An Ethic to Live: Building Barriers to Suicide Around Ourselves & Those We Love

In cities throughout the world, notable high buildings and bridges increasingly have additional fencing built atop of them with the specific purpose of preventing suicides. Suicide fences tend to work because research has shown that suicidal actions are frequently impulsive, hence such fences serve to forestall that impulse and buy individuals precious time to further think about their decisions. In studies of suicide fences, it appears that individuals don’t leave such barriers to go look for another bridge or tall building to end their lives from, but instead return to the business of living for yet another day.  

Presently suicide is the leading cause of death among young people ages 10-17 here in Utah, and over the last decade, it’s also doubled amongst adults in our state. As concerned friends, neighbors, and parents, how do we help our community build more barriers to suicide; protecting and empowering those we love? Over the next year, I’ll be writing a series of articles in answer to this question; offering my perspective as both a therapist, who has stood on sacred ground in helping others walk back from suicidal thinking, and as one who’s felt and ultimately rejected the dark pull to end my life amidst heavy times.   

Perhaps you’ve already noted that there’s no way to build suicide fences everywhere or to somehow block all of the endless ways in which someone might consider ending their life. Sound public policies on prevention and physical barriers like suicide fences are only some of the important ways to help. So in addition to these forms of prevention, the focus of my writing will be on how to build barriers to suicide directly into the thinking and values of individuals, and into the culture of our community as a whole. In this first article, I want to introduce how we help foster an ethic to live within ourselves and in others as a key barrier to suicide.  

An ethic to live means valuing our lives and holding a commitment within ourselves to continue living — even when we’re unsure of how we’ll cope or move forward. In my experience, helpful conversations about consciously building an ethic to live, begin by first taking care to turn our attention to the reality that to live is to be vulnerable to an array of difficult life experiences, with the potential to evoke within us the thought to end one’s life to escape them. Throughout human history, individuals and peoples have had to confront extremely painful and unjust challenges which have overwhelmed their sense of being able to continue on, and it’s important to acknowledge that when we confront such considerable pain, it is the most human thing in the world to want relief from it. This is real; excruciating human suffering beyond one’s current sense of how to reduce or stop it is real, and in these concentrations of pain, we may find ourselves having suicidal thoughts.  

When we acknowledge and honor that such excruciating life experiences do show up for many of us, it’s then that we can locate where we need to begin building internal fences to prevent suicide. It’s here that we recognize the need to develop a strong ethic to live even though there are times that we might not yet fully know how we’ll cope or be able to see brighter ways forward. It’s also here that we find the need to define as individuals what makes life worth living with specificity to our own life experiences, as well as the need to find a listener who we can turn to and voice what’s going on inside of us. 

As you navigate life’s difficulties, no matter how hard things may get, make the commitment now to live and identify your personal reasons to do so. Additionally, identify suicidal thoughts as a  sign to find a listener who you feel safe enough to talk to. It’s worth thinking about right now who it is you might feel comfortable turning to during your hardest times. By doing so, you’ll begin to build your own internal fence between you and suicide as well as have greater insight as to how to help others you care about to do the same.  

* If you or someone you care about is currently having thoughts of ending their life, caring help is available 24/7 by texting 741741 from anywhere in the USA or you can call 1-800-273-8255 to speak directly with a Counselor from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

Bio: Laura Skaggs Dulin holds a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from San Diego State University. She currently sees clients at the Spanish Fork Center for Couples and Families and at Encircle LGBT Youth and Family Resource Center in Provo.  

Forced Apologies

My four-year-old daughter placed herself in the middle of our living room to play with blocks. She was so engrossed with building a wooden castle that she didn’t notice her two-year-old sister walking towards her with her right arm stretched far back to slap her older sister across the head. When that slap came, my older daughter went from happy to surprise to anger and then lots of tears. She ran towards me seeking justice. “Mommy, she hit me!” My younger daughter remained still, looking innocent. I immediately walked over to her with my older daughter in hand and said, “Hands are not for hitting. Say sorry for hitting please.”  I’m sure many parents can relate to this scenario. Teaching our children the skills for making amends is an important life skill and is not so much about saying the words “I’m sorry”.  

