Escaping the Fear Trap

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

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

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

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

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

What are the Fear Factors?

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

Factor 1: Awareness

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

Factor 2: Uncertainty

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

Factor 3: Newness 

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

Factor 4: Control

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

How can we Escape the Fear Trap? 

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

Monitor Awareness

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

Discover What You Know 

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

Practice Patience

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

Control the Controllable

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

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

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

References: 

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

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

Making the Most of This Quarantined Spring Break

Family Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best,

Melissa

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

References:

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

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:

I’m Not Crazy! Overcoming the Stigma Around Therapy

“In Hollywood if you don’t have a shrink, people think you’re crazy.” ~ Johnny Carson

Therapist Help

Imagine the following scenario: You go running and roll your ankle. You hear a pop and are in great pain. It turns black and blue and swells quickly. You are concerned it is broken or seriously torn, but you fear going to the doctor for help. What will your neighbors say? Will they gossip about how weak you are for not just “getting through it” or figuring it out on your own? You decide to avoid the doctor, take some Tylenol, hobble around like nothing is wrong, and hope it will just go away on its own.

This example might seem foolish to you…why would you not go to the doctor?! It may seem downright silly to not get help when help is needed!  Likewise, when a person encounters trauma, addiction, abuse, or mental illness, it is of legitimate concern and often necessitates professional help like therapy. In the exact same way a broken or sprained ankle often requires the attention of a doctor, many mental health issues require professional help. And there is nothing wrong with that! 

Recently I had a client look me in the face and say, “I don’t belong here.” She felt she should not be in my office sitting on my couch getting help from a licensed therapist because she was not crazy. She had a fulfilling career, many dear friends, and owned lots of expensive things. She did not believe she fit the image, she had in her head, of someone who needed therapy. In short, she thought therapy was for people that outwardly looked like they did not have their life together and she was not one of them. It hurts my heart to hear the shame she, and other clients have felt for being brave and seeking help. 

When studying roadblocks to receiving therapy, Patrick Corrigan and Andrea Bink (2016) had participants report fear of being stigmatized was the leading factor for avoiding treatment. Participants feared they would be treated differently by their friends and coworkers, that they would encounter rejection or discrimination as a result of seeking out mental health treatment.  Most participants would hide their psychiatric status from coworkers, friends, and even family to avoid being the victim of stigma. Thankfully, in recent years–due in large part to social media attention around the stigma around mental health and therapy–it has become much more socially acceptable to receive mental health care. It is not uncommon to hear about celebrities and prominent figures seeing a therapist; many of them highly recommend it for every- and anyone! I applaud these men and women for using their influence to break the mold and speak up on the many benefits of therapy!

The latest statistics show that the amount of people seeking and receiving mental health support is increasing! In 2018, 47.6 million U.S. adults experienced mental illness…that is 1 in 5 adults! Thankfully, 43.3% of U.S. adults with mental illness received treatment in 2018 and 64.1% of U.S. adults with a serious mental illness received treatment in the same year. 50.6% of U.S. youth aged 6-17 with a mental health disorder received treatment in 2016. Millions of Americans experience mental health challenges each year and millions are receiving help by medical and mental health professionals!

Going to therapy does not mean you are crazy. It means you are smart. Would you sit at home, alone, and let your broken ankle “do its thing” without getting help? No. You would make the proper appointments and follow the advice of the professionals so you could soon be running again. My hope, my plea, my job is to help my clients find lasting healing.  The average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years. Eleven years people will struggle with an emotional “broken ankle” before getting help. Ouch! You do not need to suffer any longer. Make the call–get in to see a therapist today.

I felt sad for the client of mine, and any others who share her sentiments. Just because you receive mental health attention does not mean you are crazy. Just the other day a client, who begrudgingly started therapy at the insistence of their spouse, recently told their new employer that they thought everyone should go to therapy, after they experienced the personal benefits of therapy. While I acknowledge you may believe that going to therapy means you are weak, crazy, limited, hopeless, etc–these stigmatic ideas could not be farther from the truth. I know my clients: THEY ARE BRAVE. They are good people who see their worth. My clients–and those who seek help in other ways–are my heroes and I will always and forever shout that from the rooftops! We need to do away with any and all stigmas that therapy is just for broken, crazy people. It could not be farther from the truth! 

If you have been letting your emotional broken ankle heal on its own because you have felt you do not “belong” in therapy, the time to act is now. Allow a licensed, qualified, experienced therapist, to help you. Emotional health, healing and happiness are possible. Contact me today!

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

References:

Q&A: Why Did I Become A Therapist?

“We all have worth; sometimes we just need to be reminded of our worth!” -Melissa Cluff 


Many of us evaluate the previous year to decide what we want to continue to do in the new year and what we want to do differently. One of the new things I want to do is spend time answering some of the  common questions that clients and potential clients ask me. I thought I would start by answering one of my most frequently asked questions–one that is a little more personal: Why did I become a therapist?

First, let me introduce myself. Although I was not born in Texas, I consider myself a Texan.  The fact that Texans had a lot of pride did not hit me until I went to Brigham Young University and saw many Texas flags proudly displayed in dorm rooms. In case you were wondering, I have never used a Texas flag as a decoration, and I also do not own a cowboy hat! I grew up in a large family and it has continued to grow with the addition of in-laws and nieces and nephews. Texas is where I was raised and it is where I returned after receiving my Masters degree from Oklahoma State University. When I am not working in my private practice, I enjoy traveling, hiking, working out, family time, and attending concerts and musicals. 

Growing up I thought I would become a teacher since I liked to boss around my younger brothers and enjoyed helping my mother with her pre-k lesson plans. In high school, someone close to me shared that they had a positive experience in therapy and that I reminded them of their therapist. That comment was the catalyst for me to seriously think about counseling as a career option and I enrolled in AP Psychology. Around that same time, I noticed that I felt drawn to the people who I knew were experiencing pain. For example, I yearned to reach out to the siblings of a student who had committed suicide, and to a football player who had been involved in a car accident where the other driver, a fellow student, had died. I wanted to go up to them and say something, but I did not know what to say or if what I had to say would be received since I did not know them.

In college, I decided to pursue becoming a therapist; I felt the “call” to be a resource for those that carry seen and unseen pain. I majored in Psychology and was on the path to getting a PhD, since I thought that was the only route to provide counseling. During my Sophomore/Junior year, I discovered MFT (Marriage and Family Therapy), which was a newer field, and learned that I would be able to see clients after earning a Master’s degree. I was thrilled with this information! Relationships were something that I wanted to focus on in therapy and becoming a LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist) would prepare me well and support my desired direction. 

Graduate school was difficult and I had to put more effort into it than I have ever had to put into anything previously. Luckily, I knew that grad school was the means to my desired end of becoming a marriage and family therapist; I pushed forward and graduated in 2007 with boxes of well-worn, 3-inch binders stuffed with annotated articles, and textbooks. I knew everything I needed to know…or so I thought! 

It quickly became evident, in my first counseling job, that I needed further training–namely in the areas of sex addiction and the related trauma. When I had saved enough money, I pursued my certification to become a CSAT (Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing). Those certifications increased my confidence that I could be a reliable resource for people in pain. I have continued to seek out training in areas that would help me better serve my clients, and that are of interest to me. Although I never loved school, I have loved pursuing higher education through additional certifications and training opportunities.

I have been in the field of marriage and family therapy since 2005 and my passion for it continues to grow! One of my most cherished roles, as a therapist, is helping the people in my office see that they are lovable and have worth. A paycheck, job promotion, or waist size does not give a person more worth; an addiction, a struggle with mental health, or strained relationship does not take away from a person’s worth. We all have worth; sometimes we just need to be reminded of our worth! 

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share why I became a therapist. If you have a question for me, email me at melissa@cluffcounseling.com.

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

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:

Self-Care is a Family Matter

“Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.” –Michael J. Fox

When you think of self-care, you might envision yourself with cucumbers on your face getting a massage. Or maybe you think of axe throwing, running several miles, or playing an instrument for fun. Self-care has been in the limelight with endorsements from celebrities and other influencers on their social media accounts. Self-care is important because it helps you maintain a healthy relationship with yourself and others, it produces positive feelings, improves confidence and self-esteem…the benefits to practicing self-care are endless (additional sources on the benefits of self-care are included below). But what about family self-care? What are you doing to make sure your family wellbeing is maintained and functioning optimally?

At the end of September, I wrote about fun family activities to get everyone involved in the nationwide holiday Family Health and Fitness Day. When practiced individually, self care can benefit you and I emotionally, spiritually, mentally, practically and socially. In like manner, when implementing on family self-care strategies, it will greatly benefit you to focus on each of these areas; it will keep your family healthy, happy, and united. The following are some suggestions for each of those areas:

Emotional:

  • Watch a move
  • Write each other positive notes
  • Discuss each others’ talents/gifts
  • Verbalize and talk about feelings
  • Draw self-portraits
  • Say, “I love you”
  • Spend time writing
  • Try a new craft

Spiritual

  • Write a gratitude list
  • Go outside
  • Talk about forgiveness
  • Write thank you notes
  • Volunteer
  • Spend time outdoors in nature
  • Plant a tree
  • Practice positive self-talk

Mental

  • Read together
  • Draw or write stories
  • Meditate
  • Find shapes in clouds
  • Practice belly breaths
  • Go on a walk to find new things
  • Make vision boards
  • Try Headspace for Kids
  • Create mandalas
  • Make mindfulness jars
  • Mind strength games like “Memory”

Practical

  • Clean up
  • Declutter old toys
  • Assign chores
  • Make a grocery list
  • Learn about money
  • Make a weekly budget check-in
  • Make a weekly cleaning check-in
  • Do homework/study
  • Establish a morning/evening routine

Social

  • Play in the park
  • Call or visit relatives
  • Have family dinner
  • Play boardgames
  • Host a sleepover
  • Invite friends over
  • Plan a BBQ
  • Join a team
  • Organize a food drive
  • Discuss friendship and how to be a friend

Maybe by reading this list you have thought of your own ideas for one or more of these areas. Figure out what works for you and your family; what leaves you feeling recharged, connected, and happy? Do those things. And do them regularly. Individual self-care is a daily effort; staying balanced and connected as a family is no different. Carve out time for your family, make it a priority, be consistent, make it fun, and you will find that family self-care is the answer you have been needing for your family. Should you find you need help in increasing your family togetherness, please 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.


Resources:

On Love and Affection: When PDA is Okay

“A healthy amount of PDA allows the couple to express their affection to each other, and also to the world. Best practices include using ‘on and off switches.’ Continual PDA loses its importance, and makes others uncomfortable.” ~ Susan Winter

How do you feel about public displays of affection? Are you the type of person that loves snuggling, holding hands or kissing your lover, no matter where you are and who might be watching? Or does the mere thought of holding hands in public give you actual anxiety? Odds are that you fall somewhere in the middle. It is completely natural and okay to want to be affectionate with someone you love. In fact, when you cuddle with someone you care about, oxytocin–the hormone that fosters feelings of love, bonding, and connection–is secreted, thus earning its nickname as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone. But even though PDA is normal and feels good, just keep in mind that there is a time, a place, and a limit for what is appropriate!

Falling in love is wonderful. When it happens, you may want the world to know. At the beginning of a romantic relationship, you are likely to always hold hands and exchanging loving glances. Most onlookers will admire your newfound love fondly. I have written before about how all human beings have an innate need to be loved and have meaningful physical interactions with others.  But there is such a thing as too much of a public display of affection while anyone/everyone is watching. Here is a safe, and slightly humorous, rule of thumb: Ask yourself if your grandmother would approve. 

Let’s talk about the specific ways to display affection and whether or not they are appropriate in public:

  • Kissing. There are certain times it is completely okay to kiss the person you love–such as when you are greeting someone or saying goodbye. However, long, drawn-out kissing in front of others can make them feel like they are involuntarily watching a scene from a RomCom. 
  • Touching. The resources at the end of this post were unanimous in saying that it is always okay to hold hands with someone. An arm draped around someone is okay when you are sitting or casually strolling through the park. It is never okay to touch anyone in a private area in public.
  • Groping. Groping is never acceptable in public. Certain gestures are even illegal in public.
  • Tasting and nibbling. Reminder: Your face is not a lollipop, and you are not a vampire, so experts kindly ask you to refrain from licking or biting the person you love in front of others.
  • Electronic Affection. You should never text, post, or communicate anything intimately personal in a public forum or on any social media platform. Not only can this make others uncomfortable, but you may also embarrass the person you love.

PDA is commonplace in many places –like during your engagement or wedding day, at farewells and homecomings, at the airport when one is about to be deployed, at the movies (especially romantic ones), on the dance floor, and when the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. I would venture to say that if you stay within the boundaries for the above actions, PDA is welcomed pretty much anywhere. But remember to ask yourself if Grandma would approve of how you are expressing your affection!

Showing appropriate levels of PDA can be healthy for a relationship. Being affectionate in public strengthens your love, shows a level of comfort with your partner, and allows others to identify you as a unit. Additionally, if things are not perfect in your relationship, PDA might be a way to spark connection again. PDA is really an unconscious form of staying connected; a brief kiss on the cheek, a hand placed gently at the small of the back, and an exchanged glance can get the heart pounding. This might even be the healing touch that can lead to amends or forgiveness in a relationship.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that not everyone wants to receive PDA. I have written at length about love languages (see sources below) because I believe in them. The fact is that, for some people, physical touch is the last way they communicate or receive love. For these people, touching in public may be very unwelcomed! Certain factors like personality, general comfort in public, safety, and regard for others’ feelings play a role in how someone interacts with their significant other in social situations.  I highly encourage you and your partner to openly discuss to what degree you wish to give and receive touch in public, and then to respect those wishes. That might sound counterintuitive, or even scarier than simply reaching out to hold his/her hand, but figuring out someone’s PDA comfort level is an important step toward understanding their love languages. Unwelcome touching can potentially damage a relationship and push your partner away–especially where abuse or addiction is associated with PDA. 

Even after the beginning stages of a relationship, PDA can help couples reaffirm their love and commitment to each other whether life is breezy or if it is a time of disconnect. All humans need reinforcement. If you and your partner are struggling in your relationship, please contact me to schedule a session. I am here to help. Remember that, when PDA is consensual, well-timed public displays of affection can provide a spark of hope and connection in relationships. 

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

Resources:

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!)

Resources: