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A Word Imagined

A Word Imaginedby Jennifer Christian, LPC and Dr. Jeff M. Christian

Words of hate tear at the fabric of our society; words of kindness mend.

Imagine.

Imagine life without unkind words. Imagine comments sections on your favorite website that only allow constructive criticism, words meant to further the conversation rather than out-shout those who disagree.

Today, online words of hate, abuse, fear, and violence are rampant. The intensity of negativity overwhelms us, a tsunami of words altering our lives without us realizing their enormous power. This new world often feels devoid of kindness. Few of us would choose to pass on this world to the next generations, so we begin this project in the hopes that we can change the future by changing the present.

We have power to create a better world.

Imagine.

Imagine a world that offers encouragement. Imagine a world where people matter. Too often, though, we feel helpless in even thinking about making a change. Where should we begin?

Well, we have some ideas.

Start with some simple things. Appreciation and gratitude, for instance, are powerful tools that can help rebuild this world. Every word of kindness heals, builds resilience, and draws people together.
A Word ImaginedJohn Gottman found that it takes five positive interactions to overcome one negative interaction. Relationships find balance when positive interactions outweigh the negative ones. At times we will misunderstand each other and say the wrong things. We are human, after all. However, for the health of all our relationships, we have the power to create better worlds for ourselves, as well as all of those around us. Our hope that we can do this together is reminiscent of John Lennon’s line, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

 So let’s imagine a better world. One word of kindness can create ripples of healing across our society. If we come together to dedicate building reserves of gratitude in our families, places of work, and all other communities, we can change the tide of negativity.

Here are some other practical suggestions to get us started:

  1. Get creative. We can share great ideas on how to build more positivity into our society. Join our public Facebook group, A Word Imagined, to share ideas.
  1. Remember the magic ratio of 5-to-1. Each week send five notes of encouragement, whether online or handwritten.
  1. Practice gratitude at home as a family. “Researchers found that a nourishing cycle of encouragement and appreciation provides extra incentive to maintain our relationships. In other words, when we appreciate our partners, we develop trust and respect. When we feel appreciated, we feel needed and encouraged.” (Susan Heitler)
  1. Notice the words you say to yourself. Learn how to offer yourself words of kindness and compassion: “Life can be rough without the comfort, balance and guidance of a self-compassionate friend on the inside. Lack of self-compassion affects our relationships and our well being in profoundly negative ways. What a difference it makes to go through life with a kind friend on the inside rather than an internal critic or bully!” (Kim Fredrickson)

Please take a moment to share this article and this project with friends and family. Together, we can create the world we imagine.

For Further Reading:

On appreciation and gratitude:

http://www.jenniferchristiancounseling.com/mental-health/7-powerful-ways-gratitude-will-change-your-life/

On John Gottman’s five interactions:

https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-positive-perspective-dr-gottmans-magic-ratio/

On practicing gratitude at home as a family:

http://www.jenniferchristiancounseling.com/relationships/four-ways-to-build-trust-with-your-partner/?preview_id=538&preview_nonce=b7d0d3d768&post_format=standard&_thumbnail_id=542&preview=true

On Susan Heitler’s work on gratitude in marriage:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201207/does-gratitude-matter-in-marriage

On Kim Fredrickson’s work on self-compassion:

http://www.jenniferchristiancounseling.com/counseling/self-compassion-is-vital-for-a-healthy-life/

The Upside of Stress

In Kelly McGonigal’s latest book,”The Upside of Stress,” she explores how things that create meaning and happiness in our lives also create stress. When we learn to change our relationship with stress, we build in possibilities for meaning and happiness. In the following video, McGonigal recommends practical ways to shift our perspective on stress:

Take some time to journal, visit with a friend, or ponder following  prompts:

  1. Discover what matters to you in life. Write about the roles, relationships, activities, and goals that are most important to you, and how you would feel if they did not exist.
  2. Discover your values. Spend 10 minutes writing about each of your top three values. Values are the things that are important to you and give meaning to the way you live and work (examples: adventure, compassion, humor, courage, and loyalty). How do your values play into your life? How can your values create some new meaning around a problem you are currently facing?
  3. Understand the drawbacks of avoiding stress. In order to avoid stress, we may turn down meaningful opportunities or give up on something important to us.

Gratitude Is Healing

GratitudeWith Thanksgiving around the corner, I thought it would be a nice time to focus on the healing benefits of a gratitude practice. I experienced an impact when my husband and I decided to start an active gratitude practice about five years ago. Over time we noticed subtle changes in our home, stress levels, and marriage. Recently, I spoke to a group about the benefits of gratitude in a marriage relationship. My teenage son happened to be in attendance. During the comments time he told the group about the positive difference he noticed in our family. He said he could tell a difference in the way my husband and I related to one another. It was incredible to hear our son share his own experience of our decision to practice gratitude as a couple.

Gratitude Nourishes the Brain

An active gratitude practice has the power to change the way we think and feel. According to neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, where we choose to place our focus has the power to shape our brains.

“If you rest your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness and guilt. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, or there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take on a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.” (Hanson, 2013)

Gratitude Builds Resilience to Stress

Over the past few months I paired my gratitude practice with an app called the Heartmath Inner Balance Trainer. The Inner Balance Trainer has a heart rate monitor that works with a smart phone or tablet to guides your breath while it monitors your heart rate. As you breathe, you bring to mind gratitude and thoughts of compassion. The science of Heartmath has shown a powerful correlation to our heart rhythm pattern and our emotions:

“When we experience uplifting emotions such as gratitude, joy, compassion, and love; our heart rhythm pattern becomes highly ordered, looking like a smooth, harmonious wave. It’s no wonder that positive emotions feel so good – they actually help our body’s systems synchronize and work better.

Gratitude

During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes – actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.” (www.heartmath.com/innerbalance/)

Gratitude Over the Holidays

The holidays add stress to our normal daily routines. In my last blog post, I discussed how “turning down the thermometer” on stress can create balance, especially since practicing gratitude has proven to reduce stress. The article “Seven Powerful Ways Gratitude Can Change Your Life” shows multiple ways this practice can enhance your health and your relationships.

I wish you and your families a grateful Thanksgiving. Thank you for your continued encouragement and support of Jennifer Christian Counseling. I am deeply thankful.

Hanson, Rick, Ph.D. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.

Creating Balance to Deal with Stress

Stressed
Photo by Mike Wilson

I hear more and more people talking about stress. Increased feelings of stress. I hear it on Facebook, emails from friends and family, even in everyday conversations. I spoke recently on the topic of self-compassion and stress-management at a major corporation in Houston. After I finished, I was amazed at the number of women that came to talk with me about their own struggle with stress and anxiety. The number of personal stories validated the stress in our society and the feeling of being overwhelmed as we attempt to manage too many expectations.

Most people experience an abundance of stress. The election and approaching holidays add an extra layer of stress and worry. The stressors are not going away, but we can use helpful tools to take extra care of our relationships and ourselves. 

3 Types of Stress

Stressed
Photo by Elijah Henderson

Before we talk about balancing stress, it is helpful to understand how stress functions in our daily life. In simple terms, we face three types of stress: balanced, acute, and chronic. Whenever I talk about types of stress, I like to use the example of a zebra.

  • Balanced Stress: When a zebra is lion-free, he is in a balanced state. A balanced state is the ability to relax and also be ready for threat when stress is present. The zebra can relax, eat juicy nutrient grass, enjoy his zebra companions, and play with his zebra kids and wife. Balanced stress is like getting the temperature just right on a thermostat.
  • Acute Stress: When a zebra senses a nearby lion, everything centers on the threat of the lion. Stress chemicals and hormones release to focus all energy toward reacting to the lion. All internal systems shut down to focus energy on escape. The zebra will not sleep, digest, enjoy intimacy, or relax until the threat has been averted. When the lion leaves, the zebra’s body readjusts to a normal, balanced state. Eating, intimacy, relaxation, and play resume.
  • Chronic Stress: In the zebra world, chronic stress does not exist. Chronic stress would be similar to the experience of a lion stalking the zebra 24-7. This chronic stress negatively impacts the zebra’s digestive system, sleep, intimacy, and leads to chronic fatigue. Imagine driving a car continuously even when the temperature gauge shows the car overheating. Keep driving, and the car will break down.
Stressed
Photo by Corentin Marzin

What does a zebra have to do with me?

The human body’s threat system is much like a zebra’s threat system, except for some important factors that maintain chronic stress and make it difficult to rebalance:

  • The stressors at work, home, and in our society do not go away.
  • We have the ability to replay past mistakes or rehearse worry about future threats.
  • We can be harsh with ourselves in our own minds. Some of us talk to ourselves in a way that we would never talk to a loved one. Negative self-talk is like having a lion in our heads 24-7.

How does chronic stress impact our bodies?

When we are in a state of constant stress, our bodies continually stay in threat mode. Like the zebra, all of our internal systems are diverted to face the threat. We keep driving our bodies even though the temperature gauge is redlining. Unaddressed chronic stress impacts our digestive system, our ability to sleep, intimacy, our ability to think clearly, as well as our joy in daily life.

Adjust the thermostat

Stressed
Photo by Alexa Wirth

The first step in compassionate stress management is to take a moment to notice. Where is my internal temperature gauge right now?

  • Exhausted
  • Issues with digestion
  • Anxious
  • Loneliness
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Sleep difficulties

We can feel so rushed that we may not notice what is happening in our own bodies. Can we give ourselves permission to pause at least a couple of times during the day and check in? Allowing ourselves to notice may be challenging. The stressors can seem too big. For instance, what if I feel torn between my work and my responsibilities at home? What if my marriage is struggling? These issues take time to explore. Reaching out to a counselor can offer much needed support to take a close look at some tough areas. The counseling process organically creates options for moving forward and reducing stress.

The second step is to respond with care. What do I need? Explore different tools and see what brings some needed stress relief.

What are my choices? 

Over the next few weeks, I will continue to explore tools that have proven helpful to rebalance stress. If this topic resonates with you, please let me know via Facebook or Twitter. I want to offer tools and resources that really connect with where you are right now. Also, see my website for a number of helpful tools:

Emotional Freedom Tapping

Emotional Freedom Tapping

Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is very easy to learn, and will help you:

  • Alleviate Negative Emotions
  • Reduce Food Cravings
  • Reduce or Eliminate Pain
  • And Implement Positive Goals

Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture.

Simply tapping with the fingertips on the head and chest inputs kinetic energy onto specific points while you think about your specific problem – whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, or anxiety. Tapping is paired with voicing positive affirmations. This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmations works to clear emotional blocks and restore your mind and body’s balance.

 

Shame Resilience

Shame ResilienceShame is an intensely painful experience that impacts our sense of self and our relationships. Shame is the experience that there is something deeply wrong with me and there is no way to fix it.

When triggered, we feel exposed and experience painful emotional and physical symptoms:

  • Increased body temperature – a warm flush or even a “hot flash”
  • Nausea
  • Heaviness in the chest – perhaps to the point of feeling anxious and panicky
  • Poor eye-contact and hesitant speech patterns
  • Body minimizing posture – trying to hide shape of body or look invisible
  • Low energy levels – work hard to excel and feel exhausted most of the time

Shame Resilience researcher, Brené Brown, has studied the impact of shame for more than a decade. In her TED Talks, “The Power of Vulnerability” and “Listening to Shame,” she shares how to create resilience that move us through the experience of shame toward deeper connection and “whole-hearted” living.

In the clip below from “Oprah’s Lifeclass,” Brown says people who have “high levels of shame resilience” — meaning they can acknowledge and move through shame — have a few things in common. We can follow their lead by taking these three steps:

  • Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love. “I would say to myself, ‘God, you’re so stupid, Brene,’” Brown says. “I would never talk to my kids that way.”
  • Reach out to someone you trust.
  • Tell your story. “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” Brown says.

Check out Brené Brown’s TED Talks by clicking here: Brené Brown’s TED talks

What Makes Relationships Work?

What Makes Relationships WorkI have noticed there seems to be way too much advice about relationships. If you struggle in your relationship, the conflicting opinions can feel frustrating and overwhelming. John Gottman’s recent article, “Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships,” is a helpful resource in sorting through advice that is actually helpful from the advice that causes harm. Over the past 30 years, John Gottman has studied extensively the practices that actually makes relationships thrive.

“I’ve found many myths about relationships that are not only false but potentially destructive. They are dangerous because they can lead couples down the wrong path, or worse, convince them that their marriage is a hopeless case. The notion that you can save your relationship just by learning to communicate more sensitively is probably the most widely held misconception about happy marriages, but it’s hardly the only one.” (John Gottman, Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships)

Check out John Gottman’s article by clicking on this link: Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships

 

HeartMob Resource for Online Harassment and Abuse

HeartMob provides support for those targeted by online abuse. HeartMob connects people so that they can support and encourage those suffering from online attacks.

If you or someone you know is experiencing online harassment, you do not have to face online harassment alone. Invite your friends, family, or other Heartmobbers to help you document, secure your tech, or provide support.

“Don’t give yourself a hard time for feeling a certain way. It’s a messed up position you’ve been put in and there’s no ‘right’ way to feel. You’re not failing if it bothers you, you’re not failing if you’re angry, you are not failing for not being ‘tough enough’. A lot of emotions come with these situations, and you’re totally allowed.” – Zoe Quinn

Click here to access resources and receive help.

Click here if you would like to join the HeartMob community. Members offer support and encouragement to counteract online abuse and make the internet a safer space.

The 3 Phases of Love

love relationshipsI often walk alongside couples struggling to understand what happened to the love they shared early on in their relationship. I find it comforting to know that all couples go through times of disorientation and that moving through this experience together can actually foster deeper love. Michael Fulfiler’s article “The 3 Phases of Love,” explains the transitions that promote growth in love relationships. The good news is that times of conflict and turbulence is a common experience for all couples:

What do you do if you love your partner, but you are no longer in love with your partner? Does the feeling of love transform or change over time? In his new book Principa Amoris: The New Science of Love, Dr. John Gottman explains that there are actually three natural phases of love. His research has shown that being in love is a very complex experience, and he has identified choice points in the life course when love may either progress to a deeper place, or deteriorate. (excerpt from The 3 Phases of Love)

For more, click on this link: The Three Phases of Love

Help! My Phone Is Impacting My Relationships!

If the title of this blog resonates with you, know that you are not alone. Many couples are currently navigating how to adapt to new technologies in a way that balances with their relationships. I have personally pondered this issue for a long time in my own experience with my husband. Our relationship began long before the advent of emails and texting. Like most couples in America, we acquired our first smartphones several years ago. We were thrilled at the ease of instant availability and connection. Then, our relationship subtly began to change. Often after a long day at work, we found ourselves mindlessly checking texts, playing a game, or messing with Facebook. We started to notice moments of irritation and even sadness seeping into our time together. What was happening? There was nothing wrong with playing a harmless game or checking work emails, so why did we find ourselves feeling frustrated with each other?

Around that time, I listened to a podcast where Sherry Turkle described the new challenges devices bring into the interactional patterns between partners, as well as parents and children. My husband and I began to take notice of the subtle impact our phones had on our interactions. We were not as attentive to each other, a little distracted, during down times and unstructured moments. We decided to experiment with ways to balance our technologies within our relationship in a way that protected the closeness we desired.

What are interactional patterns in relationships?

An interactional pattern happens when we make “bids” for connection, and those bids are either received or missed by our partners. A successful interaction happens when partners are emotionally responsive to each other’s bids. These unsuccessful interactions, these “missed bids,” begin to create little nagging insecurities and uncertainties about the relationship that can build over time.

What is a bid?

“Bids” are the active ingredient in a relationship. Gottman shows how people make bids in the fine grain of everyday life, often without knowing they are doing it: “Did you hear about…,” or “You’ll never guess what my sister told me today.” Much is happening all the time in the form of these signals that partners are often unaware they are sending. These signals—these bids—are nonverbal as well as verbal: a wink, a smile, a shoulder rub, a gentle shove, or a mutual look of understanding about a friend’s quirks. What matters, Gottman suggests, is not depth of intimacy in conversation, or even agreement or disagreement, but rather how people pay attention to each other no matter what they talk about or do. What matters is the quality of attention.” (Dan Wile, 2010)

What is emotional responsiveness and why is it important?

According to Sue Johnson, the key indicator of a secure bond is the presence of emotional responsiveness. In essence, emotional responsiveness is the ability to respond to our partner’s bids for connection. We need to know that our significant other is available and willing to be there when we need them. A useful tool to understand emotional responsiveness is the acronym A.R.E:

Accessibility – Can I reach you? Are you there for me?

Responsiveness – Can I rely on you to respond to me?

Engagement – Do I matter to you? (Johnson, 2008)

relationships with smartphonesThe fabric of our relationship is built on a consistent flow of checking in, often in tiny unstructured moments. Is my partner accessible? Can I count on him/her to be there when I need them? Do I matter? Our devices can impede the interactional flow between bids for connection and emotional responsiveness. We miss the subtle shifts in tone and nonverbal facial gestures that offer vital information. Relational interactions get out of sync when bids for connection are missed. Over time partners experience missed bids for connection as indifference and may stop bidding altogether. Multitasking connection can lead to disaster. Relationships thrive on full presence.

Smartphone Interference 

Smartphones are not going anywhere, and they serve many important functions in current life.  However, I am reassured that my husband and I are not alone in navigating this new relationship with technology. Over the past couple of years, research has validated the potential problems that phone use can create with our emotional responsiveness to the people we love.  

The most recent issue of Psychology Today explored some of the current challenges couples and families are facing in relationship with their technological devices; technoference, Iphone Effect, Absent Presence: 

  • Technoference (term coined by Sarah Coyne) – 70% of couples report that face-to-face conversations were stopped in their tracks by partner’s phone use or even active texting. 
  • IPhone Effect (term coined by Shalina Misra): The mere presence of a smartphone degrades private conversations making partners less willing to disclose their deep feelings and develop understanding.
  • Absent Presence (term coined by Kenneth Gergen): smartphones fragment human consciousness and lower quality of conversation. The diminished empathy comes about through our habitual use of devises. Communication becomes marked by delayed responses and lack of eye contact. The rhythms of responsiveness and synchronicity of feelings degrades. What comes across is indifference. (Psychology Today)

How can I create balance between my relationships and my devices?

Smartphones may pull our attention, but we can implement changes that create the balance and closeness we desire. In my own relationship, we have found that it is essential to maintain awareness between the use of our phones and our ability to be available to each other. We continue to negotiate changes as needed any time we notice we are out of sync in our relationship or with our children.

I have also taken some time to talk with friends and family about their own challenges with balancing their relationships and technologies. I have learned some terrific ideas of things to try:

  • Implement “cell free” zones at family meal times, running errands, and coffee time. My husband and I love our “cell free” coffee time every morning. We start off the day connected and in sync.
  • Tech Sabbath (http://www.onbeing.org/program/tiffany-shlain-growing-up-the-internet/8545) – Take a day off each week from checking emails. Enjoy cooking together, folding laundry with the kids, running to soccer games, etc.
  • Vacation responder – Set vacation responder while on vacation to protect the time with your partner/family.
  • Airplane mode – A friend of mine who is a medical doctor set her phone on airplane mode during her family vacation. She was able to turn work off and soak in her time with her husband and children. When she turned her phone back on, she was inundated with texts and emails. But, she said it was worth it to be free of distractions and feel connected again with her family.
  • One of my friends told me that he exchanged his smartphone for a flip phone for a couple of years. After time at work all day on a computer he wanted to create a break from emails and Facebook at home. He found that his time away from a smartphone now helps him use it when he needs it and set it aside more easily.

A great way to experiment and implement changes is to talk openly with the people you love. Psychology Today has a helpful list of discussion points to get you started on creating balance in a way that best fits your relationship:

Discussion Points:

  • What are your expectations about tech use by your partner and by you?
  • Exactly what kind of contact does each partner regard as cheating?
  • What is appropriate to disclose about the relationship; about your spouse?
  • Do you exchange passwords or not?
  • Do you tell your partner whom you are texting?
  • When is it okay to be anonymous online?
  • What, if any, places in the home are off-limits to electronic devices?
  • What are some potential times to set tech free zones?
  • What are the rules for the car?
  • When is it okay to post photos of your children?
  • How much checking on each other is okay?

Some people, friends or coworkers, might not understand why you would turn your phone off or set aside times to be unavailable. That is okay. You are setting a protective boundary around those little moments of emotional connection with the people most precious to you. Remember you are not alone. These technologies are new and all of us are navigating how to adapt in a way that balances our relationships with the precious people in our lives.