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.

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:


What to Expect When You Are Expecting…To Start Therapy

Starting Therapy

“Psychotherapy can be one of the greatest and most rewarding adventures, it can bring with it the deepest feelings of personal worth, of purpose and richness in living.” ~ Eda Leshan

In 2018, 56.7% of U.S. adults with a mental illness did not receive treatment. Maybe you are thinking about seeing a therapist…but you have no idea what to expect, or where to start. You may wonder what happens during sessions, how long will you be in therapy, how you will know that you are done in therapy, or a million other questions. These are common and completely valid concerns, and my goal in this post is to cover that basic information so you will know what to expect when you are expecting…to see a therapist.

What to expect before you start. 

Before going to therapy, it is important to identify the areas in your life that need help and healing. Consider whether it is an individual or relational issue. This step is huge because it requires humility and courage to admit that you need help and to be vulnerable. The next step is finding the right therapist for you. Brainstorm what qualities (such as experience or personal characteristics) are important to you in a therapist; not everyone is looking for the same thing when starting therapy. For example, researchers Susan Hardin and Barbara Yanico asked men and women what they looked for in a potential therapist and found differences in genders: Men tended to want an efficient counseling process, for the therapist to be directive and self-disclosing; while women have higher expectations for the therapist to be open, accepting, genuine, attractive, and trustworthy. Regardless of gender, these researchers found that prospective clients expect empathy, expertness, and concreteness from an experienced therapist, and a positive outcome. What are you looking for?

What to expect when choosing a therapist.

Once you have found a potential therapist, you may experience trepidation about meeting and disclosing your private struggles to this stranger. To help the matter, I urge you to familiarize yourself with the therapist(s) you are considering. Here are three helpful suggestions:

  1. Look at their google listing and familiarize yourself with their website. For example, on Cluff Counseling’s page, I have a section entitled “About Me” where you will find information about me like my hobbies, interests, educational experience and training. I also have a “Frequently Asked Questions” section that will give you insight to my structure and style as a therapist. 
  2. Do not be afraid to ask for a phone consultation before setting your first appointment.
  3. Ask your questions! Create 3-4 questions you would like to ask each of the potential therapists that you are considering. Common questions I hear are: Do I take insurance? How much is each session? Does it cost more for couple sessions? Do I have experience treating ______? Do I have a sliding fee scale? What is my cancellation policy? Do I do couple therapy if that is needed down the road? How long is each session? What do you need to bring to the first session? 

Remember, you are the client and so it is important that the therapist is a good fit for you. If the first one you talk to, or meet with, does not feel right, reach out to the next one on your list. 

What to expect when you start.

Many people are curious about the frequency of sessions, as well as what typically happens during a session. I schedule one 50-minute session a week–unless a client requests to meet more or less frequently, or needs longer sessions.  In the initial session, I always ask why the person decided to start therapy now, rather than a few weeks ago, or months down the road. The response to this question helps shed some light on the process the process went through to get to my office.  

Next, I begin to gather some history on the problem. If I am seeing a couple, I may ask how they met, what attracted them to each other, the highlights and lowlights of their relationship history. If I am meeting with an individual, I may ask how long the problem has been present, what they have tried, what has given them some relief, and who is in their support system. I spend the first several sessions gathering more information and helping the person feel comfortable with me. 

Lastly, I ask how they would know that therapy can help them. Their response helps me understand what they specifically want to address during our sessions together, and orients me to establish measurable goals for the client. I do not want a client to feel they are committing the rest of their life to therapy; setting goals ascertains that there will be an end to therapy!

What to expect during regular sessions.

Once the initial phase of information gathering is complete, we will get to work on meeting the goals. Often, I will give homework assignments to be completed between sessions that will support the work we are doing in session. We will work on coping skills and tools that can be practiced and applied to any unhealthy patterns in the client’s life. Areas where trauma work is needed are identified and a plan is created to do that work. Goals are continually assessed to  make sure they still fit the needs of the client. I remind my clients that the time spent with me is theirs and I invite their feedback; I do not want my clients to ever feel they have wasted their time in a session. Please do not hesitate to speak up to your therapist if your needs are not getting met!

What to expect when therapy is nearing an end.

One of the ways I know a client is close to graduating therapy is when a client or I suggest less frequent sessions. This speaks volumes about the progress and signifies they are feeling more grounded, are reaching their therapy goals, have established a support system outside of therapy, and are ready to put what they have learned into practice on their own. I find great joy when my clients no longer need my help…my goal is to work myself out of the job! My door is and will forever be open to my clients should they need a tune-up. My final question for clients, during their last session, is how they will know if/when they need to come back to see me. The message I want them to hear is that I believe in them and that coming back to me is always an option. 

If you have been considering getting into therapy, I highly recommend you to do so now.  If you are ready to schedule a session but feel nervous, remember that it is completely normal to feel a little anxious about starting something new! It is the therapist’s job to create a safe, comfortable counseling environment where you can begin to address your individual or relational worries. If you think you may need medication, a therapist can refer you to a psychiatrist, and together the therapist and psychiatrist can address your concerns. 

I love my job. You will find the best version of yourself as you shed the weight of trauma or addiction and work through any relational issues you are facing. I am here for you! 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.

References:

Keeping the Holiday Cheer All Year Long

“Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” -Calvin Coolidge

I have a friend who gets truly depressed when Christmas is over. On December 26th he is like a deflated little boy confronted with the fact that Santa will be at the North Pole for the next 364 days. I understand that the end of the holidays can leave us in a slump; we all experience it to some degree! The anticipation of the jolly occasions can leave us feeling a little blue when it has all passed. 

There are certain things we can do, however, to keep the Christmas cheer throughout each year. Might I make four suggestions for how we can do so:

  1. Create a photo book. Looking at photographs can remind us of happy times from the past, and can be a great way to make ourselves happy in the present. There are so many online hosts that make uploading photos to create a photobook relatively easy, affordable and painless. Such a photo book can be a priceless treasure that will bring you great joy and happiness all of 2020!
  2. Keep celebrating. Part of the magic of Christmas is traditions. Family traditions bind families together. You spend time together, create memories, enjoy each other’s company, and strengthen your bonds. In a recent interview with CBS, Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project) recommends starting new traditions throughout the year–like the first day of spring, Groundhog Day, or this year we even have Leap Day! Find little milestones throughout the year and celebrate those with unifying traditions. You do not need the holidays in order to participate in traditions!
  3. Serve others.  One reason the Christmas season is so remarkable is because there is a natural tug to look outwards and serve others. There are food drives, clothing donations, fundraisers, Sub-for-Santas, treat deliveries, white elephant parties, gift exchanges, opportunities to volunteer and so much more. This service fill us with joy and peace; we would benefit greatly if this spirit of service carried over into the other eleven months of the year!
  4. Be a peacemaker. The holidays come with gatherings, which can lead to disagreement and discord. You may have had opportunities to be a mediator or a peacemaker this holiday season, and I urge you to continue in that pattern. If there is gossiping going on with your friends, do not take part. If there is complaining at work, point out the good. If the driver next to you has road rage, do not match it. Be a peacemaker. It will make your life and the lives of those around you infinitely better. 

I urge you to make the most out of this holiday season. Be present for your family gatherings. Pay more attention to people rather than things (or tasks). Savor the good food and the good times. And when it is all said and done, carry that happy Christmas spirit over into January-November of 2020 by revisiting photos, creating new traditions, serving others, and being a peacemaker. Doing this will be the best present you can give yourself. 

Happy holidays to you and yours! 

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

References:

A Guide to Thriving in the Holiday Season Single

During the holidays, single individuals have the unique opportunity to take up new traditions, cultivate a sense of home and celebrate the relationships that they do have.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! This month is full of dinners, parties, events, service, and gatherings.  Because the holiday season is very couple- and family-oriented, it is incredibly easy for those who are single to feel down and lonely. I want to share some ideas for how you can make the holidays truly wonderful even if you do not have a significant other. 

Instead of focusing on your loneliness (which is easy to do), try viewing your singleness as a gift this holiday season. As a fellow single person, I believe that during the holidays, we have the unique opportunity to take up new traditions, cultivate a sense of home and celebrate the relationships we do have. I have compiled a list of several practical ways to get started!

  1. Holiday dates. Sure, dating is hard, but there are so many fun activities you can do around the holiday season. Instead of shying away from dating this time of year, take advantage of it! Ask a friend, or someone you have had your eye on, on a fun, low pressure date. Nutcracker and cocoa? Sign me up!
  2. Volunteer. There are a million opportunities to give around the holidays. I encourage you to serve at a soup kitchen, participate in a food drive, volunteer at an animal shelter, be a part of Sub-for-Santa, or do whatever you enjoy to make someone else’s season better. Giving heals the soul and will certainly invite the spirit of Christmas into your life.
  3. Organize your space. There is nothing better than starting the new year feeling organized and less cluttered. Make your living space somewhere you want to be by cleaning and making it homey. You can also do some good by donating things you do not need to a local charity (or selling them to make a few extra bucks).
  4. “TREAT YO’SELF.” Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec would tell you to buy yourself that gift you have been eyeballing. Schedule a spa day. Pamper yourself with a nice massage, manipedi, facial, whatever will loosen you up. Treat yo’self!
  5. Take a solo trip. If you can swing it financially, think about doing some traveling by yourself. No need to plan a huge, expensive excursion; consider exploring a new city — even if it is just for a night or two. 
  6. Hand make/bake presents. If you have several people you need a gift for, consider getting creative and making something. Creativity is a healthy outlet and also a form of self-care. Plus who would not want a tiny loaf of your homemade zucchini bread?!
  7. Create your own traditions. You do not have to wait until you have a significant other to start a tradition. You can start practices that bring joy to your life, no matter your relationship status. Buy a Christmas tree for your apartment, host an annual holiday movie night, volunteer at a local homeless shelter… the options are endless! One of my favorite things is to simply turn off all my lights,  turn on my Christmas tree lights, and curl up under my Sherpa blanket at the end of a long day and watch a holiday movie. 
  8. Embrace spending time alone. Learning to enjoy being alone is a journey. And although the holiday season can be a lonely one, it is also a great time to reflect on yourself. With extra time off during the winter, you have an excellent opportunity to spend time with yourself, pursue your passions, and make goals. Take time to be introspective; you may find it helpful to journal and reflect on the highs and the lows of the year, and what you want the next year to look like! 
  9. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with being single. Everyone spends time being single. It is a natural stage of life, and some are in this stage longer than others. If you are feeling discouraged and are tempted to stay home, I urge you to be brave enough to go into spaces where you might be the odd one out. Try to embrace your stage of life without feeling jealous or bitter. You can desire the kind of relationship that someone else has without letting that desire drive you to bitterness. 
  10. Focus outward. Ask yourself, how can I make this holiday better for others? It sounds really basic, but I have discovered that focusing on other people’s happiness makes me much less concerned with my own. It is nearly impossible to feel bad about myself when I am taking care of others. 

Regardless of whether you are single because you have broken off a long-term partnership or have been single your whole life, I hope that these tips encourage you to view your singleness not as an inconvenience, but as a blessing–full of beauty and opportunities for growth.  Make the most of what remains this holiday season by volunteering, taking care of yourself, creating your own traditions, and spending time with loved ones. You do not need a significant other to have the best holidays ever. Happiest holidays to you and yours!

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

References:

Yoga: Changing How You See Yourself

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” – Bhagavad Gita.

Yoga is more than stretching, deep breaths and handstands. It is not just for those who are flexible or have good balance. It has been said that it can change your life. I decided to do some personal research for this post because I wanted to know more for myself. How could yoga change a person’s life so profoundly? The answer is that the physical part of yoga is only a small part of this practice, and when you truly understand and apply what yoga teaches, it can actually change your life!

Trees are a symbol in yoga. The body is a tree. The mind is a tree. The teachings of Ashtanga yoga itself is also described as a tree, and it has eight limbs:

  1. Yama. This first limb is your attitude towards the environment. It includes ethical standards, integrity, focusing on your behavior and how you conduct yourself in life. Examples are nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, and not coveting others. Essentially the golden rule–doing to others as you would like done to you.
  2. Niyama. This is your attitude towards yourself. It includes self-discipline and spiritual observances (like regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone), as well as cleanliness, gratitude, and surrender to a God.
  3. Asana. This is what everyone thinks of when yoga comes up–the physical postures. In yogic beliefs, the body is a temple of spirit, and caring for it is an important stage of spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas–also known as “flows” in yogi tongue–you develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
  4. Pranayama. In hindu yoga, this step is the regulation of the breath through certain techniques, exercises, breathing practices. Long term, this practice can help with anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia, improved focus, and increased self-awareness.
  5. Pratyahara is sense restraint. This limb is about withdrawing yourself from any external information so you can draw attention internally to hear the sounds from within. The practice of pratyahara allows you to step back and take a look at yourself and objectively observe your cravings: habits that are perhaps detrimental to your health and which likely interfere with your inner growth.
  6. Dharana. This limb is centered on extended periods of concentration which then naturally lead to meditation. In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, you learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: a specific energetic center in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. 
  7. Dhyana. Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all.
  8. Samadhi. This final limb is appointed to be integration of the other limbs. It is a complete stage of ecstasy. What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: peace. We also might give some thought to the fact that this ultimate stage of yoga—enlightenment—can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, the price of which is the continual devotion of the aspirant.

As you can see, the practice of yoga is so much more than stretching in downward dog. It is a journey of self control and self-enlightenment. It is being at peace with the world and striving to make it a better place. It is listening to your body’s needs and what the universe needs from you. It is a form of exercise that is incredibly beneficial for stamina, endurance and flexibility. It is the ability to be content with oneself as well as a degree of self-mastery. My favorite part about yoga is that it truly is a journey for each individual. Everyone is at a different level, and that is okay! This is the best metaphor for life; while one yogi is working on her lotus press, you might be working on not falling over in your warrior two lunge. Yoga teaches self-compassion; it teaches you to start where you stand and be grateful for each breath. It teaches you to honor all you do have and all you can do. 

Grab a mat, and give it a try! See what your body can do. Start by simply stretching to get more connected with your body. Then download an application, like Daily Yoga or Yoga for Beginners to get acquainted with some basic yoga poses. You may even want to find a yoga class in your area. And if you love it, buy a membership to a yoga studio, find a friend you can do yoga with, or discover another way to you can bring the practice of yoga into your daily life!  You will not regret it! Please feel free to contact me with any questions or if you would like to schedule a session!

References:

When Conflict Ruins Your Cranberry Sauce

“The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.” ~ Dalai Lama

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It is time to gather, to eat turkey and stuffing and rolls, time to admire the snow falling, set up the Christmas tree, sing songs, and shop online. Jokes aside, the holiday season is nigh upon us, and it really can be the most wonderful time of the year. If you are one of many individuals who greets the months of November and December with equal parts excitement and trepidation–due to family gatherings–I have just the tips for you. 

Though getting family members and friends together this holiday season may be joyful and rewarding, there also exists the possibility for a healthy dose of awkward moments, conflict, disagreement, and discord. Since you are reading this post on avoiding family drama during the holidays, I dub you a peacemaker. Regardless of whether or not you have been a peacemaker in the past, that of a peacemaker can be your role this holiday season. Here are seven tips to be a peacemaker during your gatherings this holiday season:

  1. Listen. The most glorious and selfless gift you can give your family is your ability to listen. It costs nothing, and provides wonderful feelings for all those who receive it. When a family member is speaking to you, stop what you are doing and listen. Consider that person’s feelings and then validate them. The gift of listening is a powerful and wonderful way of connecting with those you care for.
  2. Be self-aware. You can choose not to be reactive to what you are feeling. Be aware of how you are feeling from moment to moment; recognize if you are tired or anxious or under pressure to get something done. This will help decrease the likelihood of snapping unnecessarily at someone.  Take responsibility for your own behavior. If you make a mistake, apologize and make amends. If someone around you makes a mistake, be quick to forgive and forget.
  3. Count to 20. If you feel angry or upset, remove yourself from the situation for a few moments. Remember that anger is generally triggered by a cascade of events…not just one event. You must break the chain of events to curb your emotional reaction. This is why I recommend stepping out on the balcony and counting to 20.
  4. Acknowledge anger. In the presence of angry or upset people, acknowledge their anger. “Oh, Aunt Martha. I can see that you are upset. I would be upset, too, if that happened to me! What can we do to make things right?” People usually become angry and upset because they feel unacknowledged or disrespected. Simply acknowledging the angry feelings of a family member may work miracles in restoring peace.
  5. Designate off-limit topics. For my family, there are certain things we simply cannot discuss–not during the holidays or ever. We cannot talk politics. We cannot discuss local football rivalries. Sometimes, being a peacemaker will require laying ground rules about what can be discussed. Remind everyone that you are there to enjoy each other’s company and that none of you would want to do (or say) anything to jeopardize that.
  6. Host. If a neutral ground is necessary to have a peaceful family gathering, volunteer your space. Being Switzerland may require a great deal of work, but it will absolutely be worth it if someone who may have been on guard at Gramma’s house can stand down and relax at your’s. Remember, this is to be a holly jolly joyful season! 
  7. If necessary, be a mediator. If individuals start fighting or arguing, intervene quickly. Take one of them away and cool down with them. Acknowledge their feelings and find out what is upsetting them. Offer to mediate both parties. Let them exchange stories one at a time without interruption, explain what injustices they feel, and then ask them for ideas on how to make things right. There–in five minutes, you can be back to Turkey and eggnog, all because you helped each person feel heard.

This all sounds so obvious and common-sensical. Yet we fail to act this way year after year. We have habits of conflict that we carry with us, especially when we are with family or friends who know us best. What we really need are some habits of peace. The quick tips above are some of the habits of an everyday peacemaker. Like any other skill, they will be awkward at first. With a little practice, you will gain confidence that these tips work. Then you will have your habits of peace that you can employ in every season of the year, not just during the holidays.

May you have a beautifully harmonious holiday season as you engage your habits of peace in the company of your loved ones. Happy holidays! 

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

References:

Re-Spark the Flame: Affection

“Sometimes a partner withdraws affection because he or she is struggling with stress, mental health issues, illness, or trauma, and they are inwardly focused and stop paying attention to you.” ~ Brian Jory

In most romantic relationships, physical chemistry usually starts out hot and heavy. The relationship is novel and exciting, and affection and physical touch are likely constant. But as time passes, that consistent craving for intimacy may start to taper off. What can you do if you find your relationship having less heat that you would like? 

By the time you come to the realization that your partner is not affectionate anymore, it may seem like it happened all of a sudden. In reality, the affection has been slowly disappearing for quite a while.  Physical intimacy, like daily kisses, may turn into every few days, hugs happen only when forced, and even sex becomes less and less regular. Relationships naturally go through stages; moving out of the honeymoon stage when your partner and intimacy is all you think about is normal and okay. You and your partner can be completely in love while not having sex every night or touching constantly. 

Why does decrease of affection happen in relationships? There are several reasons; naturally, adding children to the equation can result in a lessening of affection as the demands of childcare become consuming. Another reason is work and financial stressors that emotionally drain you or your partner. Additionally, it is sometimes easy to take your relationship or your partner for granted as other things demand your attention. Many people deal with illness, mental health issues, and all sorts of self-esteem matters that simply require greater amounts of attention than before. Some may become obsessed with a hobby. Others can be abusing alcohol or drugs. Others still are depressed and do not know it. So if your partner’s affection for you has decreased, please do not immediately take it personally or think your partner is being unfaithful.

Whatever the case is for you and your partner, just know this: You can get the spark back! Below I have listed several suggestions that I use with my clients, as well as suggestions from other relationship professionals. These suggestions have been written as if the reader is the one whose partner has rescinded affection. Regardless of whether you are on the giving or receiving end of the loss of affection, here–in no particular order–are several suggestions I would make to turn up the heat a little bit:

  1. Talk. The first thing is to talk about how the lack of affection feels to you. “Do you feel abandoned because of the recent (or not so recent) loss of affection in your relationship? Do you miss their touch or kind words? Express your own feelings rather than blame your partner. This shows that you respect their reason for pulling away from you and are willing to consider their feelings. Blaming them for pulling away may only drive them farther away.
  2. Looks department. It is a special thing to not feel like you always have to look your best about your partner. Your relationship is safe; you feel loved no matter what you wear or look like. However, if you are trying to re-spark affection, upping your game in the looks department every so often might do just the trick. Curling your hair or putting on extra cologne may take you back to the glorious dating days when affection was second nature.  Attraction is easy in the beginning of a relationship because it is all new and exciting, but as a relationship matures, you need to work at it and keep adding fuel to the fire of attraction to keep it burning strong.
  3. Identify Love Languages. I have written at length about Love Languages (links included in the references section below) because I believe they are a powerful key to strengthen any relationship. Know how your partner receives love. Speak his/her love language. 
  4. Give genuine compliments. It is so easy to be critical when you have been in a relationship for awhile. Oftentimes the bad is easier to see than the good, and you have to make an added effort to recognize your partner’s strengths. Though you may assume your partner knows things you like about him/her, I invite you to verbalize these positives to them. Remind your partner why you love him/her by giving sincere compliments. This is a sure way to break down walls and foster closeness!
  5. Express gratitude. In a similar vein, do not assume your partner knows how grateful you are for him/her. Express your gratitude for all he/she does!
  6. Initiate affection. If you are feeling distant from your lover, I recommend getting close…physically. Sit close. Hold hands. Rub his back. Kiss her cheek. There are so many ways to be affectionate without having sex; intimacy can exist without sex, and sex can exist without intimacy. Go back to your dating days when that physical closeness and constant contact was something you sought out. 
  7. Keep promises. It is hard for me to want to be close or vulnerable with anyone if I am questioning their priorities or loyalty. If you are like me, you want to know that you can trust your partner with your affection. Be worthy of that affection by following through, keeping your word, and being honest. 

Loss of affection in a relationship is not the end of the world or your relationship. The good thing about realizing your partner is not affectionate anymore is that it can be fixed. Talk about your feelings, consider getting “dolled up” every so often, speak your partner’s love language, give compliments, express gratitude, initiate affection and keep your word. The final suggestion I have for boosting affection and connection in a relationship would be to seek help from a therapist. I am trained in and passionate about healing relationships and will be your relationship’s number one advocate. Do not hesitate to contact me today to 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:

Bulimia Nervosa at a Glance

“For me, the bulimia was about stuffing my emotions. So I stopped suppressing my feelings.” ~Cheryl James

My friend’s dad is a dentist; within the first minute of looking into someone’s mouth, he can tell if the person struggles with bulimia nervosa. This is because bulimia–the binging and purging of food–wreaks havoc on a person’s teeth. The acid from the stomach visibly destroys the enamel of the teeth and causes noticeable discoloration. But this particular side-effect of bulimia is only the tip of the iceberg among much more serious consequences that come from this eating disorder and mental illness. Continue reading to learn what it is, what causes it, as well as the symptoms, consequences, and recovery options for bulimia nervosa. 

Even though Derek Zoolander downplays the significance of bulimia nervosa, it is a very serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. People with bulimia secretly binge and then purge to get rid of extra calories in an unhealthy and unnatural way. Binging includes discretely eating a large amount of food, within a small amount of time, accompanied by a lack of control during this episode. Purging methods vary from regularly self-induced vomiting, misusing laxatives, weight-loss supplements, diuretics or even enemas after bingeing. Other ways include denying calories to prevent weight gain through fasting, strict dieting or excessive exercise.  The severity of bulimia is determined by the number of times a week that a person purges, usually at least once a week for at least three months. 

The exact cause of bulimia is unknown. Many factors could play a role in the development of eating disorders, including genetics, biology, emotional health, societal expectations and other issues.  Women are more likely to struggle with bulimia than men, but the latter are still susceptible. Bulimia typically begins in the late teens or early adulthood.

Bulimia shares several symptoms with other mental illnesses: Negative self-esteem, problems with relationships and social functioning, difficulty concentrating, poor sleep patterns, withdrawal from friends, etc. Symptoms specific to bulimia nervosa include extreme preoccupation with self-image, body shape and weight; fear of gaining weight; feeling uncomfortable eating around others; trying to “fill up” by ingesting unsubstantial food (ie. condiments), drinking excessive amounts of water or non-caloric beverages, or trying to chew food for an unnecessarily long amount of time; hoarding food in strange places; disappearing after eating (often to purge in a private place); frequently using mints, mouthwash and gum to cover unnaturally bad breath; and maintaining a rigid exercise regimen to “burn off” calories ingested. 

Bulimia nervosa affects far more than how an individual perceives him- or herself or what he/she eats. This eating disorder truly harms a person’s body in the following ways:

  • Unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw area  
  • Calluses on the back of the hands and knuckles from self-induced vomiting 
  • Bloating from fluid retention  
  • Stomach cramps and other gastrointestinal issues (constipation, acid reflux, etc.) 
  • Abnormal laboratory findings (anemia, low thyroid and hormone levels, low potassium, low blood cell counts, slow heart rate) 
  • Dizziness 
  • Fainting/syncope 
  • Feeling cold all the time 
  • Dental problems like enamel erosion, cavities, and tooth sensitivity 
  • Dry skin 
  • Dry and brittle nails 
  • Swelling around salivary glands 
  • Thinning of hair on head, dry and brittle hair (lanugo) 
  • Muscle weakness 
  • Yellow skin (in context of eating large amounts of carrots) 
  • Cold, mottled hands and feet or swelling of feet 
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Poor wound healing 
  • Impaired immune functioning
  • Dehydration (leading to kidney failure)
  • Heart problems, such as an irregular heartbeat or heart failure
  • Severe tooth decay and gum disease
  • Absent or irregular periods in females
  • Digestive problems
  • Anxiety, depression, personality disorders or bipolar disorder
  • Fertility issues (in women)

Many people with bulimia nervosa also struggle with co-occurring conditions, such as self-injury (cutting and other forms of self-harm without suicidal intention), substance abuse, impulsivity (risky sexual behaviors, shoplifting, etc.), and even diabulimia (intentional misuse of insulin for type 1 diabetes). 

While bulimia nervosa is a very serious mental illness, the good news is that it is not a life sentence. There are many options available for treatment, including medication, support groups and group therapy, and individual therapy. By identifying your triggers, I can help you manage stress and avoid the cycle of binging and purging. Getting support and help often gives you extra strength to fight your eating disorder.  Because bulimia is related to self-image–and not just about food–bulimia can be hard to overcome on your own. Effective treatment can help you feel better about yourself, adopt healthier eating patterns and reverse serious complications. 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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Reconnecting with Reality: 10 Tips to Kick A Phone Addiction

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

A survey was recently conducted where participants were asked, “If you had to break a bone or break your phone what would you prefer?” The results were astounding: 46% percent of people would prefer to have a broken bone than a broken phone! Before the smartphone era, the average American spent just 18 minutes a day on the phone; today that figure is up to three hours. Three out of 24 hours of our day is being spent staring at a tiny screen…that is 1/8th of our day! Is that how we would prefer to spend our time or would we like to break that cycle and spend our valuable time on something more productive and satisfying?

The urge to pick up our devices is similar to other forms of behavioral addiction. Like gambling or shopping addiction, a small shot of dopamine is released in various regions of the brain through phone usage. That is what keeps us coming back for more, even when we know it is not in our best interest to do so. Instead of improving our lives, technology is actually getting in the way of us living and enjoying our lives. How can we overcome our addiction to distraction so we can focus on the things that actually matter? Here are ten practical suggestions we can implement immediately:

  1. Scheduled screen time. Set a timer for 15 minutes. When it goes off, spend a quick minute checking your phone’s notifications and be done. Push back the alarm to go off every 30, 45, or 60 minutes. You can even ask for help and accountability from your friends and family; tell them you will not be responding to messages as frequently as you used to.
  2. Remove distractions from the home screen. Most of us have Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc at the forefront of our screens. If we make those apps less accessible, we will not use them as much. Keep the apps that you want to encourage yourself to use (like those for reading or learning a new language) front and center, and banish anything you want to limit your time with to folders on your second page of apps (or if you have an Android phone, off the screen entirely).
  3. Disable push. An incredibly simple way to cut down on distractions is to turn off “push” notifications for as many apps as you can. Just head to Settings > Notifications to control your preferences. 
  4. Moon mode. On iPhones, there is a little icon of a moon if you swipe up to control brightness and wifi and whatnot. That little moon represents “do not disturb,” and it is kind of magical. It is a glorified silent mode, ideal for nighttime settings or undistracted time at work. Use DND and airplane mode to silence incoming distractions. 
  5. Use a filler. Instead of opening social media to scroll aimlessly, open a different app and be productive. Replace bad habits with good ones like learning a new language through Duolingo, creating flashcards for anything with Anki, self-reflection journaling with Vertellis, or using any number of apps to read or listen to a good book.
  6. Go old school. Many people use their phones as an alarm clock. But because the phone is easily within reach while in bed, many people find themselves scrolling right before bed and first thing in the morning. Cut that bad habit by reinstating your old-school alarm clock.
  7. “Alexa, do what my phone used to do for me.” You can ask these smart devices to play music for you, to check the weather, to read you a text,…the list goes on and on. Use Alexa instead of your screen!
  8. Grayscale. Time Well Spent, a nonprofit focused on changing our relationships to technology, recommends switching your phone to grayscale to make it less appealing. On an iPhone, find “Display Accommodations” and then turn on “Color Filters.” On a Samsung device, find “Vision” and then scroll down to “Grayscale.”
  9. Put it away. Unless there is an important phone call we are waiting for, we really do not need our phones within arms reach at all times. My dad leaves his phone on top of the refrigerator unless he needs it. Think about it–a smoker trying to kick the habit will still reach for a cigarette if it is sitting right in front of him. Ditto for phones; remove the temptation by stashing yours in your bag while at work or in a drawer when you want to have a real conversation at home.
  10. Don’t stop! Keep trying. Stay accountable. iPhones come with a built-in tracking system so we can see just how much time we have spent on any given app each day. There are also apps like Freedom, Moment, and Space that can help us see where we are spending our time and help us set limits. 

No doubt, Steve Jobs’ inventions, in the field of technology, have changed the world. But what most people do not know is he would not even let his children use an iPad. He told The New York Times, “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.” Steve knew the power and addictive nature of these devices. So let’s be like Steve and limit our use of technology and break the cycle of addiction. The ten suggestions above can get us well on our way to getting off the phone and back to real life connection. If you are reading this on your phone, text or email someone you are thinking about. Let them know you care. Set a time to see them.  And then put the phone away.

(As always, if you find you have questions or would like to schedule a session, please do not hesitate to contact me today!)

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