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

Welcome American Fork couples therapist Tiffany Winegar, MS, LAMFT

 

New to the American Fork Center for Couples and Families team, Tiffany Winegar is taking new clients! She specializes in couples therapy, family therapy, anxiety/depression, self-esteem/self-actualization, perfectionism and teen/adolescent girls. Tiffany received her Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) from Brigham Young University, one of the top MFT programs in the world. Prior to, and during her masters program, Tiffany was mentored by world-renowned social relationships psychologist, Dr. Julianne-Holt Lunstand and worked as a member of her research team studying social relationships and health. In addition to her work with Dr. Holt-Lunstad, Tiffany has been involved in additional research in the field of health psychology including the study of stress and emotional regulation. She is passionate about applying the principles from her clinical training and research to improve the lives and relationships of her clients. Tiffany is a member of AAMFT (American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy) and NCFR (National Council on Family Relations). Tiffany grew up in Southern California and now resides in Draper, UT with her husband and two boys.

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

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

Cure with Compassion: Relief for Every Day Perfectionists

Perfectionism is a common form of suffering today, and manifests in several ways. According to researchers of perfection, these manifestations include holding very high standards for

Young man cuts English lawn with a nail scissors

ourselves, and judging ourselves harshly for perceived failure. They also include holding very high standards for others and judging their failure, or believing that others are judging us for standards we are not living up to. Although some people experience perfectionism differently than others, and in different contexts, the end result of each of these judgements is shame. Shame gives rise to depression, stress, anxiety, and strained relationships.

The antidote to perfectionism entails practicing compassion. We practice compassion when we hold high standards for ourselves and use these high standards as aspirations to reach for, rather than a mark of personal worth. Rather than shaming ourselves when we fail, we accept our best efforts, and try again the next day. We do the same for others when we allow them to have their own standards, and trust that they are trying their best. We also practice compassion when we do not allow ourselves to take on the judgement of others, but rather allow others their own opinions. Judging others harshly hurts everyone involved, and is incredibly difficult to do accurately.

All of this takes practice. Working through perfectionism is not easy, but is possible. It requires self-awareness and honesty. We can ask, “Do I set unrealistic expectations for myself?” If the answer is yes, perhaps trying to set more realistic goals may help. Allow yourself to be a human being with real limitations and weaknesses. Also remember that setbacks are normal. Life consists of lesson after lesson. Learning from our mistakes creates peace, and helps us feel ready to do things differently next time. For those struggling with other people not meeting their personal expectations, try asking yourself, “Are these expectations realistic for this person?” or “Is it my place to have this expectation?” Setting standards for others often leads to frustration for everyone involved. We can only change ourselves, and holding goals and standards for others only leads to resentment when they can’t or won’t measure up.

For those who feel they can never live up to the expectations of family, friends, or even strangers, learning to let go helps. Exercising compassion for who you are while doing your best will bring you peace. Using self-talk that reminds you that you are okay and cannot lose value based on what anyone thinks, may offer some relief. It can be hard to let go of what others think. The truth is, we are all on our own journey, and need to make decisions for ourselves. When personal choices do not win approval, finding common ground and accepting how personal decisions may affect others is helpful.

Try to find a way to feel compassion for the very real, very human people in your life. Everyone, the perfectionist included, is fully worthy of love, acceptance, and happiness. Try to understand, the stress perfectionism causes takes a toll on the perfectionist as well. Practicing self-reflection about the fundamental worth of ourselves and others can bring joy through learning with those we love, becoming better versions of ourselves together. This growth tends to unfold when we accept our weaknesses and take responsibility for how we affect others, even when it is difficult. Health is found in balance, in the ebb and flow of life, not in still waters.

Written by:

Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Play Therapy: What is it, and How Will it Help My Child?

 

When adults come to therapy, they can adequately express themselves

using their words and having discussions with their therapist; however, when children come to therapy this may not be the case. Many children do not have the words to express what there are experiencing at home, at school, with friends, etc. Further, children may not be aware of what they are feeling because they do not yet understand what different emotions feel like. Therefore, they would need an outlet which allows them to talk without using words, and without being restricted by a lack of cognitive development. Play therapy helps eliminate these barriers that children face when they come to therapy.

Play therapy allows children to express themselves with the use of toys and actions. It occurs in a safe and caring environment where the child is allowed to play freely with minimal limitations (e.g. safety precautions). Sometimes a therapist may prompt the child’s play during a session; however, most therapists allow children to play with the toys they want, how they want. Play therapy should not make a child feel that they are in therapy or that they are being analyzed. Sessions can last anywhere from 30-50 minutes, depending on the child. A play therapy session can include just the child, the child and their parents, or the entire family, depending on the situation that brings the child in for therapy.

One question to consider when seeking a play therapist for your child is, “Does my child feel comfortable with the therapist?” Because the child will need to express himself/herself through play, it is important for your child to feel safe and comfortable with the therapist. If your child does not feel safe, then play therapy will not be effective.

For parents, this random play may appear to be pointless, because it is “something that children can do at home.” But, when play is done in a therapeutic setting, it will allow the child to process through their experiences and then begin to heal. One explanation for this is that children unconsciously (or consciously) act out whatever they are experiencing in their life, and when a therapist is present, they can reflect back to the child things that they notice (e.g. it seems like the doll doesn’t have any friends to play with, that’s lonely). This reflection helps give the child words to express their experiences, as well as helping the child feel understood and validated.

Play therapy allows adults access to a child’s world. Using toys and actions the therapist can communicate with the child wherever the child is at in their cognitive development. Further, it allows the therapist to help facilitate the healing process by understanding the child and responding back in the way the child needs. Children need to feel validated and heard as much as adults do; play therapy is one way to do this. Children deserve to have a life where they are not burdened by life’s problems, and play therapy is one way to help unburden your child.

Written by – Lexi Lee, MS, LAMFT

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness