The springtime often signals us to find a general sense of refresh and routine in daily habits -- hello, spring cleaning! But how many times have you promised yourself you’re going to get to exercising, to commit to reading one book a month, or to have that tough conversation you’ve been avoiding? You know what I’m talking about. The cyclic nature of trying to keep that new promise to yourself no matter what can be detrimental to self esteem and perceived self competence, especially when you have a tough time making it stick. So, how can you nip it in the bud and make this promise a sustainable change? And further, how can you and your partner be conscious about the changes you want to make-- and commit to them together? What is the Transtheoretical Model (AKA the Stages of Change)? This model can be understood as the decision making process a person goes through when they want to make a change in their life (see an expanded explanation of the stages here). This can be anything from quitting smoking* to exercising, quitting a job or ending a relationship. While this model has most often been used for health-related behaviors, there is evidence to show that it can apply to a greater pool of change. To give you a better sense of how this works, let’s look at the process of deciding to change patterns of eating potato chips. Whether you’re not enjoying them anymore, they don’t feel worth the money, or they’re just something that you want to stop eating, for the sake of this example, you have begun your process to stop eating potato chips and are in the precontemplation stage. Precontemplation: You do not think that there’s an issue. Instead, you’re fist full with your favorites but may have noticed that your best friend doesn’t seem to enjoy them as much as you do.Contemplation: Typically after hanging out in the precontemplation stage for about six months, you tiptoe into the contemplation stage. You are recognizing that you may not enjoy the chips as much as usual and in fact recently read something about how they may lead to sluggishness and fatigue. “Huh, that’s interesting” is as far as you go.Determination: This typically entails action within the next 30 days. You get really into learning more about how potato chips impact your body and energy. You might begin to poll your friends on who has kicked this historically favorite snack food and what works for them. And you probably are still snacking on your favorites while saying to yourself, “tomorrow we are making this change”. Action: You made it! You begin to implement your routine, have stopped buying the potato chips, and are committing to not putting them into your shopping cart. You are able to hold on to why this is important to you, but the question now is, “can you keep it up?”Maintenance: Behavior change has been made, aka the potato chips are not a part of your life, and you have committed for about six months. You feel proud of your ongoing commitment to release something that you wanted to let go of, and you are taking action each day to keep this habit out of your life. Sounds great... but how can I use this? If you are pondering this question, it sounds like you’re in the preparation stage of your change! This is a great thing to know about yourself, and helpful for next steps. There are some tools you can use to speed up your change process, through patience and diligence will still be crucial. Assess where you are in your processAfter reading the above stages, it should be easier to assess yourself and where you want to go next. Are you thinking about implementing a plan? Do you know enough about where you want to be to get started? Do you believe that you have the strength to change? Check this article out for some concrete tools on how to be honest with yourself and your process. Gather the factsIf you’re feeling stuck in your process (for example, if you are reading this article and thinking “sounds great but…”), gather some more information about the change you want to make. Start researching different types of exercise regimens that could work for you! Imagine a life where you feel better in your body, one where you do not feel winded when you chase your kids up the stairs. What does this feel like? Be aware of feelingsIf you are my client, you know I’m a big feelings person. When there is a feeling of stuckness, there is usually a reason for it. Keep in mind that this does not mean you are doomed to be stuck forever! Just be aware of what is coming up for you when you think about making your change. For example, is there a fear that bubbles up for you? Or a feeling of incompetence? Do you truly believe you can excel without your favorite chips, or have you been told-- implicitly or explicitly-- that change is not possible for you? Do a cost-benefit analysisWhat will happen if you do wind up making your change? And, potentially more importantly, what will happen if you don’t? Recognize all the ways your life has the capacity of shifting, and be aware of the further changes that may come from your plans. Make a commitment...but not too big! If you have never exercised before, it is unlikely that you are going to exercise for two hours every day for the next week. Try to be realistic with yourself and set a reachable goal. This will give you a bit more confidence to keep raising the bar. After all, you can’t get to the roof of the building without taking the first step on the bottom floor! Feeling a bit more ready? That is amazing! If not, don’t fret. While this model is said to be transtheoretical, it really focuses more on thoughts and behaviors rather than deeper meaning and nuance. If you’re feeling stuck, it may be worth digging a little deeper with a therapist to help explore what is keeping you from the changes you want to make. I will leave you with this: Do not, I repeat do NOT forget to be patient with yourself. Humans are a complex mix of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, existential crises, idiosyncrises, chaos, order, and an infinite amount of flaws that make us beautiful. If you are stuck on your change, do not lose hope. This is okay and normal, and could just require a therapist’s trained and “as-objective-as-possible” perspective to help you see yourself wholly. *Prochaska & Diclemente, 1983 Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW
Ah, take a deep breath. You’ve finally completed the most daunting part of the task: having the actual talk. You’ve expressed your needs in the best way you know how, and can give yourself a pat on the back for acknowledging your fears and moving past them. By now, I hope you’ve seen our previous two posts in this series. The first was to help you organize your thoughts and feelings, and the second was geared to help you both get your point across and be open to your partner’s feedback. Now what?
The coronavirus has presented humankind with an immense number of difficulties, which can include anything from “what am I going to eat for lunch when the grocery store just feels too overwhelming” to “how am I going to continue planning my wedding when I don’t even know if we’ll be able to plan it,” all the way to “I am so concerned about my loved one’s health, and I can’t even see them.” Complications that are arising are big and small, and exist both in the near future and in the future down the line. So, with all this confusion and uncertainty, how are you supposed to stay present and hold onto fleeting moments of joy? Why would you even want to do this? What does “staying present” mean?Staying present is the ability to maintain awareness and a sense of connection with the moment you are currently in. This means you are focused and engaged, and not being held up by your thoughts about the next 47 things you have to do. Not organizing your grocery list, not scheduling out what you need to get done at work tomorrow, and not thinking about all the things that annoy you about your partner. Just wholly, fully, in the moment. Another word for this is “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is essentially the connection to your senses and your body. Being aware of your senses allows your brain to shift from anxious and racing thought patterns into a calmer and more grounded state. Why would I want to do this? This will not fix any of my problems.Ah, excellent question. Let’s start with some fun facts. First of all, practicing mindfulness has been shown to decrease feelings of stress and improve overall sleep quality (check out the article here). It increases overall levels of life contentment and satisfaction, as well as work productivity. How does this happen? The goal of mindfulness is not actually to solve your problems. The goal is to help ground you in the moment so you can find the ability to step out of these thoughts that only stress you out. It may feel temporarily good to ruminate on an issue, but does how often does your rumination actually solve your problem? Unless you are setting aside time to plan and execute, you are likely just thinking about stressful things. This increases an emission of stress stress hormones, which makes it much more difficult to think clearly and execute decisions and actions efficiently (take a look at this article, aptly titled The Busier You Are, the More You Need Mindfulness). This is why taking that quick few minutes to be present and clear your head-- not completely, but just clear from stressors and ineffective rumination-- actually winds up increasing satisfaction as well as productivity. In fact, there is even evidence to suggest that mindfulness can increase life span and overall physical health. Ok, this sounds slightly more appealing. So how do I do it?Below are a couple of suggestions and techniques designed to help the busiest of people and professionals take in the moment in a digestible way. Set reminders on your phone, or schedule in “mindful time” to create the habit of stepping out of your thoughts and into the moment. 1) Notice your senses: Start with looking around the space you are in and naming 5 things you see. Describe each thing wholly; what color is it? What is its texture? Next, name 4 things you feel physically on your body. Do you have a tag that is itchy? Are your pants too loose? Are your feet too sweaty? After this, name 3 things you hear. Listen closely. Do you hear the heater? Or maybe birds chirping outside? If you can, then try for 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. These are sometimes difficult, but remember the goal is not success or failure. It is only to be present and aware. 2) Narrate your actions: This one might feel silly at first, but it is a great way to connect your mind to your body. If you are cooking, walking, or really doing anything that does not require serious thinking/brain power, you can narrate it! For example, if you are cooking your eggs in the morning, state “I am opening the fridge, I am opening the egg carton, I am taking out two eggs,” etc. 3) Make lists:Possibly counterintuitive, but actually very helpful. Make two lists, and separate them by what you can versus what you cannot control. Take a look at the “what you can control” list, and prioritize. Once you’ve figured out what you want to tackle first, schedule in a finite amount of time and get started. Partializing and breaking down goals and tasks will make it much less likely that you’ll have a lapse in focus, pick up your phone, and fall down a rabbit hole. 4) Notice your breath:Notice as air comes into your nose, and out of your mouth. What does it feel like? Do you feel your diaphragm expanding and contracting? Is your breathing shallow and quick or deep and slow? 5) Mindful eating:Find a snack you absolutely adore, and take a few moments with it. Notice the color, the texture, the temperature, and what it feels like when it melts in your mouth. Slow down the process of eating to stay in the moment. Practice makes progressDon’t be too hard on yourself if you’re having a difficult time staying present, or if your mind is having a difficult time breaking the addiction to stress. After all, the drive to focus on stress and anxiety is a survival skill. Be patient with yourself and keep trying. The more effort you put in, the more the benefits explored earlier will begin to pop up in your life! Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW
Something about the spring (or maybe the pandemic?) seems to give people the push they need to get their relationships in order. About a month ago, I began hearing a theme in my sessions both with couples and individuals: How can I talk with my partner about the things that scare me the most? How can I get them to see and hear me?
Let's explore the theoretical “talk.” You’re starting to brainstorm what that conversation you’ve been thinking about having for months will actually look like. All of a sudden, your stomach turns, your throat becomes tight, and your breathing quickens. Ah yes, you know that these physical responses are your body’s way of showing you that you’re anxious. The familiar feeling washes over, and now you’re feeling a ton of pressure.
You may have noticed that, during the quarantine, you’ve felt a little…regressive. Everything your partner is doing is making you irritable or weepy, you’re either extra tired or extra energized, or you’re acting slightly sillier than usual. Don’t worry-- you’re not losing it. For lots of us (read: most of us), times of chaos and confusion can elicit childlike responses that helped us cope during our younger years. Afterall, think of the last time your physical and emotional safety existed entirely in the hands of someone or something outside of yourself? You got it- childhood.
Master of all...usually, but lately, nobody is feeling on top of their game, in their home, as homeschooling support, or as partners. The idea of spending all of your time cooped up in your home with your kids and your partner is simultaneously making you want to cringe and jump for joy. Your patience is running thin, and you’re wondering how you’re going to make your relationship feel special when everything is driving you a little nuts. Good news is that there are small things that you and your partner can do to keep the love alive and revived, as things feel like they are boiling over. Here are some tips on exactly how to keep connected even with tension: 1. Start with an Appreciation Party If you’ve ever seen a therapist, you’ve probably been told to try to practice gratitude. Research has shown that expressing gratitude, especially to people you love, makes you feel good, strengthens your relationship, and leaves your partner feeling happy, too (see this article to learn about some of the effects gratitude can have on you). Use this awareness to your benefit! Be sure to remind your partner how much they mean to you, and all the things they typically do (both prior pandemic and during the pandemic) that you are so appreciative of. 2. Set ground rules- Solidify the “You’ve gone too far” line It is really easy to feel irritable, anxious and sad during times of chaos and confusion. Soon enough all the distractions add up and your bickering is escalating much more quickly than it has in the past. Now, you’re both on edge and communication is not the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, the cold shoulder or yelling ensues. Let's avoid this and make it simpler. At the start of your week (or day), sit down and review the lines that cannot be crossed with your partner. Maybe you or your partner were laid off or furloughed, and while you normally would love to dive into how to fix this, you agree that there is not much to be done right now. Instead, you would prefer a distraction over rumination. Quick bonus tip: before you sit down for this discussion, have a pre-planning meeting with yourself. Decide what lines are absolutely not okay to cross between you two and/or in front of the kids. Knowing your own boundaries and how to express them is a skill that can not only increase relationship satisfaction, but can also impact your overall quality of life. 3. Find your huddle Remember when sports were a thing? Huddles during football are an essential moment that allows the team to connect and communicate about the strategy they need to be most successful. Believe it or not, even non-NFL stars need this check in too! Being able to communicate with your partner about your stress levels and how you need each other’s encouragement can be a game changer. Have a plan for how to subtly have periodic two-minute moments (I'm always a big fan of a small hand signal), and use the time to express gratitude, vent, reconnect and support each other. You'll be an MVP in no time! Quick bonus tip: Check in on both you and your partner’s love language to better attune to each other’s needs in the moment. 4. Decompression success party More gratitude, please! Starting and ending your day or week with your own decompression party can help the two of you unify your team mentality, and can allow you to have a little release moment. After all, helping each other cope with stress can strengthen your relationship as a whole. After you've gone through another tough week, spend some moments with your partner doing what the two of you love. Carve out at least 30 minutes to an hour reconnecting and rejuvenating together. That could look like a small walk together outside, finding a funny show or play list to dance and laugh to, and/or enjoying laughter and connection with some privacy. In conclusion… Gratitude, boundaries, moments of joy and connection, and more gratitude. And here’s a quick secret: This is essentially what therapists will teach during their sessions. Show your partner how much they mean to you and relish in their company. In turn, the trickier and less comfortable parts of a relationship should get at least a bit easier. This may sound simple, but sometimes couples need a little extra push. If this is the case, reach out to a couples therapist! We are here to help, and the vast majority of us are providing virtual therapy during the quarantine. Mollie Eliasof, LCSW
Later this month, you’ll see a post about how the pandemic has this habit of leading us to feelings of irritability, anxiety, and grief. Here is a quick summary: The chaos of the world has led you to feeling a little less in control of your own life. This can make some people feel “crazy,” but this perceived craziness is really just an indicator that our inner child is being triggered. Instead of shunning your inner child, it is important to pay attention to it. Your inner child is there to help you understand what exactly you need in the moment to feel slightly more in control. So, how can you help that poor kid that’s feeling fearful and out of control? You can pay attention to it! Below are some steps and techniques to channel your inner child, to love it, and to listen to it. Step one: Name your feeling(s) and acknowledge their right to be there Humans, including inner children, want to feel heard and understood. Kids especially need to be mirrored and reflected so they can begin to learn what they are feeling, and in turn learn to cope with their feelings. Once a child learns to cope with an emotion, they can feel upset but express it in a healthy way. So, naming a feeling may sound easy, but can be tricky for a lot of adults. As small people grow into big people with positions of power, a family to take care of, and people to tend to, they often learn to ignore their feelings for the sake of “the other.” Some start to numb out using substances, food, or television, while others will focus on their career. When you do this, you are forgetting to pay attention to your inner child, which makes them feel neglected. Neglect, as you know, causes all sorts of anxiety and sad feelings. But here’s the kicker: if you don’t pay attention to your inner child, it cannot know what it is feeling, and therefore it cannot cope. So instead it feels more sad or anxious, and the cycle repeats (See this article to learn more about why naming your emotions is important). In order to figure out what you are feeling, the first step is actually to pay attention to your physical body. Check in right now. What are you experiencing viscerally? Anxiety can manifest as tightness in the chest, a quicker heartbeat, nausea, etc. Sadness can manifest as a lump in the throat, exhaustion, or headaches. Pay attention, what are you feeling? Don’t forget to acknowledge that you should be feeling whatever it is that you are feeling. You are responsible for how you express your feelings and how to dial them down, and this is a learned skill. You are not, however, responsible for feeling your feelings in the first place. This is something that just comes. Instead of ignoring it, use it as information that your body felt important to present to you in this moment. Step two: Visualize your inner child I use this technique in therapy often. Adults are often so hard on themselves, and find it immensely difficult to be patient or give themselves a break. Picturing your inner child (you as a child) can help create a sense of patience and connectedness with the parts of you that you typically disconnect from. So, now that you’ve named your feeling(s), picture you as a little kid. How old are you? What are you wearing? Did you have a silly hair cut at the age you’re picturing? Do you smell like shampoo, or dirt, or maybe chlorine from a pool? What do you like to do? (I once had a client tell me that she used to take eggs from the refrigerator and put them under a heat lamp in her room in hopes that they would hatch into little chicks. How could you be mad at that little kid?!) Step three: Ask your inner child what they need from you Take a look at that little kid. If you’re feeling stuck or having a hard time doing this, picture a friend’s kid, or a niece or nephew. I will give you a hint about what your inner child needs from you: the answer is never the negative talk that adults give themselves on the daily. It is never helpful to tell your niece or nephew how worthless they are, or what a failure they’re going to be. It is also never helpful to shun, ignore, or blame a kid. So picture that kid and ask them: What do you need from me? What can I do to help? The goal here is to be the adult resource for your inner child. For a thorough exploration on how to communicate with your inner child, check out this article . Your kiddo may just need to be seen and heard. Or maybe they need reassurance and validation that their existence matters, and that they deserve to be heard. Visualize them and ask. This may feel silly, and that is okay. Silliness doesn’t make it any less valuable, especially when it can help you cope with anxiety. Step four: Do an activity that your inner child likes to do This is probably something you liked to do as a kid, or maybe something that you didn’t love but that reminds you of the good parts of childhood. This is an activity that makes YOU happy. Not your family, not your work, but you. Sometimes this will overlap with what makes other people satisfied, and this is fine as long as you are able to keep the child as the focus of your attention. Think coloring, reading, taking a bath, or listening to music (check out this article for some ideas). Give your inner child some control, and ask them what they want to do. If there are safe adults around (like yourself) your inner child can feel safe to explore and do something they love, even when the world is scary! Conclusion Pay attention to your inner child, and not just during the pandemic! As kids turn into adults, they learn to ignore their feelings in order to exist as a fully functional human in the only way they know how. But, the world is always a bit chaotic, so grounding in what you need in the moment is an effective way to maintain feelings of control and of connectedness. Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW
Disclaimer: These posts are just general information, and are not to be considered clinical advice, not a substitute for therapy. No therapist-patient relationship is created by these posts. Please consult a physician or therapist to determine if such information is right for you.