Piecing Together Pockets of Joy

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

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

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

Daily Socializing 

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

Monitoring Media Consumption

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

Maintain A Schedule 

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

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

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.

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

Fighting the Physical Battle for Mental Health

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

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

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

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

Developing a Healthy Diet

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

Daily Physical Activity

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

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

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

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

Finding Joy In Troubling Times Through Small Changes

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

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

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

Mastery

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

Altruism

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

Pleasure

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

Silence

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

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

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

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

Escaping the Fear Trap

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

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

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

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

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

What are the Fear Factors?

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

Factor 1: Awareness

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

Factor 2: Uncertainty

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

Factor 3: Newness 

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

Factor 4: Control

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

How can we Escape the Fear Trap? 

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

Monitor Awareness

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

Discover What You Know 

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

Practice Patience

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

Control the Controllable

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

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

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

References: 

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

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

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

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:


Are You Are Just A Worrywart or is it Something More?

Are You Are Just A Worrywart or is it Something More - Cluff Counseling - Denton Therapist

Are You Are Just A Worrywart or is it Something More - Cluff Counseling - Denton TherapistAnxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting children and adults. An estimated 44 million American adults suffer from anxiety, and–even though the disorders are highly treatable–only about one-third of those receive treatment!

Do you get the jitters when you have to speak in front of an audience, take a test, or talk with a superior. To a degree, this is completely normal. But for those with an anxiety disorder, these feelings are persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, disabling, overwhelming, and excessive, to the point where they can be filled with irrational dread of everyday situations and it interferes with their daily life. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time.

If this is you, listen to me–there is no shame! Many people suffer from one type of anxiety disorder or another…even I used to! When I was little, I would fret over everything to the point that my parents coined Bob Marley’s famous beat as my theme song: “Don’t worry, be happy!” The best news of all is that help is available. My hope with this post is twofold: First, to offer a couple signs to help you differentiate between everyday anxieties and an actual anxiety disorder; and second, to eradicate the false notion that having anxiety or a “disorder” means that you are broken.

Let’s start by giving anxiety disorders a face. Anxiety disorders are real–just like physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes. Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental disorders in the United States, and they manifest themselves in many different forms including the following: Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.

I am certain that all of us have either experienced or heard of some of the above conditions. But does that mean you have an anxiety disorder? Although the distinction between an official diagnosis and “normal” anxiety isn’t always clear, here are some signs that may indicate your worries are clinically significant:

  • Sleep problems. You struggle falling asleep or staying awake (this is more than just tossing and turning with anticipation the night before a big speech or job interview).  I mean that you routinely find yourself lying awake, worried or agitated—about a specific problem or even nothing in particular.
  • Stage fright. Sure, most everyone get butterflies before addressing a group of people or being in the spotlight. But if the fear is so strong that no amount of coaching or practicing will placate it, or if you spend an excessive amount of time thinking and worrying about it, you may have a form of social anxiety disorder. Those with social anxiety will worry for days or even weeks leading up to a particular event or situation, and may consider extreme methods to evade said responsibility! Even if they do manage to go through with it, they tend to be incredibly uncomfortable and will dwell on their performance for a long time afterward, worrying about how they were judged.
  • Self-consciousness. We are all self-conscious about how we look or appear to others–especially when we are in the limelight. This symptom may be an indication of an anxiety disorder when your self-consciousness is provoked by everyday situations such as making one-on-one conversation at a party, or eating and drinking in front of even a small number of people. In these situations, people with social anxiety disorder tend to feel like all eyes are on them, and they often experience blushing, trembling, nausea, profuse sweating, or difficulty talking. These symptoms can be so disruptive that they make it hard to meet new people, maintain relationships, and advance at work or school!
  • Muscle tension. Near-constant muscle tension (from clenching your jaw, balling your fists, or flexing muscles throughout your body) often accompanies anxiety disorders. This is the sort of tension that even regular exercise and stretching cannot abate. (Muscle tension of this severity can be so persistent and pervasive that people who have lived with it for a long time may stop noticing it after a while!)
  • Chronic indigestion. Anxiety may start in the mind, but it often manifests itself in the body. A common example is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), in which the individual experiences near constant stomach aches, cramping, bloating, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea. This is basically anxiety in the digestive tract! (A note: IBS is not always related to anxiety, but the two often occur together and can make each other worse.)
  • Panic. A panic attack can be a sudden, gripping feeling of fear and helplessness that can last for several minutes and be accompanied by scary physical symptoms such as breathing problems, a pounding or racing heart, tingling or numb hands, sweating, weakness or dizziness, chest pain, stomach pain, and feeling hot or cold.  It is possible to be diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and have panic symptoms, but not be diagnosed with panic disorder. Not everyone who has a panic attack has an anxiety disorder, but people who experience them repeatedly may be diagnosed with panic disorder.
  • Flashbacks. Reliving a disturbing or traumatic event–like a violent accident or the sudden death of a loved one–is a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which shares features with many anxiety disorders. (In fact, up until very recently, PTSD was seen as a type of anxiety disorder rather than a stand-alone condition.)
  • Perfectionism. This prevalent and obsessive mindset goes hand in hand with anxiety disorders. This is where you are constantly judging yourself, and have relentless anticipatory anxiety about making mistakes or falling short of your [unattainably high] standards. Some individuals with perfectionism even see fit to punish themselves through publicly slandering themselves or taking on extra responsibilities when they fail to reach the high standards they have placed upon themselves.
  • Compulsive behaviors. In order to be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a person’s obsessiveness and intrusive thoughts must be accompanied by compulsive action or behavior. This may be mental (like repeatedly reminding yourself that things will be okay) or physical (like excessive hand-washing, not leaving home until your makeup is perfect, hair plucking, or repeatedly checking to ensure the oven is off).

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 19 percent of American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year, and it is more prevalent in women, in people under 35, and in those who live in North America or Western European countries. According to these statistics, many people experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime!

As I have said previously and will continue to emphasize, having a mental illness like an anxiety disorder is not a life sentence. You are not damaged goods. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. If we are going to take the stigma out of mental illness, we need to believe it ourselves first! This will happen as you recognize your worth and find the courage to accept help. Just a friendly reminder that help is readily available for those with anxiety disorders. There are a myriad of medications and treatments–including therapy from a licensed, experienced therapist–that can help you or your loved one control anxiety. Help is one click or phone call away. Please contact me today!

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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Men Are Not the Only Ones Addicted to Porn

Cluff Counseling - Men Are Not the Only Ones Addicted to Porn - Denton Therapist

Cluff Counseling - Men Are Not the Only Ones Addicted to Porn - Denton TherapistOne study found that 76% of females, between the ages of 18 to 30 years old, watch pornographic material. Although we may most commonly hear about men being addicted to pornography, women can be as well. Because the stereotypical porn addict is a man, women tend to feel shame and isolation when they “go against the norm” and become addicted to pornography. No one is exempt from falling prey to addiction–especially when pornography is so easily accessible!

There are many myths circulating about pornography usage. First is the myth that it is an accepted societal norm that men view pornography.  Second, is the idea that women do not view porn. Think about a movie where you see a girl deleting her browsing history as her boyfriend walks in the door…or a scene when a woman is caught with stacks of porn magazines under her mattress. If you are unable to think of such a scene, it is because men are the ones depicted as being hooked on pornography. Not women.

A recent German sex study showed that women are just as easily at risk of becoming dependent upon porn as men. In fact, one study reports that half of young adult women agree that viewing pornography is acceptable; a 1/3 of these young women reported using porn regularly.

The truth is that pornography is highly addictive. It truly is like a drug. It has a chemical effect on the brain that first leads to compulsion and then addiction. Substances like cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs bring foreign chemicals into the body (whether it is sniffed, injected, drunk from a glass, lit on fire and smoked, etc). Behavioral addictions, like gambling and viewing porn, bring no new chemicals or substances into the body, but achieve the same effect: the brain releasing dopamine, resulting in a temporary high.

Fight the New Drug–a website dedicated to increasing awareness and providing a community for healing from pornography addiction–gives the best example of what pornography is and does to the brain:

“Porn is basically sexual junk food. When a person is looking at porn, their brain is fooled into pumping out dopamine just as if they really were seeing a potential mate. Sure, filling your brain with feel-good chemicals might sound like a great idea at first, but just like with junk food, it’s more dangerous than it seems.”

Pornography appeals to one of our primary human needsthe need to belong and connect. Because of this, both men AND women are at risk. One article cautioned readers that thinking only men are pulled into viewing pornography is ignorance. Yes, porn has been criticized for hooking males with its focus on and objectification of female bodies. But there are, in fact, women viewers of pornography.  Pornography leaves no one exempt–men and women alike. The truth is that pornography is incredibly addictive–to anyone finding him- or herself in its wake.

According to several studies, men prefer watching visual erotica (pictures and movies) and women prefer actually engaging in interactive erotica (chat rooms, social media sites featuring explicit material, and webcams). Whatever its form, pornography not only impacts the brain–making its user need more and more all the more frequently–but it also harms the user’s attitudes and perception about real life sex, intimacy, and relationships. Pornography may negatively influence a woman in the following ways:

  • Unrealistic expectations around sexual behaviors and performance.
  • Reduced intimacy with real-life partners.
  • Personal sense of inadequacy.
  • Lowered self-esteem.

The excessive use of pornography can even affect a woman’s relationships with herself. One woman reported that she felt cheap, dirty, useless, insignificant, and unworthy of love or belonging. When she reached out asking for help as a 15 year-old girl, her adult-confidant did not believe someone as young and innocent as her could have such a problem. No one believed that she had a pornography addiction and needed help. She was a slave to her addiction for five more years, endlessly trying and failing to conquer her addiction on her own. She eventually reached a point of such deep self-loathing that she nearly tried to end her own life.

Most addicts strive day and night to keep their addiction a secret. It becomes an endless quest to feed the addiction while simultaneously living a double life. This is tiresome, unfulfilling, and–in the end–useless. Most of the men and women I work with know their addiction is unhealthy and want help to overcome it. While they once may have thought that viewing a little pornography would be liberating and fun, they soon find themselves a captive to its grasp. They wind up isolated, unhappy, and unsatisfied–it is a downward spiral. The only thing that is truly liberating is breaking free from addiction.

Tell somebody.

Begin breaking free by thinking of someone you trust or admire. Tell him or her what you are struggling with. It will be difficult, but having a trusted person on your side will help you not feel so alone.

Ask for help.

Next, ask a trusted friend to be your accountable buddy. Ask them if you could reach out to them when you are close to acting out, or give them permission to periodically ask how you are doing in regards to pornography. Researching and then making an appointment with a therapist is another way you can ask for help. Sometimes, just having someone else on your team–and not shouldering the burden of addiction alone–makes all the difference.

If you are a woman battling a pornography addiction, you are not alone. This is not a battle that only men face! I am here to tell you that addiction is addiction, and anyone can become addicted to the addictive, prevalent “substance” that is pornography. Anyone! Along with there being an increased awareness of this addiction, there is also help more readily available for all–male or female, child or adult.

Your sex life, virtual or physical, is one of the most intimate aspects of who you are. By opening yourself up to a new level of scrutiny, you will also open yourself up to new levels of freedom, healing, and grace. Addiction recovery is not an easy road. (In fact, I would dare to say that the only easy road is the one where you give up and stop trying.) But you are bigger and better than that! Yes, your addiction may feel stifling, but your will-power to overcome it, coupled with counseling from an experienced therapist, is stronger than even the strongest porn out there. Hope and healing is available today, now. Contact me or click here 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.

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