There is a belief amongst some parents that enforcing premature apologies on children is not effective. Their reasoning is that premature apologies teach children to lie and encourage insincerity. It also creates shame and embarrassment. Other studies show that young children have the ability to be empathetic even before they can speak; therefore, parents should encourage apologies (Smith, Chen, Harris; 2010). As I reflected on my research and my knowledge as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I recognized several things we can do as parents to create productive apologies: 

  1. Keep yourself in check: It’s frustrating to see your children fight, especially when it happens at inconvenient times. However, it’s important to remain calm and model for your children how to handle frustration.   
  2. Be immediate when possible: When you see an incident occur between your children, address it. The best time for learning and growth is when the incident is still fresh in their minds. However, when there are time constraints and the issue cannot be addressed right away, it is important to tell your children when and where it will be addressed. Be consistent when using the alternative and follow through.  
  3. Ask instead of tell: Avoid lecturing. Ask questions instead. “Tell me what happened?” “What were you feeling when you hit your sister?” Validate the expressed emotion and help them to understand that it is okay to feel frustration and sadness; however, it is not okay to hit or throw things. Help them to also make the connection between emotion and action. “Look at her face, how do you think she’s feeling right now?” Asking these types of questions enhances empathy. 
  4. Problem Solve: Ask questions about what they think they should do when they feel frustrated or sad. Help them to come up with solutions.  Ask questions about how they can make things better with their sibling/s. 
  5. Have them practice a do-over: When your child identifies the solution, have them practice it with the other sibling/s. Praise them for their efforts at the end.    

What is more important than the phrase “I’m sorry” is what children take away from the experience. We can facilitate and enhance learning opportunities by not focusing on the phrase “I’m sorry” but instead more on what can be learned from this situation and how can we improve.  

How You Can Create a Happy, Healthy New Year in 3 Simple Steps

Life Coaching is the favorite part of my job. I love sharing personal stories and real-world experiences as I help clients overcome addictions to food and other substances. When they understand that challenges with food are just symptoms of greater core issues, often related to emotions, they begin to overcome them as I teach how to change the behaviors for good.  

I was a cake decorator for over thirty years. This was my life’s passion, but it ultimately ruined my health. Giving this dream up was a huge sacrifice but one that led to greater health, energy and joy in my life. From this experience and others, I understand what it feels like to be an addict and the behaviors associated with it. I also understand the emotions and fears that come when giving up comfort and an artificial kind of love.  

Food is meant for fuel, nutrition and energy but we take it a step further and use it for comfort, love, and numbing out so we don’t have to feel what is truly going on inside. Emotional eating creates health challenges like addiction, obesity, fatigue, mental instability, and eating disorders of all kinds. It is fine to derive pleasure from food, but that should be a secondary result of making healthy food choices. 

We know now that scientists have engineered processed food to increase our cravings and desire to keep coming back and purchasing their products. Sweet tastes, for example are what we are biologically programmed from infancy to gravitate toward. Mother’s milk is sweet and toddlers often choose fruit over vegetables. High fructose corn syrup is added to many products from ketchup to cereal to satisfy the cravings for sweets. The unfortunate consequence of eating it, however, is that it turns off the mechanism in our brain saying we are full, so we continue to eat until we are stuffed or feeling sick. Processed sugar feeds candida and causes a host of health problems if eaten regularly over time. 

So, we are not completely to blame for our addictions, but there are things we can do to change our behaviors around food and make wiser choices that will reap greater benefits. As we enter a new year, I’d like to give 3 suggestions to help you make better decisions before going into the kitchen. 

