Serving the City of Raleigh and Surrounding Areas

Author: Kimberley L. Benton Psy.D. (Page 2 of 3)

Review: Trauma and Recovery

I’ve recently been reading Judith Herman’s classic book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. It has completely changed how I view the world of trauma as well as the therapist’s role in healing the trauma. As a clinician, I hear of the struggle people have to move past the violence that has impacted their lives. I carry awful stories, but I didn’t have to live those stories. My clients did.

One of the most important and disturbing parts of Dr. Herman’s book was how limited the research had been (and to some degree continues to be). The first half of this book explores the theory behind abuse and reviews the research that had been done up to 1992 when this book was first published. Like Herman, I was shocked to see how much of the literature focused on the characteristics of the victim of abuse, rather than on the perpetrator. Hotaling and Sugarman (1986) said it best: “The search for characteristics of women that contribute to their own victimization is futile . . . It is sometimes forgotten that men’s violence is men’s behavior. As such, it is not surprising that the more fruitful efforts to explain this behavior have focused on male characteristics. What is surprising is the enormous effort to explain male behavior by examining characteristics of women.” This was among the many quotes, stories and insights this book provided that not only helped me but I believe would be so helpful to clients. Unfortunately, this book is inappropriate for clients in so many other ways. The stories it includes from survivors of trauma, which are so helpful for clinicians, could be truly damaging for someone in the midst of trying to find their own way through trauma. Also, the second half of the book, focused on the recovery process, while useful for clients is probably of most use to a clinician who would understand how to apply the concepts to each individual.

So, I highly recommend this book for any clinician, whether you specialize in trauma or not. But I would urge extreme caution in recommending this book to a client. The insights a therapist could gain from this book are invaluable. You will learn something that will make you a better helper for your clients who have experienced trauma.

Father Hunger: The Importance of the Father Daughter Relationship

“Father hunger is a deep, persistent desire for emotional connection with the father that is experienced by all children.” – Margo Maine, Ph.D.

Any female can tell you that her father has had a huge impact on her life, either by presence or by absence. For those lucky enough to have a positive relationship with their dads, where they feel loved and respected, life is good. These girls go on to have healthy relationships with men later in life and have more self-confidence than girls who have a negative relationship with their fathers. And it’s pretty easy to understand what can happen to girls whose fathers were verbally, physically, or sexually abusive. But what about the girls who grew up with a father who was physically present, but emotionally absent. These men tend to by highly educated with well paying, powerful jobs that take a lot of time. They probably attend their daughters’ games, recitals, and practices but may spend more time on their Blackberries than watching their child. There is an appearance of involvement without the emotional connection. Their daughters probably achieve great things, but feel like it doesn’t matter, like they are invisible. It’s not that these dads don’t care about their daughters. In all likelihood these fathers would be heartbroken if they knew their daughters felt this way. It is simply that they don’t know how to interact with their daughters. So why does this happen?

There are some seriously damaging myths about fatherhood in our society. Dads should be the breadwinner, they should be the decision makers, and they don’t get emotional. Probably the most harmful to both dads and their children is that fathers aren’t important as parents. This view is starting to change but it is still difficult for men to step up as fathers when they become the butt of jokes for doing it. Simple things, like the difficulty of finding a diaper bag that doesn’t seem too feminine, contribute to this difficulty. Now, some of you may be thinking, who cares about the diaper bag and the reality is no one does really, but it is a subtle message from society that it is the woman’s job to raise the child. And dads feel alienated, which leads to emotional withdrawal and eventually emotional absence. This is not okay – Fathers are important! Research has shown that girls with solid relationships with their fathers have a reduced chance of developing an eating disorder, less depression and anxiety, and are less likely to become involved in abusive relationships. This is too important to allow the distance to grow.

Unfortunately, many men have difficulty connecting with their children on an emotional level because their dads didn’t know how. It’s no ones fault, we just aren’t very good at teaching men about connecting with others. So, I’m guessing the men reading this might be thinking, “Great so I’m screwing up my daughter but I don’t know how to do it differently.” First, just the fact that you took the time to read this says you want to do it differently. And the reality is that a few simple steps (see blog on simple vs. easy) can make a huge difference in your daughter’s life. So here’s some ideas:

1) If you’re a new father, get involved with the care and feeding of your baby. Learn which diapers fit the best, which food your child prefers, and which stuffed animal is the favorite. This will start to build the emotional bond early in life. Think of this information as a map – the more you know the more detailed the map the better you’ll see your child.

2) If you have school aged children, attend parent teacher conferences, get in the rotation to take your child to school or pick her up. Use that time to talk to her and listen to what happened during her day. Learn the names of her teachers, friends, principal, friends parents, and the lunch lady for that matter. Does it take energy, absolutely. Is it worth it? You better believe it.

3) Have special father-daughter days or activities. Pick a favorite restaurant, park, or movie and go together. Tell mom to back off – this is your special time with your daughter (and mom should have her own anyway).

4) Know the names of your child’s doctor, babysitter, and school and have these numbers programmed into your phone.

5) And this is the most important – take five minutes out of each and every day to tell your daughter how much you love her and how special she is to you. She craves that recognition and you will love the look on her face when she gets it.

As a father, you have the ability to change your daughter’s life for the better. It will take work on your part, but it will be the best job you ever had.

“Certain is it that there is no kind of affection so purely angelic as of a father to a daughter.” – Joseph Addison

Further Reading: Father Hunger: Father, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness by Margo Maine, Ph.D.

Mommy Survivor

Soon after Mother’s Day I received an email from my cousin that made me laugh and then made me really sad. Here’s the email and then I’ll explain what I mean:

Six married men will be dropped on an island with one car and 3 kids each for six weeks. Each kid will play two sports and take either music or dance classes.

There is no fast food.

Each man must take care of his 3 kids; keep his assigned house clean, correct all homework, complete science projects, cook, do laundry, and pay a list of ‘pretend’ bills with not enough money. In addition, each man will have to budget enough money for groceries each week.

Each man must remember the birthdays of all their friends and relatives,
and send cards out on time–no emailing.

Each man must also take each child to a doctor’s appointment, a dentist appointment
and a haircut appointment.

He must make one unscheduled and inconvenient visit per child to the Emergency Room.

He must also make cookies or cupcakes for a school function.

Each man will be responsible for decorating his own assigned house, planting flowers outside, and keeping it presentable at all times.

The men will only have access to television when the kids are asleep and all chores are done.

The men must:
shave their legs,
wear makeup daily,
adorn themselves with jewelry,
wear uncomfortable yet stylish shoes,
keep fingernails polished, and eyebrows groomed.

During one of the six weeks, the men will have to endure severe abdominal cramps, backaches, headaches, have extreme, unexplained mood swings but never once complain or slow down from other duties.

They must attend weekly school meetings and church, and find time at least once to spend the afternoon at the park or a similar setting.

They will need to read a book to the kids each night and in the morning, feed them,
dress them, brush their teeth and comb their hair by 7:30 am.

A test will be given at the end of the six weeks, and each father will be required to know all of the following information: each child’s birthday, height, weight, shoe size, clothes size, doctor’s name, the child’s weight at birth, length, time of birth, and length of labor, each child’s favorite color, middle name, favorite snack, favorite song, favorite drink, favorite toy, biggest fear, and what they want to be when they grow up.

The kids vote them off the island based on performance.

The last man wins only if he still has enough energy to be intimate with his spouse
at a moment’s notice.

Now, those women out there reading this will find this hillarious. Those men out there reading this are possibly somewhat offended. And thus begins the battle of the sexes as set up by society. The truth of the matter is that it has largely become the woman’s job to take care of the emotional side of family relationships as well as the logistical side of family life. I know many men will say, well that’s because I work, but the reality now is that women also work, often full time, outside of the family. And thus begins the battle of the sexes in couples therapy. It is happening more and more often that couples enter marriage therapy because the wife has simply collapsed under the enormous pressure of maintaining family life. This battle over whose “job” taking care of the family is has created a divide between men and women. Some women thrive in this type of environment. They spend their time planning family outings, making family meals, and attending school functions – it gives them energy. Other women attempt to do all of these things and feel like utter failures when they are exhausted by the end of the day. This is because we all have different talents and strengths. Notice I said different, not better. The truth of the matter is that if you’re a mom and doing all of the things in this email makes you feel fulfilled and full of energy, that’s great. The problem occurs when you’re a mom and you feel completely drained and empty after doing all of these things. That means you need help and you will need a partner who supports that need for help, even if society doesn’t. Otherwise, you and your partner will end of in my office, or divorce court. That’s what makes the funny sad.

Big Ben

Anyone who listens to the radio, watches TV, or reads the paper has probably heard about the issues surrounding Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the issues regarding a possible sexual assault he perpetrated on a young woman in Georgia. You probably have also heard that he will not be facing charges for this but that the NFL is considering some sanctions. On my drive to work this morning I heard a discussion of this very subject that made my blood run cold. The DJs on the station were discussing their views, a male and female thought Big Ben should be fired due to his public standing. The other male on the show was infuriated and believed that since no charges were being filed the NFL should not be involved at all. Several issues came up – the fact that this is actually the second time Roethlisberger has been accused of this type of crime, comparisons to Tiger Woods recent issues, and the idea that the young woman must be lying since the charges were dropped. This last piece is what made me so sad and scared for other women who may have experienced a sexual assault. What makes it even worse – it was put forth by a female caller to the station. There are so many myths about sexual assault in our culture that make it nearly impossible for a woman to feel able to report a crime and often leads to victim blaming and perpetrator worship.

One of the most commonly put forth theory on women who accuse famous people of sexual assault is that these women are lying to get money from the superstar. Unfortunately, the media has made a huge deal out of the two or three cases like this in the past decade of so, leading people to believe that this is the norm rather than the exception. No woman, I repeat, NO woman would want to make something like this up if she knew what the consequences would be for her. Going through a sexual assault trial is akin to being reassaulted. You will have to tell the story of your assault multiple times with a defense lawyer questioning every detail that you provide, hoping you’ll get confused about the details of what was most likely the most horrific experience of your life. If your case has made it to trial you have probably endured highly shaming examinations involving hair removal and pictures and met with dozens of police officers who may or may not have believed you. And heaven forbid there was any use of drugs or alcohol prior to your assault or that you may have had sexual contact with the perpetrator, or any other person, in the past.

The reality of this is that women who are assaulted avoid pressing charges because they know what will happen to them. Seventy-five percent of the assaults that occur are perpetrated by someone the woman knows and most likely has been intimate with in the past. Alcohol is the most popular date-rape drug available. And officials estimate that approximately 85% of assaults go unreported. I constantly hear women who have never been assaulted say, “If someone did that to me, I would go after him with everything in my power.” Unfortunately, these women usually don’t understand the results of a sexual assault. They don’t recognize that women who have been assaulted feel they have no power and that something they did most likely caused the assault to happen anyway. We as a society do not support the survivors of assaults by providing them safe places to make reports and then believing them when it happens. And when the case makes it to trial, we require that the victim revictimize herself in order for the perpetrator to most likely be found not guilty. I have spent years working with victims of sexual assault, trying to show them that making bad decisions does not allow someone to rape them. Rape is not a physical crime, so much as a destruction of another person’s soul. And our society makes that okay when we label the victims as liars or sluts or drunks and celebrate their famous perpetrators.

Making Peace with Women’s Bodies

After too long of an absence, one of my clients finally broke my writer’s block. Unfortunately, this experience is so common among women there’s no way confidentiality will even be threatened by my sharing this. My client expressed her deep seated fear that if she gained weight, people would no longer like her and would even abandon her. This idea was based on her observations that being thin is what leads to happiness. Some of you may be asking yourselves, “where could she have possibly gotten this ide.” Some of you are nodding your heads in agreement because you too have seen the numerous ads for weight loss aids, diet foods, Lean Cuisine, and even chocolate that shows thin, happy people generally having a good time. Day in and day out, we are inundated with these types of ads from the time that we can watch TV. We are taught that some foods are “good” and that others, typically the ones people want to eat, are “bad.” At the same time, any advertisement for food on TV involves a thin woman sensually enjoying whatever it is that she’s eating and ravenously looking for more. Women are trapped. Food is both the enemy and the replacement for a sexual relationship.

What if, instead of this confusing food landscape, we were raised on a planet where food was simply food, neither good nor bad and in no way a replacement for sex? Would women, and in reality men, have such a conflicted relationship with women’s bodies? The surprise of this is that we do live on this planet – food is simply food, neither good nor bad. We can’t have a relationship with food that will replace our intimate relationships with others. The difference is that we have commercials, magazines, and even some television shows that tell us otherwise. Maybe it’s time to start listening to our own wisdom again. Maybe it’s time our rational brains were invited back to the party. Instead of looking for comfort in that Snikcers bar or bag of Doritos, look for it in those people in your life that you can trust. Instead of trying to gain control of your hectic schedule with mac and cheese, try saying no to some of the things in your life that are actually creating the hectic schedule. Simple, right? Absolutely! Easy? Well, that’s a different story. It takes constant mental aerobics for women and men to remind themselves what is real for a woman’s body. Whether or not we use them for this purpose or not (which by the way, is the woman’s choice), women’s bodies are built to create and sustain life. That takes fat, hips, and breasts. It’s time we started to remember that and stopped bombarding women and men with unrealistic images and ideas about bodies and food. Women really do come with curves, and those curves are beautiful, in whatever form they take. That should be respected, not derided.

Mommy Olympics

I’ve been wondering lately what it is about being a mom that makes people feel the need to judge and ultimately belittle other moms. It is almost inevitable that if you put a group of moms together they will start judging and criticizing any other mom within viewing distance, including the ones on TV, in magazines, and in movies. There is a never ending tirade of can’t win for trying-isms, I could do it better-isms, and what was she thinking-isms. The victims of this assault may be famous (Kate Gosslin or Octomom, which in itself is a horrendous name) or personal (your crazy cousin or the neighbor down the street who has the audacity to let her kids ride their big wheels helmet free). It doesn’t matter what the offense is – it could be something as benign as not pureeing organically homegrown veggies rather than buying Gerber. Has the mentality of becoming “mother of the year” erased our reason? Shouldn’t we be supporting one another rather than tearing each other down? In the process of preparing for my group for new moms, I’m reading a great book – The Mommy Myth by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels. This book focuses on how the media skews our views of motherhood and creates a “new momism” that is harmful to both stay at home moms and working moms and that probably keeps us from being our best selves in either locale. This excerpt from the from the introduction sums up motherhood as a competitive sport:

“Intensive mothering is the ultimate female Olympics: We are all in powerful competition with each other, in constant danger of being trumped by the mom down the street, or in the magazine we’re reading. The competition isn’t just over who’s a good mother – it’s over who’s the best. We compete with each other; we compete with ourselves. the best mothers always put their kids’ needs before their own, period. The best moehters are the main caregivers. For the best mothers, their kids are the center of the universe. The mothers always smile. They always understand. They are never tired. They never lose their temper. They never say, “Go to the neighbor’s house and play while Mommy has a beer.” Their love for their children is boundless, unflagging, flawless, total. Mothers today cannot just respond to their kids’ needs, they must predict them – and with the telepathic accuracy of Houdini. They must memorize verbatim the books of all the child-care experts and know which approaches are developmentally appropriate at different ages. They are supposed to treat their two-year-olds with “respect.” If mothers screw up and fail to do this on any given day, they should apologize to their kids, because any misstep leads to permanent psychological and/or physical damage. Anyone who questions whether this is *the* necessary way to raise kids is an insensitive, ignorant brute. This is just common sense, right?”

If you find yourself nodding your head in agreement rather than picking up on the sarcasm, you’re missing the point. The point being, that the Olympic scale competition between moms keeps us from connecting to the best support we have – each other. Husbands try to understand (sometimes), our own moms have experienced similar things (to some degree), and our non-parent friends can sympathize (but not empathize). The Judgment Games keep moms from connecting with other moms in a meaningful way because they know what will happen if they show weakness – the other mom will win. Unfortunately, there are no medals for parenthood. We can’t measure the greatness of a mom based on her ability to prepare a perfectly balanced, home cooked meal in 5 minutes or less. We can only look at her children and love they show her as they share fish sticks and mac & cheese out of a blue box, with no vegetable in sight. Moms aren’t meant to be perfect; they’re meant to be moms. As the Olympics wind up this year, maybe it’s time to have closing ceremonies for the Mommy Olympics as well. Maybe we could actually enjoy our children if that happened.

Ambiguous Loss

For so many women pregnancy and delivery proceed as planned. They never have a need to read the section of the pregnancy book about c-sections and other complications. They never know the fear associated with a child being placed in NICU (Newborn ICU) and they never have to worry about later consequences. For other women, nothing quite goes as planned. There are unforeseen complications during pregnancy like gestational diabetes or high blood pressure. There are complications during delivery, like failure to progress and wrapped cords. And for some women there are complications after birth that result in days, weeks, and even months spent with a child in NICU. A difficult pregnancy and delivery, followed by feeding difficulties are the biggest predictors of Post-Partum Depression or “the baby blues.” Even when the pregnancy is normal, 80% of women will experience at least some depressive symptoms following birth. Having experienced a difficult delivery myself, my heart broke when I learned that the woman who played matchmaker for my husband and me in high school had given birth nearly two months early. A few weeks ago, she was brave enough to share a few words about her experience. She discusses the idea of “ambiguous loss” in regards to premature birth. I have a feeling many women who had a less than perfect pregnancy and delivery can relate to her words and I felt they needed to be shared. Thank you Becky, for your strength in allowing me to share your story so that others may find some healing as well.

“Hm, I just read an article on regarding “ambiguous loss” in regards to premature birth, and it kind of made me ponder my feelings about Blake’s premature birth. Of course the birth of any baby is a celebration of life, but when the birth involves a premature baby, the mother suffers the loss of her full pregnancy. And how exactly do you grieve the loss of something that can’t be touched, can’t be quantified, only felt, only imagined? No pregnant woman in this world plans to have a premature baby (unless of course her doctor has advised that the probability is high). I certainly wasn’t and until it happens to you, you have no idea how you will feel afterwards. I have said to many different people that I felt I was robbed of a normal, healthy pregnancy and birth experience. I didn’t get to hear my baby cry until a week after his birth because I was under full anesthesia and he was intubated. I didn’t get to hold my baby right after he was born, and I was scared to even touch him for fear of disturbing him. Some mothers have been in similar situations, and others have it far worse. My heart goes out to all of them. Some of the small and simple things are the ones we all take for granted. Throughout our whole experience I have made the most of our birth experience, because it is ours and I have seen that no two are the same. It has been hard, I can’t deny it. But every day I remind myself that it could be a lot worse…I have a beautiful, healthy baby boy and I am grateful for all the love and support our family has received and for the exceptional care Blake and I received at Women’s Hospital. . It could have been better, for sure, but it could have been a whole lot worse…and I thank my lucky stars every day that it wasn’t.”


In honor of the start of my new group for new moms. I wanted to take the next couple of weeks to talk about some issues that are central to the moms in our lives. The purpose of this new therapy group is to give moms a place to gather where they can talk about the adjustments they are having to make to being a new mom. Motherhood has so many meanings in our culture that it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where you fit in. What do you want your place as a mother to look like? As the mom of an amazing three year old, I can tell you that there have been times with my other mom friends and myself have all questioned out mothering abilities. Does the fact that my daughter refuses to wear her coat to go to the car make me a bad mom? Does the fact that my friend’s son fell off the swing at the park while she was talking to another mom mean Child Protective Services is on the way? Of course not, but all of these small “failures” of mothering add up over time to one huge case of Mommy Guilt.

No mother ever believes that she is good enough for her child. Some children are easier to deal with than others and make some moms look better in public than others. But I can guarantee that every mother on the planet knows the feeling of shame associated with the first time you actually raise your voice above that high-pitched twinkle we usually use with our children. And why? Is it because parents should never raise their voices towards their children? That’s just not realistic. Is yelling the best way to deal with children? No, but sometimes it just happens. No matter how many imperfect moms grace our television sets (Rosanne, Marge, Kate) the ideal of Donna Reid still exists. There is some part of most moms that feels guilty for leaving their child at daycare while mom works or, heaven forbid, doesn’t have to work and can do other things with her time, like clean the house, do the laundry, cook the dinners, and run the never ending list of errands that go into being a stay at home mom. This myth of the perfect mom who always has the right snacks hot out of the oven when the whole neighborhood of children arrives at her doorstep is perpetuated by every commercial, television show, and most movies.

