triggers

How Do I Stop Myself? Seven Ways to Cope with Triggers of Addiction

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Andrea is walking through the mall when she hears a familiar sound playing through the speakers.  She can’t quite make it out at first, but she notices a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.  She stops in her tracks and listens, finally making out the melody.  It hits her – this was the song she and one of her previous affair partners had called “their song.”  Flooded with emotions of fear, anxiety, longing, and dread, she turns on her heel and exits the mall at close to a sprint.

What Andrea experienced in that moment is what therapists who specialize in addiction treatment call a “trigger.”  Often sensory memories, such as the taste of a delicious meal, the smell of perfume, or seeing a beautiful view can remind you of fond memories.  However, for addicts, triggers like these can bring back thoughts, memories, or feelings that have to do with the addiction.  These triggers often cause an immediate, visceral response in the addict.  This response can be accompanied by reminders of the drug of choice.  Triggers become particularly impactful when the addict is facing stress.

If you often find yourself in a spot where you’re feeling triggered, what can you do about it?

While the ultimate goal of recovery from addiction involves identifying triggers and planning for them ahead of time, as well as reducing the effects they have, you may come across a time where you are triggered unexpectedly and wondering how to handle the ensuing emotions and memories.  Here are some ideas of what to do:

Stop and ask yourself the question: “Do I want to get well?” 

Marnie Ferree, in her book No Stones, references the story in the Bible recorded in John 5 of a crippled man who had been waiting at the healing pool of Bethesda to wash himself in the waters.  When Jesus approaches him to heal him, He first asks him this question: Do you want to get well? 

Marnie names this as the most important question for recovering addicts, adding, “Your recovery will depend on how you answer this question on a daily basis.  Your yes will simplify many of the choices you’ll have to make.  Let your vision of sobriety and healing motivate and encourage you."

Questioning yourself in this way is a technique that comes from the theory of motivational interviewing, which has been shown in some studies to change a nicotine addict’s response to the trigger of tobacco.  It helps you to connect with the delayed consequences of your actions, rather than just being caught up in the immediate gratification that addictive behavior gives.

Practice quality self-care.

In our driven and self-motivated culture, self-care strategies are very often pushed to the side or forgotten about completely.  In fact, lack of self-care can a contributor to addictive behavior, as cravings are often worsened by stress or a desire to escape from the realities of life.

While self-care can include such activities as exercise and journaling, a self-care strategy that is particularly potent for fighting back against addiction is gratitude.  Practicing gratitude helps to slow the deprivation mentality that accompanies addiction, instead replacing it with joy in response to the good things present in your life.

Practice acceptance.

If you have struggled with addictive behaviors, your brain has been trained to respond to triggers by turning to the addictive behaviors.  Part of the reason this connection is so strong is because often, addictive behaviors met what they promised, even if it was only for a moment. Rather than shaming yourself for that tendency, offer yourself grace and remind yourself that these thoughts are normal for people in recovery.  Remind yourself that you’re re-learning new patterns, and take time to engage in those new patterns right then and there.  Accepting the past and making a choice to live differently puts you in a position one step above the addiction, as you reclaim your power and strength over the behaviors.

Engage with your desires.

Often, the underlying cause of addictive behaviors is a desire to fulfill a legitimate need, but the fulfillment is carried out in a way that is destructive.  The acronym HALT is often used with addiction: that triggers are more likely to affect you if you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.  Instead of choosing to run to addiction, take some time to slow down, name the desire (even if it’s just for a delicious meal!), and find ways to meet that desire in a healthy way.  For sex and love addicts, the underlying desire behind addictive behaviors is often intimacy and connection, which is why relationships with others in 12-Step groups or therapy groups can often provide a healthy way to meet that desire.  For Christians, engaging with desire can look like connecting with God in prayer, naming the desires you have, and seeking to trust him with the desires not yet met.

Reach out to your social support.

If you are in recovery, it is important to link yourself up with people who can support you and who know the whole story.  While this support network may begin with just your therapist, your therapist will likely encourage you to join a 12-Step group (like Sex Addicts Anonymous) or support group in order to find others with whom you can empathize and receive help.  If you notice a trigger, call your sponsor or a trusted friend from your support network to be able to talk you through it or be with you in it.  The most effective way to interrupt your addictive cycle is to talk through it with someone.

Take a mindful moment.

Mindfulness helps you to re-center yourself on the present moment, rather than getting caught up in memories of the past or desires for the future.  Practicing mindfulness forces you to slow down, pay attention to your emotions, and acknowledge what you’re experiencing.  It also helps you to identify how your thoughts and actions are being influenced by those emotions.  Take some time to practice this grounding exercise that engages your senses: notice five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you smell, and one thing you taste in the environment around you.

Use affirmations to remind yourself of truth.

As you begin to walk through recovery, you’ll realize how your self-image and negative core beliefs about yourself have influenced your behavior as well as your response to triggering events.  Find words that you can repeat to yourself in the moments where you feel weakest that are in direct contrast to the negative self-talk you use in moments where you are triggered.  These statements can be something along the lines of “I am strong enough to overcome this” or “I am loved.”  Scripture can be used as affirmations as well, with verses such as Philippians 4:13 (“I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” NLT) or Psalm 23:1 (“The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” NLT)

 

Ultimately, you will not be able to avoid or eliminate triggers altogether in your recovery from addiction.  You cannot control the sights, sounds, and smells that are around you on a daily basis.  What you can do instead is learn to cope with those triggers and put supports in place so that when you are facing a trigger, you know how to best handle it.

This article was originally posted on April 20, 2017.

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If you’ve been fighting back against triggers toward sex and love addiction for a long time, or if you are realizing you don’t have the support system in place to handle those triggers that come up, we are here to help.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor and Novi based counseling office that specializes in treating sex and love addiction.  We’d love to help you on your journey of recovery to find freedom and healing from addictive behaviors.  To hear more about how we can support you, give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to contact us.

*These are Amazon affiliate links.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local associates policy.

3 Steps to Argue Your Way to a Stronger Relationship

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Do you often find yourself in the same argument over and over again with your significant other?  Are there certain topics you can’t seem to agree on, no matter how often you talk about them?  Maybe you truly love your spouse and want what’s best for them, but you can’t seem to see eye-to-eye on finances, parenting, or household responsibilities. 

You are not alone.  Every couple faces these types of conflicts.  But there’s some good news: these conflicts are the greatest opportunities you have for increasing intimacy and connection in your relationship.

John Gottman, a marriage researcher who has been studying what makes marriages healthy for over 40 years, has termed this type of conflict “gridlocked.”  He defines gridlock as conflict that doesn’t have a clear-cut solution.  And surprisingly enough, he has found through his research that 69% of all conflicts are gridlocked.  That means over two-thirds of all conflict doesn’t have a right or wrong solution!

But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause.  Rather, these conflicts you experience in your relationship can be approached with a heart of compromise and understanding in order to pave the way for more closeness in relationship.

Where do these arguments go wrong?

When you’re in gridlocked conflict, you may find yourself trying to convince your significant other that you are right and they are wrong.  You may not be wiling to see their perspective because you’ve already dug in your heels on your point-of-view.

On the flip side, you might develop bitterness and resentment from avoiding conversations about these tense topics, which spills out into other areas.  Have you ever had difficulty remembering what started your fight?  Little annoyances are magnified by the underlying tension and anger from gridlocked conflict.

What needs to change?

Altering your approach to conflict requires you to reframe the argument as an opportunity to grow in intimacy with your partner.  There are reasons why you feel stuck in these areas.  Often it is because of your own and your partner’s desires and the narratives tied to them. These make it difficult for you to change your position.  The purpose of the next exercise is to understand you partner’s story so that you can see why their position is so important to them. 

This does require some level of vulnerability on the part of each of you in order to grow in intimacy.  If you struggle with vulnerability with your partner, try this exercise out with a smaller gridlocked issue first..

Gottman’s 3-Step Process

Step 1: Discuss (and listen) to each of your perspectives.

Set aside a time for each of you to talk about your personal perspective on the issue.  Use the talking formula: “I feel…because/about…and what I would like is…”  Speak in a respectful and non-critical tone to your partner, believing that they want to hear your side.

The most crucial component of this exercise, however, is playing the role of the listener.  Often we listen with one ear, but our mind is focused on our response and how we might defend ourselves.  When we do this, we’re not truly listening to the other person.  Instead, Gottman encourages you to “suspend persuasion” for a time and seek to understand your partner’s perspective, as if you were an outside observer.  Validate what you hear in your partner’s perspective.  What feelings make sense to you?  Can you understand from their perspective, even if you don’t fully agree? 

Example: In talking about housework, you might say, “I felt abandoned when I asked you to help me clean the garage and you said “no.”  I need to feel like we share responsibility and are working together to keep our home organized.”

Step 2: Identify the “dreams within conflict.”

Look deeper at why the issue is so important to you personally.  Exploring your own triggers is a self-reflective tool that helps you identify your own personal narrative contributing to the issue.

Typically, this narrative has to do with your past.  Describing why you are uniquely triggered helps your partner feel empathy.  As you discuss this narrative, ask open-ended questions like “tell me the story behind that” or “what experience from your past makes this so important to you?” to understand more of your partner’s perspective.

Similar to Step 1, it is essential to listen and understand your partner’s perspective.  Do you see why they might make the connection between the present issue and a past experience?  Does it make sense why they are having a strong emotional reaction? 

Example: “I’m reminded of the importance of my value of equality.  My father made sure that my mother felt as though they carried an equal weight in taking care of the house, and I saw that as a way they loved each other.  When you don’t help me out, I wonder if you don’t see us as equals, and then I feel unloved.” 

Step 3: Choose areas of compromise.

Once you’ve listened to one another’s perspective, asked questions, and helped each other feel fully understood, then you can move into a place of compromise.  Understanding and empathizing with your spouse’s story makes compromise vastly easier.  Where you might have been stubborn before, now that you know their story, you may be more willing to move closer to what they desire.

Make a list of essentials about this area: what do you need?  Then make a list of more flexible items where might you be willing to compromise.  Discuss your lists together and seek overlap.  Where might each of you make some compromise to move closer to your partner’s needs?  How can you practically put this into play this upcoming week? 

Example: “It is essential to me that, in general, you help out with tasks around the house.  I am willing to be flexible about what those tasks are.  If organizing the garage is not your cup of tea, I would feel supported and equal to you if you prepared dinner so I could focus on getting the garage done today.  Are you willing to consider that?”

Know this:  even in using these three steps, you will likely still argue.  Perhaps the compromise will work for a time, but eventually a new trigger will come up that needs to be discussed.  Remember: this is normal!  You will be discussing compromises and seeking to support one another throughout your relationship.  If you look at this as an ongoing conversation that will get easier over time, you’ll be set up well to continue to love one another through compromise in the course of your relationship.

Are you having a hard time finding common ground in your relationship?  Do you constantly feel stuck in your arguments?  At Restored Hope, I offer supportive couples counseling that helps you learn to communicate your dreams and listen with empathy to your significant other.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor or Novi offices.

Surviving Withdrawal from Sex and Love Addiction

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Two of the common factors of any addiction are tolerance (needing more of a substance or behavior to get a high) and withdrawal symptoms after stopping use of the addictive substance or behavior. Withdrawal involves a set of physical and emotional symptoms.  With drug and alcohol addiction, withdrawal often involves changes in the body that lead to physical symptoms, often the opposite of what the substance provided.  For example, if you used a stimulants like nicotine, withdrawal might involve feeling down, depressed, or lethargic.  If you were addicted to depressants like alcohol, you may feel anxious and revved up.  If you are able to maintain sobriety over a prolonged period of time, withdrawal symptoms will dissipate.

With process addictions, including sex and love addiction, there is no intake of a substance involved.  But sex and love addiction involves dopamine production that affects the brain similarly to that of a cocaine addict, meaning you may experience both physical and emotional symptoms similar to that of withdrawing from substances.

Maintaining sobriety through withdrawal from sex and love addiction can be especially complicated. Access to your drug of choice can be as simple as calling up a memory of a time when you acted out or fantasizing about sexual behaviors.  These thoughts and mental images cause mirror neurons to fire in your brain, giving you a similar dopamine rush as the addictive behavior itself.

Symptoms of Withdrawal in Sex and Love Addiction

Here are some common symptoms in withdrawal from sex and love addiction:

  • Emotional upheaval and mood swings

  • Anger and irritability

  • Exhaustion

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Dreams of acting out behaviors

  • Intense loneliness and distress

  • Forgetting the bad and remembering the good

  • Obsessive thinking

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Denial

Good news: withdrawal doesn’t last forever.  It can often feel endless to someone who is in the midst of intense symptoms or who hasn’t successfully maintained sobriety until the symptoms begin to dissipate.  But knowing that withdrawal will come to an end can help you sustain your commitment to recovery.

How to Cope with Withdrawal

Get clear about why you’re ending your relationship to the addiction.

Write a letter to your addiction outlining why you’re leaving it behind.  List the destructive behaviors the addiction has led you to do, how it has limited you, and what is motivating you to change.  If your addiction involves other people, cut off all communication with them with a clear conversation about your commitment to recovery.  You’ll be able to look back on this decision and list when you are later facing withdrawal symptoms. 

Set yourself up for success with boundaries.

Place roadblocks in the areas of your life that may lead you back to addiction.  Set up internet blocks against pornography or explicit content.  Cut off toxic relationships, even if that means you have to block or delete numbers or change your own number.  Ambiguity or lack of boundaries can set you up for failure.  Be clear about what needs to happen for you to get better.

Ramp up your social support.

Be honest and open with others about your addiction recovery.  Choose safe people with whom you can go more in-depth. Present the authentic and real portrait of your addiction to your 12 Step group members.  Go public within your Twelve Step group and attend more regularly.  As you remain present at meetings, listening to and sharing stories of recovery, you will increase your support.

Get rid of distorted and obsessive thoughts.

Identify how you lie to yourself or distort the truth to serve your addictive behaviors.  Do you tell yourself it’s not a big deal?  Minimize its impact?  Remember everything through rose-colored glasses?  Identify these distortions and replace them with adaptive thoughts demonstrating the truth of how your addiction has negatively impacted your life.  Know that it’s normal to have thoughts pop into your head that urge you to return to your addiction. Prepare yourself with a game plan to combat those unhelpful thoughts.

Journal about your feelings when they come up.

When the urge to act out in your sex and love addiction comes up, ask yourself: what do you truly need?  What deeper desire are you longing to fulfill?  When you journal, you can experience the catharsis of letting out painful emotions, or you can productively tackle your Twelve Step work.  Keep a list of observations about your feelings to increase awareness of moments that lead you to want to escape into your addictive behaviors. 

Explore attachment injuries.

Often, experiences of abuse, abandonment, or other injuries related to how we interacted with our primary caregivers in childhood can fuel our desires to act out.  Explore how you may have responded to feelings of abandonment or desire for control by acting out in your addiction.  Examine how you might be seeking to right wrongs from the trauma of your past through your addiction, such as experiences of sexual abuse or emotional neglect.  Read books on adult attachment and attachment injuries, such as Attached* by Amir Levine.

Create a safety plan for the trigger minefield.

Know that you will be triggered in withdrawal.  Triggers involve any situation or environment that gives you a strong desire to act out.  Anticipate that you will be tempted by expected situations, but also by those that are unexpected.  Have a plan in place ahead of time so you know how to respond when you are triggered.

Avoiding triggers is not the solution: in fact, it may backfire by making you more sensitive to the triggering situation.  At the same time, don’t intentionally seek out situations in which you will be triggered in order to “build up your resistance”.  Instead, anticipate triggers with a plan.  Know that holidays, family time, or anniversaries of traumatic events may be difficult for you.  When you notice triggers, respond to them proactively. You might not be feeling any strong emotions in the immediate aftermath, but respond as if you were to train yourself to follow your plan. 

Explore your hobbies.

Have you ever wanted to learn an instrument, or take up cooking, or play a new sport?  What hobbies have been in the back of your mind as potential options, but you just haven’t had the time or energy to try them?  Engaging in a new, enjoyable hobby can create a new way for your brain to provide dopamine.  These behaviors can help you to distract yourself from your cravings or urges.  They won’t necessarily feel as good as the addiction at first, but over time you’ll come to enjoy them more.

Be kind to yourself.

Withdrawal is a difficult process. Since sex and love addiction is a shame-based disorder, you likely have some messages of shame surrounding your inability to control the addiction or the loneliness that you feel.  Practice kindness by staying away from those shame-driven patterns that drew you into the addiction: trying to prove yourself, staying overly busy, you name it.  Be gentle and seek to meet your own needs for safety and self-care.  Notice if you’re feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired and care for yourself in a way that meets those needs.

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Are you struggling to make it through withdrawal?  Have you tried to stop your behavior in sex and love addiction repeated times with no success?  Are you feeling lonely and exhausted by your failures?  At Restored Hope, you’ll be given a safe place to work through the beliefs, behaviors, and emotions that are limiting your ability to survive withdrawal from sex and love addiction.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Novi or Ann Arbor therapy office.

One Game-Changing Tool to Approach Arguments as Opportunities for Intimacy in Marriage

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It’s a typical Saturday afternoon, and you’re wrapped in up in cleaning the house, watching a pot of soup on the stove, and attempting to keep your kids entertained.  Your spouse walks in the door to see Legos scattered around the floor, the debris left over from one of your many attempts at distraction.  Your spouse gives you a look that communicates, “did a bomb go off in here?”

You immediately feel a flood of anger coursing through your veins.  You snap at your spouse, irritated with their nonverbal insensitivity and criticism.  You start defending yourself, and meanwhile your spouse looks completely bewildered and caught off guard, like a deer in the headlights.

Little did you know in that moment, but that particular look on your spouse’s face was exactly the same as the look your father used to give you before he launched into a tirade about your irresponsibility and immaturity.  For a moment, your father’s face flashed before your eyes, not your spouse’s, and you were brought right back to the feeling of being a chastised child.

What is a trigger?

You’ve likely experienced moments like these in your life, where you’ve had an intense and strong emotional reaction to something that didn’t make sense.   These moments, referred to as triggers, are moments when you experience an intense and extreme emotional reaction that is disproportionate to the event that occurred.  Typically, these are brought on by memories of past experiences where you felt hurt, ashamed, guilty, or a range of other negative emotions.  Most often, triggers differ from person to person and are not easily predicted, and therefore can lead to arguments or miscommunication in marriage.

Talking about triggers is an integral part of learning to communicate more effectively in your relationships and have arguments that lead you to become more intimately connected with one another.

Wait a second – arguments that cause you to become more intimately connected?  That sounds like a mistake.

Guess what?  It’s not.

John Gottman, marriage researcher, prefers to talk about the concept of conflict “management” rather than conflict “resolution.”  Why’s that?  He found that 69% of conflicts couples have in their marriage are unresolvable – meaning that conflict resolution is a myth in 69% of arguments.

Instead, couples need to come to a place of compromise in their arguments.  The process of getting to compromise involves learning more about triggers in order to grow to understand your partner’s past.  As you get to know your partner’s experience, you’ll become more adaptive and empathetic to their needs, and more willing to make a compromise.  You’ll also feel known and understood as they learn your side of the story.

Sounds like a win-win after all!

How can I tell when I’m being triggered?

Step one to understanding triggers is understanding when you’ve been triggered.  This involves becoming aware of your emotional and physical reactions.  In the example above, you had no idea why you jumped from relatively neutral to raging in less than 3.6 seconds at the look on your spouse’s face.

If you were able to take a step back a little later when you had calmed your emotional arousal, you may have been able to gain more awareness of what emotion came up.  In the example above, you may have felt fear or defensiveness.  Triggers typically involve emotions or beliefs that are deeper under the surface, so uncovering them is a crucial process.

When you identify the emotion, ask yourself: what message does this emotion communicate to me?  If I could give the emotion a voice, what would it be saying?  In the example, the fear of defensiveness is saying that I’m worthless or not good enough.

Then, take a moment to ask yourself this question: when was the first time I remember feeling that way?  What is a significant time in my past when I remember having those thoughts?

Alternatively, think of that emotion or that belief and rewind the tape of your life back – what moments stand out to you as times when you truly believed that thought?  When that emotion was felt?

How do I communicate about triggers with my spouse?

Once you’ve calmed down enough to identify that trigger, then it’s time to communicate the trigger to your spouse.  This process mirrors Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight exercise, allowing you to name what you need.

First, talk to your spouse about how you felt in the moment about what happened. “I felt angry when you came home because it seemed as though you were judging me for the state of the house.”

Next, identify why that particular reaction was triggering to you.  “The look on your face reminded me of a look my father used to give me before yelling at me about how irresponsible I was.  Back then, I would feel afraid and believe that I was worthless and not good enough.”

Then, take responsibility for the disproportionate reaction: “I responded out of fear and defensiveness to you, even though you are not my father, and I don’t believe those words were what you were trying to communicate to me.  I am sorry for snapping at you and criticizing you.”

Finally, communicate what you will do in the future, as well as asking your spouse for help.  As an option, you can invite your spouse to suggest an idea for him or her to carry out.  “In the future, I will do my best to remind myself that you are not my father and that you are not commenting on my worth or value.  If you’re willing, it would be helpful for me to hear you say that you love me or offer to help.  Is that something you’re willing to try?”

Notice how the interation above invites intimacy.  You have to step into the risk of sharing vulnerably a difficult part of your story that allows your spouse to get to know you better.  You humbly take responsibility for your fault in the matter, as none of us are without blame.   And it gives a solution-focused response on how to approach those conflicts in the future.

My hope is that you’ll begin to see your arguments with your spouse not as a signal that your relationship is falling apart, but as an opportunity to grow closer to one another and connect to one another’s worlds.

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Do you find yourself caught in a pattern of getting triggered every time you and your spouse have a conflict?  Have you been completely unaware of where those triggers are coming from?  Are you looking for help with creating intimacy with your spouse through fighting well?  At Restored Hope, I believe in the power of intimacy-building in relationships through honesty, vulnerability, and open communication.  I offer couples counseling at my Novi and Ann Arbor therapy offices – give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up an appointment today.

How to Deal with Triggers from the #MeToo Movement

It’s safe to say there’s been quite a bit of impactful news about women and sexual abuse in the media lately.  Fromthe women’s march in January 2017 and 2018, the #metoo movement that swept through social media, and the series of revelations of sexual harassment from male celebrities and ensuing consequences, it is clear that the rights of women are taking precedence in our world.  Locally, the MSU Nasser trial has been heating up in national media and the shock of the sheer numbers of victims has been appalling to many of us.

I’m not an expert in these news stories.  I’m not well read enough or as conscious as I could be.  But I do know that this increase in awareness of women’s issues can have some huge effects not only on our culture and our world, but on what I see in my office.  As I work with both my partners of sex addicts and female sex addicts themselves, I find that these news stories are triggering all sorts of past experiences of abuse or harm in their marriages or elsewhere. 

Here are some of the good things I see in the increasing conversation around women’s rights.

We are speaking out against sexual violence and abuse more than ever before.

You only have to turn on the TV or scroll through your news feed to see stories of women speaking out about sexual abuse and sexual violence.  If you’re a survivor of sexual abuse or harm, my hope is that this prevalence helps you to realize that you are not alone.  Sexual abuse has been kept a shameful secret for many women for too long.  In a culture that normalizes objectification of women, women can feel complicit in their sexual abuse, or as if they were at fault for the harm that was done to them.  To hear other women speaking out to say that sexual harassment and violation is wrong and that they are not at fault for what was done to them can give you confidence to know that the abuse was not your fault.

Objectification and oversexualizing of women in our culture is being called out.

I recently visited an auto tech in the area to get my tire pressure checked, and as I was leaving the facility, the male technician working on my car called me “sweetie.”  I don't believe he meant any harm by that comment, and in the past, I certainly wouldn’t have thought much of it.  In fact, I might’ve seen it as a compliment.  But in the wake of the cultural turmoil over women’s issues, I felt uncomfortable.  I realized how that tiny word was reflective of a cultural norm that subtly sexualizes women.

Pornography is another major component of the oversexualization of our culture.  Women in these films are viewed as sexual objects that are only meant to be used for gratification and pleasure.  Women are perceived to be welcoming of violent, abusive sexual acts.  A number of studies have shown a link between use of pornography and sexual aggression.  These films can communicate the myth that women enjoy sexual violence or aggression, and that her “no” is more of a “maybe.”

We are beginning to see gender inequality as an issue unconsciously in existence for longer than we previously thought.

According to author and sex addiction researcher Marnie Ferree at a talk I attended of hers this fall, violence in pornography is reflective of greater cultural issues that have been there long before the mass production of adult films.  The stereotypes appear in the sexual realm through these images, and they feed back into gender inequality.  Gale Dines, author of the book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality*, talks about the impact of pornography on sexuality and outlines some of the stereotypes that have crossed into daily life.

 

I believe these are positive changes.  But at the same time, the growing conversation can be triggering for women who have experienced sexual abuse or harm, or whose husbands have been engaged in addictive sexual behaviors.  Areas that previously were ignored or pushed under the rug cannot be ignored any longer.  It is important for women who feel triggered by these news stories to both receive support from others and take action to care for themselves.  Here are some thoughts I have on ways to take action in response.

There is a needed shift toward speaking the unspoken cultural messages associated with being a woman.

A therapist friend shared this article with me that speaks about the unspoken cultural expectation that women have to feel uncomfortable and ignore their discomfort.  As women, we are brought up to believe that being uncomfortable is the norm: in order to be attractive, women have to wear tight clothes and high heels.  “At every turn, women are taught that how someone reacts to them does more to establish their goodness and worth than anything they themselves might feel.“  This is most obviously demonstrated in the acceptance that many women have that sex is painful rather than enjoyable.  When we begin to accept our feelings of discomfort as normal, then we don’t know how to tell when our discomfort is related to real issues, and that can lead to being taken advantage of sexually.  We’ve lost the sense of knowing when we can say no.  

We can’t deny the impact of sexual addiction any longer.

When we read about the court case of Larry Nasser, we hear the stories of his 168 victims and the impact his actions have had on their lives.  While pedophilia and sexual addiction are not synonymous, I would not be surprised to find out that Nasser was a sex addict as well.  Regardless of what we think about compulsive sexual behavior, I believe we can all agree that it is a problem.

Women who are married to sex addicts face the reality of the pain of objectification on a daily basis.  If you’re in this position, it is likely that your life, marriage, and sense of healthy sexuality have been ripped apart in the fallout of your spouse’s addiction.  Reading stories in the media about sexual abuse and harm can trigger your own personal pain of being married to an addict.  Practicing self-care, monitoring your triggers from the media, and seeking to stay in your window of tolerance can help you not to become overwhelmed by these media stories.

Shaming and condemning is not the answer.

In response to these claims made above, we may get fired up and angry to a point that we cross over into man-hating and shaming all those who struggle with objectification of women or sexual addiction.  And to be fair, it is difficult to demonstrate compassion to offenders or the accused.  But as an addiction therapist, one thing I know to be true is that shame feeds addiction. The more ashamed an individual feels about their addiction, the more likely they are to turn to the things that helped them to self-medicate in the first place because addictive behaviors are incredibly efficient at making the pain go away.  Addicts need compassionate people who can see them in their pain and help them to heal.  While you might not be able to provide that compassion, you can lead those you know who are addicted to people who can help.

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Have the stories of sexual abuse and harm in the media hit close to home for you?  Do you find yourself avoiding the coverage if only to get a break from the triggers that are thrown at you every time you turn on the news channel?  Have you felt afraid to talk about your personal experience of sexual harm because you’re uncertain if you’re just making it up, or if it really did matter?  I believe your story is important and valuable, and I want to create a space for you to use your voice to speak up about the harm you experienced and see healing from the pain you feel about it.  Restored Hope is a therapy office offering counseling in Novi and Ann Arbor.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up an appointment today.

*This is an Amazon affiliate link.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local  associates policy.

Surviving the Holidays With Your Spouse

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Christmas trees are going up, holiday lights are twinkling, and peace and love are filling the air everywhere…well, everywhere except in your home.  The holidays are notorious for being fraught with conflict and stress, which can wreak havoc on our relationships.  Marriages are particularly under fire.  You’ve likely experienced arguments about which family traditions to uphold, where the holidays will be spent, and stress that comes with in-laws and shopping.  Research shows that divorces are shown to increase in the months following the holidays. I believe that relates to the conflict and strife that arises out of this season of the year.

How can you actively work to combat the potential devastation the holidays can bring to your marriage?

Discuss and plan traditions in your family.

As John Gottman likes to say, regardless of where we were born, we each bring our own cultures into the marriage: the culture of our family growing up.  We raised with traditions around the holidays, and you have likely tried to implement some of these within your current marriage.  However, some of these rituals can clash.

Talk with your spouse and ask about their favorite holiday traditions.  Pay attention to traditions they love now, favorite traditions of childhood, and what they wish you’d do together.  Talk about your best and worst experiences of the holidays growing up as a way of identifying common factors to implement and avoid.  Talk about your favorite holiday memories together as a couple and seek to put into practice similar moments.

If you come from families that didn’t have a lot of traditions, it might be helpful to implement some new practices, or rituals of connection, with your family.  Rituals of connection are practices infused with meaning that family members do in order to create connection, intimacy, and security in who you are as a family unit.  These rituals are an important factor in creating a new sense of family within your marriage.

Identify your own triggers and those of your spouse during the holidays.

While the holidays often carry special and joyful memories, they can also be overshadowed by trauma or pain.  If a loved one who has recently passed away played a major role in holiday festivities, the signs of the season may bring on fresh waves of grief.  Sit down with your spouse and children and talk about ways to honor the memory of those who won’t be celebrating with you this year.

Holidays also often involve time with family, which can sometimes be distressing.  Family dynamics can be their worst at the holidays, as stress makes our negative qualities more prominent.  Have a plan ahead of time for how to navigate those triggers together as a couple.

Sometimes even just lowering your expectations for the holidays can help.  It’s often the moments when you’re most trying to make the holiday perfect for someone else that you end up steamrolling over your spouse’s emotions.

Practice damage control when (not if) you fight.

If you know you and your spouse have the same argument every holiday season, take some time to plan ahead and talk through the potential fight earlier.  Use Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight discussion as a tool to process past fights, identify sensitivities or triggers you may have, and plan for how to approach those arguments in the future.

And when you inevitably find yourself in the argument, try to understand your spouse’s perspective and practice empathy.  Look for an opportunity to come to a place of compromise so that you can have a win-win situation, rather than trying to come out on top.

Inject some fun into your holiday celebrations.

Holidays are stressful.  (Have I said that enough?)  There are a multitude of events and schedules to juggle, between children’s schooling, work parties, and travel to visit family.  Take some time aside with your spouse to slow down and just have fun together.

Go see the Christmas lights at Greenfield Village.  Spend a day cuddled up under the blankets with hot cocoa having a Christmas movie marathon.  Drive around your neighborhood to see the lights and choose a favorite house.  If you have a hard time thinking of something, or you worry about having fun on a budget, Google some ideas and pick one or two that sound fun or inexpensive!

Budget together for Christmas shopping.

Finances are one of the top areas that couples tend to fight over, and the holidays are the season when it's easiest to overspend.  Buying gifts for friends and family, shopping the hot Black Friday deals, or going out for celebratory holiday meals can lead to greater spending than anticipated.

As a couple, set some limits on spending for the holidays.  Talk through how much you’d like to spend on your children, family members, and friends.  If this means you have to have hard conversations with your children or your extended family about your financial limits, seek to do so united as a couple.

Volunteer together.

The old adage about Christmas says that we ought to be more cheerful about giving than receiving.  However, that sentiment can easily get lost in all of the hustle and bustle.  Slowing down to notice opportunities to give back this time of year can help your family to connect to gratitude for the blessings you have and a larger purpose for the season.

Find an activity you can do with just your spouse, or bring your children into it as well.  Donate your time at a food kitchen.  Hand out blankets, food, and hygiene kits to the homeless.  Help out at a children’s Christmas party in an impoverished part of the city.  Ring a bell for the Salvation Army.

 

I believe taking one of the items above and putting in into practice could radically transform your marriage this holiday season.  Give it a try – you never know how one little shift could change your Christmas.

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Are you looking forward to the holiday season with a sense of dread rather than joy?  Do you promise to scale back during next year’s holidays every year, just to forget that promise?  Are you tired of always fighting about money during the Christmas season?  At Restored Hope, we know this time of year can take a major toll on marriages, family, and stress levels.  We’d love to support you through one-on-one or marriage counseling services at our Ann Arbor or Novi locations.  Give us a call at 734.656.8191 today or fill out our form here to find out more about how we can help you thrive during the holidays.

Four Tips to Stop Arguments Before They Start: Travel Edition

Summer vacation season is here!.  Maybe you have a road trip, cruise, or flight to an exotic locale planned.  Vacations involve a break in the routine, high stress of deadlines and flight times, and all that extended time spent with our loved ones: a perfect recipe to set us on edge.  It can be easy to use harsh words to those around us, feel anger or frustration at not being heard, or end the trip wishing we hadn't come.

I know this from personal experience: when you’re in the middle of a fight on a vacation, it's difficult to snap back into a relaxed, vacation-ready mood.  What are the things we can do that will help us to snap back into that mindset?

Preparing for a trip in a way that prevents arguments before they even start can help you avoid these travel-related spats with your loved ones.

John Gottman, an expert on healthy couples, suggests that we can learn from past arguments in order to prevent those same fights from happening in the future.  Gottman focuses on the way we argue: how our tone of voice, personal triggers, and ways of responding when feeling threatened can take over.

Instead of finding yourself in reactionary mode during your entire vacation, take a few ideas from the list below before you leave for your trip to practice a more preventative approach.

Reflect on arguments you’ve had on vacation before and look for any trigger events.

How many times have you thought back on an argument and forgotten what started it?  It could’ve been about something as trivial as which fast food restaurant to stop at for lunch or which route to take.  But before you know it, it’s blown up into a huge dispute that highlights your insecurities or fires up anger in you.

Your strong emotional reaction in these situations may be linked to something deeper than the relatively minor event that started the fight.  It serves as a red flag of a trigger: an event that reminds you of something from your past or present to which you are particularly sensitive.  It could be that your spouse raising her voice reminds you of when your father used to yell at you and your siblings on family camping trips.  This memory can lead to feelings of fear or anger.  Perhaps your friend’s sharp words about your driving remind you of your own insecurities around your skill as a driver.  This trigger could be driven by shame or self-protection.

What are some common triggers for you?  Take some time to reflect back on past arguments you’ve had on vacations and how you felt in the midst of them.  When did something similar happen on a past vacation with family or friends?  Did you notice any shame or insecurity coming up that you felt you had to defend?  What stories in your life explain why you might be sensitive to certain issues?

Have a conversation with your travel partner about past arguments you’ve had on trips. 

Once you’ve explored your triggers in travel situations, you can more clearly communicate them to others.   Before you leave for the trip you’re going on, answer these prompts based on Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight intervention with your travel buddy.

  1. “When we argued last trip, I felt…” – List the emotions you felt.
  2. “In my experience, what happened was…” – Imagine you’re watching a movie of the event from your point of view.  What happened?
  3. “This was particularly hard for me because of…” – Explain the trigger: the past event or the experience of shame that led to your response and why you were particularly sensitive to it.
  4. “The part I played in this was…” – Name something you can take responsibility for: maybe you responded with anger and defensiveness, or you shut down emotionally.
  5. “Next time, what I can do….and what I need is…” – Identify a change you’d like to make the next time you disagree, as well as a change you’d like to ask of your partner.

While practicing this exercise, use the authentic communication formula and responses in order for both of you to feel heard and understood.  Remember – the goal isn’t to get back into arguing: it’s to understand what can set each of you off so you can know to avoid those trigger points on future trips.

Have an open conversation about expectations for the trip and come to a compromise.

We each bring our personal expectations into vacations.  For example, a husband might see the trip as a way to relax and check out of his daily life.  But his wife might look at it as an adventure and pack in as much fun and activity as she can.  Imagine this couple vacationing without having discussed their expectations first, and you can guess what might happen.

To fend off this potential disaster, talk with your loved ones about your hopes or expectations for this vacation.  Be open to compromise.  For the couple above, they could plan two day-long excursions in their vacation locale throughout the week, while reserving one day for relaxing on the beach.  You may not have the ideal vacation you had desired, but you can create a plan that cuts back on conflict and caters to everyone's ideas of fun.

Accept the fact that you will fight – and make a plan to recover and bring yourself back to fun!

Even if you understand what triggers your travel buddy and you do all the prevention you can, in reality you may still fight while you are on the trip.  Travel is high stress – there’s no getting around it. 

Instead of being surprised by fights, make a plan now for how to recover from those arguments.  You can use the above conversation prompts on the trip if needed, but it can also be helpful to remind yourself of the ways you have fun together.  Make a joke with your spouse.   Play a game with your friends in the car or on your iPhones (a friend and I tried the Heads Up! App on a trip and it was a game-changer for waiting in lines).  Create a music playlist with your family and have 30-second dance parties.

What can you plan to start now to prevent arguments on your vacations this summer?

At Restored Hope, we know that relationships are tricky, and clear communication can be the trickiest.  As you prepare for your vacations this summer, you might find that none of the ideas listed above seem probable.  You could be struggling to understand how you get triggered in these arguments.  Or  it's possible the conflict with your spouse is so tense that having a civil conversation about expectations feels like it will end in an explosion.  If these stories ring true, we’d love to help.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor and Novi based counseling office where we use principles from Gottman Method Couples Therapy to help foster authentic and loving relationships, romantic or otherwise.  Give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with us today.

How Do I Stop Myself? Seven Ways to Cope with Triggers of Addiction

Andrea is walking through the mall when she hears a familiar sound playing through the speakers.  She can’t quite make it out at first, but she notices a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.  She stops in her tracks and listens, finally making out the melody.  It hits her – this was the song she and one of her previous affair partners had called “their song.”  Flooded with emotions of fear, anxiety, longing, and dread, she turns on her heel and exits the mall at close to a sprint.

What Andrea experienced in that moment is what therapists who specialize in addiction treatment call a “trigger.”  Often sensory memories, such as the taste of a delicious meal, the smell of perfume, or seeing a beautiful view can remind you of fond memories.  However, for addicts, triggers like these can bring back thoughts, memories, or feelings that have to do with the addiction.  These triggers often cause an immediate, visceral response in the addict.  This response can be accompanied by reminders of the drug of choice.  Triggers become particularly impactful when the addict is facing stress.

If you often find yourself in a spot where you’re feeling triggered, what can you do about it?

While the ultimate goal of recovery from addiction involves identifying triggers and planning for them ahead of time, as well as reducing the effects they have, you may come across a time where you are triggered unexpectedly and wondering how to handle the ensuing emotions and memories.  Here are some ideas of what to do:

Stop and ask yourself the question: “Do I want to get well?” 

Marnie Ferree, in her book No Stones*, references the story in the Bible recorded in John 5 of a crippled man who had been waiting at the healing pool of Bethesda to wash himself in the waters.  When Jesus approaches him to heal him, He first asks him this question: Do you want to get well? 

Marnie names this as the most important question for recovering addicts, adding, “Your recovery will depend on how you answer this question on a daily basis.  Your yes will simplify many of the choices you’ll have to make.  Let your vision of sobriety and healing motivate and encourage you."

Questioning yourself in this way is a technique that comes from the theory of motivational interviewing, which has been shown in some studies to change a nicotine addict’s response to the trigger of tobacco.  It helps you to connect with the delayed consequences of your actions, rather than just being caught up in the immediate gratification that addictive behavior gives.

Practice quality self-care.

In our driven and self-motivated culture, self-care strategies are very often pushed to the side or forgotten about completely.  In fact, lack of self-care can a contributor to addictive behavior, as cravings are often worsened by stress or a desire to escape from the realities of life.

While self-care can include such activities as exercise and journaling, a self-care strategy that is particularly potent for fighting back against addiction is gratitude.  Practicing gratitude helps to slow the deprivation mentality that accompanies addiction, instead replacing it with joy in response to the good things present in your life.

Practice acceptance.

If you have struggled with addictive behaviors, your brain has been trained to respond to triggers by turning to the addictive behaviors.  Part of the reason this connection is so strong is because often, addictive behaviors met what they promised, even if it was only for a moment. Rather than shaming yourself for that tendency, offer yourself grace and remind yourself that these thoughts are normal for people in recovery.  Remind yourself that you are re-learning new patterns, and take time to engage in those new patterns right then and there.  Accepting the past and making a choice to live differently puts you in a position one step above the addiction, as you reclaim your power and strength over the behaviors.

Engage with your desires.

Often, the underlying cause of addictive behaviors is a desire to fulfill a legitimate need, but the fulfillment is carried out in a way that is destructive.  The acronym HALT is often used with addiction: that triggers are more likely to affect you if you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.  Instead of choosing to run to addiction, take some time to slow down, name the desire (even if it’s just for a delicious meal!), and find ways to meet that desire in a healthy way.  For sex and love addicts, the underlying desire behind addictive behaviors is often intimacy and connection, which is why relationships with others in 12-Step groups or therapy groups can often provide a healthy way to meet that desire.  For Christians, engaging with desire can look like connecting with God in prayer, naming the desires you have, and seeking to trust him with the desires not yet met.

Reach out to your social support.

If you are in recovery, it is important to link yourself up with people who can support you and who know the whole story.  While this support network may begin with just your therapist, your therapist will likely encourage you to join a 12-Step group (like Sex Addicts Anonymous) or support group in order to find others with whom you can empathize and receive help.  If you notice a trigger, call your sponsor or a trusted friend from your support network to be able to talk you through it or be with you in it.  The most effective way to interrupt your addictive cycle is to talk through it with someone.

Take a mindful moment.

Mindfulness helps you to re-center yourself on the present moment, rather than getting caught up in memories of the past or desires for the future.  Practicing mindfulness forces you to slow down, pay attention to your emotions, and acknowledge what you’re experiencing.  It also helps you to identify how your thoughts and actions are being influenced by those emotions.  Take some time to practice this grounding exercise that engages your senses: notice five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you smell, and one thing you taste in the environment around you.

Use affirmations to remind yourself of truth.

As you begin to walk through recovery, you’ll realize how your self-image and negative core beliefs about yourself have influenced your behavior as well as your response to triggering events.  Find words that you can repeat to yourself in the moments where you feel weakest that are in direct contrast to the negative self-talk you use in moments where you are triggered.  These statements can be something along the lines of “I am strong enough to overcome this” or “I am loved.”  Scripture can be used as affirmations as well, with verses such as Philippians 4:13 (“I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” NLT) or Psalm 23:1 (“The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” NLT)

 

Ultimately, you will not be able to avoid or eliminate triggers altogether in your recovery from addiction.  You cannot control the sights, sounds, and smells that are around you on a daily basis.  What you can do instead is learn to cope with those triggers and put supports in place so that when you are facing a trigger, you know how to best handle it.

 

If you’ve been fighting back against triggers toward sex and love addiction for a long time, or if you are realizing you don’t have the support system in place to handle those triggers that come up, I am here to help.  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling in Ann Arbor, where I specialize in treating sex and love addiction.  I’d love to help you on your journey of recovery to find freedom and healing from addictive behaviors.  To hear more about how I can support you, give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to contact me.

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Be Where You Are: 4 Ideas to Consider When You're Feeling Down

Ever have a day where you absolutely feel in a funk, and you can’t for the life of you figure out why?

I had a day like that in recent history that stands out in my mind.  I ended up unable to complete any tasks I had set out for that day, completely checked out, feeling down for what seemed like no apparent reason.  I tried all my tools for cheering myself up, but nothing seemed to work.

I had gotten enough sleep the night before, so that couldn’t be it. I had a very light workday on Monday, so it wasn’t that I was so burned out from work.  What could it be?

It wasn’t until I took a moment to stop and think back that I actually was able to feel the fog slightly lift.  Here’s some of the things I had to realize:

Find your trigger event.

I had to think back to when I first started to feel down in the dumps.  What was I thinking or experiencing?  I realized a big trigger moment was a text I had received from a friend that increased my stress and worry level.  I had to choose to set a boundary with this friend, even though it was uncomfortable to say no.  I had to make some decisions about the words I was going to say to be polite yet firm.  This was emotionally taxing, and I felt the discomfort as an aftereffect the rest of the day.

Check your energy level.

I also realized that this was a Monday.  And not just any Monday – a Monday after I had just started a second part-time job that had me work a total of 22 hours over three days.  It didn’t help that those hours were revealed to me Friday morning, so I was unable to prepare for the busy weekend during the week.  The job required me to stand a lot, as well as learn a lot of new tasks that I hadn’t done before.  Once I realized each of those aspects, I saw how my body had been affected by my work hours and was feeling the effects.

Assess self-care.

I also had to think about self-care.  Each week I try to do a “Sabbath,” or a day off of work where I spend time caring for my spiritual health and well-being, as well as my emotional and mental health.  I typically spend that time recharging alone through reading and journaling, and connecting with close friends.  Even if I can’t feasibly spend an entire day on a Sabbath, I like to prioritize at least setting aside an afternoon and evening to rest.   None of that was able to happen due to my unknown work schedule, however, and because of that I knew I wasn’t able to give myself the rest I needed.

So what am I to do, if I can’t snap out of the funk?

Knowing this didn’t immediately make it better.  I still felt in a funk, although knowing why did have its benefits so I could be aware of it potentially happening again.

What I had to do was this: accept it.

I had to acknowledge that all those factors listed above put me in a place where I was not my best self, and accept the limitations that came with that.  I chose to spend the rest of the day resting and doing tasks that weren’t too energy draining, scheduling unfinished tasks to be completed the next day. 

And by the next day, I had snapped out of it.  I was able to complete the tasks I needed to, and learned to take a break when I need one.  The best part is knowing that I can use this in the future when I feel that funk coming on: figure out what the triggers are, and make a priority of taking care of myself.

 

Do you often find yourself in a funk and have a hard time getting out of it?  You may be struggling with depression.  Good news?  We can help.  Contact Restored Hope, a Novi and Ann Arbor-based counseling office, to talk with a therapist who can help you experience freedom from depression.  Call us at 734.656.8191 to schedule your first appointment or fill out the form here.  We'd love to talk with you!