  1. CREATE A PLAN: People who fail to plan, plan to fail right? Look through your recipe books and decide what to make for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Go shopping and get the ingredients needed.  
  2. PREPARE AHEAD:Prepare your mealsahead and refrigerate or freeze them for use throughout the week to save time and money.  
  3. ASK YOURSELF QUESTIONS: Sometimes we eat because we’re bored or tired and we aren’t even hungry. Here is a series of questions you can ask yourself before going to the refrigerator or pantry for a snack.
  4. What do I want to eat?
  5. Is it something that will give my body nutrition,fuel and sustained energy?
  6. Why do I want it?
  7. What emotion istied to thisfood? 
  8. Will _____ serve me for the better or worse?
  9. What physical symptoms will I feelafter eating _______ ? 
  10. Is it worth it?

 

Asking yourself these questions will help you become conscious of your decisions and help make better ones. If you want to eat it, just because, then own that and don’t make yourself feel bad. Good habits are learned as we practice over time. Taking baby steps forward will help us see and feel the progress. Create a Happy New Year! 

 

 

When the Holidays Hurt

For many people, the holiday season is a time of joy and magic, a time where people relive and create happy memories. They are moments of joyous gatherings filled with love, laughter and crowded tables. But if you are not one of those people, the holiday season can be very difficult to endure. For individuals who have experienced the loss of a loved one, abuse in childhood, or another tragedy or trauma, the holidays just remind you of that loss and pain. Your days may not be merry and bright. Your days may feel more gloomy, more isolating, and you may feel more disconnected from the world around you.  

The holidays are here, and the holidays can hurt. 

Maybe it’s because of the chairs that will be empty or the phone calls that won’t come. Maybe it’s the time off from work that allows you to think about your life and feel the pain. Maybe it’s the reminder that all of your holidays your whole life were negative and filled with dysfunction and abuse. And maybe it’s the perception that everyone else has the picture perfect holiday gatherings with all their loved ones. Whatever the reason may be, a heavy sadness can take hold of you and you don’t know how to shake it off.  

For many of us, depression, grief, and sadness are constants and we get used to fighting them off and keeping them at bay. There’s nothing like the holidays that make you feel like you not only have to have it all together, but you have to wrap it up with a bow and display it for the world to see.  

If you happen to be hurting this holiday season, I’d like to offer some helpful advice. 

Let it hurt. Allow yourself to feel the pain and allow it to come fully without altering or inhibiting it. Life is difficult and painful sometimes and it is okay that you are not okay during this time. You don’t need to pretend that you are. Emotional reactions are expected and there are no right or wrong feelings.  

Don’t hide it. Be as authentic as you can with the people you are closest to. Allow people who love you to be there for you and support you in your time of pain and distress. Let them see you and know you–not an edited, “better” version of yourself.  

Today is really just another day. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that it must be the most wonderful time of the year. It doesn’t have to be, and it clearly isn’t that this year.  

Practice self care. Be aware of yourself and what you’re feeling and if something is triggering and overwhelming.  Allow yourself to disengage or leave a painful situation and attend to your pain. Only you truly know how you are feeling and what your boundaries and limitations are. Be true to yourself.  

Embrace this holiday as-is. You may feel overwhelmed and in pain, but there is still goodness to be experienced, even in the pain. There will be holidays in the future that are lighter and happier, and these difficult days are part of the healing path to get there.   

New traditions. New traditions can be healing and can help you create better connections to the loved ones in your life. If you have survived the loss of a loved one you can start a new tradition that symbolizes letting go, such as sending balloons or floating lanterns in the air. 

Above all, know that is okay to be blue during the holiday season.  

If you need someone to talk to you can contact the Center for Couples and Families at (385) 312-0506, text  HOME to 741741 to reach the crisis hotline or call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. 

 Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine

Discovering You Have ADHD as an Adult

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not just a childhood disorder. As a neurodevelopmental disorder, ADHD is usually identified in childhood, but several individuals reach adulthood without being accurately identified as having the condition. An estimated 8 million adults in the United States suffer from ADHD. In many of these cases, it is attention, rather than hyperactivity, which is the primary problem; this form of the disorder, formerly called “ADD,” is one of the more common types of ADHD in adults.  

 Missing ADHD in Childhood 

While all adults who meet criteria for ADHD will always manifest some form of significant symptoms in childhood, the level of impact of these symptoms can be quite variable. Several children do not manifest the hyperactive or impulsive symptoms sometimes associated with the condition. Their behavior in the classroom and at home may not be entirely problematic. Instead of being disruptive, talkative, or irresponsible, they may only appear forgetful or flighty. Some children learn how to hide their distractibility or compensate for attention concerns. They may be embarrassed by their limitations, but may be motivated to keep up appearances. Some children are able to compensate for attention concerns with high intelligence, perseverance, flexibility, creativity, and other strengths. Many children might have difficulty understanding their symptoms. They might lack insight into whether there is a problem. They might not verbalize their symptoms in a way which would impel an adult to seek a consultation. 

Because of these reasons, the full impact of ADHD-related symptoms in a child may not be obvious to others. When parents or teachers do not see that there could be a problem, it is unlikely that the child will be referred for an assessment. Even more obvious cases are not always given the opportunity to be assessed for ADHD. Some parents may believe that there is a problem, but may be hesitant to access mental health services. 

 Noticing the Impact of ADHD 

As academic demands, work demands, and household responsibilities increase in adulthood, problems with attention can become more noticeable and more frustrating. Some adults may question whether they themselves have a problem as they see their siblings or their own children struggle with symptoms of the disorder. Many of the risk factors for ADHD, after all, are genetic factors. Adults who previously felt like they had effectively covered up their attention problems may sense that their coping mechanisms are losing their effectiveness.   

How ADHD can be Identified 

For adults who believe their own attention problems may have flown under the radar, there is a way to determine whether ADHD is present. Self-report questionnaires, used to compare an individual’s symptoms to hundreds or thousands of other individuals, can be helpful in providing information about the problem, but these are just one aspect of a comprehensive evaluation. An individual’s developmental history is important and this is usually obtained through a comprehensive interview with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other qualified mental health provider. Computerized tests and performance-based tests can also help to assess the full extent of the problem. 

Sometimes attention problems can be due to normal forgetfulness. Sometimes these problems can be directly caused by depression or anxiety. Sleep problems and other medical problems can also negatively influence attention. Not everything that looks like ADHD is ADHD. Participating in a psychological assessment with a qualified provider can be an effective way to know the difference. Understanding the cause of symptoms is the first step in finding ways to improve.  

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine

Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples: Healing and Creating Connections

All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures. – Dr. John Bowlby

Have we really cracked the code on love and romantic bonding? Perhaps. Scientists, poets, and lovers have long grappled with the question: “What makes romantic love work?” Through the work of Dr. Sue Johnson and the development of Emotionally Focused Therapy, it looks like we have an answer.

Through decades of research on the importance of emotional bonding and what it is like to feel disconnected, isolated, and alone, relationship researchers are starting to unravel the mystery of love and adult romantic bonding and how to mend loving ties. The truth is, we are all hard-wired to connect to one another. This drive to connect is infinitely stronger in family and romantic relationships. To be emotionally isolated is harsh on our brains. Loving connections offer us a safe haven to go to where we can maintain our emotional balance, deal with stress, and respond more lovingly to our romantic partners. Essentially, when those connections are secure and strong, love is safe; love flourishes.

Unfortunately, disconnections between couples do happen and frustration, sadness, and anger are all too common in marital relationships. When those secure and loving bonds are threatened, emotional “primal panic” and a cycle of negative interactions ensues. These wounds can be difficult to repair for couples when left to their own abilities, and therapy is often the last step before looking to end the relationship. Unfortunately, many well-meaning therapists utilize their individual-based, time-tested techniques and attempt to apply them to relational interactions, which usually has little effect in restoring their loving bonds. In addition, many therapeutic techniques focus on helping partners change behaviors or thoughts, or teaching them communication skills. The common result from these approaches and techniques is that they usually struggle to gain traction, and the couple leaves therapy with less hope than before.

But there is hope. Within the last 25 years, a substantial amount of research has emerged that gives hope to couples on the brink and helps them tune in to their underlying emotions, identify their negative patterns of interaction, repair their attachment, and eventually create new patterns of bonding and positive interactions. This model is Emotionally Focused Therapy.

Grounded in the theory of attachment, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is an experiential, short term, structured, and tested model of therapy designed to help couples identify their negative communication patterns, interrupt this pattern, and create more positive, bonding, and secure emotional patterns. EFT does not see individuals as “sick” or unskilled, but rather “stuck in habitual ways of dealing with emotions with others in key moments.” As the title reflects, priority is given to emotion as a key organizer of inner experiences. EFT looks within the emotional experience of the couples and how they navigate their emotional connectedness. Dr. Sue Johnson has said, “The EFT therapist has a map. A map to relationships and how they work. A map to how they go wrong. And map to what is needed to put them right.”

A substantial body of research has shown promising results of the effectiveness of EFT. Research studies find that 70-75 percent of couples move from distress to recovery and approximately 90% show significant improvements. EFT is being used with many different kinds of couples in private practice, university training centers and hospital clinics, and many different cultural groups throughout the world. These distressed couples include partners suffering from disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and chronic illness.

In my work with couples, EFT has resonated with them on many levels. No longer are couples focused on fights and long-standing disagreements about specific content or trying to change the other person. When couples go through the process of EFT, perpetual problems are framed as negative disconnections that are about protests by each partner for a more loving connection and emotional safety. EFT takes the blame out of conflict and resentment and moves to fighting together against a common enemy—the negative pattern. As couples progress through the stages and steps of EFT and begin to accesses deeper emotions that underlie their struggle for connection, a new interaction emerges as individual partners see and experience each other differently. When partners experience each other as more accessible, responsive, and engaged, old wounds and negative patterns are healed, and love and emotional safety thrives.

Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine

Written by Dr. Jeremy Boden

Our Brains, Our Bodies, Our Relationships

As I work with individuals and couples, I like to educate them on how our brains and our bodies impact our relationships. Understanding the correlation between these elements seems easy enough, however, I often get the question, “How do I change my brain?” The answer to this question is a great starting point to create healing and allow new interactions to take place.

Our brains are wired for connection. Each interaction we have either strengthens or weakens the connections in our brains, thus influencing the relationships with those around us. The ability to allow one or two more heartbeats before reacting or responding to one’s partner is the ultimate goal. The better you are able to emotionally regulate (by allowing more heartbeats before reacting), the more positive your interactions with others can be.

There are many ways you can impact emotion regulation and the ability to create new experiences that improve relationship interactions. Some are easier than others, and some have been targeted to help with other areas of life. I’d like to highlight two very important ways to help increase heart rate variability and improve cognitive functioning so you are better prepared the next time you might want to fly off the handle. They are exercise and sleep.

Everyone knows that exercise is good for physical health, but it also has great implications for mental health and relationship health. Increased exercise impacts the way your heart pumps blood. Long-term exercise increases your heart’s efficiency in pumping blood to the body. It doesn’t have to work so hard, and this increases heart rate variability, or the amount of time in between heart beats in a given minute. Increased heart rate variability means more regulation (more parasympathetic, or calming, influences) on the heart, and thus, more flexibility in emotional responses. This means that you have more capacity to keep the breaks on when your fight or flight response is triggered, allowing you more time to thinking critically, solve problems, or socially engage before flying off the handle and reacting to environmental stimuli.

Additionally, exercise increases the volume of the prefrontal cortex—the area in the brain associated with learning and memory. Exercise also stimulates the growth of cells by releasing chemicals in the brain. These new cells are then cleaned, solidified, and bonded together to create new memories for individuals.

We have all heard that sleep is important and should be a priority. Sleep does a lot of thing for us—it helps with creativity, remembering physical tasks, and making decisions. Sleep also does two important things in the brain: creates and consolidates memories and clears out toxins. As neurons fire together (and therefore wire together), sleep helps to connect recent memories with earlier memories. This allows individuals to remember how they reacted in past situations, and react differently next time if they desire a different outcome.

Cleaning out toxins in the brain increases attention and memory, helps individuals think clearly, and even impacts the regulation of insulin. Not getting enough sleep inhibits the ability to clear out the toxins, which can be harmful to the connections that are trying to take place in the brain. Sleeping allows us the opportunity to create new and improved experiences each day.

There are many ways individuals can have more influence on emotional responses. These are only two, but by changing our brains and our physiology in the body, we are prepping ourselves for better interactions. Being mindful of how we can impact the physiology of our bodies allows us more control over how we interact with those around us. We increase our capacity to engage more positively and be more satisfied in our relationships.

Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Written by Dr. Kayla Mennenga

Roads to Ruin, Bridges to Recovery

 

Lisa started drinking when she was 16, just casually with her friends. After her parents’ messy divorce, she started to overdo it. Later, in college, things started to get out of hand, and soon she was on a downward spiral of excessive drinking. She knew it was destroying her life, but she couldn’t stop.

Mark first saw pornography when he was 13, but he didn’t make a pattern of looking for it until he was 16. Mark wasn’t close to his parents, and felt like a loner at school, and when he felt bored or stressed he found pornography made him feel a lot better. Years later, he was fired from his job for looking at pornography at work. Soon after, his wife started talking about separation.

Looking for a Fix

It can be hard to understand why people continue with an addictive behavior, even when it threatens to destroy their life. What we often don’t understand is that things like alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography can sometimes feel like the only options people have to deal with the mess in their lives.

When our need feels desperate, the pressure to find a solution can be overpowering. Think of what it would be like to crawl through the desert for days, mouth as dry as sandpaper, only to come across a pitcher of cold water, with a sign that says “do not touch.” Would you be able to restrain yourself? This gives you some idea of what an addict feels when their brain is pushing them towards meeting a need, or in other words, getting a ‘fix’.

Our brain is wired to solve problems for us. It builds bridges between problems (hunger) and solutions (eating). If we are lucky, we have felt the incredible comfort that can come from someone who loves you and is there for you in your time of need, and so when we feel lonely or sad, it makes sense to turn to one of these people—our brain has built a bridge. But what if this isn’t an option in our mind? Maybe, like Lisa, our family doesn’t feel safe, or like Mark, we don’t have many friends. Where can we build a bridge to?

Fortunately, the brain is a great problem solver, and it will find a solution somewhere else. Unfortunately, under pressure, sometimes it will find a solution that leads down the path of an addictive behavior. Our brain will remember how great that thing felt, and how useful that could be right now. Each time we indulge the impulse, the bridge grows a little stronger, until after a while it feels like the only possible option, and becomes relatively automatic.

Building New Bridges

The good news is, this understanding can open up some big possibilities for recovery. Instead of focusing on just stopping the behavior (which is often frustrating and ineffective) we can instead focus on what the underlying problem is that the addiction is responding to. Then we can find an alternative solution that lines up better with the way we want to live, and gives us the comfort or support we really need. Often, this is best achieved by developing a supportive relationship, and learning to go there for comfort and support.

For example, Mark came to a full awareness of the impact of his addiction, and wanted to make changes. He was so used to hiding his issues and feelings and using pornography to deal with them, that it was hard to open up and be honest—with himself, his therapist, and his wife. But as he learned to go to his wife when he needed comfort and support, they both found that their marriage soon improved to a point where they felt closer than ever.

After crashing out at school, Lisa was referred by her school counselor to an AA meeting. There, she met with people who understood the pull of alcohol, who didn’t judge her, but instead supported her to overcome her addiction. She started to repair relationships with family and friends, and this, along with the support of her group and sponsor, gave her the motivation to get her life back on track.

Addiction affects everyone, everywhere. Often, the best thing we can do to overcome it is to develop caring and supportive relationships that address the underlying need, and help the addict know that they are loved and they are not alone. Recovery can be scary and difficult at first, but it becomes easier as you walk a new path of openness and connection to the people and things that are truly important to you.

Written by Sam Ryland, LCSW

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Turning Holiday Stress Into Holiday Joy

happy family mother and baby little child playing in the winter for the Christmas holidays

It was getting dangerously close to Christmas. I had all but finished my shopping for the season when I realized that I had one more gift to buy. I knew I couldn’t order it online because it wouldn’t arrive on time, so my thoughts turned to how to navigate the stores with other last-minute shoppers. I dreaded the prospect of full parking lots, busy aisles and long check-out lines, and lamented not finishing my gift buying earlier. There was no choice, however; I had to go. I don’t know what it is about shopping that close to Christmas, but the atmosphere seemed to be charged with holiday stress rather than holiday joy. When I arrived at the store, shoppers were rushing in and out, elbowing me out of the way—almost battering me with the gifts they had so lovingly chosen for their family. The drive over to this part of town didn’t help either. It was almost as if driving a mini-van was license for some to weave through traffic like the Apocalypse was here, and that the only thing standing between them and their empty cupboards at home was the last loaf of bread being sold at the store. This is where I started to get stressed and thought to myself, “Isn’t this supposed to be the best time of the year?” On that day, it didn’t feel like it.

How many of us experience an increased level of stress or even anxiety during the holidays? There are many reasons this could be the case: Trying to balance success at work and fitting in an abundance of errands, buying the “perfect” gift, lack of money/resources, more time with family or reminders of family losses (death or absence of a loved one).

The holidays, for some, equates more to holiday stress than holiday joy. Stress often leads to anxiety, a natural response to uncomfortable situations. Anxiety isn’t necessarily bad; it can cause us to act in ways that solve our problems. If experienced in excess or handled in an unhealthy manner, though, anxiety has the potential to cause mental health issues as well as ruin experiences that could bring us joy.

Given that holiday stress has the potential to turn into serious anxiety, and that anxiety is the most common mental health issue adults face (according to SAMHSA), we need to not let holiday stress turn into a holiday anxiety disorder!

The question, then, is how do we do this? How do we not let holiday worries and tasks become more than we can bear? Focusing on holiday rituals can help. Rituals are similar to traditions, in that they are actions or behavior we routinely participate in that have meaning to us. In his article “The Value of Rituals in Family Life,” Evan Imber-Black (2012) pinpoints five purposes behind family rituals. These can help us refocus our celebrations, and perhaps aid in letting go of unnecessary seasonal stress.

Relating – We create rituals during the holiday season to connect with others. It is easy to forget that the most important part of the holidays is being with the ones we love. Plan simple activities or gatherings that allow you and your loved ones to be together. Years after the wrapping paper has been thrown away, children often remember what you did together as a family more than what was under the tree. A ritual my family had when I was younger was cutting down our own Christmas tree. I am sure my siblings don’t remember every Christmas gift they received, but they do remember the year the Christmas tree we were cutting down fell on and trapped our youngest brother. This ritual has created humorous and loving memories for our family over the years.

Changing – Holiday rituals can highlight or ease us into changes in our family. As children grow older, we might celebrate this by having them participate in different and meaningful ways during the festivities. Perhaps give them tasks you normally took on, like organizing a game or making a treat. When children turn into young adults, some serve LDS missions. To mark this transition in life, ask them to prepare a traditional holiday meal from where they served. This allows them to participate and share a significant part of their life as they grow older.

Healing – During the holidays, we often remember those who have passed away or who are not present. It can also invoke memories of better times or more comfortable circumstances. This can be a stressful and painful experience. Creating rituals to honor and remember those who are gone can be healing and freeing. One family watches a home video of their son and shares memories about him as they sit together. This allows them to celebrate his memory and gives him a place in their family rituals. This family is able to heal and feels free to live even though their son is gone.

Believing – All too often, the meanings behind the holidays we celebrate are forgotten as we become focused on tasks, decorations, and planned events. In order to decrease anxiety and stress, make an effort to remember why you choose to celebrate this holiday. Deliberate attention on creating rituals that honor our beliefs helps us to refocus on what is most important.  Perhaps it will help simplify our celebrations, ease the task load, and teach younger family members the reason we celebrate.

Celebrating –  The holidays we choose to celebrate show what we value and who we are. They connect us with family members and others in the community. Choose to celebrate in ways that address the previously mentioned areas—creating relationships, changing, healing, and believing. If you are in a bicultural or interfaith family, discuss together how to share rituals that are important to each person so that all can feel included and connected in celebrating. If we say to ourselves after the holidays are over, “I thought that was supposed to be more fun,” then we might want to re-evaluate how we celebrate this time of year.

While it is impossible to turn off the traffic, crowds and even some of the busyness, it is possible to find holiday joy in a potentially stressful season. The tasks on our to-do lists can be part of family fun, but if they take away joy and create imposing anxiety instead, perhaps we could examine the purpose of our holidays. Let go of holiday stress and embrace healthy, simple and meaningful rituals.

Written by Triston Morgan, PhD LMFT

Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Secrets to Being a Happy Mom

 

I have a love/hate relationship with blogs, Instagram and Facebook. They’re great because they keep me connected with people I care about, but not so great when they intensify my perfectionist tendencies. On rough days, I often catch myself comparing myself to other moms—I scroll through their photos and think to myself, How on earth is she keeping the house clean with four kids? or I don’t get how she looks good all the time whereas I can’t find time to brush my hair,or How is it that her kids all look like they came out of a Janie and Jack catalogue?Logic goes out the window as I become fixated on what I perceive the world views as the “perfect mother” and I slowly feel myself becoming unhappy.

As a therapist, this unhappiness sets off an internal alarm saying that I need to stop and process what’s happening. In moments of weakness, we often doubt ourselves. We lose confidence and forget about our unique capabilities and needs. We get caught up in what we perceive the world thinks our needs and capabilities should be. We believe we have to be perfect, and when we fall short of that unachievable standard we experience shame. The truth is obvious, but can be difficult to accept: we will never be perfect and that’s okay.

There are several things mothers can do to work through this damaging mindset:

1) Stop the comparisons. It’s easy to compare yourself to others, but it is important to note that we all come from different circumstances. Our upbringings, personalities, and hardships are different. Not only is comparing ourselves to others a bad idea that often leads to shame and despair, but     we fundamentally lack the context to make an accurate comparison.

2) Adjust expectations. Take a deep breath and relax. Re-evaluate and figure out what is realistic and what isn’t. Before becoming a mom, I spent many years studying and working with families professionally. I had wonderful imaginations of how I would be as a mother. Then, when I became one, I discovered the bar was set so high I couldn’t even see it. It was overwhelming, so I had to compromise. 15-20 minutes a day of one-on-one quality time with my kids is fine. It’s okay if I go out once a week with my kids instead of 4 or 5 times a week. Those things are still accomplishments. Re-assessing what is realistic and planning to do less was a welcome relief; I discovered that I actually accomplish more because I’m in control.

3) Be kinder to yourself. It’s okay to have a moment when you are frustrated with your kids. Allow yourself to be imperfect and accept it with open arms. Fight the natural inclination to feel shame when you slip up—you’re only human.

4) Own your mistakes. Be an example to your kids of what it looks like to make mistakes and bounce back from them. Your kids don’t need a perfect mom, they need a happy mom who teaches them how to deal with reality. Show them that making mistakes is a part of life—this is a profound lesson that will serve them well. Living this lesson will empower you, too.

Perfectionism is a trap that can catch even the best of us, but when we recognize we’re stuck, we can take steps to get out. We’ll never be perfect, but with work we can be perfectly happy with that.

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Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine