Fighting the Physical Battle for Mental Health

As we make our physical health a priority at this time, we will strengthen our mental capacity to cope, overcome, and press forward. 

I often underestimate the relationship between my physical and mental health. I have been reminded of their dependence on each other as I have read information from doctors and psychologists about how we must maintain our physical health in order to maintain our mental health given the current conditions of the world. Although the task may seem daunting due to local and national restrictions (it has for me, at least), making the effort to fuel our bodies physically is key to hurdling the mental blocks of discouragement, loneliness, and anxiety. Threats to our mental health are more frequent now than ever; this series presents solutions and ideas to combat threats and encourage goodness. 

Physicians and psychiatrists are stressing the importance of two fundamental strategies that can increase our physical stamina and decrease our distress: developing a healthy diet and daily physical activity. For some, these ideas may feel like a no-brainer, but as laws and regulations continue to limit our access to resources, we may be wondering how. Read on! 

How Can I Start to Take Back Control of my Physical Health?

Developing a Healthy Diet

Prolonged periods of isolation can become the perfect excuse for easy meals. Takeout, microwave dinners, and other junk foods present quick and simple solutions for food come mealtime or snacktime. These processed foods are typically high in carbohydrates and fats, which cause insulin levels to constantly fluctuate. These levels have a direct effect on brain functioning; the foods we choose to eat can directly influence our mental health! We need to be mindful of what we are consuming to ensure that it meets recommendations for our age and sex. If you are unsure what an adequate serving of fruits, vegetables, meat, or dairy looks like for you or your family, choosemyplate.gov provides information including serving sizes, sources of nutrients, and even exercise recommendations for all ages. Giving our brain the nutrients it needs is vital at this time. Cook at least one meal a day at home, fill your plate with a variety of fruits and veggies, or try a new recipe every day! As your diet improves, your mental health follows. 

Daily Physical Activity

Although most gyms, recreational centers, fitness clubs, and other workout facilities are closed, creating opportunities for physical exercise is still possible! If you’re like me, your regular routine has been thrown out of whack and even typical movement from work life has been halted. Luckily, most current recommendations allow for people to leave their homes to get out and move, so long as social distancing is still enforced. When available, taking the opportunity to get outside and go for a walk, run, or bike ride can have incredible effects on our mental health. While physical exercise poses many benefits to physique and physical strength, its impact on mental health is equally as notable. In fact, research shows that 30-60 minutes of vigorous physical activity at least 4 times a week has significant antidepressant effects. In some cases, exercise proves to be a more effective treatment for mental illness than therapy or medication. 

If the opportunity to go outside isn’t readily available, there are hundreds of free online resources that provide at-home workouts with and without equipment. Youtube, Nike Training Club, and 7 Minute workouts are just a few free resources that can be used on the internet or a smartphone to increase your heart rate from the comfort of your own home! Everyone’s fitness level differs, and some activities may be easier than others. Find what works for you and do what you can; you may begin with a 5 minute workout and work your way up to a 30 minute workout. Be patient with yourself as you seek to exercise your body, and if you find that you are sitting most of the day, make a schedule or set up a timer to get up and walk around every 20-30 minutes. Our small efforts toward physical exercise will make a big difference in our battle for mental strength. 

We are living in times of constant change and unique challenge. At times, the “easy way” feels like the only way. Yet, as we consider the threat being placed on our mental health, it is clear that we are in control of the outcome as we proactively choose to do the things that fight our feelings of uncertainty, sadness, and fear. Choosing to eat a healthy diet and engaging in daily physical activity may not appear to be the easy way out, but they are one of the only ways to access joy and peace as we fight for our mental health during these turbulent times. As we make our physical health a priority, we will strengthen our mental capacity to cope, overcome, and press forward. 

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.

Finding Joy In Troubling Times Through Small Changes

As your world continues to change drastically each day, you can rise to the challenges it brings through small daily habits that bring peace and happiness into your everyday life. 

With the recent unprecedented changes to social, occupational, and daily living routines, it seems that the world is in a constant state of panicked isolation. These new changes to the familiar flow of our lives bring many challenges, both seen and unseen, that can leave us feeling anxious, alone, depressed, and defeated. At a time when uncertainty is universal, hope may feel out of reach; however, small adjustments to our daily routines can have a profound impact on our mental health. This post acts as part one in a series of posts related to maintaining your mental health amidst the changing conditions of the world. Threats to our mental health are more frequent now than ever; this series presents solutions and ideas to combat threats and encourage goodness. 

Medical professionals are beginning to recognize the effects of the world’s newly adopted lifestyle, and they have some strategies that can help us to maintain our mental hygiene while our lives feel out of balance. The first suggestion I will focus on is a strategy called, “MAPS”. The acronym stands for Mastery, Altruism, Pleasure, and Silence. While these terms are familiar to many, their application isn’t overly intuitive, so let’s dive a little deeper into what they may look like for you. 

Mastery

Mastery encompasses any activity that leads you to feel a sense of accomplishment. It can be as simple as making your bed or as complex as learning a new language. The idea is that you choose at least one activity everyday that helps you feel a sense of purpose. Write down your tasks, check them off when they have been completed, and reflect on the small victories you have had each day. Acknowledging the things that you have accomplished brings a sense of purpose instead of the regret of wasting another day. 

Altruism

An activity that incorporates doing good for another person is considered an act of altruism. Although we may feel confined and restricted in our ability to do good, there are many kind acts that do not require physical contact. For example, calling or video-chatting with a friend or family member, sending a letter, or a curbside delivery of needed groceries are great ways to serve while keeping everyone safe. Keep in contact with those you care about. When we look outside ourselves, our worries and problems lighten and we open ourselves up to happiness. 

Pleasure

Do something that you enjoy! For me, cooking has been a delightful distraction from the heaviness of the world. Take time to discover (or rediscover) the small things that bring you joy. Create something new; go for a walk; try out painting; take a long shower. If you anticipate that some activities may not be enjoyable, try it out anyway. Even “faking it” can lead to eventual enjoyment that will be essential in the long run. 

