Ouch! The Body Knows What Hurts!

Ouch! How many of us have fallen victim to Legos left strewn across the floor or the odd slightly out of place in the middle of the night. We are completely aware of our bodies in those moments. After all a broken toe or Lego impalement are gifts that keep on giving. What most of us do not know is the source of physical pain that so often accompanies deep emotional pain.

We have all heard how driving and talking on our cell phones requires the focus of the same areas of the brain. The same is true for emotional pain and physical pain. The same center of the brain lights up when we sustain a physical injury as when we sustain an emotional injury. To our brains a broken arm and a broken heart feel the same. Love really does hurt.

We rush to the doctor to treat and mend a broken bone but we have no clue how to heal the physical pain caused by emotional suffering. According to Manuela Mischke-Reeds, in her book Somatic Psychotherapy Toolbox, common mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, stress and trauma cause a multitude of physical symptoms in the body. According to the author, symptoms left unattended are responsible for devasting effects on our overall health.

What do we do? The first step is to recognize we have become a cognitive based “just the facts” culture. Somewhere along the journey into the twenty-first century we have forgotten that that our bodies always know what is going on in and around us before the brain does. Just think about all the times we have the feeling that something is about to go horribly wrong but we still go on the date, eat the sketchy fish, or drive over the seemingly harmless puddle. We always believe we can think our way out of any situation without taking into account the toll our actions are have on our bodies.

A quick and easy way to get in touch with our bodies is to recognize where we are holding stress in our bodies. Next step is let it go! This is much easier said than done. A simple tool is Diaphragmatic or Belly Breathing. Deep, full breath breathing releases stress and helps reset not only out bodies but also our minds and our spirits. Deep breathing allows us to notice where we are holding on to stress while releasing the stress from our bodies. Deep belly breathing is a practice we can add to our daily lives without taking large chunks of time out of our already overly busy schedules. Start the day with 10 to 15 minutes of a breath routine, set aside 5 to 10 minutes a couples of times during the day and end the day with another 10-to-15-minute breath routine. Here are some easy-to-follow instructions from What is Diaphragmatic Breathing by Jon Johnson and found on the website Medical News Today.

Basic diaphragmatic breathing:

Lie down on a flat surface with a pillow under the head and pillows beneath the knees. Pillows will help keep the body in a comfortable position.

Place one hand on the middle of the upper chest.

Place the other hand on the stomach, just beneath the rib cage but above the diaphragm.

  • To inhale, slowly breathe in through the nose, drawing the breath down toward the stomach. The stomach should push upward against the hand, while the chest remains still.
  • To exhale, tighten the abdominal muscles and let the stomach fall downward while exhaling through pursed lips. Again, the chest should remain still.
  • People should practice this breathing exercise for 5–10 minutes at a time, around three to four times each day.

Of course, we all need to do more than deep breathing to care for ourselves and our valued others. Anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, and addictions have become an all-too-common part of our many of our lives. Next time we will explore the question “do I need therapy?”

Cultivating Restorative Communication

Think about a conversation with a treasured loved one that brings a smile to your face. You know the conversations I’m talking about. The first time your son or daughter says, “I love you!” The last lunch you had with your best friend before you moved across the country. Recall the most recent time you and your partner sat together in a calm and quiet place and spoke softly about your dreams for each other and for your future. Sacred moments of deep connection satisfy our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. They are the moments we live for.

Sadly, the complexities of our modern lives and the unrelenting stress keep many couples reacting to their partners instead of responding with curiosity, kindness, and patience. While perfect communication in every conversation is an unrealistic goal, it is possible to adopt an attitude of just having the next encounter go a little better than the last one. Relationship researchers and couples therapists John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute recommend cultivating an atmosphere of kindness and admiration with the couple relationship. A great place to begin is recognizing and counter what The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. When present in a relationship, the Four Horsemen, Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling, indicate high levels of relationship dissatisfaction. Couples who both recognize and counter with the antidotes to the Four Horsemen will have an increasing ability to stop quarrels before they become damaging relationship ruptures.

  • Criticism. Our old friend! This is where we state our complaints by projecting them as defects in our partner’s personality. An example is forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning and then accusing your partner of stupidity for not reminding you. “If you weren’t so dumb and so unorganized, the dry cleaning would not be an issue!”

Ouch! You can head this one off by using “I” statements and talking about how you feel, what your feeling is about in a calm, neutral way, and then stating what you need. This is what John and Julie Gottman call “A Gentle Start-Up.” A summary of the Gentle Start-up looks like this:

  • I Feel
  • About What
  • I Need
  • Defensiveness. There in time of need! We all need to protect ourselves from people trying to cross our emotional, psychological, and physical boundaries. Defensiveness in the context of a quarrel with your partner often becomes indignation or innocent victimhood and, according to John Gottman, is used to deflect a perceived attack. Instead of a “we are in this together” stance, defensiveness conveys an “I am right, and you are wrong” feeling. The cure for defensiveness is to consider and state responsibility for even a part of the issue or problem. Consider the perpetual disagreement over doing the dishes: “It’s not my fault you can’t figure out how to keep the kitchen clean!” Taking responsibility sound more like, “You are right; I could do a better job of getting my dishes rinsed and into the dishwasher.”
  • Contempt. The most destructive of the Four Horseman and the most significant predictor of divorce or termination of the relationship. Contempt must be eliminated for the relationship to survive. Contemptuous statements come from a position of superiority and are meant to belittle, invalidate, and minimize. John and Julie Gottman hold that the antidote for contempt is for the partners to build a culture of respect and appreciation in their relationship. And to consistently express your own feelings and needs. Example:You are a total loser! Describing your own feelings and needs sounds like: “I feel hurt when you disregard the everyday chores that help our lives run smoothly. I need to have a talk about why the chores are so hard.”
  • Stonewalling. It literally makes your partner feel like they are talking to an object made of stone. Withholding verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate you are hearing and understanding what your partner is saying leaves both people shut down and fuels emotional disconnection. Turn Stonewalling around by recognizing your feelings and practice physiological self-soothing so that you can stay present with your partner.

Physiological Self-Soothing promotes well-being and is a great way to teach yourself how to stay calm in an emotionally tense situation. Physiological Self-Soothing is the subject of my next Blog.

Time Out

“Don’t worry – Every couple fights.” True, however what we don’t realize is that not every couple fights the same way. According to Dr. John Gottman, relationship researcher and couples therapist, all couples have conflicts.  The difference between happy couples and unhappy couples is the way in which conflict is handled. Properly handling conflict begins with cultivating a culture of love and admiration in your relationship. Reminding ourselves of the abundance of positive qualities present in our partners is the first step in managing conflict. We need to remember that one of the foundational aspects of a happy couple’s relationship is knowing how and when to call for a timeout.

Most of us have heard the old saying about how the truth comes out in anger. What most of us don’t realize is the reason why this is a false belief. Neuroscience proves intense conflicts can send our brains into a “fight, fight or freeze” state in which the only thing our brains are doing is keeping us alive. We stop using the executive control center of the brain and all our awareness shifts to the primitive, survive at all costs, part of our brain. When our survival brain is in control emotionally crushing words follow. How many times have we each said something in anger that we deeply regret. How many of us have seen the devastated look on a loved one’s face? How many times have we been the devastated one. Taking a time-out in the midst of a heated argument demonstrates that you acknowledge the potentially heartbreaking effect your angry words can have on your partner.

One of the most effective and compassionate tools couples can use in times of conflict is the “Time-Out.” Recognizing arguments can become overheated and having a plan ahead of time helps stop damaging fights before they get started. Remember, you are not a parent, you are a partner. Call the time-out for yourself. Do Not Attempt to put your partner in time-out!

Rules for Calling a Time-Out

Step 1: Recognize your need for a time-out and remember this is about you requesting a break from the encounter. It is not about imposing a time-out on your partner.

Step 2: Request a Time-out. Tell your partner that you need a break and do not just walk away. The goal in requesting a time-out is preserving connection and not competing to see who can make the other suffer more. Try phrases like “I am too angry to talk and I need time to cool down;” “I am so upset right now I cannot even respond;” or simply “I need to take a time-out.”

Step 3: Use the time-out to calm yourself down. Take a walk, practice deep breathing, or just rest. Do not use the time to plan how you will win the fight.

Step 4: Remember What’s Important. Recall what led to this escalation? What emotions or physical sensations got stirred up in you? Only after you have calmed down, identify what happened and what was challenging to discuss. Meditate, pray, or reflect on what you’d like your partner to understand about your perspective.

Step 5: Resume the Conversation. Resuming the conversation begins the repair process. The goal is to be in a frame of mind to be able to listen to and understand your partner’s perspective. When both partners enter the conversation with openness and acceptance working through hardships in the relationship is not only possible it can bring you closer.

All couples fight. Remember happy couples are able to maintain connection in conflict. Another way to help avoid wounding and disconnection conflicts is to be aware of what John Gottman calls The Four Horsemen of Relationship apocalypse. My next blog will discuss what they are and what couples can do to avoid them and repair relationships when they do show up.

Trapped In Conflict

Conflict! A polite word for what many couples label their on-going, painful arguments that always end in the same hurtful, disconnected way. You feel it in the pit of your stomach or in the base of your neck every time you see your partner roll their eyes or storm out of the room in response to a comment you just made. You know the one! It guarantees an end to the latest skirmish but prolongs and deepens the growing bitterness between you. Sue Johnson, a psychologist and couples counselor who developed Emotionally Focused Therapy, refers to this habitual pattern of conflict as the couples negative cycle. Once the cycle takes over the couple become locked an escalating fight that usually ends in a draw with conflict resolution never being reached.

Popular advice to end the struggle ranges from platitudes to “just ignore it” to “you got to make them hurt to make it stop” keep the bitter pattern predominate force in communication. The default goal of conflict becomes to punish the other. Successful couples recognize the negative patterns their words and actions produce and work to change the script. The goal is to having the next conversation go better. How can the next fight go better? By recognizing what is happening both inside of ourselves and understanding through empathy what is happening for our partner.

What we frequently miss in conflicts is the message under the words and patterns of disconnect because we are so busy defending ourselves. Our central nervous systems are ready to step in and send us into fight, flight, or freeze at a moment’s notice. Often all it takes is one shrug of our partner’s shoulder or a misinterpretation of a brief comment to send us into our primitive, survival instinct stance. Our bodies and our brains stand at the ready to keep us alive! The problem with this that encounters with our partners become combat zones rather than comfort zones.

How do we turn this around? Start by having intentional awareness about emotions, body sensations, and actions. First towards ourselves and then towards our partners in times of conflict. A very effective initial step is to sit in a calm place and recall the last fight you had with your partner. Do you remember what caused your heart rate to increase or what led to that first flush or anger or fear? Once you identity it spend some time considering where this reaction originated. How old were you the first time you felt this way? What caused you to feel this way? Where do you feel it in your body? What message are you telling yourself about yourself? What message are you telling yourself about your partner? Be aware of your emotions and body sensations. If you feel it is just too much just set this exercise aside and come back to it later after you feel you have calmed down.

Once we have awareness of what happens to us in conflict we can begin to slow down or stop the conflict with our partner before it escalates into anger, fear, or disconnection. The very first place to start when you feel the emotions rising is to call a time out with your partner. A properly executed time-out request with give each person time to calm the central nervous system, reconsider the next words or gestures you plan to use, and then come back together in a spirit of problem solving and reconnection instead of defense, anger, and distance. Interested in how to effectively us a time out in conflict and still maintain connection? Watch for my next post: Maintaining Connection In Conflict.