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.

Listening Well Says “I Love You”

Remember the days before we were all staying at home. You asked your partner to swing by the office supply store to pick up ink for the printer, and the dog ended up spending the day with a very confused groomer. “No worries” you tell your confused mate who left the note detailing what you had asked lying on the counter.  “I’ll swing by the office supply place next to the groomers. Just don’t let dinner burn. The timer will go off in 45 minutes…” Later as you try to swallow the blackened lasagna, you can’t tell if the bitter taste is the burned food or the resentment from having to spend an extra hour in rush hour traffic retrieving the freshly shampooed dog who had been groomed a week ago, and picking up the ink you needed. As the scorched mess makes it third trip around the plate at the end of your fork you hear. “Are my two suits still in the car? I leave for the airport at 5:00 am and so I need to get packing.” What suits? What trip? 

While the above scenario may be a bit far-fetched, we all experience those moments when we feel like we are living in a parallel universe with our loved ones. Partners, spouses, parents, and kids often leave us wondering “did I just dream that I told them to (fill in the blank)?” Missed cues, distracted listening, and our pressing need to disconnect from the stress of our daily lives often leads to having no idea of what is going on in the lives of those we hold most dear. We often blame others for not knowing what we need just as we can be constantly out of step about the needs of our partners.  The old refrain “you never listen to me” is not even close to the real issue. You have to decide whether or not what your partner and loved ones have to say is important, and then find a way to make the space to hear them.

Fear not! Help is on the way. In fact, according to William R. Miller in his Book Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Listening, the capacity to listen and understand empathetically is hardwired into our brains. We desire to know our valued others and to also be known by our valued others. Our brains are not only hardwired for empathetic understanding they are hardwired for secure connection. The need for secure connection is with us, as John Bowlby who researched the need for secure attachment said, the need for secure attachment is with us “from the cradle to the grave.” Our basic need to be securely attached cannot be realized if we cannot listen with empathy and understanding to our partners, friends, and our families.

Many of us have read or heard the rules of empathic listening before:

  1. Be non-judgmental
  2. Give the person your undivided attention
  3. Listen carefully to feelings and facts
  4. Show that you are listening carefully
  5. Don’t be afraid of silence
  6. Restate and paraphrase
  7. Follow-up

How do we put these 7 tips into action? Dennis Rivers, MA, a communications skills teacher has put together excellent communications skill resources at his website. Check out his website and do the Empathy-Listening in Action exercise. This exercise starts with brief video by Brene Brown where is describes what empathy actually is and then leads the participate through the exercise. 

Breaking the Circle of Conflict

    The moment the sign announcing a traffic circle or roundabout is just ahead panic rises and the brain shuts down. I have to figure out what lane to be in to continue going straight and GPS does not help. It serves only to add to the choices my brain cannot process. The solution is to just keep circling until the all roads leading into and out of the roundabout are completely empty and then I make my escape. This is not an elegant or practical solution. Neither is avoiding all roads with all traffic roundabouts.

     Cycles of conflict in our relationships with partners, family, friends, and co-workers operate just like a traffic circle. We see the signs; we cannot avoid the road ahead and we enter the conflict. Our partner enters the room and slams the door. We either stand our ground and prepare for the heated argument to begin or you withdraw completely and refuse to even acknowledge the tension. The things leading to the tension and disagreements may differ. Last week it was the dishwasher not being emptied and this week it is conflict about how to manage a child’s struggle in school. The content is different, but the signs are all the same. Someone says “here we go again” and the other rolls their eyes. The next step is someone leaves the room or just refuses to talk and the other shouts “you never listen to me!” You find yourself angry and frustrated caught in cycle and there seems to be know escape.

     Most couples find themselves caught in these cycles of conflict that are, unfortunately, all to common. There is hope! These cycles can change. The first step is to identify what Dr. Sue Johnson calls your demon dialogues.

  1. Find the Bad Guy also known as Mutual Attack
  2. The Protest Polka also known as Demand and Withdraw
  3. Flight and Freeze also known as Tension and Avoidance

     Find the Bad Guy is when both partners stand their ground and hurl emotionally wounding missiles at each other that cause the rupture in the relationship to deepen. Both partners feel rejected and see the source of their emotional pain as their partner’s fault.

     The Protest Polka is when one partner lodges a complaint and the other partner does not respond. The protesting partners ups their game by escalating the criticism as the other partner shuts down and withdraws. The result is partners drive each other further into rejection and loneliness with no one feeling safe.

     Flight and Freeze sometimes follows Find the Bad Guy. Partners give up and retreat into hopelessness. Each one is afraid and alone and have no way back to safety and connection.

     Ongoing patterns of conflict block safe re-connection leaving partners feeling lost and abandoned. Hope comes when we learn new patterns and find safety with our partners. The first step in experiencing block empathy, understanding, and connection with your partner is to understand your conflict cycle. Dr. Sue Johnson has created a simple exercise to help you Name and Tame the Demon Dialogues. Secure, safe, loving connection is possible and you can begin your journey to a better relationship today.

Couples Counseling http://www.stoneycreekcounseling.com

Love in Quarantine

A recent social media post by a dear friend caught my attention. She and her partner are engaged in a quarantine courtship and proclaim they are falling in love all over again. What brought this new blush to a decades-long marriage? Her response; “All we’ve left to do is fall in love all over again!” They both realize they have not had this much time to talk to each other in years. Our comfortable routines of daily living ended in an instant when the Shelter in Place order went into effect. We grieve our routines! Meeting friend for lunch, stopping by the hardware store or the office supply store whenever we need that one small thing that will make our day complete. Many couples are spending more time together now than they ever did even while they were dating. The novelty of binge-watching Netflix while consuming cookies and pizza wears thin quickly. And the comfort and connection  of friendships beyond our partners may be on hold for a while. We are all struggling  to build a new normal around telecommuting, distance learning, and having only our partners for human connection. Maybe it’s time to build a new normal around how we connect with our most treasured others.

Maintaining and reclaiming intimacy is never easy even when the rest of life is going smoothly. In our current struggle to understand and manage the uncertainty of the Coronavirus Pandemic makes it even easier to put our partners at the bottom of our priorities. Maybe it’s time to go on daily 10-minute dates. The way this works is each partner schedules, plans and takes responsibility for implementing a 10 minutes interlude in which the focus is entirely on your partner. This means, as a couple, you will go on two 10-minute dates each day. Just make sure the date location is not in the same physical space as you or your partner’s work from home space. The location can be fun and creative or as simple as spending 10 minutes together on the front porch. The only rule is the subject and focus of the date is completely on what is joyful and life-giving to your partner. Here are a few suggests:

  1. Recreate a memory from your first date. Recall a song, a place, a particular food from your first date and surprise your partner. If your first was a live concert find a YouTube video of your favorite song and play the video on the patio or in the back yard. Then, and here is the important part, let you partner share the memories the video brings up.
  2. Rediscover your partner. Repurpose the 36 Questions developed by Arthur Aron and his research partners designed to foster vulnerability and intimacy. Divide the list and ask a few questions each day.
  3. Surprise your partner. Send notes of encouragement by text or email. The stress of executing all the activities of living, (work, school, family time) takes a toll on everyone. A text or email letting your partner know how much there are appreciated. Often, especially in times of stress, we focus on what we are not getting from our partner. Focus your notes of encouragement on what you are receiving from your partner and let them know how much they are loved.
  4. Know your partner’s love language. Expressing love comes in a variety of  forms. We all know what makes our hearts sing! But what about our partners? What is a better gift? A bottle of wine or a hand-written note expressing your appreciation? A good way to know how your partner loves to be loved is to find out. Start by each of you taking this simple quiz from 5lovelanguages.com. Share the results with each other and then make your next 10-minute date something tailored made for you mate. Happy dating!