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Flexible Thinking Part 2: Flexible Thinking and Mental Health

In my last post, Flexible Thinking Part 1, I reviewed what flexible thinking is and its benefits. Over the last few months, we have all been “thrown in the deep end” of flexible thinking as the COVID-19 pandemic has required us to make adjustments. Flexible thinking, or the ability to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations, helped us transition to distance learning, working, shopping, and socializing. 

In this post, I briefly highlight how flexible thinking can improve and help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety:

  • Depression tells us things will never change and reduces hope for the future. Flexible thinking applied to depression recognizes the opportunity each day and, in each situation, to do something different and breaks down negative feedback loops.
  • Anxiety feeds on possible, but unlikely, scenarios playing out in our lives and the lives of those we care about. Flexible thinking reminds anxious minds they have the resources around and within them to solve current and future problems and to create solutions to those problems. In short, flexible thinking focuses on “possibilities rather than deficiencies.”

What can we do to increase and improve our mental flexibility? 

Engaging in mindfulness activities, (think deep breathing, meditation and guided imagery) yoga, aerobics and relaxation techniques have all been shown to increase executive functions and mental flexibility. Research has also shown we can also enable flexible thinking through positive affect (positive emotions such as cheerfulness, pride and energy and their expression), openness to experience and self-control.

As we consistently engage in flexible thinking, we can have more control over our thoughts and responses, reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, frustration and stress, meet our goals and successfully navigate the changing circumstances in our everyday lives and interpersonal relationships. 

Emerald Robertson, M.S.Ed., ACMHC, NCC

Reference:

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review30(7), 865-878.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-inner-life-students/202003/flexibility-in-the-midst-crisis

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Help!!!! I’m Going Crazy!

Over the last month, you may have had that exact thought cross your mind a time or two (okay maybe a million depending on how well your kids are adjusting to on-line school). Seriously though, during this global pandemic and all the changes to our daily schedules and lives there seems to have been an overwhelming sense of discombobulation and unease with each new declaration. At least that’s my perception from my personal experiences with friends, family, neighbors, clients, and written accounts that I’ve read. It seems to leave a lot of us feeling like we’re living in an alternate universe….(cue the music), “You have entered the Twilight Zone!”.

How do we build some continuity into our “new normal”? By being creative and flexible with our expectations and focusing on our priorities we can reduce some of the anxiety of the unknown. Now, you’re probably wondering what exactly I mean by that and are wondering if I’m going to tell you to create a “schedule” that is color coded with daily achievement goals that is Pinterest or Instagram worthy? Nope!!!! I am going to suggest a couple of things that I have seen have huge impact, both personally and professionally, when trying to create a new normal.

First, set a consistent wake up time. If you are a natural early riser and like to be up with the sun and that helps you feel grounded and ready to start your day; set an early morning time. If you are more of a “I like to laze in bed a bit and then start my day”, type of person then set a little later time. Having a set time to get up every morning creates a natural sense of normalcy for our bodies.

Next, find a purpose in every day no matter how small. It can be from walking the dog to creating a presentation for your work Zoom meeting tomorrow. Just find one thing that will give you a purpose for that day.

Get outside the four walls of your house!!! Even the most introverted are struggling with feeling confined during the stay at home directives and orders. We don’t realize that over the course of a typical day many of us are in and out of our homes, offices, cars, stores, and schools many times. The loss of this freedom of movement can have a strong impact on our mental, and physical, well- being. Combat this by getting outside 2-3 times a day for at least 10 minutes each time. It doesn’t need to be for exercise purposes, although that certainly has added benefits, but just the change of scenery.

Make a connection with friends, family, coworkers, or neighbors every day. No, I am not saying throw the social distancing guidelines out the window and be reckless with your health. I am saying it is important to feel connected to those around us, especially in a time of stress. Isolation and loneliness are not our friends. We are social beings that have a need for connection. Think about it, how does the penal system punish inmates? They put them in isolation…solitary confinement. Break out of your solitary confinement and talk to your neighbor from your porch. Call your sister on FaceTime. Set up a virtual girls’ night. Stay connected!

Lastly, find a way to connect meaningfully with your source of power, whether that be through meditation, prayer, therapy, gratitude affirmations… whatever makes you feel grounded, empowered, and centered. Take the time everyday to find your inner peace and quiet the fears or worries in your mind. And, if you need help and are struggling then there are therapists and resources available on-line that can help you.

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Bridging The Gap

Desire discrepancy in couples is one of the most common sources of distress within sexual relationships.  Couples may find themselves in situations where one parter is the high desire partner (HDP) and the other is the low desire partner (LDP).  These labels can lead one or both partners to feel broken and blamed for problems in the relationship.  Other couples may find resentment builds when their partner either “doesn’t want them sexually” or “only wants them for sexual release”.  

If you and your partner are stuck in this sort of dynamic, first, know that neither one of you is broken.  All levels of desire are normal, and very few relationships involve couples with consistently balanced interest in sex.  

Second, if you can step away from looking at your partner’s level of sexual desire as the problem, it will be much easier to work together to bridge the gap.  

Bridging The Gap:

If you find yourself wanting sex more often than your partner, ask yourself, “what am I horny for”.  Dr. Neil Cannon lists the following as motives for seeking sex:  

  • Orgasm/Sexual Release
  • Touch
  • Connection
  • Calming Anxiety
  • Mood Elevation
  • Kink
  • Reassurance/Validation

When you identify what your motive for sex is, you can examine whether some of those desires could be met in other ways.  This begins to reduce pressure on your partner, narrowing the gap between your experienced desire.  

Another tool you can use to help bridge gaps in desire is to identify, as Emily Nagoski calls them, your sexual brakes and accelerators.  What turns you on?  What turns you off?  How can you as an individual and as a couple work to minimize brakes and maximize accelerators?  

One huge brake many individuals experience is not enjoying the sex they are having.  This is usually a result of poor communication or shame surrounding sexuality.  Using the brakes and accelerators framework can be a great way to improve communication about sexual preferences.  Make sure you speak up so your partner knows what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy.  Make sure to listen so you really hear what your partner is sharing with you.  Think of this as an opportunity to learn about your partner, increasing mutual pleasure and satisfaction in your relationship.

Lastly, try scheduling sex in your calendar.  On the appointed day, work on managing your own brakes/accelerators to help you get in the mood.  Recognize when there are things you can do to help your partner look forward to the experience with positive anticipation.  Text and flirt throughout the day. Make sure that when it comes down to it, saying “not tonight”, is still an option, this reduces pressure. If you are the partner who wants to say no, consider saying yes to something else instead.  For example, “I’m really not feeling up to penetrative sex tonight, but I’d love to cuddle, skin to skin”, or, “I’m not feeling up for penis-in-vagina sex at the moment, but I’d really love to just make out with you”.  Then leave the door open for whatever may (or may not) follow, pressure free.  Regardless of the outcome, you will feel more connected and you will have improved your ability to communicate about your wants and desires. 

If you’d like to learn more about bridging a desire gap in your relationship, call 801-944-4555 to schedule a session with Alice today.

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Seven Trust Building Secrets Wives Need to Know about their Husbands

Have you ever wondered as you watch your husband check out yet another Super Bowl what he is truly thinking? Whether you’re even on his sports radar? Whether you even matter to him?  Okay maybe that’s a bit harsh. Perhaps its whether you enter his male brain on a regular basis. As a therapist who has worked with men for 20 years, I can state unequivocally that he is aware of you.  How aware you ask?  Quite aware so much so that this blog post may be very surprising (and trust building!) to you. 

#1) He Absolutely Loves It When You Notice Him

Really see him.  How handsome he is. How he looks. How much he truly means to you.  How sexy he is in those jeans that fit ‘just right.’ Although he won’t mention this to you, he totally loves it when you notice him. Men absolutely want to believe that they’re super handsome to their wives. Desired completely by you, his wife. Desirable as your wonderful husband.  You can help him believe this by truly noticing him often.

#2) It’s Really NOT All About Sex

Although you may get totally different signals from him, he’s absolutely not thinking about sex 24/7. Just as you’re not emotionally focused constantly (gender stereotype!), men simply aren’t focused sexually every moment of their day. In fact, men actually desire affection almost as much as women do.  Men in Utah love to be hugged. Kissed. Touched. And! Men want to cuddle with “no strings attached” in bed. Truly! He isn’t planning on the holding you close leading to sex every time either. Take a risk and ask him if this isn’t correct. But, be ready to be surprised by his answer!

#3) He’s Like A Teenage Female Emotionally Inside!  

Men are awash with emotions inside that they will never admit to. He’s actually quite similar to a 16 year old girl. I’m not kidding. Truthfully, he’s often an absolute mess of emotions inside that rugged male exterior. Since men are raised to not share emotions/feelings, never admitting to this makes complete sense to him. To be vulnerable or to risk sharing appears “weak” to a man. Not masculine at all! Please know that when it seems like nothing is bothering him, that something very likely is bothering him. You’ll likely find this to be quite exasperating, but know it’s the truth. What can you do?  Please check out the next secret for details.

#4) He Desperately Wants To Talk To You

He definitely wants to talk to you. Connectively. Openly. Frequently. All hours of the day. But! He is totally baffled on how to make this connection. Since you’ve likely demanded that he talk to you openly in the past, throw that idea out with the trash. It just won’t work. You need to make talking openly safe for him. It’s safe when you’re not demanding or seemingly dramatic. It’s safe when you talk on his terms. His terms may be after the Utah Jazz basketball game. His terms could be after a great date night at his favorite restaurant. Friday night NOT Saturday morning. Oh and please do some relationship research here. Actually risk and ask him about this!

#5) He Really Does Desire Compliments From You

Compliments are really different from noticing him as noted above in #1.  Compliments include telling him how awesome he is for doing the dishes (another cool way is just saying “nice” things to him). That he actually remembered to take the trash out today. For working so hard for his family to bring home the paycheck each week. And, absolutely don’t get stuck on the “why doesn’t he compliment me more often” mantra. Please know that his brain is wired to relish being appreciated by you. It’s not wimpy. It’s not being weak. It’s not even unmanly. It’s truly a marriage connection secret that can pay you huge dividends in your relationship. Do you want a better, more focused husband? Compliment him! Compliments = LOVE to most men.

#6) He Knows You’re Not Nagging Him  

You definitely know what I’m saying here ladies. When you’ve asked him 50 times to clean up after himself. Put away his workout shoes. Lift the darn seat. Clean up the crumbs left on the kitchen table after an impromptu snack. He then goes to the “stop nagging me” mantra because he totally knows you’re right. He absolutely knows that you’re right. He just doesn’t have the word vocabulary to battle back with your superior brain. So very true!!!  

#7) He Totally Thinks About You!   

Often. Throughout his day. In the morning as he drives to his work office. During his work day and almost always at lunch. Even on his pilgrimage home after a trying work day. Please know that husbands often get so busy that they just can’t call or text you. Or even get away to have lunch with you. Even though he would definitely love to be able to do so. But! Know that you’re frequently on his mind. Sometimes its about his kids. Or about this Saturday’s date with you his amazing wife. Just understand that he’s working for you. Thinking of you. Absolutely desiring to be with you.

One More Iconic thought on Seven Connection Secrets

If one of these 7 trust building secrets has hit home with you, why not act on it right away? If you’ve held back on complimenting him in the past, switch it up and compliment him today. If you have believed that he doesn’t want to chat with you, pick the right moment this Sunday and simply chat him up. Seriously! Just do it. Be willing to reach out to him and be vulnerable. Truly risk. You’re marriage is definitely worth it. And so are you!!!

Michael Boman, LCSW is a therapist for Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City. He specializes in assisting couples improve their marriage connection and affection. He is accepting new clients on a limited basis. He can be reached by emailing Info@wasatchfamilytherapy.com

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Three Questions to Ask Your Spouse Daily

Being a marriage therapist is an interesting and fulfilling profession. One unique aspect of this job is that people want to ask my opinion on a regular basis. When I attend wedding showers, the room gets eerily quiet when it is my turn to give advice to the bride to be. One piece of advice I give regularly and often, is to connect with your spouse on a daily basis. This can happen in many different ways, however I think that daily talk time is an effective and powerful way to increase emotional intimacy that will help you feel connected to your spouse. Many times life gets so busy we forget how to talk with our partner. Here are three questions that can jump start your daily talk time.

  1. What went well in your day today?
  2. What did not go as you expected?
  3. What are some ways I can help you tomorrow?

These questions open up a dialogue about your day and what went well and poorly. The last question helps your spouse feel that you are invested in their day going well and shows your support of that happening. If you feel that some growth is needed in your relationship I urge you to start daily talk time. Ten minutes a day can make a big difference in your marriage. Start with these questions and see where the conversation goes.

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It’s Not a Vagina!

As a clinician who frequently works with sexual problems, I talk about genitals a lot! A lot! As I embark on these conversations with my clients, I have noticed how many people either don’t use the correct words for their genitals, or don’t even say the words at all. One of the most common errors I see is that people commonly say men have a penis and women have a vagina. While this is true, they are not the equivalent of one another.

I see this error in common culture verbiage also, people referring to the female genitalia only as her vagina. The vagina however is one part of the female genitals. It is the canal that leads from the vaginal opening to the cervix. This is an internal part of the female anatomy. I hear many people use the word “vagina” to refer to a woman’s external genitalia. This would be somewhat equivalent to calling the male external genitals a vas deferens (male internal tube) instead of a penis.

What people mean to say is that men have a penis and women have a vulva. Vulva is the correct term to refer to the external female genitals. It is made up of the 2 sets of lips called the labia majora and minora. It protects the internal components of the female reproductive system.

So, next time you say the word vagina, make sure you are referring to the correct anatomy. If you have never even said the word vulva, I encourage you to start using it as the appropriate term for female external genitalia.

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Notice That

Bessel A. van der Kolk, a leading trauma expert, said, “As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

Through my clinical work over the past 10 years, I have found the body to be one of the greatest teachers in helping clients to connect with, and heal from, trauma that is stored in the body. Stored trauma often manifests itself physically, such as with anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, fear, and other “uncomfortable” emotions. Consequently, our bodies are often feared, rather than embraced as the wise teacher it is.

I have found one of the most powerful tools in helping myself, and my clients, stay in a state of curiosity, rather than fear, of these bodily sensations is the breath. When triggered by these bodily sensations mentioned above the body typically moves into the sympathetic, or fight or flight nervous system. Often, clients with trauma have learned to operate in this nervous system more often than is useful. The breath is a powerful bridge between the sympathetic and parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” nervous systems.

Next time you find yourself filled with anxiety, I challenge you to take four deep “box” breaths, where you breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out of four counts, and hold for four counts. After which, maintain the deep breathing pattern and notice what is happening in your body physically, and breathe into any tension you find. Then, remain curious and ask yourself what is needed to help you feel safe and secure in the present moment. At that point you may ask, “what happens next?” Take note of what inner child wounds or beliefs may be surfacing, and allow yourself to sit with that wound to find truth. Learning to become curious about thoughts that once seemed overwhelming, scary, or insurmountable can be an empowering exercise when you start unwinding unhelpful past conditioning.

Sometimes with trauma, clients may find themselves feeling stuck at certain points of traditional talk therapy. If that has been the case, it is helpful to explore other modalities to help release trauma on a cellular level, such as EMDR. Other movement based interventions such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and dancing have also been found to be helpful in healing trauma. If you have found yourself stuck in processing past trauma, please feel free to reach out to see if we can explore some additional healing modalities. You can schedule by calling 801.944.4555.

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Flexible Thinking Part 1: Make and keep friends, romantic partners, and your job

What is Flexible Thinking?

Running a social skills group for kids ages 7-11 has taught me a lot about the benefits of flexible thinking. Flexible thinking in kids produces turn taking, transitioning smoothly to new activities, and the ability to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations.

Flexible thinking in adults also enables mental, emotional, and behavioral adaptability. It is the ability to consider situations from multiple perspectives, include context clues to inform decision making, manage rising emotional responses in appropriate ways, problem solve, and balance and prioritize competing desires and goals. Flexible thinking also allows for spontaneity in our romantic relationships that can increase excitement and deepen connection.

Flexible thinking looks like letting someone else pick the restaurant for dinner, cancelling plans to be with a friend or spouse who’s had a difficult day, finding solutions to problems instead of ruminating on the endless escalating spiral of “what if…” scenarios, truly listening to understand what others are saying, and not telling your boss what you really think of them when they take credit for your work during the company meeting.

Inflexible or rigid thinking in adults is often manifest in all or nothing (Black and White) perspectives and doesn’t allow for nuances and mitigating circumstances. Doing something because, “That’s how we have always done it” is an example of rigid thinking. Other examples include not listening to other’s ideas, struggling to consider the feelings and experiences of others, and obliviousness to opportunities around us because we are locked into our self-appointed expectations, rules or ideas about how something is “supposed to be.”

There is a popular Huffington Post article (“Reasons my son is crying will crack you up!”) that is unknowingly highlighting inflexible and rigid thinking. In each of these pictures, the child is having an emotional meltdown because they are stuck on one thought and the associated feeling so deeply, they become overwhelmed, abandon all reason and rebuff efforts to console them; for example, “He wouldn’t fit through the doggy door. Note the open-door right beside him.” With toddlers and adults alike, inflexible thinking can lead to unhelpful and stressful situations.

As a caution, let’s be clear that not all rigid thinking is unhelpful. There are areas in life that being inflexible is necessary and protective. With regards to physical safety and personal and emotional boundaries, it is advantageous to be rigid.

Application

We all have times where we utilize both flexible and rigid thinking, the important part is to identify where we, as adults, teens or kids, could benefit from more flexible thinking.

  • Is there an issue with your friends or spouse that keeps coming up, how could you change your perspective or response in the situation to increase connection with that person?
  • What could be a different way to address the issue? What about that issue is the real problem?
  • Could any of these same questions be applied to work relationships and circumstances?

You need to be a pipe cleaner.

Here is a visual way to conceptualize flexible thinking. During one of my first weeks running the aforementioned social skills group I came across an activity highlighting the importance of and difference between flexible and rigid thinking using a popsicle stick, a pipe cleaner and a piece of yarn.

  • A popsicle stick is sturdy but rigid. Attempts to bend the popsicle stick typically result in it breaking. Not helpful. 
  • Pipe cleaners are soft and fuzzy on the outside, come in multiple colors, bend easily, hold their shape and have sturdy wire in the middle: the creative options are endless. They are so adaptable they can bend to whatever the situation requires while maintaining their inner core (read: personal values and goals).
  • A piece of yarn can barely hold any shape at all, it’s too flexible. It can’t stand up for itself or hold a boundary and can be easily manipulated with no resistance.

Thinking like a pipe cleaner allows flexibility, adjusting, shifting, adapting and changing as needed without compromising our values. What areas in your life are you like a pipe cleaner? Are there some relationships, situations or events where you are more like a popsicle stick? Which of these scenarios or people would benefit from you being more like a pipe cleaner?

Look for Flexible Thinking Part 2: Mental Health, where I will review how flexible thinking impacts and effects our mental health.

Emerald Robertson, M.S.Ed., ACMHC, NCC

Reference:

Halloran, J. (2015, February 9). Teaching flexibility to kids. https://www.encourageplay.com/blog/being-flexible

Khoo, I. (2015, April 29). ‘Reasons my son is crying’ will crack you up. Huffington Post Canada. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/04/29/toddlers-crying_n_7033472.html

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Anything that is human is mentionable and anything mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know we are not alone.” – Fred Rogers

I love this quote from Mr. Rogers; it is the epitome of what I believe as a therapist and strive to achieve with my clients. We are all human and we have immense capacity for handling emotions, but sometimes those emotions feel completely and utterly overwhelming. Having a person that we can trust can make those emotions feel more manageable and we might, just maybe, even be able to talk about them more openly.

 We all want to feel like we matter and that someone cares about us; that is a universal human desire. No one wants to feel like they are all alone in this life, but often that is a feeling that we experience. How do we combat those feelings of being alone, isolated, not heard, or not cared for? Connection. Connection to someone or something that allows us to feel seen, heard, and understood. Connection requires vulnerability and vulnerability can be scary. Let’s be honest, we have all probably experienced a situation that we chose to bury, ignore, or deny an emotion rather than risk being hurt by being vulnerable and sharing.

Many of us grew up with Mr. Rogers as our introduction into learning about feelings. He didn’t shy away from talking about the hard topics either: death, divorce, pain, rage, and anger all featured on his show aimed at children. His forthright presentation of issues that we, as human beings, all struggle with was not typical for the time where children were, largely, encouraged to be seen and not heard. How refreshing to help children, and the adults that we became, to learn to recognize, identify, and name the emotions that we were feeling and that it was ok to be scared, it’s human. And if it’s human, then it’s mentionable and manageable with a little help from our friends in the neighborhood. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Henley, Y., Saraf, P., Turtletaub, M., Holzer, L. (Producers), & Heller, M. (Director). (2019) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [Motion Picture]. United States: Tristar Pictures.

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Five Tips for Navigating a Faith Crisis

Just Breathe

Really, right now take a few seconds to focus on your breath. Notice what it feels like as it goes in through your nose and out through your mouth.  A faith transition can be frightening and incredibly disorienting. Maybe you have that feeling of waking up in a strange place in the middle of the night, wondering where you are, only to remember you’re visiting a new town. Give yourself a moment to breathe, think, and become acquainted with this foreign land. Be kind to yourself. Sometimes you might feel excited or like you are on a new adventure. Sometimes you might feel hurt or betrayed. Sometimes you may feel lonely and out of place, but remind yourself that these emotions, like waves will go in and then go back out. Notice how you’re feeling without judgement. 

Start with What You Know

When your world feels turned upside down, it can feel like you don’t know what to think, believe, or know anymore. That’s ok. Start with what you do believe or what you do know. Maybe you believe in service or the power of good people to make a difference. Maybe you know how important your best friend is to you or that mint chocolate chip is still your favorite ice cream. What do you value? What is important to you? Make a list.

Reach Out

When you lose a community or separate from important people in your life, you may up feeling isolated or like no one understands. Despite that very real feeling, there are people who have gone through, or who are going through, a change in their Mormon lens too. Try looking for groups on Meetup, or Facebook groups. Network through people you already know or friends of a friend. 

Connect with Resources

“When Mormons Doubt” by Jon Odgen or “Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis” by Thomas Wirthlin McConkie are both two excellent books that are specific to Latter-Day Saints. Looking to people of other faiths, like Tova Mirvis in “The Book of Separation” can also be healing.

Slow Down

Take your time exploring the world through your new perspective. Be patient with yourself and give yourself the permission to say no and to take breaks. Find a therapist who can meet you where you are and support you wherever you decide your journey will take you. You’ve got this.

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