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More Than Man’s Best Friend

Some of my fondest memories from growing up are with my childhood dog. To this day, I still remember the times my family dog was there to support me. Being a tall individual, walking down stair cases with short ceilings proved difficult at times. Once or twice, I would hit my head very hard on a large beam down our family stairs. Of course I’d tumble down the stairs in agony as if I had just cracked my skull open. No sooner than I could check for blood (which there never was any) was our family dog Bridger there to provide me emotional support. With an expression of deep concern on his face he would nudge his nose near my face and lay there with me in my pain. This support for my brief pain was a memorable experience from my teenage years.

Flash forward a few years to now where my wife and I have our own dog Baloo. While pet ownership is not always easy, my wife and I can both attest to the emotional benefits that Baloo has brought us in our day-to-day stresses and anxiety. Our dog is always available to snuggle or just provide love when we are home, which has been a large stress reducer for our family. Whether he’s providing a sense of love and affection or making you laugh by silly behaviors, your pet is there provide you some joy.

For adults, pets have been shown to do the following:

  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Less visits to your doctor by 30% for those older than 65.
  • Adults or children interacting with animals often experience higher levels of oxytocin which promotes trust, bonding, and increased love. Which in turn decreases stress.
  • Reduced isolation and the feelings associated with it.
  • Provides feelings of unconditional love and safety.
  • Reduced depressive symptoms
  • Stress reduction
  • Improved health because if that pet is a dog they are going to get you out of the house.
  • 1 month into pet ownership has been found to increase family activities together (2012).

Here is some ammunition for all those children out there begging their parents for pets. Recent research done by Tufts University found that children tend to have better coping skills in correlation to a relationship with a pet (Rajewski, 2016). The study found that pets provided children with more confidence, better peer relationships, and more stability when parents were often out of the home (Rajewski, 2016). Animal ownership was also shown to help with providing all children with emotional support which is non-judgmental (Rajewski, 2016). Animals are able to provide loving and caring support just by being there for a child or adult.

Let me provide a disclaimer here: Pet ownership is a huge commitment and should not be taken lightly. In some circumstances it can lead to increased stress, anxiety, or an additional financial expense. If you are unsure about animal ownership spend some time with the animals at a shelter or volunteer to help with a friends pet. Benefits can still be found with these animals and reduce the need for an immediate commitment.

While our pets can be supportive, they are not always able to help us overcome all adversity. For help with the complex and simple challenges of life, consider visiting a therapist. Just like your pets, therapists will not judge you and can be there to support you through life’s many changes. If you are considering therapy and are worried what it will be like, please come and see me at Wasatch family therapy. I strive to provide everyone who comes with a comfortable, safe and non-judgmental atmosphere so that those I work with can succeed. Please do not hesitate to contact me at Wasatch Family Therapy at 801-944-4555.  Together, we can learn further tools to help you through your specific changes, and I will be sure to tell you some funny stories about my dog.

Nathan Watkins, AMFT

 

References

Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology, 3. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234

Haley, E. (2017, March 26). The Healing Power of Animals. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from https://whatsyourgrief.com/healing-power-of-animals/

Rajewski, G. (2018, January 18). How Pets Help People. Retrieved January 11, 2016, from http://now.tufts.edu/articles/how-pets-help-people

Robinson, L., & Segal, J. (2017, October). Mood-Boosting Power of Dogs. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/mood-boosting-power-of-dogs.html

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Who is the Enemy?

(C) Canstock Photo

Sometimes in our love relationships, we have been hurt or let down so often by our partner that we begin to develop an adversarial relationship. We are always on guard to protect ourselves from further pain. Our relationship becomes us vs. them in an attempt to wall off our heart from the one who knows us best, and therefore knows how to hurt us the most. Most of the time in these situations, our partner isn’t trying to hurt us. Our partner is hurting themselves and like us, is trying to protect from further pain.

In the book Love Sense, Dr. Sue Johnson describes what happens in these relationships:

“When emotional starvation becomes the norm, and negative patterns of outraged criticism and obstinate defensiveness take over, our perspective changes. Our lover slowly begins to feel like an enemy; our most familiar friend turns into a stranger. Trust dies, and grief begins in earnest.”

She goes on to say that the “erosion of a bond begins with the absence of emotional support”. This is key. In order to keep our most important relationships strong and healthy, we have to actively work on being an emotional support for our partner. We need to be there for them, and we need them to be there for us. Emotional supportiveness creates a teammate mentality. Instead of problems turning into us vs. them scenarios, they are approached with the couple as a team, facing the enemy (or the negative cycle) together.

One roadblock in our ability to be there emotionally with our partner is our hurt and anger.
Anger is a secondary emotion. Its purpose is to act as a shield, protecting our more vulnerable (primary) emotions. If my husband doesn’t call me when he said he would, it’s easier for me to lash out at him in my attempt to make sure he knows how hurt I am. My lashing out is likely to cause him to feel defensive and respond with anger of his own (because he is also using anger as a shield to protect himself). If I take a moment to breathe, and calm myself before commenting on his missed phone call, I might say something like, “when you don’t call me when you say you will, I feel really hurt. I worry that I’m not important to you, and you mean so much to me that it hurts in my chest to think that I don’t matter to you.”

Instead of expressing my secondary emotion, anger, I’m expressing my primary emotion. Fear. Fear that I don’t matter to my partner as much as he matters to me. I’m being vulnerable and asking my partner to reassure me and be vulnerable in return.

If my partner responds to my vulnerability with criticism, it reinforces my view that he is not a safe person to turn to, and the emotional bond is further damaged. If he responds with reassurance, the emotional bond can be strengthened. “I’m so sorry I didn’t call. I got so busy with my meetings that I forgot. I know it means a lot to you that I call when I say I will, and I’m sorry I let you down. You do mean so much to me.”

Dr. Johnson describes three questions that we can ask ourselves and our partners when we are working to strengthen or repair our emotional bonds.

1. Are you Accessible? (Will you give me your attention and be emotionally open to what I am saying?)

2. Are you Responsive? (Will you accept my needs and fears and offer comfort and caring?)

3. Are you Engaged? (Will you be emotionally present and involved with me?)

Dr. Johnson combines these into one “core attachment question”. ARE you there for me?

Sit down with your partner and talk about these questions. Do you feel like your partner is accessible, responsive, and engaged? Are you accessible, responsive, and engaged with your partner? When have you been successful at answering “ARE you there for me”? When have you struggled? Think about the last struggle and look for the primary emotions under the struggle. Try being vulnerable with each other.

The stronger our emotional bond, the easier it is to deal with the frustrations that crop up in every relationship. Sometimes the damage in our relationships has gone on for so long, or is so emotionally painful that we need help in repairing it. Couple’s therapy can help break the cycle of negative interactions and allow emotional bonds to be rebuilt stronger than ever.

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Ask A Therapist: Lost My Virginity and Now I’m Sleeping Around and Drinking A Lot

Q: I have a question. I’m 21 and I was dating this guy and well, I lost my virginity to him and I loved him. I felt like he used me. I was so hurt when we broke up and I then slept with his best friend and then another guy 6 times.  I drink a lot and I have low self esteem please I need some advice. I’m so lost.

A: It is incredibly painful to feel so deeply for your boyfriend that you would share your heart and your body with him only to have the relationship end. I’m so sorry that your boyfriend didn’t value the gift that you gave him, your first full expression of your sexuality.  While it’s incredibly difficult to feel used, there are many healthier options for dealing with your hurt than by doing things that cause more pain for you and others. Drinking and sexually acting out may temporarily make your feel powerful and numb your emotions but won’t lead to a healthy emotional place and will likely create more pain and hurt.

Please turn toward healthy relationships. Who have you gone to in the past for emotional support? Have you reached out to friends and family during this difficult time? If not, please share your pain with people you trust so you can receive comfort and strength.  Also, please consider seeking a therapist to sort through the loss of your relationship, understand the root of your unhealthy behavior, and to develop healthier coping skills. Click here if you need help to find a therapist in your area. You can feel good about yourself again. You can develop healthy love relationships.  Remember, you deserve to be with a man who wants to be with you and who cherishes you, body and soul.

Take good care of yourself!

Julie Hanks, LCSW

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