Pregnancy and Postpartum · Anxiety

Postpartum Anxiety and Feelings of Overwhelm

It may seem that being overwhelmed is just a given. You’re up to your eyeballs in dirty diapers and wet burp clothes. You can’t remember the last time you had more than a few hours of rest. What even is breakfast? You run on a steady stream of coffee and fistfuls of cheerios. When you put this all together, postpartum anxiety (PPA) and feeling overwhelmed seems to be par for the course.

If being overwhelmed or anxious has been your experience for the past few weeks (or months, or years), it is not fair and it’s not okay. It does not have to be like this. Postpartum is not meant to be a painful or miserable time. If you’re struggling with PPA (or similar symptoms), here are some tips to help.

Know the Signs of Postpartum Anxiety

Postpartum mental health gets overlooked because so many of its symptoms are normalised. Unfortunately, because having a new baby comes with lots of questions, PPA can get mistaken as “normal” adjustments to parenthood. Someone out there has claimed it is acceptable that you are this tired and irritable and anxious.

Yes, it’s normal to have questions and worries. This is part of being human, and certainly a part of being a new parent. However, it’s not normal to have these worries keep you up at night, cause conflict with your partner, or make you avoid time with the baby. Anxiety is only considered “normal” when it’s within your capacity to address it (a.k.a. your window of tolerance).

Postpartum anxiety is a genuine illness that requires attention and help. Here are the symptoms to look for:

  • Inability to stop worrying
  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty with sleep or appetite
  • Difficulty with focus and concentration
  • Inability to rest or relax
  • Feeling on edge
  • Panic attacks
  • Irritability or rage
  • Physical cues: tightness, tension, dizziness, nausea, hot flashes

One quick way for you to check about the severity of your postpartum anxiety is through the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale. This is a screening tool that is used to identify postpartum mental health struggles (including PPA). Specifically, any score above 12 on this depression scale indicates a high probability of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.

Three quick grounding techniques

If you’re struggling with overwhelming anxiety, you likely want these feelings to calm down ASAP. Here are three quick grounding techniques that can help reduce the panic and overwhelm.

1. Butterfly Hug

The Butterfly Hug is a popular technique used in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to quickly settle your body and mind.

Why it’s helpful:

  • Does not require much thinking: This approach does not need you to think through things calmly. You don’t have to “logic” your way out.
  • Helps your brain process in a unique way: EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to activate both your left and right hemisphere while addressing extreme anxieties, traumatic memories, or distressing events
  • Activates your parasympathetic nervous system (the parts of your brain needed for relaxing)
  • Reduces your cortisol level (a.k.a. your stress hormones)
  • You can use this strategy anywhere. It does not require any “equipment”.
The following video shows the steps of the Butterfly Hug:

2. Temperature Change

The temperature change exercise is a great strategy that comes from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. This approach triggers the mammalian dive reflex. This reflex occurs when we are submerged in ice cold water. In order to survive, our body is forced to slow down our heart rate and oxygen is only sent to key organs that are needed. Everything that is considered “non-essential” is overlooked.

Why it’s helpful:

  • Tricks your brain: Your body cannot go into “survival mode” and panic at the same time. Your heart rate is forced to slow down. Your oxygen level drops, thereby making it hard to panic.
  • Provides about 5-20 minutes of calmer thinking. This gives you some time to problem solve or find alternative coping strategies.
  • You don’t have to “think through” it to feel calmer.
The following video shows the steps of the Temperature Change technique

3. Mindful conversation with another person

Using distractions is really helpful to get through a distressing moment. However, if you cannot find a distracting enough activity, your mind tends to wander back to its original anxious thoughts. Participating in mindful conversation with another person face to face is more effective in helping you stay out of the overwhelm. Rather than focusing on the anxious thoughts, you’re turning your attention to the other person, asking and answering questions, and staying present.

Why it’s helpful?

  • When your postpartum anxiety is highly activated, your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system work overtime. Your body turns to survival strategies like fight, flight, freeze/shut down in order to cope. Social engagement, on the other hand, activates our ventral vagal pathway. This pathway tells our brain that we are in a safe and socially connected space.
  • Focusing on topics outside of your postpartum anxiety helps your system recognize that there are still safe options in your world.
  • Gives you the option to engage with someone else outside of your baby.

Working with your anxiety

So now that you’ve coped more effectively in reducing the anxiety, you may be wondering about your next steps. After all, these earlier coping strategies only resolve things for a short time. They’re not actually fixing the issue, and instead, providing brief respite. This is where the hard work of listening to our anxiety comes into effect. In order for you to gain more clarity, you will need to work with your postpartum anxiety.

Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) explains that there is always a positive intention to our worries (even though it rarely feels “positive”). It’s challenging to slow our body and mind down enough to hear what your postpartum anxiety has to say. But, we can break down the steps to better support our mental health.

Step One: Find where your anxiety is in your body.

Daniel Siegel coined the term “name it to tame it”. Basically, when you are able to find the feeling in your body and label it, you can get a bit of space from that feeling. Rather than “being” the emotion, you can observe it. So, call out what and where you are feeling things: “I am feeling scared… There is a ball of anxiety in my chest… my shoulders are feeling tense and stressed.”

Step Two: Stay curious

In this step, you will use a bit of mindfulness to approach your emotions. Now that you’ve noticed the emotion, keep your awareness on this feeling. Be aware of the thoughts, sensations, memories, and whatever else comes to mind as you focus on this feeling.

This step involves staying curious about your anxiety is telling you without judging it, trying to get rid of it, or needing it to change. Your anxiety will start to share more as you stay open to it.

As a word of caution, your anxiety may not share the nicest feedback. It may share beliefs such as: “Get me away from this baby! I can’t do this! What was I thinking? I need this to stop!” Stay aware of these thoughts so long as you are within your window of tolerance.

Step Three: Understand what your anxiety is trying to protect

IFS recognizes that our anxious parts are trying to help out in some way or form. Because they tend to communicate in harsh and overwhelming ways, it’s often difficult to understand what our anxieties are trying to achieve.

As you complete step one and two, you will start to identify what your anxiety is telling you. Then, ask yourself, what would happen if these anxious thoughts stopped? What is your anxiety trying to prevent? For example, if your anxiety is often saying, “Get me away from this baby”, what would happen if this warning was no longer present? You might presume that you’d be calmer. While that’s true, what else would happen? Would you suddenly be considered calm enough that others encourage you to parent independently? Would you spend more time with your newborn and make a mistake? What if your baby keeps screaming and you’re reminded that you’re not cut out for this whole parenting thing?

Sometimes your anxiety gets triggered, and it forces you to escape the circumstances. Your brain says, “This is too much, I can’t cope,” and you turn towards avoidance, drinking, zoning out in front of your phone or some other strategy. I’m not saying that these are effective ways to manage things. In all likelihood, this form of “self-soothing” will create new problems. But, as far as your anxiety is concerned, it is satisfied that it has reduced your distress and gotten you away from the “danger” (e.g. time alone with baby).

Step Four: Befriending

Have you seen “Beauty and the Beast”? The Beast is known for being a lousy character. He’s rude, ill-tempered, and scary. But, we see that meeting the Beast with compassion (mixed with assertive boundaries) helps him shift out into a kinder character. (For those who are cringing reading this example, humour me. It’s an analogy. I’m not trying to condone Stockholm syndrome).

In many ways, your anxiety is like the Beast. It’s loud, frightening and has awful manners. However, what happens when you approach your anxiety with compassion or confidence? Have you ever shown any desire to get to know this part of you? What happens when you acknowledge what your anxiety is actually trying to do? Imagine what it would be like to approach your anxiety by saying: “I get it… I get that you’re really scared of me making a mistake… I know this feels like the only way you can help me.” How would it respond to you?

Becoming kinder to yourself

IFS brings in a different level of self-compassion. We are not only meeting our inner system with kindness, but we’re also identifying what our anxious parts are attempting to achieve. When we treat ourselves in this manner, our anxieties will soften. These steps don’t cure postpartum anxiety. We have to address the actual issue, whether it’s the fear of making mistakes, feeling insecure about parenting, or addressing our own childhood traumas. But, meeting our anxiety in this way will reduce the overwhelm.

Curious to learn more?

Postpartum anxiety is treatable. If you found the above examples helpful in reducing your overwhelm, please let me know. If you have any questions about the above steps, or want to work with your own unique circumstances, reach out.

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

Mental Health

Preventing compassion fatigue: Simple ways to help family members struggling with their mental health

Living with someone who is suffering from a mental health problem can be challenging to say the least. Whether the individual is formally diagnosed or you’re noticing a shift in their moods, the ripple effect it has on the home is significant. One in five people are living with a mental health struggle, and with such a high occurrence rate, family members deserve some support and strategies. Compassion fatigue is a huge consequence when it comes to mental health. We care so much about a person and we give, give, give until we get to the point of feeling burnt out. It’s really scary to get to this point. As much as we’d love to continue supporting the relationship, we feel a level of caution. We question how our words will be interpreted or whether there will be repercussions in reaching out. We don’t know how to fix the situation, or make things better. Suggestions seem to be dismissed or addressed with anger. 

Compassion fatigue: Using validation to help a family member struggling with mental health

Compassion fatigue is a result of well-intentioned efforts to help our loved ones. We try as much as possible to express reassurance, but this can become disheartening after repeating the same conversation 30 times. It can feel overwhelming when you are experiencing yet another power struggle or argument. Rather than our usual supply of empathy and nurturing, we instead experience apathy and anger. While all of this might sound strange, it is natural to feel weighed down by our good intentions of helping. 

There are many ways to address compassion fatigue, and I’d like to focus on one particular strategy today. Fixing things, taking over another person’s responsibilities, being a constant cheerleader, and similar roles can lead to exhaustion. Instead, the following interpersonal and communication strategy will help your loved one feel supported, without you experiencing compassion fatigue.

Using validation

Preventing Compassion fatigue: Using validation to help family members struggling with their mental health

I had previously written about validation and how it can help us become better communicators with our loved ones. Validation is the skill of acknowledging how another person’s opinions, emotions or behaviours makes sense given the context. It means finding even a small morsel of detail that you can appreciate. For example, let’s say you arrive home from work and your partner is cantankerous. Validation involves looking at the context (perhaps a stressful day at work, time spent with the children, being caught in traffic, etc) and trying to appreciate how someone may be in a bad mood after being in this situation. Validation is NOT approval. It does not mean agreeing to what the person is saying or doing. Validation does not mean problem solving. You are not trying to come up with a solution or assess whether a situation is right or wrong. You are simply letting the other person know you get why they’re thinking or feeling a certain way. 

Why is this so important? When we validate, it helps the other person go from 100% cantankerous to perhaps 50% annoyed. For your loved one, someone has finally acknowledged that they are not wrong, bad, unintelligent (or any other negative, critical comments they think about themselves). Instead, with validation, our family members feel understood for the first time. When the individual can calm down to a 50% of emotional intensity, she/he/they may be able to problem solve independently. Alternatively, your family member may drop the issue all together because it doesn’t seem as important when the intensity goes down.

Validation does not cure the issue. You may have to validate a few times in a row before your loved one can hear your words. However, validation allows for you to have a better relationship with the person without experiencing compassion fatigue. It helps the other person feel less isolated so that they have the capacity to a) reach out for help from a professional or b) think more clearly and problem solve on their own or c) drop the issue all together if it’s not really important.

Levels of Validation

Compassion fatigue: Using validation to help a family member struggling with mental health

There are six different ways that you can validate someone. In DBT, we refer to these points as the six levels of validation. It goes from the easiest way in which you can acknowledge someone’s perspective to increasing complexity. Choose whichever skill feels right for you given your own comfort zone and your emotional capacity in that moment. 

Level One: Being Present

  • Give your undivided attention. This means putting away your phone and turning towards the person to pay attention.
  • Check in on your body language: Are you facing your family member? Do you have a defensive posture (e.g. arms crossed)? Can you maintain eye contact?  
  • Listen without providing comments. This is a tough one for those who love to “fix” and offer solutions. As you stay quiet, and show that you simply care, your family members are able to become more grounded. At this point, they are better able to problem solve and regulate on their own. If they need help, trust that they will come out and ask you directly. 
  • You’re working on the skill of being present with an intense emotion. You don’t have to do anything about the emotion other than simply letting the other person know you are not scared off by them. 

Level Two: Reflect Back 

  • This involves summarising what the person is saying. 
  • You are not guessing what the other intends to say but just repeating or paraphrasing their words 
  • By reflecting back their statement, you show that you are paying attention and care enough to clarify. 
  • Remember to use a non-judgemental tone when reflecting back.
  • E.G. “So I hear you saying that you’re angry about your test scores.”  

Level Three: Reading Minds

  •  This skill involves paying attention to facial cues and body language to help you consider how they may be experiencing the situation. 
  • Consider what you know about the person already. How would they typically feel, think or behave in this type of circumstance?
  • You will sometimes be off about your guess work, and that’s okay. The other person will correct you when this is the case. The beauty in doing validation is simply letting the other person know you are trying to hear them out. 
  • E.G. “You look a bit tired. I’m guessing the kids weren’t giving you the easiest time this afternoon.”

Level Four: Understanding based on their history 

  • Consider the person’s history or recent life events. How might these factors be affecting their perspective? 
  • What about their response makes sense given the ways in which they have grown up? 
  • If you were in these similar positions, how would you react? 
  • E.G. “Since you didn’t do as well as you had hoped on your last test, I can understand that you feel really anxious going into this exam.” 
  • E.G. “It makes sense that you’re scared to go to the store right now given that we’re in a pandemic and everyone is practising physical distancing.”

Level Five: Acknowledge the Valid

  • Consider the current context that the person is experiencing. How does their responses or emotions make sense given the situation? 
  • Valid responses are logical and fit the facts of the current situation. Your loved one is reacting in a “normal” way, and other people would be feeling, thinking or behaving similarly in the same situation. 
  • Normalize the person’s response, and explain how others would have felt, thought or behaved similarly. 
  • E.G. “I get that you were panicked in that fire. I would have also wanted to get out as quickly as possible.” 
  • E.G. “Being up all night with the baby is tough. I hear moms talk about these struggles all the time, and it’s not easy.”  

Level Six: Be Genuine

  • If you truly appreciate what the person is experiencing, express it! Don’t try to sugar coat, patronize, or fragilize the other person. Be yourself, and treat the other person as an equal. 
  • Be genuine about your empathy towards their feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. 
  • This involves being attuned to the person, and expressing that attunement via words and body language. 

When it comes to compassion fatigue, there are a lot of ways to address this difficult issue. One means of preventing compassion fatigue from taking place is shifting the relationship you have with your family members to one of support and validation. Moving away from a sense of responsibility to take care of another person or resolve their struggles can help create more space for you.

Every family is unique. If you would like to address some of the details mentioned in this post, please feel free to reach out.

Take care,

Kasi

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

Pregnancy and Postpartum · Mental Health

Unhappy relationship after a baby

Relationships are tested all the time when life throws curve balls. As much as we’d love for a new family member to bring us closer together, having a baby can actually worsen the sense of an unhappy relationship.

Working in perinatal mental health, I hear a lot of parents talking about their relationship dissatisfaction. I know they are struggling with poor communication, lack of sleep, and adjustments to new responsibilities. One parent is trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, continuing to work long hours to provide financial stability to the family. The other parent is spending hours with their infant intent on keeping their baby alive and thriving. While these goals are both compatible, it’s easy to get lost in our own perspective of what is most important or necessary. During postpartum stages, I hear parents constantly share how much they yearn to feel connected with their partners. They want the security of knowing they have their partner’s love, understanding, and support.

The Four Types of Relationship Conflicts

There are many factors that can create an unhappy relationship; however, I’ll focus on communication struggles for this post. The Gottman Institute recognizes that there are four common trends in relationship conflict, which they’ve coined “the four horsemen”. With decades of research, the Gottman Institute can confirm that the presence of these four conflict styles create and exacerbate unhappy relationships. These communication conflicts can happen to the best of us, but it’s important to recognize when it is an off-chance occurrence versus a continued pattern.

Criticism

Unhappy relationship after a baby: Things to notice, and ways to fix.
pexels-photo-984954

This type of relationship conflict involves one partner expressing criticisms about the other’s personality or defects. Often, with criticism, the angry party will state “you always-” or “you never-” or others forms of extreme language in order to highlight a partner’s inadequacies. Instead of voicing the actual complaint, the focus is instead on attacking your partner’s character to the core. Rather than stating “I feel frustrated that the dishes haven’t been washed tonight,” the angry individual will state, “you are such a lazy slob” or “you always watch TV instead of doing what you promised.” It leaves the other person, whether he or she is in the right or wrong, to feel hurt and assaulted.

Defensiveness

Unhappy relationship after a baby: Things to notice, and ways to fix.

When met with criticism, it’s natural that you wish to defend yourself. In an ideal world where our defensiveness is less heightened, we can hear a complaint, take responsibility of our actions, and apologize if necessary. Instead, the hurt partner gets angry and attacks in turn. The argument cycle continues as the other partner then feels blamed and hurt.

There are various ways in which we can become defensive:

  • attack back with a critical comment of your own “Well, they’re mostly your dishes from breakfast. What made you so lazy this morning?”
  • claim innocence “I rarely watch TV. Why are you bugging me the one time I get to sit down?”
  • express righteous indignation “I was going to do it after this show.”
  • whine “I’ve had such a long day at work. Can’t you give me a break?”

Contempt

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Contempt is the extreme version of relationship conflict. It is the highest predictor for divorce. When we are being contemptuous, we are genuinely being mean and disrespectful. This includes: name calling, using sarcasm, ridiculing, giving condescending lectures, throwing insults, eye rolling, etc. When we use this form of conflict style, it makes it hard for partners to move past our sense of disgust and superiority towards them.

Stonewalling

This form of unhappy relationship conflict involves shutting down or “becoming a stone wall” when our partners express their feelings. This means we offer zero verbal or non-verbal language in response to their comments and questions. Stonewalling is a protective mechanism that attempts to block out rather than take in our partners’ criticisms, defensiveness or contempt. The stonewaller often feels overwhelmed and unable to think clearly or know what do about the situation. Rather than face the conflict, a stonewalling partner may instead tune out, become distracted by other activities, or simply walk away.

Crap! I do some of these things! How do I fix my relationship?

Unhappy relationship after a baby: Things to notice, and ways to fix.

If you happen to fall into some of these conflict styles, don’t worry! We all have moments of falling into these conflict styles. The following suggestions are some ways to improve the situation.

Use gentle and assertive communication

I love the DEARMAN acronym from DBT to help with assertive communication. This acronym helps us make requests or say no in a confident and conflict-reduced fashion. By using a gentle and assertive approach right from the start of a conflict, there is less likelihood for your partner to feel defensive or need to attack or shut down. Speaking assertively can push some of us outside our comfort zone, especially if your tendency is to stone wall and not express your feelings or needs. However, by asking clearly and respectfully, your partner has the opportunity to hear what you would like, and have the chance to negotiate with you on terms that seem manageable for him/her/them.

D= Describe the situation. Use a brief statement that sticks with objective facts. “I noticed there are still dishes in the sink.”

E= Express how you feel. Use an I statement to explain what emotions are showing up for you because of this situation. “I feel upset that the dishes haven’t been done because we had talked about sharing the household chores more equally. I feel disappointed that this task wasn’t completed.”

A= Assert what you want. Be clear about what change you are looking for at this time. “I would like for the dishes to be done after supper.”

R= Reinforce what is in it for the other person to follow through. It’s absolutely fair that you want your partner to “just know” that it’s right thing to do. However, it’s more helpful and efficient to provide a reminder for why it’s important to maintain a specific behaviour or make a change. “I was looking forward to relaxing at the end of the night with you. I’d love to cuddle up to watch some TV rather than waste our short chunk of evening time scrubbing away at dishes.”

M= be Mindful. Don’t use this as an opportunity to throw in twelve other requests. Focus just on this one situation.

A= Appear confident. There is no need to apologize when you are making a request for change.

N= Negotiate. Sometimes your partner will be willing to make a change so long as there is some wiggle room. Be willing to negotiate so that you can both come to a satisfactory middle ground.

Express appreciation and respect regularly

Unhappy relationship after a baby: Things to notice, and ways to fix.

One of the best antidotes for anger in a relationship is to voice appreciation and respect regularly. Are you turning towards your partner and commenting when they do a task you genuinely appreciate? Did you thank them for tidying up the garage or watering the grass this morning? It may seem unnecessary, but check in on the ratio of negative to positive attention that you provide your partner. How often are you expressing factors that you dislike? How often are you taking the time to express things you do like?

Expressing appreciation can also be done through behaviours. Consider small steps that would be helpful for your partner that he/she/they have expressed. Appreciative behaviours should not be grand gestures since this is unsustainable and can only happen so often. Instead, Dr. Gottman recommends “small things often.”

It’s also important during this phase to take note of our partner’s attempts for connection. When they are talking about their day, asking questions, or seeking physical touch, how do you respond? These are opportunities to express fondness, which goes a long way in strengthening your relationship.

Agree on safe time outs

For those who stone wall, it’s hard to problem solve or engage in an effective conversation. Turning away actually seems like the safest thing to do in that moment; however, it drives the other partner mad because they are getting zero feedback about how to move forward. In these situations, it’s important to have a clear conversation with one another on safe ways to ask for space. Perhaps this means stating clearly “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need a few minutes.” It may mean practising some deep breathing exercises to help calm your body to feel less tense.

Turning your unhappy relationship into a positive relationship

Your baby needs you. No matter what the conflict or how intense it may feel, your baby need its parents to feel safe and secure. Your little one picks up on your emotional cues and recognizes signs of conflict at home. These comments are not meant to scare you but to encourage some introspection on the reality of your relationship. If it truly feels like your conflicts are getting out of control, reach out. Individual therapy can help you understand why you feel so contemptuous towards your partner or why there is a need to stone wall. Couples counselling can soften communication patterns and help you recognize when your partners makes attempts for connection. While conflicts are common, you do not need to be stuck in an unhappy relationship forever.

Best wishes,
Kasi

Mental Health · Parenting

Using validation to improve your relationship

When it comes to some challenging relationships, we all recognize that miscommunications and frustration seem endless. It feels like every conversation hits a roadblocks, and both you and the other person walk away feeling hurt, pissed off, and unheard. So how do we work through these blocks so that we can improve our relationship with these individuals? Whether you are a family member, a partner, a friend, or a work colleague, validation is an incredibly simple and powerful skill that can help reduce conflict and improve your relationships.

What is validation?

Validation involves acknowledging how another person’s thoughts, behaviours, or actions make sense given the context. This means finding even the smallest piece of the other person’s argument that you can appreciate and find valid or reasonable. Not only do you need to recognize this understanding, but you’ll need to take the time to express that understanding to the other person.

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

There might be some guess work when it comes to validation. After all, you can’t know for sure what a person is thinking or feeling unless they are actually stating these points. However, can you look at the situation with an empathetic perspective, and guess as to what may causing them to behave this way at this time? If not, can you ask them to help you understand why they feel so passionately about a certain stance?

Let’s take an example of parenting teenagers. Let’s say that, most recently, your arguments have been about curfew and arriving home on time. Typically, when you and your teens get into a conflict, it is the most exasperating conversation. It feels next to impossible to find any points that your teens are voicing that makes sense. In the end, you all end up screaming at one another, and the relationship stays rocky.

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.
Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels.com

If you could step back from the conflict at this moment, is there any understanding for why your teenagers want to push back a curfew time, and how that makes sense? If you were in your teens’ shoes, what might they be feeling? What does staying out later mean to them? What opportunities are they hoping to meet by staying out later? Would having a slightly later curfew mean more time with friends? Would it mean they feel like they belong in their peer group? Are they worried about not having time with their partners? What do they worry will happen if they don’t get to have this time? If they are worried about their social status, does it make sense that they are pissed off right now that they can’t stay out later? If they are wanting to spend time with their friends, and feel socially isolated right now, does it make sense that they are arguing so strongly?

Validation is not approval or agreement

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.

I tend to lose parents in trying to see things from their teens’ point of view because they worry that validation will mean approval or acceptance of their behaviour. And of course, at the end of the day, you don’t want to condone them to stay out later. You’re worried about what kind of trouble they’ll get into at later hours. You’re concerned about safety and whether their peers will be making responsible choices at this time. You’re tired of being anxious, and staying up late in order to ensure they’re coming home safely…. Did you notice what I just did there? I focused on validating how you may be feeling. I didn’t agree with you or claim that your point of view was correct. However, I focused on trying to find kernels of truth that I can appreciate from your point of view, and expressed how they are valid and reasonable. When you read these words of validation, how did they land with you? Did you get more upset or was there some softening on your part?

When we validate, it helps us shift out of stuck patterns of all-or-nothing thinking, where either you are right or the other person is right. When we are focused on findings things to validate, it forces us to pay attention to how an experience might be for another person. This can be tough because our natural instinct is to focus on our own emotions, thoughts and feel affronted that the other person “doesn’t get it.” By taking their perspective, it helps us move away from the extreme all-or-nothing framework that we often get caught in when we’re angry. Validation helps us shift into more dialectical thinking, teaching us that there can be more than one side to an argument.

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Once the emotional intensity goes down during an argument, there is more capacity to work together and find options that likely fall somewhere in the middle. When we express words of validation, the other person will feel more understood, and therefore, more amenable to talking. While the actual problem will still need to be addressed and resolved, you’re both more grounded in order to have a conversation that improves your relationship rather than cause harm.

When it comes to validation, I try and follow the rules of Dr. Adele LaFrance, founder of Emotion Focused-Family Therapy Dr. LaFrance recommends working validation in sets of threes, meaning, can you find three points to validate? Let’s assume that your partner is really angry that you didn’t wash the dishes. If you were to say the following validating statement to your partner, how do you imagine it would go?

I can really appreciate that you’re frustrated right now. (1) You’ve had a long day at work, and (2) you’ve been so excited to come home and relax, and (3) seeing the pile of dirty dishes would feel so cumbersome when you already feel so tired.

Notice how in the above statement, there was acknowledgement of how your partner may be feeling, thinking or behaving, and how you can genuinely empathize with these factors. If you’re feeling stuck with how to validate, try and begin with statements such as:

  • I can appreciate that you
  • I could understand how you…
  • I could imagine that..
  • It makes sense that…

Stuck places: When does it go wrong?

  • Not knowing what to validate: If you really feel stuck, and can’t guess what to validate, simply ask. Ask the person to help you understand why they feel this way or to explain why it’s so important that they push this specific agenda. By asking for clarification, it will give them a chance to express their feelings, and also provide you some opportunities for potential validation points.
  • Using BUT after you validate: There is no other way to kill a beautiful validating sentence than using “but”. It negates the initial positive statement, and focuses more on selling your point of view. It’s not that your point of view is wrong. However, validation is all about helping to lower the intensity of emotions so that the other person will be more willing to listen and work amicably. This won’t happen if you’re agenda is to convince them that you’re right (even though you may be right! Nevertheless, it doesn’t change their willingness to work with you).
  • Forgetting to be mindful of our tone and non-verbal cues: What’s the point of saying all these lovely words if we don’t express them in a genuine and gentle fashion? Your friend will not feel understood if you’re rolling your eyes and scoffing while you tell him/her/them that you get it. So check in on your external presentation. Can it soften? How is your volume? Does it need to lower? What is your body posture like? Is your tone clipped or curt? Can you express your interest in hearing what the other person has to say?

So the next time you find your in a stagnant conflict, give validation a try and let me know how it goes. As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out.

Anxiety

Simple daily mindfulness exercises

What would your life be like if you had control over your attention or thoughts? How could you shift your behaviours if you became aware of when your emotions started to take a downward shift? What would happen if you could become more present with your environment or the people around you?

