Our Brains, Our Bodies, and Our Relationships

 

Relationships are everywhere. We have relationships in our individual lives, in our corporate lives, and in our virtual lives. We are wired for connection. We yearn for that feeling of intimacy and bonding in romantic relationships and in friendships. Interestingly enough, our brains are wired for that, too! Our brains are wired for us to feel, to sense, to understand, and to remember, especially as we experience relationships. As our brains are wired for connection, they interact with our surroundings in such a way that we respond, both positively and negatively, in our relationships accordingly.

Our Brain and Our Body

Our brain is designed to protect us and to allow us to engage relationally and socially, and our brain has different systems that are activated that do just that. When both systems, the autonomic nervous system and the polyvagal system, are working together, social engagement is achieved. However, we live stressful lives and find stress at every turn in our daily routines. We know that stress impacts us; it can make us irritable, anxious, and can create health problems. Stress can also activate systems in the brain that impact the way we relate to friends, spouses, and family members. When stress occurs, it activates the parts in our brain associated with the fight or flight system, activating our brain and our bodies to respond. Often when this occurs, we feel our heart rates increase, our skin becomes clammy or sweaty, and we often become anxious.

This process is a good thing, but when we are unable to deactivate the system to bring us back to a calm state, there are long term effects. Activating the parasympathetic system quickly reaches the prefrontal cortex, the front part of our brains associated with problem solving and critical thinking. The prefrontal cortex does not have a quick access back to the emotion center of the brain to help calm you down, so the cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex shut down. This has important implications for relationships we desire.

Our Relationships

As your brain and your body respond to a stressful stimulus, different systems activate in your body that decrease the ability to engage relationally and socially the way that we would like to engage. We become unable to attend to our partners or our friends, and our ability to problem solve also decreases. In addition, we lack active interest in others and have a reduced ability to process information. As different experiences take place, neurons fire together in the brain and wire together. This means that the more similar experiences you have, the more likely the similar response will take place for that memory/experience. This wiring together regulates how the systems within us interact and how we interact with others. Heightened and chronic states of stress create more constant states of less engagement, less problem solving, and less capability to process information. We like to think that we have control over the emotions that are triggered; however, the emotions occur, but the reactions we have to the emotions is what we have a chance to correct.

In order to reduce the (almost immediate) impact of the reaction to the fight or flight response being activated, enhanced emotion regulation capabilities provide more room for someone to experience the immediate firing to the prefrontal cortex so that a better, more positive interaction can take place.  Engaging in tools and skills that increase the ability to emotionally regulate can increase the positivity in relationships.

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Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine

What You’re Fighting About Is NOT What You’re Fighting About

This is a pretty mundane example of the type of things married people argue about. It seems like a pretty simple matter on the surface. The discussion was about doing chores. So why did I feel cornered? Why did something as simple as cleaning the kitchen make me feel so much anxiety? This argument was about more than simply cleaning the kitchen. I felt torn between two demands of great importance: my career or my wife’s good will. I keenly felt the burden of my family’s future resting on my shoulders, and what seemed like an endless to-do list. How could I stop working on that to do something as trivial as cleaning? What good was a clean kitchen if we were drowning in student loan debt? But not cleaning the kitchen meant the evaporation of marital bliss. How could I focus on my work with an upset wife on my mind? Either way, I was in trouble.

Any fly on the wall seeing our argument probably would have thought the issue was as simple as a lazy husband not wanting to do chores. But as in almost every argument, there was something deeper going on below the surface. To my wife, this was not merely a matter of having a clean kitchen. For her, it was about peace of mind. Coming home to a messy house after a hard day adds more stress. When the house is messy, it makes her mind feel chaotic and disordered too. Not only that, but a dirty house reminds her of the instability of growing up with a father who had bipolar disorder and refused to take his medicine. The issue of cleaning the kitchen was proxy for some deeper concerns. For me it was about earning enough to take care of my wife and to prepare for children. For my wife it was about feeling safety and peace in her own home.

Arguments can draw a couple closer together, or they can drive a wedge between them. What makes the difference? That question has a few answers, but one of the big things is whether we ever get to the deeper meanings under the surface of the fight. If we stay on the surface, we may have conclusion, but we won’t have resolution; whether I did the cleaning or not, I would have had stress and felt disconnected from my wife. That’s because what I needed, and what every person needs, is to know and feel that their partner understands and respects them. The reason we had an argument had nothing to do with cleaning at all, it was really about her basic need for safety, and my basic need for competence. We couldn’t fix the problem until we acknowledged the source of our strong emotions and what the fight was really about.

The moment we feel understood by our partner, we can think clearly, and then it’s easy to do problem solving. Next time you’re arguing and feeling upset, ask yourself about the deeper issue behind the disagreement. Find out from your partner what their position means to them. Empathize with their thoughts and feelings, and see how much easier it is to resolve arguments.

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Written by: Kenneth Jeppesen, LAMFT, MMFT

Kenneth is a therapist at the American Fork Center for Couples and Families and is a licensed associate marriage and family therapist. He enjoys helping individuals and couples find peace and happiness and spends the rest of his time learning about everything!

Emotions 101: The Basics

Most of us try to avoid uncomfortable emotions. Who likes to feel sad, depressed, lonely, hurt, scared or betrayed? Don’t we try to NOT feel this way? Some may even engage in unhealthy behaviors to avoid their emotions.  I encountered this as a common theme in my work at drug and alcohol rehab facilities.  Though it may be unpleasant, I propose that if we want to feel the comfortable emotions in life, we have to get good at feeling the ones that are not so comfortable.

It is important to realize that uncomfortable emotions are not bad.  We all experience a myriad of emotions; some make us feel better than others.  Because of the discomfort that comes with some, many try to avoid them all together, take them out on others, or deal with them in unhealthy ways.  The trick to dealing with emotions in a healthy manner is not to get rid of them, but rather to embrace them and then let them go.  As I work with couples or individuals in therapy, I often review three simple steps to dealing with emotions:

  1. Recognize: Identifying what we are feeling is the first step. If we don’t know what we are feeling, then we will not be able to do anything with it. It will unwittingly control us. When I ask a client what they are feeling they will often reply, “I’m angry.” Anger, however, is what I call a false emotion. It only exists as it attaches itself to what we originally felt. For example, if someone were to post something mean about you on social media it might make you feel hurt. What is our natural reaction to something like this? We might want to lash out at that person. This is us embracing anger instead of hurt. In this case, the anger covers up the hurt and offers the illusion that it is protecting us—that it is keeping us safe from future hurt—when all it is doing is making it so that we remain hurt. Anger is insatiable. It can never be satisfied. Have you ever felt good after embracing your anger? No. We feel even more angry. That is why I call anger a false emotion. Let anger be the first sign that you are actually feeling something else. Ask yourself the question, “What am Ireally feeling?” in order to recognize your true emotions.
  2. Feel: This is the hardest step. After we have recognized that we feel hurt, for example, we usually don’t want to embrace that feeling. This goes back to not wanting to feel uncomfortable feelings. When we allow ourselves to feel these emotions, we then have power to do something with them. Consider the following example: You have a couch in your house that you really detest. This is the ugliest, most horrible piece of furniture ever created. It is so ugly that no one will touch it. How do you handle it? You can’t magically make it disappear—you actually have to pick it up and move it yourself. It seems ironic that in order to move something out of your house that you don’t like, you actually have to get closer to it and touch it. The same goes for our emotions. When we feel them (get closer to them, touch them, pick them up) then we have the power to do something with them.
  3. Cope: This is the step most people want to skip straight to. We want to cope with or let go of our emotions without feeling them. But doing this can get us into trouble. When we try to cope with our emotions without first picking them up, what we are really doing is distracting ourselves from feeling something uncomfortable. This is similar to taking a blanket and covering the ugly couch in our house—it’s still there! What we choose to distract ourselves with (i.e., social media, pornography, substances, food, work) then becomes our go-to every time we feel uncomfortable, and an addiction is born. Coping with an emotion involves not forcing it to leave and not forcing it to stay. We let it go after it has run its course. Then we can do something that helps us recover—such as reading a book or talking with a friend.

Learning to deal with uncomfortable emotions can feel counterintuitive at times. Our initial response may be to react with anger or push them away.  But, as we practice embracing our feelings in order to let them go, we will develop habits that will improve our emotional health and overall internal peace.

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Written by: Triston Morgan, PhD, LMFT

Dr. Morgan is a director and co-owner of Center for Couples and Families, a counseling center, in Utah Valley. He is licensed as a PhD marriage and family therapist, and is originally from Oregon. He and his beautiful wife, Cristina, love to travel and see the world.

Seven Principles for a Healthy Marriage – Triston Morgan PhD, LMFT

In movie theaters, we love the thrill of sitting on the edge of our seats watching as a suffering character gets the antidote to their trouble in the nick of time.  Whether it’s a fairy tale princess waiting for true love’s kiss, Harry Potter and his friends casting spells, or a poisoned superhero anticipating the arrival of a healing solution—we love our struggling heroes to succeed in the end.  But the excitement is not the same when we, as the heroes and heroines of our own lives, struggle and wish for a solution in our own marriages.

Luckily, many great marriages are successful due to antidotes that you can use, too.  In our last issue, I outlined six signs that your marriage could be in trouble.  The solution to these symptoms is provided by John Gottman and his 40 years of successful marital research.  Follow his principles (or antidotes) and you will be on your way to a happier and healthier marriage.

HealthyMarriagePrinciple 1 – Enhance Your Love Maps

Become “intimately familiar with each other’s world,” as John Gottman would put it. Knowing each other’s goals, fears, desires, story, and history will go a long way in creating a marriage that lasts. Do you know your partner’s best and worst childhood memories? Do you know what stresses them during the day? Do you know the important people in your partner’s life (friends, potential friends, rivals or enemies)?

Principle 2 – Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

This is the antidote for “contempt” that I spoke about in my last article. Fondness and admiration for your partner includes having respect and love for them. It isn’t a complicated process—simply increase your positive feelings towards your partner. Fond memories and interpretations of what is happening presently in your relationship is key.

Principle 3 – Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away

If you want a key to romance and a good sex life, here it is. Turning towards your partner means to emotionally reach for and lean towards them in difficult and easy times. When your partner sends you the message “I need you” – do you reach out for them? If not, then start reaching out for them emotionally and physically.

Principle 4 – Let Your Partner Influence You

This one is more for the guys (although it’s important for the gals too). John Gottman found that when a man in a relationship accepts influence from his partner, they are more likely to have a happier marriage.  Making decisions together, showing respect for each other’s opinions, and sharing the power will increase the ability for your marriage to succeed.

Principle 5 – Solve Your Solvable Problems…(read the rest of the story)

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Spirituality and Therapy: Five Benefits of Spiritually Integrated Therapy – Daniel Colver, M.A., LMFT

Spirituality-300x300The two preceding articles in this three-part series recognized the resurgence of spirituality in therapy, identified a need for psychotherapists trained in spiritual and religious competencies, provided tips on how to find a licensed clinician who is right for you, and explored three domains of spiritual wellness.  This third and final article will address five potential benefits of spiritually integrated therapy.

I recently listened to both a psychologist’s lecture on integrated healthcare, and a book on parenting written by a world renowned researcher/therapist who devoted her career to understanding guilt, shame, vulnerability and whole-hearted living.  Both scholars spoke of spirituality as being a resilience factor.  This got me thinking about how spiritually integrated therapy may serve some of my clients, so I came up with a list of five potential benefits of spiritually integrated therapy:

  1. Enhancing Protective Factors: A so-called “protective factor” is anything a person incorporates into their life which effectively decreases the likelihood of harm.  You can think of it as the opposite of a “risk factor.”  A growing body of research has shown that spiritual health and positive religious practices can in fact serve as a protective factor for a wide variety of issues across populations (i.e. hazardous substance use, suicidality, self-harm, eating disorders, etc.).  In therapy, exploring how spiritual practice can serve as a protective factor may be beneficial.
  2. Increasing Stress Resilience: Those who manage stress effectively have incorporated resilience practices into their regular lifestyle.  Spiritually integrated psychotherapy recognizes spiritual health as an essential component of whole and complete living.  Therapy may explicitly discuss spiritual or religious coping strategies the client uses to solve problems, elicit a sense of meaningfulness to stressful life events, and/or learn skills to “weather the storm” in a profoundly purposeful way.  A common element among various faith traditions is an active willingness to practice non-judgmental acceptance.  Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) suggests stress-resiliency is enhanced as we actively challenge our experiential avoidance of unpleasant emotions (i.e. anxiety, fear, pain) by engaging in value-based action while accepting that meaningful living does not begin when discomfort ends… it begins now.
  3. Using Culturally Relevant Language…(read the rest of the story)

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness

New Counseling Center Location – Introducing Draper CCF

Draper-UT

Announcing the Grand Opening of the Draper Center for Couples and Families. For those of you needing counseling in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley – we opened an office for you. We are quickly becoming a resource for struggling couples and families throughout America – with offices in Utah, Texas, Arizona, Florida and Delaware.

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Come and see how we can help you and your loved ones heal your relationships.

5 Sneaky Effects of Pornography – Erin Rackham – Provo CCF

Comp pic

Though there is still some debate among researchers about the effects of pornography use on individuals, research has consistently shown that regularly viewing pornography can have negative effects on relationships—particularly if one’s partner disapproves of said pornography use. Sometimes, negative effects sneak up on a user and shape the way he or she views the world, without them even realizing it. Many of the following experiences hold true for both men and women who regularly view pornography, but for simplicity, we will focus mainly on the effects on men:

  1. Physical sexual dysfunction.

Since pornography is most frequently a solo sexual experience, when it comes time to engage in relational sexual experiences many men struggle to perform optimally due to the desensitization pornography has caused. There are many reports of pornography-induced sexual dysfunction which often leads to emotional problems and tension in relationships.

  1. Women may be portrayed as objects.

Since the majority of pornography portrays men as dominant or sexually coercive and shows that women enjoy this dynamic, pornography users tend to believe that this is realistically what they can expect sex to be like with their partner. Unfortunately, this sends the message to women that they should act like objects who aren’t supposed to feel pain, whose desires don’t matter, and who should have strong positive emotional responses whenever a man wants them to—regardless of how they really feel.

  1. Lowered satisfaction with sex… (read more)

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness

When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression by Chris Boeskool

equality is not oppression

I’ve never been punched in the face. Not in an actual fight, at least. I’m not much of a fighter, I suppose… more of an “arguer.” I don’t think I’m “scared” to get into a fight, necessarily — there have been many times I have put myself in situations where a physical fight could easily have happened.

I just can’t see myself ever being the guy who throws the first punch, and I’m usually the kind of guy who DE-escalates things with logic or humor. And one of the things about being that sort of person, is that the other sort of guy — the sort who jumps….(read more)

Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection by Reshma Saujani