Making 2018 Your Year: Resolutions

New Year's Goals - Cluff Counseling, Lewisville Marriage & Family TherapistResearch suggests that approximately half of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions but only 8% actually follow through with them. What can you do to be one of these elite achievers who set out to lose weight, travel more, and/or spend less? Read on to find eight tips that will help you reach your 2018 goals.

January. The start of any new year often fills us with excitement and a surge of exhilaration to be and do more with our fresh start. Many come up with personalized goals of things to do, places to explore, and ways to improve. But how often does June or July roll around and we remember our goals written down in a dusty notebook in a drawer somewhere…untouched and unreached? We tell ourselves it is too late to make significant changes at this point and we abandon our goals altogether. Has this happened to you?

If so, you are not alone. Setting goals is the fun part; actually working for them is what takes diligent, consistent effort. Let this be your year where you actively work for those goals you have set. Here are eight tips to help you set and keep your New Year’s Resolutions:

  1. Dream big! Goals are empowering. They take us from where we are to where we want to go. Reach for the sky! If you always wanted to go to Antarctica, make it happen. There truly is no dream too big to achieve if you set your mind to it and work hard.
  2. Then think small. Having a massive goal like running a marathon in 2018 is great, but how will you achieve it? Set measurable, smaller goals that will be stepping stones to your bigger goal. Run one mile, then two, then a 5k, and build up from there to get to half marathon and eventually a full. Set S.M.A.R.T. goals–goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Identify when you will run, how far you will run, when you will rest, if you will cross train (and if so, what and when), what your diet and sleeping patterns look like, how you will be accountable, etc. Goals that are clearly defined will enable you to quantify your efforts in order to reach your goal.
  3. Commit yourself. Think through why you are setting these goals. Some habits, like overeating, nail biting, and smoking, are tough habits to kick…especially if you only have one foot in. If you want to make a change, DO IT. This is your year. Commit! Be accountable; you can involve others or you can create a personal outward tracking system so you are accountable to yourself. Commit, show up, and you will see results!
  4. Track your progress. Having S.M.A.R.T., measurable goals will allow you to track your progress. You will be able to see growth as well as areas where you are lacking, and then you can adjust your efforts. Regularly examine your progress and make changes if necessary.
  5. Prioritize: Schedule it in. So many of us say we do not have time for things, yet we somehow manage to waste time aimlessly scrolling through Instagram or watching T.V.  How we choose to spend our time sends a message of what is important to us; we need to make time for the things that matter most. My suggestion is to literally schedule time for your goals: If you want to organize your living space, literally block time off in your planner. If you want to lose weight, commit to a public class at the gym with a set time to keep you accountable. These are important engagements in your life; you need to schedule other things around your goals!
  6. Cut the “all or nothing” mentality. Just because you go out on Friday night and eat french fries does not mean you also need a dessert; nor does it mean you need to wait until Monday to work on eating better. If you do not have a full 60 minutes to dedicate to a tough work out at the gym, instead go for an all-out 20 minutes at home. We often get caught up in the mentality of perfect or nothing. Remember, you only really fail when you do not try.
  7. Be patient. Remember that you will reach your goals a little bit each day–by gradual, consistent, and measured effort. Whether you are trying to lose weight, gain lean body mass, pay off debt, save for a trip, or overcome a bad habit,…it will take time. It will take consistent effort. Be patient with yourself and keep at it.
  8. When you slip up, get up and show up. Not one of us is perfect. We will have days where we slip up, forget, give up, or even fail miserably. But as the great Vince Lombardi said, “It isn’t whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.” Being resilient and consistent is the key with goals; do not turn relapses or temporary failures into total meltdowns or excuses for giving up. Instead, just acknowledge the mistake and recommit to your goals.

One final piece of advice I would like to touch on is to be selective. Many of my clients often bite off more than they can chew. Instead of setting many goals and only reaching a few of them (or even none of them), carefully select two or three of your most important goals, and work towards those. If you focus on a couple lofty goals, commit yourself, track your progress, and patiently and consistently work towards the goals you have set, you will see results!

Goals are powerful. I use them with my clients in all different stages of growth and recovery, and I believe that–when backed by dedication–they can work. Let 2018 be your year to work on you! Whether you want to work through a traumatic childhood experience, an abusive relationship, or a mental illness, I can help. Contact me today or schedule your first session now to get a powerful start on dominating those 2018 Resolutions.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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The Best Gift You Can Give [This Christmas]

The Best Gift You Can Give - Cluff Counseling - Dallas Therapist“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.” -Old Chinese Proverb

When you find yourself feeling sad or lonely–during this Holiday Season or at any time during the year–do service! Serving others will benefit you in more ways than you can count.

Last week I wrote about the slump some of us find ourselves in during the holiday season. Many of my clients find themselves feeling sad and lonely during this time of the year for a plethora of reasons. Whether it is the reminder of singleness, the absence of departed loved ones, declining health, or emptied bank accounts, many of us face feelings of sadness during the holidays. While there may be a need for medication and counseling in some circumstances, often simply serving others can shake off the holiday blues.

The holiday season seems to afford many opportunities for service. Organizations, groups, schools, corporations, and churches band together for common good with Sub 4 Santas, canned food drives, openings to serve food at homeless shelters, angel trees, and a million other service opportunities. But what if you are feeling down yourself–should you get involved with service even though you are struggling yourself? Or what if it is not the Christmas season and service opportunities seem harder to come by? Absolutely! Here’s why.

A recent article in the Huffington Post entitled “The Transformative Power of Serving Others” (link included below in the resource section) lists specific benefits of service and how it can literally change your life.  Many have shared that they have walked into a service project depressed and self-centered, yet walked out focused on others and more optimistic about life and their personal circumstances. Some of the transformative effects of service listed in this article include:

  1. Improved health. When we serve others, our bodies release a hormone called oxytocin, which buffers stress and helps us maintain social trust and tranquility. In addition to that, dopamine–the mood-elevating neurotransmitter–is also released. These two hormones in and of themselves fight stress and anxiety, which, in turn, assist in lowering blood pressure, reducing mild depression, and offer a natural relief from pain. Some studies even show that service is linked to increased lifespan!
  2. Clarity. It is so easy, especially in our country and culture, to get caught up in the little things that drag us down (“first world problems”). But when you get down on the level of someone who is literally fighting to survive–be it from hunger, homelessness, or an illness–it really puts your trials, troubles, and tribulations into perspective. This clarity is sweet, lasting, and absolutely priceless.
  3. Gratitude. Along with clarity, serving others who are less fortunate than us brings great gratitude for what we do have and what is right in our lives. I will never forget coming home from a third-world country when I was a teen, and just crying as I looked into my closet full of clothes, knowing the people I had just left only had the clothes on their back. Gratitude itself is powerful, and it is nearly an automatic bi-product of service.
  4. Joy. A part of our brain lights up when we serve others. It then releases “feel-good” chemicals, like dopamine and maybe serotonin. Some may describe that “helpers high” as feeling more tranquil, peaceful, serene; others, warmer and more trusting. Volunteering our time, energy, and talents leads to deeper purpose and meaning in life; this type of joy is hard to find elsewhere!

Serving others can be easy, and it can be done in the normal course of your day. It does not only have to be during the Christmas Season, nor does it have to be through an official organization. Serving others can be as simple as smiling at a stranger, helping an elderly woman at the grocery store, volunteering at a local charity or soup kitchen; donating old clothes, books and other items you no longer need; giving a few dollars, food or a bottle of water to the homeless person standing on the street corner; doing something nice for your siblings or parents; or leaving a short note for a neighbor or co-worker telling them how much you appreciate them. Look for opportunities in your community for ways you can service; the possibilities are endless!

Service is a natural remedy for many of the things that get us down during the holiday season, as well as the other eleven months of the year. Service, coupled with any necessary therapy and medication, can have a positive transformative effect on your life. If you are interested in learning more, or are ready to make changes in your life, contact me today for personalized guidance and assistance. Let’s get out there today and lift someone else. I promise that you will feel better for having done it!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Facing the Holidays Alone

Facing the Holidays Alone - Cluff Counseling - Denton Therapist“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”…unless you are experiencing the absence of a loved one this Christmas. Grief and loneliness come in waves and sometimes these feelings are felt more intense than other times, which can make the holiday season a difficult time. This post is written to those who are lonely and grieving this holiday season.

Earlier this year, I read a moving post on a popular blog. You may have heard of Emily Meyers, the author of the blog “The Freckled Fox.” She is young mother of five who recently lost her husband to cancer and was left to care for their children on her own. She wrote beautifully about grief, and I was reflecting on her blog post while thinking of how the holidays mean something different to everyone. Some look toward the holidays with excitement, while others look toward this time of year with anxiety and trepidation.

Whether holidays seem to highlight your singleness, or highlight the absence of a loved one, this time of year can be difficult. Many of my clients find themselves in a slump around the Christmas season, and struggle to find something to celebrate. I have been there and my heart aches for those who are grieving this year. In our society, we have the tendency to believe that we have to get over things, to move on and forget. We tell others, “It gets easier with time,” and to find something else to replace the void in their lives after loss. While there is some truth in that advice, I want to echo the words of Emily Meyers, from her blog, “The Freckled Fox”:

“There is no timeline for grief, so don’t you ever ever let anyone tell you there is….There are no rules to grief. YOU make the decisions about how you handle your grief, about how and when you move forward, because you are the only one who feels the way you do, who has experienced exactly what you have, and who has to keep on living long after everyone else has forgotten. You don’t base your feelings and choices about how others think you should feel or choose. You absolutely can’t.”

Sometimes people unknowingly assume that holidays and birth- and death-days are the anniversaries that trigger grief, but it is not that simple. There are milestones and memories attached to everyday things like music, food, locations, and smells that might remind an individual of their lost loved one. Or for those who may be spending the holidays alone, simply seeing couples holding hands in public, sitting together in a theater or watching a Hallmark movie can be a searing reminder of his/her solitude. As The Freckled Fox said, “Everything around me is full of memories and moments that hurt.”

Grief is ongoing, it never stops. It never goes away. And that is okay. We need to stop waiting for our own grief to pass. Embrace your situation this Christmas season. Find a way to honor or celebrate the memories you do have, create new traditions, do something kind for others, ask for help, and surround yourself with people you care about. Do not push grief away or ignore it; instead, let it have a healthy place in your life. Stop waiting for the storm of your grief to pass… learn to dance in the rain.

If you are lonely this holiday season, I invite you to be brave and go out of your comfort zone. Seek company with close friends and family members. Engage in meaningful conversation. Initiate activities. Communicate your feelings to someone you can trust. Be vulnerable, open up, and let people in. Practice self-care; you will be amazed how much that can help improve your feelings of self-worth and self-esteem! Limit and possibly avoid social media; seeing photos of groups or couples when you feel lonely often only increases feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Marjorie Hinckley once said, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” We never know who around us is dealing with loss or grief–or any other difficulty in life. This Christmas season is a great time to give your pain an outlet by relating to, empathizing with, and serving others who are also suffering. Tune in next week for my post on the power of serving others–especially during this holiday season.  If you or someone you know is finding it difficult to bear their grief at this time of year, please contact me today or schedule a session to receive guidance on how to build a healthy relationship with grief and loneliness.

(Click here if you are interested in reading The Freckled Fox’s post entitled, “Learning to Dance in the Rain”.)

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Vintage image created by Tirachard – Freepik.com

7 Practical Steps to Cool Down in the Face of Conflict

7 Practical Steps to Cool Down in the Face of Conflict-Cluff Counseling, Marriage & Family TherapyWe have all had conversations where we started to talk calmly about something inconsequential with our partner, but find ourselves in a boxing match where the viability of our relationship seems threatened.  To aid you in staying out of the boxing ring, try these seven ideas to diffuse conflict.

In last month’s post on relationship health, I posted about how to stay connected during conflict. Conflict between two people is unavoidable. We are bound to disagree when we are in a relationship simply because we have opinions and preferences. The problem arises when disagreements define the communication in the relationship. The solution is not to avoid all topics that could cause an argument (because that is impossible), but rather to change how you react in the face of conflict.

When we do not feel connected, it is much easier to lose our patience and to assume our partner is trying to push our buttons and offend us on purpose. A lack of connection can cause escalation–where a simple misunderstanding explodes into a full-blown argument.  Escalation means a rapid increase in the intensity or seriousness of something. In relationships, this looks like a conversation beginning over something simple but instead of calmly conversing about our preferences, we make accusations and blanket statements, and suddenly the argument is about our unsatisfied sex life or unmet emotional needs. And it all began over which way we squeeze the tube of toothpaste!

How and why do we escalate conflict? The underlying reason is because our expectations are not being met. Maybe our partner does not know or realize that we are feeling a lack of emotional or physical connection; thus the deeper need manifests itself through something small and inconsequential.  Escalation is often a sign that there are unmet needs in your relationship. I will have a future blog post dedicated to voicing needs and expectations.

Aside from the true underlying reason  we escalate conflict (unmet needs) there exists a secondary reason for why we escalate: because we are not practicing self-awareness or effective communication in the fact of conflict. There are specific, practical, and actionable things we can try to do, say, and think today that help keep those massive arguments over toilet paper and toothpaste at bay. It will take time and effort to not overreact during arguments, but I can assure you it is possible to do if we make a few tweaks to our verbal and nonverbal communication. I would like to suggest the following 7 practical steps to cool down, become more self-aware, and communicate effectively in the face of conflict:

  1. First, Use the “Three A’s to Get Past Anger” Acknowledge your partner–this can even be with a nod if you are afraid of opening your mouth. Then ask for more information; this helps your partner feel heard and more understood. Finally, add your opinion.
  2. Relax. Take deep breaths. Shake the shoulders. Roll the neck. A calm mind will follow a calm body. Wait out the chemical reaction that may be taking place.
  3. Find a distraction. Choose to think about something else, snuggle a pet, inhale aromatherapy, take a walk, write your feelings, turn on soothing music.
  4. Use humor.There is nothing like some Jerry Seinfeld to diffuse an argument!
  5. See the good.Speak to each other’s positive intent; point out the good in your partner even though you disagree with him/her. For example, “I appreciate that you want to save toothpaste by squeezing from the end of the tube. I admire your economic attitude.” And then work from there to…
  6. Encourage solutions.It is so easy to point fingers during an argument, but this gets us nowhere. Ask your partner, “What would make this situation better?” or “How can we fix this situation in a way you believe will work for us both?” Be proactive instead of perpetuating the all-too-easy cycle of the blame game.
  7. START OVER.Catch yourself in the beginning of a disagreement. Research has shown that the first three to five minutes of a conversation lays the foundation for what is likely to follow. Say, “This is going in a bad direction. Let’s start over.”

Step one is a powerful and important place to start; if you only ever try step one, you are sure to make leaps and bounds of progress in conflict resolution! Those three A’s are absolutely fundamental to avoiding escalation. Even if your blood is boiling and your fists are clenched, acknowledge that you heard your partner so he or she does not think you are ignoring him or her. If you need a moment to gear up for options 2-7, try a shortened version of the “Time Out” that I wrote about in a previous post. To review, begin by clearly telling your partner you need a Time Out; take a few moments to soothe before identifying your primary emotions; and then rejoin the conversation. When you make your way back to your partner, acknowledge him/her, ask questions about his/her perspective, and then add your thoughts. Step one in and of itself is an incredible tool for practicing effective communication…2-7 are just bonus options!

It is always so much easier said than done. Conflict resolution is difficult, yet so necessary in literally every single relationship in our lives. Prepare yourself with the self-awareness and communication skills listed above. I can assure you that these positive habits will impact every relationship you have in your life. If you are in a relationship that is defined by arguing, contact me or set up a session today for more individualized, one-on-one guidance. Together we can redefine your relationship to include a little more effective communication and a great deal less arguing. I am always here and happy to help!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Reliving the Horrors: PTSD

Reliving the Horrors - PTSD - Cluff Counseling, Trauma & EMDR TherapyPTSD is powerful and can change how people think, feel, act, interact with others, and see the world. It is estimated 8% or 24.4 million Americans will experience PTSD at a given time…that’s the entire state of Texas!

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder and can develop in someone who experiences a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Examples of traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include, but are not limited to, the following: community violence like shootings, terrorist attacks, muggings, burglaries, physical or sexual assault, and bullying; sexual and/or physical abuse, natural disasters;  being in or witnessing a serious car accident; sudden unexpected or violent death of someone close; a serious injury like severe burns or a dog attack; a major surgery or a life-threatening illness; war or political violence.

PTSD manifests in a multiplicity of ways that is unique to the person and specific to his or her trauma. For example, someone attacked by a shark may never want to get in open water again. A person in a car accident may develop a fear of riding or driving in cars. Because the term PTSD often gets thrown around, I have included the list of signs and symptoms that mental health and medical professionals assess to diagnose PTSD.

You may have PTSD if you have the following symptoms for at least one month (as always, I would encourage scheduling an appointment with an experienced, licensed psychologist to get an official diagnosis):

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom:
      • Vivid nightmares
      • Frightening and/or intrusive thoughts
      • Flashbacks–reliving the trauma over and over
  • At least one avoidance symptom:
      • Staying away from places, events, or objects that remind you of the traumatic experience
      • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
      • Changing personal routines (like not driving or riding in a car after being in a car accident)
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms:
      • Being easily startled
      • Feeling tense or “on edge”
      • Having difficulty sleeping
      • Having angry outbursts
      • Physical re-activity after exposure to traumatic reminders
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms:
    • Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
    • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
    • Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
    • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
    • Feeling isolated
    • Emotional distress after exposure to traumatic reminders

It is natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the symptoms last more than a month, seriously affect one’s ability to function, and are not due to substance use or medical illness, it is called PTSD. Some people with PTSD may not show any symptoms for weeks or months. PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or an anxiety disorder.

Children, teens, and adults alike can get PTSD–it is a respecter of no one. Children under the age of six may exhibit behaviors like wetting the bed (despite having mastered potty training), forgetting how to or being unable to talk, acting out the scary event during playtime, or being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult. Older children and teens will likely respond more like adults (listed above). It is estimated that 7.8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, with women (10.4%) twice as likely as men (5%) to develop PTSD.

It is important to note that not everyone who lives through a dangerous event develops PTSD. In fact, most people will not develop the disorder. Possible resilience factors that can decrease the likelihood of PTSD include seeking support from friends and family, finding a support group after a traumatic event, learning to feel good about one’s own actions in the face of danger, having a positive coping strategy, and being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear.

There is hope for those with PTSD. Depending on the severity of the PTSD, the individual may need psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy), medication, or a combination of the two. Treatment plans vary depending on the individual’s circumstances, limitations, and needs. I utilize and have been trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a type of trauma-focused psychotherapy, which has been shown to be effective in treating PTSD. EMDR involves using bilateral stimulation while the client keeps in mind various parts of the trauma (which helps your brain work through the traumatic memories). Please contact me to discuss which type of treatment might be most effective for you.

Living with anxiety, trouble sleeping, traumatizing dreams, repetitive flashbacks can make it hard to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Seeking support and guidance through a friend, family member, or a therapist can assist you in the healing process. Call me today to set up your first session and allow me to help you find stability, health, and happiness again.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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