For the past two weeks, session after session, my clients and I have been processing the coronavirus.  Amidst sorting through my clients’ anxiety, the biggest question I am hearing is this: How can I manage my mental health and my relationships when my whole life has shifted, and I have no way of knowing when it will go back to normal? The only true answer anyone can give at this point is “I don’t know.” If this leads to panic, allow me to help you readjust your thoughts so you can learn how to cope with the chaos a little more effectively.    Stop scouring the news This is easily my first tip. The impulse you’re feeling to scrape the Internet and learn absolutely everything you can about the coronavirus is essentially your brain trying to understand what is going on. It is normal, and dare I say it, adaptive to feel a drive to search for information in the millions of articles that are popping up. Your brain is looking for answers and direction on how to proceed. Anxiety is, after all, just your emotional, physical and mental drive for survival. While this drive experienced as anxiety can be helpful at times, it is not particularly helpful when there is such a surplus of contradicting, confusing, and potentially inaccurate information. Your brain wants an answer, yet there is none.  So, instead of rushing towards panic, try redirecting your urge to find answers for something more productive, and something you can realistically work towards controlling. One good option is to explore articles and blog posts focusing on managing your mental health within the context of the coronavirus (try this one, this one or this one).    Get dressed like you’re going to work This one might sound silly, but if you’re working from home, the two worlds can easily start to blend. This can leave you feeling like you’re at work when you’re home- except the reprieve of actually going home is no longer a thing. Instead of having your day arbitrarily switch back and forth from work life to home life throughout the day, try to create a definitive beginning and end.  Keep to your daily routine. Wake up at your typical time, and follow your morning routine, work out at home or go for a run, and break out your computer at your kitchen table fully dressed and ready to go. Move to the couch for lunch, and go back to your kitchen table for work. At the end of the day, follow your evening routine as well. Of course, this cannot and will not feel exactly the same. But setting the boundary of changing out of your work clothes allows your brain to understand that once they are off, you are done working. This is actually a practice we should be engaging in year round, but is extra crucial during this time of chaos, confusion, and blurred boundaries (See this article on why redirecting your brain after work is important, and how to do it).    Practice acceptance *Rolls eyes.* I don’t mean acceptance in the “this doesn’t bother me” sense, or even in the “I am grateful for what I have” sense (though this latter sentiment can be achieved, too).  If I could translate my suggestion into a sentence, it would be, “Well, I guess this is what I have right now.”  Notice how many of your thoughts are thoughts about wanting to be somewhere else, stressing about what you cannot get done at work/in life, or about what you’re missing out on. Notice what you feel after having all these thoughts. My guess is, you are not feeling better. You’re all sorts of worked up and frustrated about how unfair the situation is.  The “what ifs” and “if onlys” are your system’s response to a situation in which you feel stuck. Your brain and body are trying to come up with a way out. Once your brain sends the signal to the rest of you that you can take a break from brainstorming because you’re safe, but temporarily stuck, the rest of you can relax. So much of the anxiety you are experiencing is yes, warranted worrying, but also an attempt to control what you are worried about. Relieve yourself from the pressure of trying to solve yours and everyone else’s problems. Take a deep breath, and state out loud where you are and the situation you are stuck with. Now, think of something you can do. A facemask? A puzzle? Call to check in on your elderly loved ones?    In conclusion Boiled down to one sentence, my suggestion is to control what you can, and let go of what you cannot. I do recognize this is a lot easier said than done. Start by organizing your concerns into two columns: what is within your control, and what is out of your control. Focus on the column you can do something about, and do it! You may just start to go back to feeling productive, competent, and a little more like yourself.  If you are struggling in a way that feels unmanageable, reach out for help! The coronavirus is scary because no one has any answers, but is also uniting because everyone is in the same boat. This means you are not alone in your suffering. Therapists all over the city (including yours truly!) are increasing their use of teletherapy to help you manage your experience.     Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW   ​

How do you make the decision to go to couples counseling? I mean realistically, how do you get to the point in your relationship, with enough honesty, intention and awareness, to suggest that healing may be out of your own control?  The courage this takes has always astounded me, and has led me to immense respect for every couple that walks in my door.  The swell of respect and empathy for the distress in my couples has led me to wondering if there is a way to intervene earlier. How can I help get couples to come to therapy more confidently and more quickly than the nationwide average of six years post problem onset (Gottman Institute)? I hear a lot of couples tell me they waited because they thought it would get better, or they thought this is just how relationships progress. I have heard others say they just felt that if they ignored the problem it would go away, or, on the contrary, that if they talked/yelled about it endlessly it would start to feel less bad. Finally, and the most heartbreaking one for me, is that if they admit they need couples counseling then that must mean they are on the path to divorce or separation.  I hope this article can help add to the movement of breaking the stigma of couples counseling, and can help you and your partner understand how to assess the very first signs of a problem. Couples counseling does not have to mean divorce, especially when these small signs are addressed sooner rather than later (after all, timing is everything).  You’ve found that time spent having fun together is infrequent After nearly 40 years of research, Drs. John and Julie Gottman (founders of The Gottman Method) found that the first thing to go in a marriage breakdown is friendship (Gottman research overview). This is critical information- losing friendship creates emotional disengagement and a deficit in connection, which can make arguments more frequent and more biting.  So, nip it in the bud! When you’re feeling a little lonelier than you have in the past, or like your routine is all “work, kids, sleep, repeat,” check in and assess when the last time you had fun with your partner was. This does not have to be an extravagant date night, but can even just be hanging out and laughing on the couch after the kids have gone to sleep. It is so easy to talk yourself out of this for the sake of a few extra minutes of sleep or work, but remember: your relationship is one of your biggest investments: of time, energy and emotion. Try to make it a priority, and be aware when it is not.   There have been, or will be, big changes This does not necessarily mean you need to be having blow out arguments about these changes. Sometimes partners will come to a decision together, only to have one partner feel resentful in the long run. Couples counseling will ensure that you both are on the same page about the decisions you make, and will help you address and process potential blind spots, miscommunications, or confusions.    Your arguments are repetitive and/or cyclic This one can be a little misleading. “Perpetual issues” are actually a part of a healthy relationship, and take up about 69% of the attention devoted to arguing within a relationship (see Gottman research overview for a better understanding of “perpetual issues”). When I refer to the cycle of arguments as an indicator for considering couples therapy, I am thinking of the ones that are destructive and hurtful. These types of arguments are not only making no progress but also are ending in a way that feels wounding. These arguments are not always about the same exact thing, but they can take on the same patterns or have the same theme. To assess for this, try to take note of the feelings coming up during your arguments. Do you feel consistently undervalued or deprioritized? Or unheard? Take a step back from the content of the argument and try to be aware of the feeling behind it.      Things at work are a little extra stressful And there is no end in sight. If either you or your partner are coming home a little more irritable and anxious than usual, or are having trouble sleeping due to overworking and/or increased work stress, the relationship can get a bit tricky. This is especially apparent when both partners are struggling with increased work stress. When you come home from a stressful day, the last thing you typically want to hear is about your partner’s stress. For some couples this can become a subtle competition of “who is more stressed”? When this competition takes over, it is hard for either of you to feel empathized with when one partner’s pain must not be as bad as the other’s. Couples therapy can help build some stress management techniques, and some ways to step out of your own thought process and into your partners for just a moment. Here are some ideas on how couples can cope with professional stress.  Something just feels “off” Trust. Your. Gut. A psychoanalytic interpretation of a “gut feeling” is that it is a visceral or body memory popping up from something that has happened in the past (Dr. Puder and his guests explain the impact of the unconscious on “gut feelings” further in this episode of his podcast).  This means that if something feels funky in your relationship, it might not be an indicator of the relationship as a whole, but it is triggering something uncomfortable for you and deserves to be addressed. Attending therapy can help you put words to your feelings for both you and your partner in a neutral and non-blaming way.  All in all… You may be thinking, “These issues seem relatively small, and feel like they might just go away. Why go to therapy?” Yes, you definitely may be right. They really could just get better on their own. But the point I want to emphasize is that you do not have to wait until something catastrophic happens to go to couples therapy, and it is actually exponentially more effective if you do not wait. So, if you see some small signs and feel a few booster sessions might be helpful, why not? Your partner is your world, and someone you (may) hope to spend forever with. You and your partner are deserving of making sure your relationship is a deep, strong, and happy as it can be- for mental, physical, and emotional health reasons.  ​Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW




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What to do When Winter’s Got You Down​

Ah, March. Temperature begins to hike up into the 50s, it starts to get occasionally sunnier, and you finally find yourself heading towards that spring boost to go outside and participate in society. The end of March and the beginning of spring is such a lovely concept, unless you’re stuck still dealing with residual winter blues.  