Why can’t we as mother’s cut ourselves a break? Maybe it should start with our own judgments of the parenting skills of others. That’s right – I’m talking to you. We all do it. We see the 5 year old walking through the mall with a paci and think, “What kind of a mom . . .” Recently there was a news story featured on Yahoo where a mother of 6 planned her meals for an entire year. Were the comments at the end of the story impressed by her planning skills? No. Each and every comment made some sort of dig at either the food she had chosen to serve her family or the fact that she carried her child during the interview. Now, could her menu have been more healthy – absolutely. Was she serving anything to her family that I haven’t fed to mine – nope. It’s time to let go of our own guilt at not being the perfect mom, so that we can let other women be the best moms they can be. Perpetuating the myth that there is some magical right way to be a mom by putting other mothers down, comparing ourselves to the make believe moms in Walmart commercials, and denigrating our own skills is not only harmful to us, but harmful to our daughters who may one day grow up to be moms themselves. The next time someone tells you what a great mom you are – listen and then say thank you. You’re a mom, you’ve earned a little credit.

Further reading: The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels

We’re Gonna Make a Resolution

So it’s that time of year again when everyone makes big plans for what they want to accomplish in the new year and then quickly ditch them for the easier, less stressful, more practical, or simply realistic way of life. That’s right, it’s time to make and then break those New Year’s Resolutions. So why make a resolution if we know we’re just going to break them? The number of answers to this abound – it gives us motivation, it sets a goal for the year, it helps us focus on ourselves for a change, etc. So then why do we break them within a few days of making them? The issue isn’t that we don’t try to stick to our pledge to never even look at a cigarette ad again or to finally lose those last 10 lbs. of baby weight. The issue is that because we feel so gung-ho to make changes in those first few days we often make the changes too big and too fast to stick. Think of it this way, if your goal is to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet that’s great and healthy. But, if your a person who doesn’t even know where they keep the fruits and veggies at the grocery store, this is going to be a huge challenge for you. You will most likely need to think about how to build up to your goal in steps rather than starting with your 5 fruits and veggies a day on January 1. So here are some tips for making and hopefully keeping your resolutions for more than a few days.

* Make sure that your resolution is actually attainable. If your goal is to reach your healthy weight but you’re over 100lbs overweight, you will most likely not reach this goal by year’s end (regardless of what the Biggest Loser did) and then feel frustrated. So keep in mind what is really realistic to accomplish in the time period that you have.

* In addition, if you’re making a large goal for yourself, you will most likely need to break it down into smaller steps and set mini deadlines for those goals. For instance if you want to eat better decide what steps would be involved in that for you. Maybe the first step is to lay off the fast food, so set a goal to not eat fast food for 2 weeks. Your next step might be to eat leaner meat, so use the next 2 weeks to add chicken and fish to your diet. Keep making and meeting these small goals until you reach “better eating.”

* While we’re talking about these small goals, it would be worth mentioning that the big goals probably need some defining. Our resolutions often tend to be broad sweeping statements like “I’m going to lose weight,” “I’m going to eat better,” “I’m going to do better with my money.” But we never really decide what each of these things look like – how much weight do you want to lose, what does “eat better” look like, what does do “better” with money mean? Without a clear picture of what your goal really is you’ll never be able to make the smaller steps or even really know if you’ve met your goal.

* So, you’ve chosen an attainable resolution, clearly defined it in a measurable way, and set smaller goals if your resolution is too big to handle in a few days. Now what happens when life happens and you don’t actually stick to those smaller steps? Well, nothing really. For a lot of people this is the end of the road and the attempts to make changes are over. They tell themselves, “I’ll never be able to . . . ” When really, all you need to do is just pick up where you left off. Did you fall off the cigarette wagon? That’s fine, take an objective look at what happened that led to smoking and make a plan for if that happens again. Then toss those new cigarettes in the trash with the old ones and re-resolve to quit.

* Now lets say that for some reason, you just cannot stick to your resolution. Maybe you need to look at whether you really want to do what you’ve chosen. Do you really believe that you should add more fiber to your diet? If not then maybe you chose the wrong thing to work on at this point. That’s fine, sometimes we choose stuff because we think it sounds good or because our doctor/spouse/friends/kids think we should. Maybe your real desire is to save enough money to finally take that trip to Paris, not to exercise 3 times a week. That’s great – DO IT!!!

It’s that time of year again – time to toast a new year and a new decade this time around, make grand plans for what we will do in the new year, and then quickly realize we don’t care that much about vacuuming every weekend. The new year is a great time to think about the things in our lives that we want to change, but maybe it could also be a time to give ourselves credit for all the things we already “do right.” Maybe instead of resolving to change yourself, you can resolve to reward yourself and give yourself some credit for the things you already do. Happy New Year and here’s to a content 2010.


On a recent flight, I sat beside one of the most anxious people I have ever been around. By the time we landed, I thought I was going to have a panic attack. Not only was she miserable for most of the flight, but she was rude to her husband and definitely didn’t make my flight enjoyable. Now, I know some people are petrified of flying – some people are also scared of snakes, spiders, heights, or clowns. However, we also tend to do things to try to calm ourselves that only make the situation worse. Anxiety is an emotional response but it has very physical components. Often people feel short of breath, heart racing, palms sweating, shakiness, nausea, and light headedness. At the same time, what you often see people do when they start feeling anxious is to hold their breath, wring their hands, shake their legs, and squeeze their eyes closed as tightly as possible. The only thing these coping strategies will accomplish is to increase the anxiety you are experiencing. So in honor of the most anxious woman in the air – and in hopes of saving myself from another uncomfortable plane ride – here are some tips and tricks for decreasing anxiety. You never know, they might come in handy battling all the holiday shoppers.

1. BREATH!! For goodness sakes, take a breath already. It is amazing how often I see someone who is feeling anxious holding their breath or taking very shallow breaths. When you’re trying to decrease your anxiety, you want to take a breath so deep that your stomach expands. Two or three breaths like this and you should start to feel less anxious. Warning – don’t do it too much or you’ll make yourself hyperventilate. Think back to the advice your high school teacher gave before your presentation – take two cleansing breaths. That’s really all this is. Some people like to incorporate imagery and imagine they are blowing out their anxiety when they exhale. Some people think that’s cheesy – but laughter reduces anxiety too so cheese it up.

2. Sit still! All that jittering, jumping, and shaking plays right into the anxiety. Some people say that it releases energy, but if you really think about the action of shaking your leg, for instance, it takes a great deal of muscle tension to move your leg that fast. Muscle tension is a common symptom of anxiety, so doing something that will make you tense and will only increase your anxiety.

3. Live in the present. A lot of the reason people experience anxiety is because they get stuck in the what ifs of the future. I’m sure the woman on the plane was imagining the fireball she would become when the plane crashed. A good technique for being mindful of your current situation is to literally think only about the things your are currently experiencing – feel the furniture you’re sitting on, what do you smell, hear, in some cases taste. Combine this with the breathing and you’re on your way to relaxation.

4. Do not self medicate with alcohol or other drugs. One way to make anxiety worse the next time you have it is to avoid whatever it is that’s making you anxious now. So, if like my plane ride partner, you are afraid of flying the best way to guarantee a stronger anxiety response the next time you have to fly is to avoid this flight. Drinking and taking drugs is a way to avoid. It numbs your feelings and keeps you from being fully present. Your anxiety might be higher the first time you try this exposure but it will go down over time – and you won’t be broke from buying those little airplane bottles.

5. Lay off the caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant. That means that it will mimic the things that are going to happen in your body when you’re anxious, especially if you don’t usually drink caffeine.

Now, if you are one of those people who has extreme anxiety that interferes with your ability to live your life, for example, keeping you from going to work, spending time with friends, or taking care of yourself on a daily basis, then you need to see a therapist. These tips will help you a little, but you’ll need much longer exposures to the things that make you anxious and will probably need to learn about how your anxiety came to exist to start with. You will also need more intensive forms of relaxation. You may also need medication in order to manage your anxiety, which should be monitored by a psychiatrist in conjunction with therapy. I hope these tips can help you the next time you have some event that makes you feel nervous. And please, if you’re going to be on the same flight as me – take a breath already!

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