Silence

This strategy may seem counterintuitive, but research has proven that having a period of silence each day allows our brain to settle and be mindful in the moment. Social media, television, and even your favorite music need to be silenced in order to enjoy the anti-anxiety effects of mindfulness and silence. Turn off your phone, close the computer, pause the episode, and take a deep breath. Don’t think about what you ate for breakfast or the laundry that needs to be folded tonight; think only of the moment you are living in. Focus on your breath, the sensations that you feel, the smells around you, and let the silence set in. Daily periods of silence ultimately activate your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to rest and digest properly. 

The strategies are not meant to be performed perfectly or act as another item on an endless to-do list, but rather provide direct access to improved mental health, a sense of hope for the future, and a feeling of peace that appears so out of reach lately. Big or small, making these simple daily efforts can lead to significant changes in your attitude and mental health. The current condition of the world is unsettling. Discouragement, fear for the future, anxiety and uncertainty may occupy our thoughts frequently, but we can create moments of purpose, solace, and joy as we master small tasks each day, serve others around us, do the things we love, and take time to be silent. 

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.

Lydia Judd is a senior at Brigham Young University studying psychology. She lives in Dallas, TX with her husband where she works as an RBT at Blue Sprig Pediatrics.  

Escaping the Fear Trap

In a world deeply enveloped in fear, we can choose to avoid the traps that leave us feeling helpless.

The first time I remember really feeling fear was when I was in the second grade. The cold, dry winter air did not couple well with my asthma, and one night I found myself struggling for air in the middle of a terrifying asthma attack. Usually my mom or dad would grab my albuterol to calm my panicked breaths, but this time, my medicine was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t catch my breath despite all effort, and I began to worry that I never would. My mom found my medicine after some relentless searching and my breathing settled before the situation became desperate, but I still vividly remember the feeling of fear that petrified me as I searched hopelessly for air to fill my empty lungs. 

Fear is the central nervous system’s physiological and emotional response to a serious threat to one’s well being. While fear can prepare us for fight or flight responses in dangerous situations, it can also become a roadblock to progress and peace if prolonged. 

After the events of 9/11, unprecedented fear and terror filled the lives of millions of Americans. Curious how such an intense fear could spread so rapidly, researchers began to study the roots of fear. Their findings completely changed my perspective of fear and how it is cultivated. 

The study found that the roots of human fear stem from what researchers call risk perceptions. Risk perception suggests that we attribute fear to things that pose any risk toward us– the more the risk, the more the fear. This explains why humans appear to fear similar things (like heights or spiders), why we subconsciously decide what we are afraid of (like skydiving, even if we’ve never done it), and why our responses to risk are not always internal or rational, but rather emotional (screaming in a scary movie), reflecting our values and perceptions of a risk itself.

What are the Fear Factors?

What I found most interesting from my research about fear was that there were common underlying factors which seemed to alter how risks are perceived, ultimately increasing the fear experienced by populations at large toward a particular risk. I’ll share a few of these factors and invite you to consider how they may affect your risk perceptions and consequent fear. 

Factor 1: Awareness

As our awareness of a risk increases, so does our fear. Awareness can be generated by the media, word of mouth, and even personal experience.

Factor 2: Uncertainty

The more uncertain we feel of a risk, the more afraid we are. Where did the risk come from? When? Who? Is it likely to affect me? 

Factor 3: Newness 

We are more afraid of risks that are new rather than those that have been around for a while. After we’ve lived with a risk for a while, we gain a better perspective and understand the real dangers posed by the risk. 

Factor 4: Control

The more control we feel we have over a certain risk, the less fear we feel. Less control over a risk brings about greater fear. This is why people ride bicycles without helmets and rarely hesitate to drive their car; they are in control. Does this lessen the risk of injury or harm? Perhaps not, but it establishes a sense of control. 

How can we Escape the Fear Trap? 

I present these factors in hopes that you may realize, like me, that sometimes our fears do not match the facts. Whether your fears are work, school, home, family, or world-related, they can be pressing, consuming, and heavy. Yet, as we look at these factors, it’s clear that we can choose to escape the fear trap by making small, simple decisions that align our fears more with reality:

Monitor Awareness

While the media presents incredible information and benefits, it can also be a fire hydrant of facts. Monitor the sources you trust, limit your time on social media, and seek information from reliable sources. 

Discover What You Know 

There are so many uncertain things in life, but there is so much that is certain! Although there may be aspects of risk that we cannot find the answers to, there are truths and facts that can help us to feel more certain about our future. Focus on the things you know and the things that don’t change as a result of risk. 

Practice Patience

When risks are new, they feel more threatening. We can avoid the tendency to overreact by reminding ourselves to be patient. Even when others respond fearfully to news risks, we can recognize new ways to learn, live, and grow as we become familiar with risks, instead of being afraid of them. 

Control the Controllable

While some things will always lay outside of our control, we can focus on the things we can control. Study for your upcoming test; make an emergency preparedness kit; wear a seatbelt in the car. We will never be able to eliminate all risk, but we can decrease our fear as we focus on the things we can control. 

In a world deeply enveloped in fear, we can choose to avoid the traps that leave us feeling helpless. Although it takes great effort, we can handle the fear we face by heightening our awareness, focusing on what we know, learning to live with risk, and recognizing our control. Risks may always abound, but we decide how we will react to them. Let us choose courage and conscience as we encounter the risks that raid our lives. 

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas. 

References: 

Comer, R. J., & Comer, J. S. (2018). Abnormal psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers/Macmillan Learning.

Gray, G. M., & Ropeik, D. P. (2002). Dealing with the dangers of fear: the role of risk communication. Health Affairs, 21(6), 106-116.

Making the Most of This Quarantined Spring Break

Family Time

“You will never look back on life and think, ‘I spent too much time with my kids.’” ~Unknown

A good friend of mine recently posted a darling picture of her family–toddler and all–hiking along a trail in the foothills of Utah. She said their family had a goal in 2020 to spend 1,000 hours outside. You read that right, one thousand hours spent outdoors. I love that idea so much! She found what helps her family connect and they have made a goal to do more (lots more) of it this year. Since Spring Break is nigh upon us, I want to talk about ways to connect with your family and create meaningful memories together, even with everything that is happening in the world right now!

Let’s first define connection so we all know what we are working towards. Connection in relationships means closeness, mutual trust, empathy, respect, loyalty, and love. This connection is what enables any relationship to continue on and deepen. When you feel connected or close to someone, you know you can rely on one another, and the relationship is meaningful. Connection is not a one-time occurrence; rather, it is a continual connection that strengthens any relationship.

What relationships could be more important than those you have with your family?  What can you do to connect with your family members this spring break? Here are some steps to ensure you spend quality time and create beautiful memories together:

  1. Be present. It is impossible to have connection if you are distracted or multi-tasking. Put down your phone. Turn off the TV. Hide the iPad. You and I live in a world filled with any and every distraction imaginable; yet all your children truly want is to be seen, heard, and noticed. They want your time and attention.  They want YOU. You are your child’s role model, best friend, biggest fan, and hero. You may unintentionally make your children feel like second best if your texts or Instagram take priority over what your children have to say or show you. So start connecting with those who truly matter to you by first disconnecting from what does really not matter.
  2. Explore hobbies. My friend’s family found a common hobby: they all enjoy spending time outside hiking. Maybe your family enjoys family bike rides. Or going to the park. Or grilling up delicious kebabs. Some families love playing board games, making cookies, doing chalk art, going on walks, reading together, watching movies, upping the ante a bit and making movies (aka filming, editing and whatnot; it is quite the creative process!); playing with legos, going on a drive, exercising together, playing sports, going swimming, traveling, etc. There are infinite possibilities for ways your family can spend time together. If you are unsure about what your family likes doing together, you can take turns trying someone else’s hobby! For example, if Gramma enjoys watercolor painting, perhaps you could try that activity as a family. If Dad likes bird watching, the family can try that together. Find a family hobby and do it this spring break!
  3. Make life skills fun. You can teach your children important and helpful skills and also have fun together. Give each child a chance to pick the menu for a meal and do the whole process together: come up with ideas, make the list, buy the food, prepare the meal, then sit down and eat together. Or you could spend time working together in the yard; maybe that spot you clear weeds out of is where you sleep or star gaze together one night? Declutter your home. Spring cleaning can be fun; help your children appreciate that fresh feeling that comes from deep cleaning! Wash the car and have a water fight. Have a competition picking up litter off the beach or in your neighborhood. Doing these types of activities together is simultaneously instructive and fun. Surely a great use of your time!
  4. Make a family bucket list. It is relatively early in the year; you still have time to seize 2020! What are some things you want to see, do, learn, or experience as a family? My friend made a goal to spend 1,000 hours outside. A great bucket list goal! Another friend has several family bucket list items for 2020: Making it to Redwood National Forest, visiting Four Corners Monument, going camping several times, taking the family fishing, learning to make ebelskivers, and painting and organizing the garage. A family bucket list does not mean that every item has to be expensive or time-consuming. Tailor your bucket list to your financial situation and interests as a family, and then make it happen! 

Spring break only comes but once a year. Make the most of it by connecting and making memories as a family! Be present, participate in fun hobbies, learn life skills, and make a family bucket list. Spring break will fly by, and you will be left with beautiful memories and a fun bucket list to keep you busy the rest of the year. Happy spring break!

Best,

Melissa

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

References:

Understanding Your Child’s Love Language

Love Languages

“It’s not enough to love your kids. You have to know how to communicate love to a child so that he genuinely feels loved.” ~ Dr. Chapman

Dr. Laura Markham, founder of “Aha! Parenting,” clinical psychologist, and mother says, “The kids who thrive are the ones who feel loved, accepted and cherished for exactly who they are.” One of the most important things you can do for your child–if not the most important–is consistently show genuine love. I am a believer in Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages. I have written about them at length in the context of adult relationships, but they also apply to the way children receive love from their parents and caregivers. Today, I want to put a new spin on it, though; I have never before talked about how to understand and apply the Love Languages with your littles. Though there are slight differences in the Love Languages between adults and children, the basics remain the same. Read on to know how to identify your child’s Love Language, as well as ideas for how to speak it, and pitfalls to avoid. 

TOUCH

“Mama, come snuggle me.”

If your child is constantly in your space, touching you, trying to sit on your lap, or playing with your hair, there’s your signal that he/she thrives on physical touch. Some children do not like hugging or snuggling; do not make the mistake of thinking all kids crave physical touch! While children in general enjoy being physically close to their parents, it is much more pronounced in children with this Love Language.

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: Snuggle on the couch. Let your child sit on your lap. Offer foot massages. Give high fives. Hold hands. Make a secret handshake (one mother squeezes her daughter’s hand three times to nonverbally say, “I love you”). Wrestle or try other sports that require jostling. 

Warning: Spanking or hitting any child is damaging in any and all cases, but it is particularly so to those children whose primary Love Language is physical touch. Also, according to Dr. Markham, research has shown that dads grow increasingly less physically affectionate as their daughters develop; she suggests making a habit of good-morning and good-night hugs, so it is already in place as kids get older.

GIFTS

“Daddy, will you get me a toy?”

For those children whose Love Language is gifts, they see a present as a symbol of your love. They love when you give them things. Children with this love language tend to care about how a present is wrapped. They often remember who gave them what for months or years after the fact. They also may have trouble throwing out things they have been given, even if they hardly use them. Now, before you freak out thinking your child is materialistic or that you are going to go broke buying all the things, let me talk you off that cliff. 

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: You do not need to buy a million toys to let your child know you love him/her. A gift can be anything from a very smooth stone to a ball of yarn in her favorite color. You could leave an origami creation on your child’s chair or a wildflower on her pillow. One grown woman with this love language said, “Every year since I left for college, my mom has mailed me leaves from Wisconsin so I can enjoy a bit of fall from home while living in California.”  Stickers and star charts are also concrete ways of making these children feel valued, says Parents advisor Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of the DVD and book The Happiest Baby on the Block. Low-cost options, people.

Warning: Avoid accumulating meaningless things. Give gifts that bear some meaning or are special to your child for some reason. Also, try to give gifts that are age-appropriate (for example, give your three year-old something that will stimulate her brain and encourage her to develop creativity, etc). When you are on the receiving end, be sure to make a big deal of any gifts your child gives you by hanging artwork or creating a “precious things” table for those tender presents from your youngster.

WORDS

“Mama, listen to me!”

These are the kids who listen intently and speak sweetly. They beam whenever you praise them, always have something to tell you about, and live for your loving words in return. For these children, it is not just what you say, but how you say it. They know when you are distracted or halfhearted, and it deflates them to the core.

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: 

Leave little notes in their lunch box, send texts, or even give a bracelet with something like “my hero” printed on it. Generously praise your child and let them know you see the good in them. One mother, Auburn Daily, will get down on her toddler’s level, stare into her eyes, and say, “You are the best thing in my life. You are so important to me.” Dr. Karp suggests telling a stuffed animal or anyone who will listen about something your kid did well, since research shows we all believe more of what we overhear than what is told directly to us.

Warning:  Regardless of who you are, insults cut deep. Try not to make blanket statements about these children being “bad listeners,” “bad sharers,” or anything of the like. Also, Dr. Chapman says it is particularly important for these children to hear the words “I love you” standing alone, rather than, “I love you, but …” 

SERVICE

“Mama, can you put my shoes on?”

These children may beg you to tie their shoes for them, fix a broken toy, or fluff their pillow. They like having your help–even with things they are capable of doing on their own. While it may feel like servitude to you, it is the deepest expression of love to these children!

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: One mother reports that helping her daughter get dressed in the morning is one way of doing this. Another mother says her son exclaims, “Tank you, mama, das so nice of you!” anytime she serves him food. Basic things like that show your children you love them. You can also go above and beyond by doing things like warming their clothes in the dryer on a cold morning, helping them clean up their room, or getting a stain out of a favorite shirt. 

Warning: Parents of these kids often end up feeling like servants. Obviously you want to encourage self-reliance and obedience to household rules, so picking up after your child over time may prove to be a hindrance. As with all children, it is important to encourage self-reliance and expect them to do what they can for themselves at each stage of development. The best act of service you can provide is walking your child through a new process and teaching him, step-by-step, how to be more capable.

TIME

“Daddy, come read me a story!”

These children feel most valued when you choose to spend time with them. A child who often says, “Watch this!” or, “Play with me,” is begging for quality time. Dr. Chapman’s own daughter would say, “Daddy, come to my room! I want to show you something.” They spell love t-i-m-e. 

Here are some ideas to speak this love language:  For these kids, time can be spent together doing anything. Reading books, building a tower, wrestling, snuggling, watching a movie, baking, eating, swinging, etc. All they want is you….and your undivided attention. This does not mean that you need to scrap your to-do list in order to show your children your love; instead dedicate blocks of time to your child. Dr. Markham calls this “special time,” and says it can be short, but let your child choose the activity, and be fully present the whole time. 

Warning: If your child’s love language is quality time, banishing him or her away for time out in isolation is the severest of punishments. If you have done “special time” but your child still seems to be craving your attention, try having him/her play at your side while you read or work. 

Can you see the 5 Love Languages through the eyes of your child? As you pay attention to what your child asks for, you will pinpoint his/her love language. If you are still struggling to figure out what your child’s language is, take this quiz. And remember that love languages can morph and change over time. As you embark on this journey to understand and speak your child’s language, they will feel your love, and your connection with them will grow. As always, should you find that you need help, please do not hesitate to contact me!

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

References:

Debunking the Myth: Men CAN Have Anxiety

“No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside,” he wrote. “Not talking about our inner lives robs us of really getting to know ourselves and robs us of the chance to reach out to others in need.” 

~Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers 

There is much conversation about women experiencing anxiety in the workplace, in forming and maintaining relationships, all throughout motherhood… It is well understood that women of all ages across the globe undeniably face anxiety in nearly every stage of their lives. But why are men so quickly excluded from the dialogue on anxiety? In today’s post, I would like to do my part in creating an open conversation on men and anxiety!

Do men experience anxiety, too? The short answer is a resounding yes! Anxiety is no respecter of person; men and women alike are vulnerable to its effects. Everyone feels anxious from time to time. Not only is it common, but it is actually important that humans have the capacity to feel anxious because anxiety is the body’s way of telling you that there is a threat that needs attention. (Note: With an anxiety disorder, a person may repeatedly respond to situations as if there is a perceived threat, although there is not one.) While both men and women can feel anxious during their lives, they tend to respond to their anxiousness differently. 

The facts about men and anxiety:

  1. Studies have found that about 1 in 5 men (and about 1 in 3 women) will have an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. On top of that, only half of the men experiencing anxiety will be diagnosed and untreated! (In a recent Wall Street Journal article, it was reported that mental health professionals fear these figures grossly under-report male cases.)
  2. It is more common for men to experience anxiety than depression
  3. Men and women are prone to different types of anxieties. For instance, women are more commonly affected by generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and panic disorders than men. When it comes to social anxiety disorder specifically, men and women are equally affected. 
  4. Suicide rate among men is four times higher than the suicide rate among women. This is important to note because suicide is often set in motion by indicators of anxiety–narrowing of vision, a hopelessness, the sense that things are not going to get better, etc. 
  5. Anxiety manifests itself differently in men than in women. Women tend to manifest anxiety through nervousness, excessive worry and avoidance of frightening situations. Men manifest their anxiety in ways that often seem unrelated to anxiety which can lead to many instances going undiagnosed. Researchers and psychologists are finding that men report headaches, difficulty sleeping and muscle aches and pains. Or their anxiety is masked by anger, irritability, and aggression. Men are also more likely to use alcohol and drugs to cope with anxiety, so what looks like a drinking problem may actually be an underlying anxiety disorder. 
  6. It is more socially acceptable for men to employ strategies such as substance use and alcohol to suppress their emotions than to admit to anxiety. There needs to be more talk about productive resources like men needing a good friend with whom to talk, the benefits of self-care in combating anxiety, the power of communication instead of bottling up (or ignoring altogether) feelings of anxiousness. 
  7. Men are socialized to not ask for help or be vulnerable. An informative study found that when male (but not female) leaders ask for help, they are viewed as less competent, capable, and confident. And when men make themselves vulnerable by disclosing a weakness at work, they are perceived to have lower status. This is problematic as it becomes a vicious cycle where men needing help are not able to admit to it, let alone treat it. 

In my research on men and anxiety, I came across an example that perfectly illustrated the stigma around men and anxiety: A construction worker, who worked on scaffolding 30 feet high, described daily panic attacks that would come on quickly and would make him feel dizzy, nauseous, and disconnected from reality. This went on for ten years before he sought treatment. When he finally got help, he was asked why he had waited so long; he said he felt his ‘episodes’ were a manifestation of a weakness on his part. He believed he could control them (“mind over matter) but he tried for ten years without success. This construction worker did not free himself from his debilitating anxiety until he admitted to needing and sought for help. This is the case for any man or woman struggling with anxiety: Healing and balance is possible but often requires getting professional help. 

If you struggle with anxiety, reach out. Talk about it. Get help from a trained professional. Anxiety is not a weakness. Anxiety disorders are real–often a chemical imbalance of the brain. It exists in men and women. Men, you are not alone and it is okay to get help! Everyone deserves to live their life with tools to face anxiety and be in control of their life. Healing is possible! Please do not hesitate to contact me and schedule a session.

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

References:

The Good, the Bad, and Motherhood

Guest blogger, Karlin Davison, writes a personal account on her experiences with new motherhood.

When I started writing this, I was sitting on a plane headed for Idaho with a lively, almost-one-year-old, baby boy that was supposed to sleep at least 2 hours but woke up after only 45 minutes. This was not his first flight, but it was our first without my husband to help keep us both calm and entertained. Was I panicking? No. Actually, I stayed very calm the whole time. This realization, 11 long months into this journey called motherhood, felt like a miracle.

I am the oldest of 6 children, and number 6 of 41 grandchildren to my maternal grandparents. I spent countless hours of my adolescent life begrudgingly babysitting my siblings and cousins; taking care of babies was not a new concept to me. As much as I hated it growing up, I have always loved children and especially babies. As an adult I was grateful for those experiences and I thought that it would serve me well when I decided to start my own family. I had dealt with some anxiety as a teenager and adult, but nothing that had ever stopped me from living my life. I was 24 years old when my husband graduated with a bachelor’s degree and we moved to Texas. Soon after that I experienced some more serious anxiety and even saw a therapist a few times, but I wasn’t prescribed any medication and it was resolved fairly quickly.

Our baby was carefully planned for and wanted, but I was still a little leery when we found out we were pregnant. I had always dreamt of a big family, but after 5 years of marriage I was so happy just spending time with my husband and doing all the things that I knew would be much harder once we had children. The day our son was born was a joyful day, but it was also exhausting and a little scary. When they finally placed him in my arms after 2.5 hours of pushing, I knew I loved him, but I was not overwhelmed by the kind of love it seemed many of my friends and every mom on social media had described. As soon as we moved out of the delivery room and the nurses started teaching me to breastfeed, the anxiety set in. The first 24 hours were such a blur with nurses coming in and out, a baby boy we were busy getting to know, and trying to catch up on sleep. When the doctor came in and said that our sweet little guy had jaundice, would need to stay another night, and be tested again in the morning I felt my anxiety get stronger. I had a hard time eating or sleeping, and it felt like every hour we were stuck there at the hospital those anxious feelings got even stronger. We ended up having to stay 4 nights in the hospital before the doctors were comfortable sending us home. I felt much better when we finally got home, and I was sure that everything was going to be great from that point on. 

It only took a few days for me to realize that my anxiety was still there and getting worse. There were days when the hair on the back of my neck would be standing on end all day. I would feel out of breath and panicky like I was about to have a panic attack, except that the attack itself would not come; I would just sit right on the edge of it all day until my husband got home. If I was around someone who was pregnant or had more than one child, it was all I could do to not get sick. I was so obsessed with keeping our apartment clean that I couldn’t rest or sleep when the baby was sleeping. I didn’t know how to answer when people asked how we were doing. I am not a good liar, but I also didn’t want to unload my heavy burden onto their unsuspecting shoulders. Every time a well-meaning friend asked if we were getting any sleep, I just wanted to slap the look of concern off their face. I was constantly checking on my baby to make sure he was breathing, but I would also think that if he wasn’t breathing then maybe my life would go back to normal and I wouldn’t have to feel like this anymore. 

The first time I experienced what I would later learn were passive suicidal thoughts, we were staying at my in-law’s house for the weekend and I was sitting up in bed at 2:00am trying to comfort a crying four-week-old baby while my husband slept soundly next to me. I had already fed, burped, and changed him but he just wasn’t having it. I sat there with tears streaming down my face, trying not to punch my husband, and contemplating jumping out the window and running away. My in-laws live in the middle of nowhere though, so it would have taken me too long to find a bus or airport to actually take me somewhere far away. I then found myself pondering other possible scenarios that involved me getting out of the situation. I’m not sure how much time passed before I caught myself, terrified, and thought “am I suicidal?” I had no idea what to think. All I knew was that I was miserable and having a baby wasn’t supposed to be this hard. On top of the anxiety, I was angry. I felt like I had been lied to by all my friends, family, and anyone who had ever said that having a family was a good decision. I was so intensely angry, even though I am a woman – whose body was designed to bear children, that this was all so incredibly difficult and exhausting.

When our son was six weeks old, we took our first trip as a family of three to Idaho to introduce him to my extended family. I was a basket-case on the plane, of course, but we made it. I had hoped that being home in Idaho around my family would help me feel better, but it didn’t. Feeling like I had to put on a smile for everyone just made me feel worse. We happened to be there over Mother’s Day, and I remember laying on my bed in the dark scrolling and scrolling through Instagram in tears as I read all of the sunshine-and-rainbow stories about motherhood. I couldn’t understand how these women were so happy and I hated that I couldn’t feel the same way. I had been pretty open with my ever-so-patient and loving husband about how I was feeling, but it was on this trip that he finally convinced me to call my doctor. My doctor and her nurses talked to me and called in a prescription for me to pick up the next day. When I got in the car alone to drive to the pharmacy, I kept thinking about how easy it would be to just run the next red light and hope someone ran into me. 

When we got back to Texas two weeks later, I had a follow up with my doctor and she referred me to a therapist who works specifically with women experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms related to pregnancy and the postpartum period. Just walking through her door, with the knowledge that I was taking the first step forward for myself, made me feel a tiny bit better. Ladies…that funny, sweet, knowledgeable therapist was amazing! I learned that I was indeed experiencing postpartum anxiety, and that things were going to get better. We talked through the anger I was feeling about motherhood being so incredibly difficult. I learned that I was never expected to do this alone and that I needed to let more people in. I learned that yes, despite it being so difficult, my body and mind were made for this. She taught me that I am capable of getting through the dark days and finding joy. I learned that the intrusive thoughts and passive suicidal thoughts I was having were actually very common and that they did not make me a suicidal person. She taught me to say the words out loud and not let those scary thoughts stay a dirty secret in the back of my mind. By some miracle I never felt guilty about my feelings, or lack thereof, toward my son. I did, however, feel like I owed more to my husband. We had made the decision to start a family together after all, and I felt terribly guilty that I wasn’t holding up my end of bargain. Over time I learned to forgive myself and actually believe my husband when he told me that he still loved me, he was proud of me, and that he knew I was a good mother. 

 Despite hoping that there would be a magical quick fix, my son was 4 months old before I started to see a tiny window of light at the end of the tunnel. But that light was definitely there, and I kept walking toward it. I took a few more baby steps forward and he was 5 months when I could honestly say the words “We are okay!” and mean it. I cannot not express how amazing it felt when I realized that I really was okay, and could see that it was possible for me to feel good in the future. With all of the patience and love my husband and therapist had to offer, I kept walking forward and the baby steps turned into normal steps. As I kept walking forward, I felt better about myself and my love for my son grew too. I stopped wondering where the guns were, I stopped hoping I’d get in a car accident, and I stopped wondering whether it would really be a bad thing if my baby stopped breathing. My son was 7 months old when I started to truly, deeply enjoy my baby and the new life we were building together.

Now, 11 months in, I am so madly in love and obsessed with our son! He has sparkly blue eyes and a beautiful toothy-but-gummy-at-the-same-time smile. I love the way his tiny hands feel in mine, and the way he dances when he is excited about something. My favorite time to kiss him is right after a nap and his cheeks feel like hot buttered rolls. He is the sweetest joy and I can’t imagine life without him. I have grown and changed, alongside my son, in ways I didn’t even know I was capable of. I am so incredibly grateful that we made the decision to start a family. I am even more grateful for the people in my life who were so kind and patient and helped me through it all, especially my nearly-perfect husband. A couple days after we returned from our most recent trip to Idaho, I took my son with me to the grocery store. Luckily, he was still snoozing away as we made our way to the checkout counter. Another mom, wrangling a wiggly 3-year-old in one arm and groceries in the other, got there the same time we did. I told her to go ahead of me but she replied, “No you go, you’re on a nap schedule!” It went without saying that we both were just trying to work through our to do list and get on our way. I wasn’t embarrassed or uncomfortable that someone was taking pity on me, but glad that we understood each other. She knew what it was like to be in my shoes. At that moment I finally realized that being in the mom club isn’t so bad, it’s actually pretty cool and I am happy to count myself a member. 

While I was pregnant, countless people said to me “motherhood is hard, but it’s so worth it!” At the time I was so annoyed and sick of hearing those words, I just wanted them to shut up and let me experience it for myself. Since then I have wished many, MANY times that someone had at least tried to explain to me how hard becoming a mother actually is. I’m not one to sugar-coat things and I have been fairly open about my healing process, but when I was invited to write this piece, I knew that I had a story to tell. I want to be honest in the way that I wish others had been honest with me. Having babies is hard. All caps, bold font, H-A-R-D. It is nearly impossible to do alone, but there is light and happiness at the end of that impossibly dark and terrifying tunnel. There is hope. Things will absolutely get better. I know that you have probably already heard too many people tell you that “You are doing better than you think you are.” Well, as I finish writing my story, I am realizing that those words are absolutely true. I have come so far since the day my son was born. I am giving myself a pat on the back, a gold star on my forehead.  I am doing much better than I thought I was, and SO ARE YOU!

Karlin Davison is a country girl from Idaho who fell in love with city life while living in Hong Kong. She is an accomplished hairstylist complete with a pink pixie cut she’s been wearing with confidence since 2017.  Karlin and her husband, Preston, live in East Dallas with their 11-month-old son, Beckett.

Breaking Up With Your Relationship Anxiety

“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.” ~ Kahil Gibran

You are dating someone wonderful. You are happy. You are strongly attracted to your partner. There is a deep level of trust, commitment, and enjoyment in your relationship. Yet, despite it all, you find yourself ruminating… what if she is not the right one for you? What if she is hiding some deep, dark secret? What if she is perfect but you worry about her sticking around? You fear that you are incapable of maintaining a healthy relationship and that your partner will soon find out and leave you. 

This downward spiral of thought is known as relationship anxiety. If you can relate, raise your hand. You are not alone! Relationship anxiety is actually quite normal. You might feel anxious at the beginning of a relationship–before your partner shows mutual interest in you. Or maybe you feel anxious even in the most established of relationships. You may wonder if you matter to your partner, if he/she will always be there for you, if he/she is still attracted to you, etc. The doubts can creep up in all aspects of your relationship at any given moment, really.

Oftentimes, the relationship anxiety is not necessarily caused by anything in the relationship itself (though it certainly can lead to behaviors that negatively affect your relationship). Relationship anxiety may be caused by negative experiences in previous relationships, low self-esteem, and the attachment style you developed during childhood. 

The good news is, if you are experiencing relationship anxiety, there are some simple things you can do to choose your relationship over your anxiety: 

  1. Do not pull away. An overarching theme I have seen in research and in my clients is that when you are feeling relationship anxiety, you will be inclined to pull away from your partner. You distance yourself for fear of appearing weak, overly sensitive, or a myriad of other untrue perceptions. Though it is in self-preservation, this step often damages your relationship. Do not pull away!
  2. Connect with your partner. Instead of physically and emotionally closing yourself off to your partner, work to draw closer to him/her. Connect with your partner in ways meaningful to your specific relationship; spend time one-on-one together, go on a date, do a fun activity, be intimate…whatever it is, connect with your partner. Also, be up front about the relationship anxieties you are experiencing. Express your feelings and emotions, and describe what you are going through. Being honest and open about your anxieties can quiet your fears/worries about your relationship, and will bring you closer together. This type of vulnerability inevitably leads to meaningful connection, which breeds relationship security and satisfaction. 
  3. Express your feelings. use your words…express yourself! Relationship anxiety comes from within and often has nothing to do with your partner; if, however, something specific is fueling your anxiety (ie: your partner playing on their phone when you talk or not wanting to visit your family for the holidays) try bringing it up in a respective and non-accusatory way. Use “I” statements. Through their research, Kashdan et al. found that relationship closeness is enhanced when negative emotions are openly expressed. Though you might initially think the contrary, expressing your feelings can actually lessen your anxiety and help you connect with your partner!
  4. Keep your self-esteem tank full. As I said earlier, oftentimes relationship anxiety sprouts from a lack of self-esteem. Remember that your partner likes YOU for who you are. Work to maintain your identity instead of being who you think your partner wants you to be. Be true to yourself! Practicing self-care and mindfulness help immensely with the constant effort of keeping your self-esteem tank full. See the plethora of self-care posts on my blog for more ideas on how to do this! 

In addition to the above ideas, counsel with a therapist. In therapy, you learn tools that will help you express your feelings, stay true to yourself, and connect in meaningful ways with those you love. As a trained, experienced therapist, I see individuals and couples battling relationship anxiety fairly often. I am here to help. Please contact me today to get started!  

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

Sources:

Cluff, Melissa:  “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”; “The Key to Slowing Down in a Fast-Paced World”; “Love Languages: Showing Love Through the Gift of Quality Time”; “The Power Behind Vulnerability”; “Self-care: Is it Selfish?”; “Self-Esteem & Self-Worth: Two essential Components of the Self”

Kashdan, Todd B.; Volkmann, Jeffrey R.; Breen, William B.; Han, Susan (2007). Social anxiety and romantic relationships: The costs and benefits of negative emotion expression are context-dependent. Journal of Anxiety Disorders: 21(4), 475-492. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.08.007.

Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., MacDonald, G., & Ellsworth, P. C. (1998). Through the looking glass darkly? When self-doubts turn into relationship insecurities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(6), 1459–1480. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.75.6.1459

Porter, Eliora & Chambless, Dianne L (2013). Shying Away From a Good Thing: Social Anxiety in Romantic Relationships. Journal of Clinical Psychology 70(6), 546-561). https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22048

Practical Principles for the Practically Perfect

OCD

Anxiety manifests itself in many forms. Phobias, social anxiety, panic disorder, and even obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are commonly categorized under the umbrella of anxiety. There is, however, another emerging diagnostic disorder with which I have personally become familiar with in recent years: perfectionism. 

Perfectionism plays a major role in a variety of psychological disorders. Despite an abundance of research, there is still no concrete definition of what it is. Perfectionism can be characterized by excessive concern over making mistakes, high personal standards, the perception of high parental/employer expectations, doubting quality of one’s actions, and a preference for order and organization. From afar, it may not seem so harmful, but it can interfere with routines, everyday interactions, and emotional regulation. 

I didn’t recognize the severity of perfectionism that I experienced until my junior year of college. I sat in a lecture focused on the difference between being outcome-oriented and task-oriented. The professor explained that outcome-oriented people feel the need to seek approval from others. They are in constant need of validation and often set extreme goals that are not achievable. Task oriented people were those who live in the present, set realistic goals, and do not rely on the approval of others for their success. As I considered these opposing mindsets, it was apparent that I resembled the first; I panicked at the thought of future failure, set practically impossible goals for myself, and sought success from the approval of others. 

What then, is the relationship between an outcome-oriented mindset and perfectionism? Outcome-oriented individuals spend little time living in the present. Instead, they are focused on future outcomes or past failures. Performance psychologist Craig Manning teaches that anxiety comes from living in the future. When our thoughts are constantly centered on future events where we are expected to perform, our anxiety spikes. It turns out that agonizing over the past doesn’t help much either. As we set our focus on past failures or mistakes, our confidence in our ability to perform in the future decreases, again leading to high anxiety levels pointed toward future performance. 

Although perfectionism isn’t notably linked with the outcome-oriented mindset in psychological literature, the connection that I drew between the two was the spark that ignited my path towards empowerment. While my tendencies toward perfectionist symptoms are deeply rooted in past experiences, there is so much that I, and others who experience perfectionism, can do right now to lower the anxious feelings and constant stress. 

First, we can work on setting realistic expectations. Growing up, I relied on the expectations of others to guide the expectations I held for myself. This is normal as we are learning and growing, but eventually, we should begin to set our own expectations and determinants for success. Setting realistic expectations requires that we consider our strengths and limitations. In recognizing what we can do, we also acknowledge room for error, improvement, and learning. People who experience high volumes of perfectionism often perceive that others have extreme goals and expectations for their behavior. Setting our own expectations draws attention away from others’ expectations for us and towards the expectations we set for ourselves. Although difficult, learning to set realistic expectations allows us to worry less about others and spend more time living in the present. 

Another tool we can use to calm anxious perfectionism is proactive self talk. Proactive self talk is a popular practice in performance psychology. It includes using proactive language, recognizing skills, and being aware of our thought patterns. Many athletes and teams use proactive self talk to improve sports performance, but its effects extend past the arena or stadium. Proactive self talk has actually been proven to lower levels of anxiety when performing under pressure. For perfectionists, proactive self talk becomes a tool that instills confidence in concrete skills and actions that enhance their performance. The fear of inability shifts to a confidence in individual ability. 

These practices are just a couple of methods that can lower the anxieties that accompany perfectionism. Personally, I have been empowered through a balance of professional therapy, diet and exercise, and research-informed practices. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional for assistance; they have resources and training that can link you with the help you need! 

Although my struggle with perfectionism hasn’t been easy, I have learned more compassion– both for myself, and for others. I have learned that it is empowering to speak out about my experiences and encourage others to share theirs. Most importantly, I have learned that there is help and there is hope for everyone experiencing mental illness. 

Lydia Judd is a senior at Brigham Young University studying psychology. She lives in Dallas, TX with her husband where she works as an RBT at Blue Sprig Pediatrics.  

Frost, R.O., Marten, P., Lahart, C. et al. Cogn Ther Res (1990) 14: 449. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01172967

Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Mpoumpaki, S., & Theodorakis, Y. (2009). Mechanisms underlying the self-talk–performance relationship: The effects of motivational self-talk on self-confidence and anxiety. Psychology of Sport and exercise, 10(1), 186-192

Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1996). The multidimensional perfectionism scale. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems Inc.

Manning, C. (2017). The fearless mind: 5 essential steps to higher performance. Springville, UT: CFI.

Q&A: Is My Anxiety Curable?

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.” ~ Helen Keller

Everyone feels worried from time to time. You may worry about a presentation you have to do in school or work; or perhaps you worry about your spouse on a work trip, or your child away from home for the first time. Feeling worried is a normal emotion. Feeling anxious, however, is different. Maybe you have experienced both sentiments, but presumed them to be synonymous? Join the club. These two terms are often used interchangeably in casual conversation, but, in reality, they are quite different. Read on to learn the fundamental differences between worry and anxiety, if anxiety is a curable or not, and four everyday tools anyone can use to manage anxiety.

How are worry and anxiety different?

In a study where 189 university students were asked about the differences between anxiety and worry, worry and anxiety were defined very similarly. However, certain negative outcomes–like depression and confusion–were more related to anxiety than to worry, and problem solving was more related to worry than to anxiety. Other key differences include the following:

Worry…

Is experienced in the head. 

Is specific

Does not provoke mental imagery elicit a cardiovascular response.

Is accompanied by problem solving. 

Creates mild emotional distress. 

Is caused by a specific concern.

Is often controllable. 

Is temporary. 

Does not impact one’s overall functioning. 

Is considered to be a normal/common emotional state. 

Anxiety…

Is manifest in the body.
Is vague or general.

Provokes mental imagery and elicits a cardiovascular response.

Is not accompanied with problem solving.

Creates severe emotional distress. 

Is a non-specific, broad fear.

Is difficult to control. 

Lingers. 

Does impact one’s overall functioning. 

Is not a normal/common emotional state.

Are you beginning to see the difference between being worried and experiencing anxiety? Though there is some overlap, the two emotions are actually quite different. If I could add one more, it would be that being worried occasionally usually does not lead one to see a therapist, whereas therapy can be very helpful with prolonged anxiety.

Is anxiety a life sentence? NO!

I always tell my clients, who are battling anxiety, that what they are facing is not a life sentence! While you may feel seriously burdened by your anxiety at present, you do not need to be controlled by it. The goal of therapy is not to get rid of everything that may be causing you anxiety, but rather to give you the tools to face your anxiety and to learn from it. 

Four things you can do TODAY to get relief from your anxiety:

  1. A deep relaxation technique. There are several options for this tool. I would recommend muscle relaxation, visualization, or meditation to start. Force yourself to slow down, take deep breaths, relax, and release some of the tension you are feeling. Here are some helpful apps: Calm; Stop, Breathe & Think; UCLA Mindful.
  2. 30 minutes of vigorous exercise. This suggestion may seem obvious as regular exercise is recommended to achieve optimal health. Exercising is an amazing tool in combating worry and anxiety. Exercising releases a feel-good hormone in the brain and nervous system that positively affects you physiologically–naturally combating worry and anxiety. Additionally, vigorous exercise during the day will lead to better sleep at night which has many benefits. There is great power found in exercising!
  3. Good nutritional habits. Similar to exercise, having a balanced diet will benefit you in many aspects of your life. When you fuel your body with a well-rounded diet to sustain yourself throughout the day, your overall health with be positively influenced. You will have more energy to deal with life’s stressors, you will be less likely to fall sick, and you will be able to think more clearly. All of these outcomes will aid you in the process of rising above worry and anxiety.
  4. Replacing negative self-talk with positive affirmations to counter mistaken beliefs. Self-care is a major focus with my clients, and one form of that is positive self-talk or affirmations. You are your own worst critic. When you change your self-talk from negative and degrading to supportive and loving, you will break negative patterns to see life (and yourself!) through a different lens. This is a major step in working through anxiety.

Your anxiety does not have to be a life sentence. Seek out an experienced, qualified therapist. Develop a daily practice of deep breathing/mindfulness, get up and move your body for 30 minutes a day, eat a colorful and balanced diet, and speak kindly to yourself. Implementing these four tools in tandem will yield astronomical results in combating anxiety. Let’s get started today!

References: