This Pain Feels Too Great to Bear
"I can't believe this is happening to me." How do couples cope with a loss that is invisible to the rest of the world? When we lose a grandparent or a pet, society has given us rituals of mourning, venues to express our pain, cultural normalizing takes its cue. But not all losses are equal. People who experience infertility and pregnancy losses all too often suffer in silence. Sadness, shame, guilt, loneliness, all experienced in isolation. This article is for all of the families impacted by such losses, and should be shared with the greater community at large to raise awareness of issues that remains under discussed and under studied. October marks another pregnancy and infant loss awareness month. Let's all do our part to raise our society's collective awareness around these issues.
Ask an MFT is an opportunity to answer questions from my followers on social media who would like some insights into the world of marriage and family therapy on many different topics. I want to reassure my readers that their identities are protected. While I get many questions, not all of them are useful for the general public so I can only respond to a select few each time.
Q: What can I do if I don’t want to go to therapy, but I know that my relationship needs work?
Robin: The first thing I would recommend you do is to explore and write about what is going on in your relationship that needs to change. Therapy can be a very powerful experience to bring about change, but it is not always needed. Most research-informed therapists will tell you that the change that comes about in therapy is roughly 70% attributable to the client. You are the one doing the work, you are the one making active changes to the ways in which you are thinking about your life and the ways in which you are taking action to bring about change. Here are several questions to get you started:
The Connections Betweens Our Beliefs and Our Overall Health
In a nutshell, being religious is strongly associated with better overall mental health and well-being. The devoutly religious have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression in addition to having a better ability to cope with stressors. A 2005 study on adults in their 60s and 70s in the U.S. found that religious beliefs buffered against depression associated with poor physical health. And for those of you thinking, “well sure, people who are religious tend to enjoy the benefits of social support by attending weekly services at various houses of worship,” the buffering effects of religion was present even after controlling for social support. In a 2013 study, researchers found that patients who were being treated for depression and self-harm responded better to treatment if they believed in God. Of course, these results do not show causality.
Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, found that more religious people had fewer depressive symptoms after conducting a meta-analysis of 93 studies between 1872 and 2010 on religion and health. According to Koenig, "People who are more involved in religious practices and who are more religiously committed seem to cope better with stress. One of the reasons is because [religion] gives people a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and that helps them to make sense of negative things that happen to them."
NEWS FLASH: Your Childhood Influences the Kind of Parent You Are
With the kids out of school, many families are going on vacations, sending their children to summer camp, and of course there are those families whose schedules don’t change a bit other than having to figure out alternative arrangements for childcare. For many parents, the summer months can actually bring on more stress around the house because of having to adjust to a different routine from the previous nine months. As a parent it’s important to recognize that’s it’s not just the adjustment itself that brings about a stressed out family, but indeed, how you as a parent respond to the stressors that are presented to you.
What could be triggering this response in you, you might wonder? Think back to your own childhood and how you felt around your parents when summer came along and you were rushing to the airport, or going off to camp, or sitting at home in a very unstructured environment. The experiences (good and bad) we had when we were children get brought forth and influence the way we parent. Often, when these experiences have not been fully processed they can lead to unresolved issues that influence how we respond to our own children’s behavior. And as parents, we are especially vulnerable during times of stress to act on the basis of our unresolved past issues.
How Can Democracies Fail?
After listening to an episode of The Waking Up Podcast with Sam Harris, I felt compelled to share the important message that his guest Timothy Snyder was speaking on. Timothy Snyder is an American author, historian, and professor at Yale University whose latest book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is becoming more and more relevant, especially if you’re an American. Snyder argues in his book, “We have to spread out our political imagination and have a broader sense of what’s possible. The danger is that we just go day by day and then every day seems normal, even if today is much worse than yesterday; We’re very good at getting used to today, and then tomorrow the same thing happens.” This article will give you a taste of what Snyder’s book is all about. Can our democracy’s constraints contain our President? And, what can we do to make sure those constraints *do* contain our President?
Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. One advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.
What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
As April comes to a close, we raised our collective awareness of Autism, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse Prevention here in the United States. April is also Stress Awareness month, and it could certainly be said of all awareness months, that we shouldn’t limit our acknowledgment of these causes or issues to just one month. And of the many things in our lives that contribute to or compromise our well-being, stress is an incredibly pervasive and potent adversary. That is why I feel no hesitation or regret from piling on to the mountain of articles, blog posts, and books that make the case for mindfulness meditation as an effective tool to mitigate stress. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry, because you are in good company. Here in the U.S. only about 6% of the population practices meditation according to the 2012 NHIS Survey. Mediation is on the rise, and for good reason.
Couples who practice mindfulness have a higher ability to identify their emotions and communicate them to their partner in more functional ways that de-escalate conflict. These couples are simply less angry and less anxious.
STOP: Read Part 1 First and Then Come Back to This Page
Now that you understand how the Wake-Sleep system functions and you've downloaded your Sleep Diary, it's time to learn about healthy sleep habits and what you can do right now to begin the process of retraining your brain for better sleep. Notice that the Sleep Diary is for 6 weeks. Retraining your brain for improved sleep will not happen overnight. You will need to commit to practicing these good habits throughout the next 6 weeks, and then you can personalize which habits you feel were helpful and worth keeping as life long habits.
The 20-20 Rule: 20 Minutes in Bed, 20 Minutes Away From Bed
This is one of the most important habits for retraining your brain and it addresses stimulus control. As mentioned in Part 1, people who get poor sleep have associated their bedroom and bed as a place where they can expect to struggle falling or staying asleep. The 20-20 rule is simple in theory, but an ordeal in practice, and it works! When you get in bed, it is fine to spend anywhere from 10-20 minutes engaging in a relaxing activity. After about 20 minutes you'll want to turn the lights out. Once lights are out, the 20-minute countdown has begun. You now have 20 minutes to fall asleep (remember, do not clock watch). If you have not fallen asleep within 20 minutes, it is now time to leave the bed, and leave the bedroom. Yes, you read that correctly.
Ask an MFT #1
Ask an MFT is an opportunity to answer questions from my followers on social media who would like some insights into the world of marriage and family therapy on many different topics. As I begin this platform, I want to reassure my readers that their identities are protected. While I get many questions, not all of them are useful for the general public so I can only respond to a select few each time. Ok, let’s dive in!
Q: What do you recommend I do about my wife’s drinking problem?
Robin: There are many things to consider here, and of course, many unknowns. I should probably start by saying that there are specific licensed professionals who specialize in drug and alcohol counseling, and I am not one of those. Having said that, the first question I would have is, does your wife see her drinking as problematic?
Listening, It’s Not as Easy as You Think
What do couples who come to therapy often fail to do in the beginning of their treatment? Most couples therapists will tell you that 95% of their cases involve couples who are looking to improve their communication. As a therapist, it is my job to see what it is that the couple cannot see, that they have a pattern of communicating that ends in hurt feelings, gridlock, and/or withdrawal. My job is to see this, and help the couple see it, and get them to see what it is that they are doing that contributes to this negative pattern, and then change it. Easier said than done right? That’s why they pay us the “big bucks.”
So what do couples who end up in therapy often fail to do? In my 5 years of experience, there are general trends that I’ve noticed, and most paths lead to a failure of expression of needs. We are taught how to ask for what we need (or not ask) in our family growing up. Many times a partner will criticize, or verbally attack their partner which leads to hurt feelings, defensiveness, counter attacks, or withdrawal. Underneath this exchange was an important need that wasn’t getting met. The key here is to recognize what it is that we are needing from our partner, and then express it in a clear and direct way using language that will not put our partner on the defensive.
You Never Knew You Could Be So Vulnerable
The adjustment that happens when couples transform into parents can be joyous, exciting, and stressful all at once. Neither parent has any clue as to how much work this is going to be no matter how much they try to prepare. Loving this newest little member of your family brings about many emotional and psychological changes. Life goals, values, and priorities shift for new parents. Couples have a new focus of what it means to be a team. And through all of the crazy making, it's important to remember that with this adjustment comes normal responses to stressors. Responses from each new parent such as:
John Gottman and his team of researchers have been studying more than 3000 couples since the 1970's, some of whom have been followed for 12 years or longer. The team was able to collect data on couples who were becoming parents, and if you're about to become a new parent, or have just recenty given birth, you are going to want to read on.
Robin S. Smith is a psychotherapist practicing in Bethesda, MD. Robin started Your Couples Therapist Blog to provide useful articles on issues related to mental health as well as articles on local, national, and international news stories. Learn more about Robin on the About Page.