Winter can come with some really frustrating and seemingly insignificant annoyances. Weight gain, lack of daylight, and feeling cooped up in your apartment are just some reasons tension can increase between you and your partner. On top of this, the perpetual ennui that comes with spending all your money on food and alcohol because it is too cold and wet outside to leave the apartment can be weighty. And finally, the layered results of having nothing to do other than eat and drink also start impact your body and mind, and can make you feel stuck, not sexy, and lonely. Don’t fret- it happens! There are definitely ways to avoid this in future winters, but for now, allow me to focus on stepping out of this cycle and into spring with your partner. 



Switch It Up


During the spring, summer and fall, it is so much easier to plan small day trips and get out of your apartment. Dips back into routine feel like welcome old friends, and are there to help ground and stabilize you. 


During the winter, and especially after the holidays, all most of us have is consistency. After the holidays you avoid traveling due to the long awaited decrease in chaos, the flu season, and the potential for ice. The outside world seems a bit overwhelming, so you stay home. At first, this feels comfortable and much appreciated after a few busy seasons of travel. But eventually this can become monotonous and featureless, and turns into feeling stuck and bored. 


So, my suggestion? Disrupt your routine! Find a way to get out of the city and spend some time outside, even if it is cold. An article by Florence Williams in the Wall Street Journal explores research that has found that people are generally happier when: 1. They are with friends and lovers, and 2. They are outside. The true takeaway from this research is that people did not realize how much happier, healthier, and more creative they would be when they are in nature. 


Grab your partner and bundle up to go for a walk on the highline or on Brooklyn Bridge. Make a day out of it! Get some hot chocolate and gloves and walk around Central Park, even if only for 30 minutes. If you have the time and money, try to make a day trip upstate or to somewhere in Long Island. You and your partner can even get a hotel room for one night just for something a little extra special. You two deserve the strengthening of a bond that comes with marching out of a difficult time together. 



Eat Well and Exercise


The dreaded suggestion that is applicable for just about every ailment is equally as relevant when alleviating your winter blues. Ironically, struggling with weight gain and feeling sad can make eating well and exercising more difficult than it already may be. I’m sure you can only imagine the cycle this creates! But, according to this article (and many others), research has shown that diet and exercise have such a significant impact on mental health that they can actually treat depression. 


To motivate yourself to exercise, try going with your partner. Make it a team activity and do some research on exercises that require two bodies (such as throwing a medicine ball back and forth). You can also try writing down how you feel after you exercise so you can refer back to it during moments that feel a little less enthusiastic. And don’t forget to add some variety to your workout- if you cycle and your partner does HIIT, try trading off every now and then and see how you feel!


As for eating well, find a cookbook with your partner and commit to making dinner together two to three times a week. If cooking is a comfortable topic for you two, do a cooking competition! Cook for each other and/or your friends and family, and embrace the small healthy habits your partner shows you (maybe they add a little less butter to a recipe you already love). Don’t forget to send each other motivating messages throughout the day to help you connect and remember that you are in this tricky time together. 



Spend Some Time Apart


I know this may sound counterintuitive for a couples therapy blog, but a hugely undervalued piece of information is that a healthy relationship balances both time together and time apart. If you and your partner have spent the last 4 out of 7 nights arguing about what shows to watch or what to eat, try spending an evening apart doing something fun. This means avoiding working late or a work happy hour, and instead going out with some friends you haven’t seen in a while. 


Space is not only for when you are upset with one another! This article emphasizes just a few of the many reasons why time apart is vital for any relationship. This can be extra hard to snag in the winter, and may have to be planned out a bit more consciously (especially if you and your partner live together). Set a reminder in your phone or ask your friends to hold you accountable for a couple nights together a month.



Now what? 


Get to it! Find ways to motivate yourself to take the steps towards the actions mentioned above. Leave sticky notes around your apartment, send yourself voice notes, and remind yourself that you are more than your winter lull. We have faith in you! 


**A caveat: Seasonal Affective Disorder is very real. If you think what you or your partner are experiencing is more than just the “winter blues,” reach out for help! Seasonal Affective Disorder can impact your relationships and overall functioning, and you truly deserve to have this addressed if it is happening to you. 



Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW