Letter Writing-a Path to Self Discovery

Connection. It’s a word we hear a lot today, but what does it really mean? We’re all so “connected” digitally–we text, we chat and share photos via social media, we FaceTime…but are those really the best ways we can connect?

During these unprecedented and uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to not only stay connected with the people we love, but to stay connected to ourselves and what is most important to us. Writing letters, especially writing a letter to ourselves, is one wonderful way to do that. 

On January 1, 2019, I started a rather unusual project: I set out to write one letter every day for an entire year. I wrote to my family, dear friends near and far, authors who have influenced me and even an old college professor. The project changed me. I became more likely to send thank you notes and letters for all sorts of things I typically took for granted. I noticed traits that I love about people I know and then told them about those things in a letter delivered right to their house. 

But the letter I wrote that made the most impact was the letter I wrote to myself. 

At first, it seems a bit odd. Sit down and write a letter…to myself? How could that make a difference in my life?

A letter to yourself helps in a few different ways. First, it helps you remember. We are so forgetful, aren’t we? We want to change our lives and improve our habits and stop wasting time on the unimportant things, but time slips by and we inevitably find ourselves back in our old grooves, doing the easy things we want to stop doing. It can feel so hard to change that it seems impossible at times. 

When you write a letter to yourself, include what is important to you–truly important. If you’re embarking on a big goal (like I was when I wrote my letter), write about why it’s important, and how you expect to feel once you’ve achieved what you set out to do. Be very specific. The more details you include in your reasons why you’re trying to change or achieve a specific goal, the more motivating it will be to re-read that letter. Which you should do, often. Read the letter every day if you’re serious about achieving your goal!

A letter is tangible–you can hold it in your hands and store it somewhere safe. I know that some people like to write important things on the notes app in their phones, but I think a hard copy, a handwritten letter is much more powerful. How many notes have you written to yourself on your phone that you’ve never read again? A letter in your own handwriting feels more personal, because it is more personal. A note on your phone is easy to ignore; a handwritten letter is impossible to ignore. And because it’s in an envelope with your name on it, it feels like a small gift to yourself (which it absolutely is). 

A letter to yourself is one of the most powerful antidotes against the hard, depressing times that are inevitable for all of us. When I first set my goal to write a daily letter, I was elated. I thought it was going to be wonderful to start on my project and write my letter each day. However, as January 1st approached, and the date when I had planned to begin the project drew nearer, I started to have serious doubts about the whole thing. I felt afraid of what other people might think of me. I wasn’t sure I had what it would take to see my goal through to the end.

Throughout 2019, my attitude and thoughts towards my letter writing project ebbed and flowed. Some days I thought I was amazing for writing my letter each day! Other days (and even weeks, or longer) I wanted to quit because it got hard. But because I had that letter to myself reminding me of why I started the project in the first place, it was a simple but powerful motivator to just keep going. Because the letter to myself reminded me of my why behind the project, reading it propelled me forward on the hard days when I just wanted to throw in the towel and leave the whole thing behind.

I hope you feel inspired to pick up a pen and paper and write a letter to yourself, today. Write about all the things that are going well in your life. Write about your recent successes. Then write about what your goals and dreams are, and remember to include your why behind those goals. And lastly (and perhaps most importantly)–read the letter you wrote again and again, especially on the hard days. 

I would love to hear about your letter writing to yourself if you choose to do it! Feel free to email me at: shannon@aforeverletter.com and tell me your story. 

Shannon Hood is the founder of A Forever Letter, a blog focused on inspiring people to set aside their phones and pick up a pen and write a letter to connect with the people they love. She also started a line of elegant stationery for letter writing which you can browse on her website. Find her online at www.aforeverletter.com or connect via Instagram @aforeverletter.

Piecing Together Pockets of Joy

As we creatively cultivate social interaction and learn how to manage our time, our days will be filled with happiness and hope. 

Hundreds of factors influence our mental health and well-being. From disruptions in our social contact to our regular routines, the current conditions of the world are placing millions at risk for a mental health crisis. Luckily, psychiatrists and physicians are actively aware of the impacts of this global crisis and have provided sound advice for us to follow. Threats to our mental health are more frequent now than ever; this series presents solutions and ideas to combat threats and encourage goodness.

While the technological advances in recent years have brought about unforeseen changes to society, none have been quite as significant (or isolating) as the current crisis. As the world has experienced mass cancellations of social events, drastic changes to work environments, at-home education and highly limited social contact, many are left feeling overwhelmed, lonely, distracted, endangered, and distant. Although there are restrictions to regular social activities, becoming aware of how to use the resources we do have can shed some light into our dark days. Let’s explore how daily socializing, monitoring media, and maintaining a schedule can bring happiness into our unique days. 

Daily Socializing 

A common misconception is that social distancing equates to social elimination. Socializing does not have to stop altogether; it can take a new form! Keep your plans to meet up with friends, visit your grandparents, or even have playdates with your children– just shift the location to a virtual meet-up. There are loads of options for video and voice chats: Facebook Messenger, Zoom, MicrosoftTeams, Facetime, GoogleHangouts, etc. The list goes on! If the internet is not accessible at home, a phone call works perfectly. Try to avoid using only social media and text messaging to stay connected with others; essential aspects of communication are lost in the absence of hearing or seeing another person. It may feel awkward at first, but your friends and family will be grateful to talk with you regardless of the platform. Seek to maintain contact with at least one person every day!

Monitoring Media Consumption

It has never been easier to get sucked into the virtual lives of all your friends via social media. Many people have the news playing all day for constant updates, and it seems that hours quickly pass checking others’ posts and opinions on social media. There is an over-saturation of information, most of which is crisis-related or hardly uplifting. Being informed is important during these times, but it is crucial for us to monitor how much media we are consuming, especially as it relates to pandemic-pointed opinions. Setting a media limit for yourself each day will allow you to gather the information you need to stay informed, while also protecting you from the negative effects that over-saturation can have on your mental health. 

Maintain A Schedule 

With many people now working from home and many children now learning from home, normal schedules and routines are a thing of the past. Sleeping in, taking naps, and working into the evening are ever appealing (and easily accessible), but slipping into these habits may prove harmful to your mental health in the long run. Insomnia, fatigue, and cognitive difficulties can result from long naps, late nights and prolonged rises. A written schedule detailing your plan for work, breaks, and relaxation may be beneficial as you try to navigate your new freedom. Stick to a schedule similar to what you did before working or learning from home. Allow breaks throughout the day, but don’t leave much work to do in the evenings. Your body needs time to decompress and relax before bed. Avoid screen time for two hours before bedtime and dedicate the evening hours to relaxation and reloading for the new day. Not only will this schedule encourage better sleep, it will also create a necessary sense of routine that has been lacking. 

It’s okay to feel uncertain, overwhelmed, lonely, or distant at times. Don’t hesitate to seek help from a medical professional if you feel that your mental health is rapidly declining. With the current circumstances, it’s vital for us to recognize how we are feeling mentally and take the necessary steps towards health and healing. Through creating opportunities to socialize each day, monitoring our media intake, and creating and sticking to a schedule, we can cultivate pockets of joy and light despite troubling circumstances. As we work to change the things that lie within our control, we can rise above negative feelings and find happiness in each unique day. 

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. 

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.

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:

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!

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The Link Between Mood Disorders and Addiction

About 20% of Americans with an anxiety or other mood disorder (like depression) also have an alcohol or other substance use disorder.

Do you get anxious when you have to speak in front of an audience, take a test, or talk with a superior? Or maybe when you are facing debt, in an argument with someone you care about or at the precipice of a potentially life-altering decision? Every human being faces experiences that cause anxiety, but some feel it more than others. Research indicates that there is a genetic predisposition to anxiety; some of our nervous systems are more prone to anxiety than others. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 40 million people in the United States have suffered from some kind of anxiety disorder, including panic attacks and phobias. When you face anxiety, how will you handle it?

(Note: While this blog post focuses primarily on the link between anxiety and addiction, I have witnessed, with my clients, that this information can be generalized to other mood disorders as well.)

Individuals who come from unstable families and lack secure attachment often experience generalized anxiety; they may turn to drugs to calm themselves down. Many teens begin to abuse alcohol in their adolescence; it is their way of managing social anxiety.  A friend of mine abused prescription medications after her brother’s suicide; it was her way of muting her overwhelming feelings of loss. Many addicts relapse; it is their way to escape reality. Several of my clients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience major anxiety; they have a difficult time regulating their nervous system responses and often turn to addictive substances for comfort.  Some people, however, face anxiety head on with exercise, self-care, hobbies, a balanced diet, etc. While everyone experiences some form of anxiety or a mood disorder (like depression) during their lives, only some individuals combat their anxiety with addictive substances.

The question begging to be asked is–does a mood disorder like  anxiety or depression cause addiction? No. So is there a link between anxiety and addiction? That answer is a resounding yes. Can it lead to it? Absolutely.

Anxiety consists of the excessive need for control; ignoring psychological and physical signs of stress; the unending need for approval; perfectionism; and strong reactions within the body and mind. The physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety are similar to withdrawal symptoms from drugs and alcohol. An addict will turn to substances, or other addictive behaviors to calm an anxious state. The avoidance of uncomfortable physical agitation and painful emotions are some of the key components that maintain the connection between addiction and anxiety. Both anxiety and addiction strengthen as the addictive behavior continues. Substance abuse can mask anxious feelings preventing the addict from receiving proper treatment for anxiety.

People who experience anxious moments, but who do not have anxiety disorders, will be able to go about their day when the crisis passes; people with anxiety disorders cannot stop the effects of their anxiety disrupting their everyday life. Professional, social, familial, and academic obligations will be interrupted and damaged by the sense of panic, stress, and foreboding that comes as a part of the condition. Social anxiety disorder frequently “travels in the company” of alcohol or drug abuse, as people with social anxiety disorder might try to make use of alcohol or cocaine to help make them feel more comfortable and less inhibited in social settings.

For individuals struggling with anxiety, substances offer an escape. For others, substances bring a feeling of relative normalcy (self-medication). For some, anxiety is a factor of their personality that also includes aspects like impulsivity that make the anxious person more likely to use substances.  Although not entirely understood, there is a connection between anxiety disorders and substance abuse. About 20% of those with an alcohol or substance use disorder also have an anxiety or mood disorder. In fact, many of my clients with an addiction (mostly sex addiction) are self-medicating their anxiety and depression with their addiction! It is also important to note that addiction can happen without any substances; you can be addicted to an eating disorder, gaming, sex, exercise, etc. The point is that mood disorders can either reinforce or be reinforced by addictive substances.

Treating substance abuse without treating the anxiety that causes it is a fruitless endeavor. 

Treating substance abuse without treating the co-occurring disorder can lead to higher rates of relapse. Due to the similarity of drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms and anxiety symptoms, both need to be treated at the same time. The treatment for anxiety and addiction is referred to as dual diagnosis and it is important to find an addiction treatment facility, or a therapist, that can address both the addiction and the anxiety.

It is only through therapy that clients can make tangible strides towards restoring a sense of balance and stable mental health to their lives. Simply walking away from treatment after detox is ineffective…and might even prove more harmful. Now is the time to address the symptoms of anxiety and addiction that feed off of each other and keep you in the self-defeating cycle. Allow me to help you break the dependence on the substance or behavior, you have used to manage your anxiety and distress, as well as provide sustainable ways to cope with your mood disorder. Happiness is possible. Healing is possible. 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.


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