about as well as the people who feel the same about you. These are the friends and family who can provide you with emotional support. Feel free to send a simple text message or video call to get the conversation going.
- Connect with people who share your interests. Consider volunteering or joining a club that highlights your interests and hobbies. This can be a great way to meet and interact with people who enjoy the same likes and interests that you do. There are many virtual, online, and/or COVID-19 friendly options for you to explore.
- Find a mentor. Mentors can be helpful in significant areas of your life including religion, finances, relationships, etc. Mentors are great people who can help guide you and provide you with advice as you navigate through life. For example, contact someone who is highly experienced in your professional field or reach out to a local faith leader and ask if they have the availability to be your mentor.
Having a strong support system is extremely beneficial to your mental health and everyday life. It is important to strengthen and utilize your support system during times of crisis, like now while living in a global pandemic when it can be easy to self-isolate. So, feel free to tap into any aspect of your support system whenever you feel the need to. Chances are that you’ll feel better after doing so.
March 4th, 2021
As human beings, we are social creatures and need relationships to thrive. With social distancing becoming our way of life, many of us have turned to social media more often than not for social interactions. Unfortunately, excessive social media use has also been linked to anxiety and depression. If you notice that you are spending more time on social media than with your friends, comparing yourself to others on social media, experiencing sleep problems, or are distracted at school or work by your social media use, you may want to consider making modifications to your screen time.
- Reduce Time Online: In order to reduce your social media use, it may be helpful to use an app (Screen Time for iPhone users and Digital Well-being for Android users) to track how much time you spend on social media each day. These apps help you to set goals and find ways to reduce your usage. Additionally, the apps will help you to set limits on how much time you spend on other apps. You can try turning off your phone at certain times of the day, not bringing your phone to bed (or to the bathroom), disabling social media notifications, setting specific times when you will check social media, and even removing social media apps from your phone altogether.
- Improve Social Time Offline: While social distancing makes this a little more difficult, you can still connect with your friends. Fun things to try at home may be hosting a virtual cook-off or taking an online class together. For outdoor socially-distanced activities, try walking or running, having a picnic, or doing an outdoor fitness class. Try limiting phone use as much as possible while engaging with friends.
- Express Gratitude: Excessive social media use can often lead to feelings of discontent. You may begin comparing yourself to others and holding yourself to unrealistic standards. Taking time for reflection and practicing mindfulness daily can decrease the negative impacts of social media use. Expressing gratitude will help you focus on things that are going well in your life and mindfulness will help you be more in the present moment.
February 4th, 2021
Experiencing hardship is almost like a right-of-passage for every relationship. Even the healthiest marriages encounter very dark times during which the relationship is jeopardized. Most relationships experience challenging moments where partners might feel that it would be less painful if they just called it quits. Although this is the time of year that love is in the air, we are also living through unprecedented times that drastically exacerbate the stress placed on our relationships. What should we do when partners feel that they are at their wits’ end?
- Disrupt Your Cycle: Usually when partners are experiencing difficulty, it becomes even more challenging to communicate effectively. This is the point at which couple therapy is most helpful. It provides partners with tools to disrupt unhealthy communication patterns that leave both partners feeling unheard. The goal is not only to have your thoughts and feelings heard, but also to understand where your partner is coming from. This often requires taking a time-out, regulating your emotions and coming back to the conversation with a new way of thinking and talking. This is a healthier method of relaying your feelings and receiving the feelings of your partner; even if they are negative. In order to feel heard, you must also be willing to objectively listen without internalizing your partner’s negative emotions.
- Don’t Wait Too Long: Unfortunately, some couples wait to begin couple therapy after the relationship has already suffered extensively. Explore couple therapy as an option before the relationship gets to a place of no return. Some partners make the mistake of refusing to attend couple therapy after their partner has requested it. Be open and flexible to learning something new that can assist your relationship in growing over time rather than becoming stuck in a rut. There’s nothing wrong with getting help and support.
- Break Up Monotony: In some cases, our relationships suffer from the reality that things have become monotonous. This is especially true during the pandemic during which coping is very limited. Routine is incredibly important especially for those couples with children. However, sometimes it becomes necessary to break the routine in order to gain perspective on the relationship. Break routine for a breakthrough! Our relationship can be rejuvenated in many ways, whether through a small trip, a creative date night, a weekend at a hotel, virtual yoga, a picnic or simply doing something out of the norm. The relationship is much less daunting when we are able to connect emotionally and spend time enjoying one other. In those moments, we are reminded of why we are together.
Most couples recognize that love is not enough but it is a foundation. Love requires maintenance in addition to respect and willingness. These two components allow us to give our partners the benefit of the doubt, gain perspective and realize that we have bad times. However, bad times do not necessarily equate to a bad relationship. Happy Relationship Wellness Month!
January 1st, 2021
Well… that was an interesting year. If you’re like me, you probably had high expectations for yourself on January 1st of 2020. What this pandemic has done for most of us is provide a different perspective on our lives, as well as make room to re-evaluate our relationships in life. Some of us may have found that our family members have become a little too involved in our personal lives. As we hope the start of 2021 will be better than 2020, now may be a good time to set reasonable expectations and boundaries with those family members who care a lot about us.
Go to therapy. When family conflict arises, it can be difficult to address your concerns out of fear of not being heard. What can be more frustrating is confiding in another family member about your struggles and having your feelings invalidated or dismissed. This happens quite often because of the nature of your relationship with them as well as their familiarity with your personality. They are not fully aware of the amount of growth and change you may have made or are currently making. Having a non-judgmental third party like a therapist can be incredibly beneficial when trying to process family conflict and establish boundaries in your relationships. A therapist will not only provide a space to have your feelings validated but can also help you to prepare and cope with difficult family conversations and reactions.
It’s all about you. I can’t be a good therapist if I don’t get my first cup of coffee in the morning. I can’t bring my best self to the room if I don’t take care of myself first. To bring your best self to all of your relationships, your self-care needs to be a priority. Take some time to explore the things that bring you joy. Finding a way to introduce that joy weekly in a structured way will be incredibly beneficial to your overall stress level. With family, tell yourself it’s okay to take breaks when you’ve had too much family time. Maybe let that phone call go to voicemail. Schedule alone time in which you can focus on your own joy. If you’re not bringing your best self to your family, you put yourself at risk of damaging those relationships. We all need a break sometimes.
Acknowledge and be soft. When family members consistently cross boundaries, they usually don’t recognize their behavior as inappropriate. They may justify it by saying, “I’m just trying to help.” This is valid. Your family members care about you and want to see you happy. This is where you should start. Acknowledge that your family member cares about you and recognize that they have good intentions. Then, follow through with setting your boundary by expressing a vulnerable emotion such as overwhelm, embarrassment or hurt. There are some key things to be aware of. Prepare them by saying “I need to talk to you about something”, so that you don’t catch them off-guard. Avoid using “but” when setting the boundary because your family member will most likely tune you out. Use “we” language instead of “you” language. This helps to avoid defensiveness and blaming. These conversations are always best to have privately to avoid embarrassing them in front of other family members or increasing tension. Remember that deep down, your family loves you and wants the best for you too. Sometimes they just do not know how to express that in a way that also respects your individuality and your boundaries.
December 1st 2020
As the holidays approach we are presented with a set of questions and challenges that may seem unfathomable. Our world has been turned upside down by the fear and burden of a long-lasting, global pandemic. What is holiday cheer during the times of COVID-19? How do we balance family tradition with safety and consideration? Now more than ever, it will be important to go into the next few months with mindfulness and care. While many things are out of our control, we still have the ability to shift our focus into reflection and gratitude. Set an intention to preserve joy and holiday magic during these times!
Manage your Expectations – This year will be different, and that’s that. It is easy to sit in a space where we are focused on things that will NOT be happening this year. No family gatherings, no getaway vacations, no catching up with friends at our local hot spots? Frequenting with our favorite people and places may seem elusive at this time. Try to look at what is right in front of you and find appreciation for the things that are within reach. Perhaps it is just you and your partner this year! Lean into that relationship and learn more about him or her. Maybe it is just you this year. Finish that book that’s on your shelf or learn a new recipe. Practice being present in every moment. Take your focus away from the deficits of this year and tune in to the abundance right in front of you.
Cultivate Creativity – Maybe it is time to think of some new traditions and rituals that can be incorporated into your holiday season! There is something habitual about the holidays. We fall into the flow of what is expected and required of us. And then oftentimes, we repeat those traditions each year. Change it up! What do YOU want to do with your time? We have a unique opportunity to strip ourselves of certain obligations, and have a unique sense of agency with what we can do with our own time. Whether it is being alone or with an accessible family member, spend time creating one new tradition or ritual for this year. For example, send anonymous care packages to family members and hop on Zoom to play a game of Clue to see who sent what!
Sit in Stillness – It is perfectly okay to be still, especially this year. If you do anything during this time, take a second to pause and tune into your emotional needs. It has been 10 months since the start of this pandemic. Ten months of Zoom meetings, 10 months of forced isolation, and 10 months of global uncertainty. Don’t go into 2021 in full burnout mode, if you can help it. Pause, relax, and attend to yourself! Instead of planning your next year or scrambling to find a new year resolution, just identify five things that will make you feel happy in the next week. Set smaller goals, self-reflect quietly, and make recharging for 2021 your priority.
November 3rd 2020
2020 has been an interesting year. Many momentous things have occurred, resulting in a piling up of stressors. Have you settled into the “new normal” after nine months of dealing with COVID-19? Preliminary studies are showing that depression and anxiety are at an all-time high during the pandemic. Many families are facing difficult mental health challenges that worsen as we experience a resurgence of the pandemic, which now includes fatigue. What is COVID-19 fatigue? It is feelings of exhaustion and helplessness brought about by the continuation of short-term and long-term stressors resulting from the virus. It is the feeling that we are hitting a wall in coping and have grown tired. Many of the coping strategies we used to employ can no longer be our go-to activities. How can we persist through COVID-19 fatigue to help ourselves and our family members continue to cope and stay safe from the virus?
- Good Old Exercise – As the season turns and winter approaches, come up with a plan to exercise indoors. The irony of depressive symptoms is that they don’t motivate you to want to do much of anything, but exercise is the most effective way to improve your physical and mental health. Even if you only exercise a little bit every day, it will improve your mood. You may have gotten more creative about how you exercise in 2020, but try out something new and fun – yoga classes online, walking with a neighbor, or a subscription workout live streaming service.
- Break It Down – Looking at the entire timeline of the virus can cause anxiety, due to the remaining uncertainty about the future. Similarly, taking on a huge home or family project can feel like biting off more than you can chew right now. Break things down into smaller pieces, live day to day, and don’t live too far into the past or into the future. Break projects down into smaller steps and deal with one small step first. Bring expectations down to a more realistic place. You may have to lower your expectations of yourself and family members. Remember that we are all dealing with unprecedented stressors and changes. Although it doesn’t always feel like it, you are resilient and you may be dealing with fatigue better than you think you are. You are building resiliency as we speak.
3. Talk To Somebody – Processing your feelings aloud with a mental health professional or a therapy group can be helpful. Giving your feelings a voice and some space to be aired can give your mental health a much-needed boost. It can help rebuild compassion for yourself and for your family members. Psychotherapy can also combat feelings of isolation, even if it is through virtual therapy. Contact us at RCC to set up a virtual session with a therapist. We want you to feel better too!
by John Hart, PhD, LCMFT
October 12th 2020
The year 2020 has been a difficult and strenuous year for us all for various reasons. Marriage and Family Therapists around the DC-Metropolitan area have seen their clientele numbers increase. Couples are not only battling the regular relationship dynamics issues (e.g., communication, problem-solving and intimacy problems), but also experiencing a growing concern about managing political differences between partners. This year is an election year and with the election scheduled in a little less than a month, it is important to brace couples with a few pointers on how to manage conversations or dynamics regarding political differences/philosophies. Below are a few tips to follow. I also highly recommend this book, I Love You But I Hate Your Politics: How to Protect Your Intimate Relationships in a Poisonous Partisan World by Jeanne Safer.
1. List Hot Topics: Couples may react differently to emotionally-charged topics in society. I recommend that the couple write a list of all topics that each partner feels is important to them. Next, work with your partner to rate the level of emotional reactivity each topic holds for each person (e.g., on a scale from 1-10, 1 = no reaction versus 10 = very reactive). Lastly, create healthy boundaries for handling conversations around said topics. For instance, either decide to avoid certain topics because they are too emotionally charged, such as conversations around race. Alternatively, you can also decide to set a time marker. For example, “we are going to talk about the most recent racial incident for fifteen minutes and we will use a safe word to stop the conversation if one of us becomes reactive.”
2. Don’t Focus on Changing Minds: Conversations around politics become volatile when there is too much energy invested in convincing the other to change his or her viewpoint. If only it was that easy, right? Marriage Therapists truly believe that, regardless of the topic, healthy communication is about the approach. It is important when discussing political differences to mutually agree to listen, understand and reflect what your partner is saying. Listening allows the conversation to flow at a reasonable pace (fast conversations can go “off the rails” quickly). Reflecting back what you heard your partner say allows them to feel heard and validated. NOTE: Validation does not mean that you agree with your partner’s point of view. Receiving this validation allows there to be a mutual understanding that “we can hear each other.”
3. Always End with Reconciliation: There will likely be some passionate conversations between you and your partner. Passion is not the enemy here; some passion in a marriage is a very good thing. However, volatility is not ideal. Before ending the conversation, do a quick emotional “check-in” (e.g., “Wow, that was intense, how are you feeling right now? How are you feeling about me?”) Be open and honest and allow space for reconciliation. Find a ritual that you can do together as a gesture of repair. Examples might include going for a walk together, grabbing a cold beverage and chatting about safer topics, taking a limited break and reconnecting, etc. Couples sometimes make a mistake in believing that resolution is the same as reconciliation. You don’t need a resolution or an agreement to reconcile. Politics are a great example of a topic that mandates reconciliation after conversation.