Mindfulness is the skill of moment to moment awareness of what is happening (both internally in your system, and externally in your environment). It involves noticing what is taking place without judging or trying to change things. While this skill takes practice, it does not have to involve complicated or lengthy exercises. Here are some simple ideas of how you can practice being mindful daily:

1) Drinking your morning coffee (or insert beverage of choice).

Take a few minutes to bring your attention to the experience of drinking. What does your coffee taste like, smell like, look like? Can you slow the process down so you can notice all the steps in between pouring a cup of coffee to taking your first sip? How does your body move around your kitchen? What noises do you hear as you take out a mug? I encourage you to practice this exercise for 5 minutes. Of course, your mind will wander (don’t worry! It’s meant to wander!) Being mindful involves noticing when your attention wanders, and bringing it back to our set anchor (in this case, the experience of drinking coffee).

2) Listen to music.

Close your eyes to reduce distractions from outside and bring your attention to the song. Notice the shifts in your body as you listen to music. Are there moments when you feel activated? (Can you notice a spark of irritation? An urge to dance? Do you feel it is easier to breathe?) Are there moments when music calms your body, or perhaps leave you feeling unsettled? Take a listen to these two very different pieces of music. Mindfully observe the changes that happen in your body (and of course, try not to change the experience, or judge it!)

3) Describe a person you dislike nonjudgmentally.

How often are you critical? Do you tend to make quick conclusions about people? Has this behaviour gotten you in trouble? Being nonjudgmental involves describing what we observe with our five senses (therefore, sticking with objective facts) versus evaluating or interpreting people or things. Being nonjudgmental moves us away from relying on harsh, emotional language. Choose a celebrity, a teacher, a family member, a TV personality, or anyone that you have found annoying and describe them using nonjudgmental language (To learn more about the skill of non-judgement visit DBT Self-Help). Why am I mentioning mindfulness today? Well, let’s be honest, we’re all a little anxious right now because of this pandemic. Mindfulness is one of many strategies that can support our emotions at this time.

As always, please feel free to share or reach out if you have any questions!

Cheers,
Kasi

Anxiety · Mental Health

5 Tips to handle stress

Many times in life we come across a problem that we cannot fix right away. During these times, therapists encourage a fancy term called “distress tolerance”. But what exactly does this term mean? Distress tolerance is all about handling a stressful moment without making matters worse.

Let’s say you’re expecting to have a difficult conversation with your spouse that evening. It makes sense that you feel at edge most of the day. You may end up drinking, avoiding your family members, being snippy with your colleagues, cancelling work, or any other strategy to cope with the edginess. These behaviours all make sense given that you’re stressed about the upcoming conversation. However, all of these behaviours tend to create further complications. Not only do you have to deal with the difficult conversation with your partner, but you also have to sober up, apologize for the avoidant behaviours, make amends to your relationships with colleagues, and grovel to your boss. All in all, we’ve taken a crappy situation, and made it significantly harder.

5 tips to deal with stress: Reach out to Kasi Shan Therapy for counselling support online & in-person in Kitchener, ON
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Don’t get me wrong, I have also chosen some not-so effective strategies on my worst days. We all make mistakes. The point is not to judge ourselves for these mistakes. Instead, we want to see if there are better ways to help us cope. This is where distress tolerance skills come into play. Using well-known strategies like distractions (i.e. video games, reading, watching TV, exercise) and self-care (i.e. comfort foods, long bath, getting a massage) are perfect at these times. They help you tolerate the waiting period until the end of the day when you can finally address the real issue with your spouse.

People often get frustrated with coping strategies because “they don’t make us feel good”. Fair enough. Distress tolerance isn’t meant to make you feel better (although, if they do put you in a better mood, enjoy it 🙂 ). These coping skills are all about tolerating the pain, not actually fixing the pain. In the above example, your primary concern is getting through a hard conversation with your spouse. Unless this is addressed and resolved, why expect that watching TV, taking a walk, or any other distraction will make you feel better? So how do we practice “distress tolerance skills” effectively? Here are a few key points:

1) Find distractions that actually get you distracted

5 tips to deal with stress: Reach out to Kasi Shan Therapy for counselling support online & in-person in Kitchener, ON
Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com

If you are going to be bored out of your mind reading a textbook, this is not an effective coping strategy! Your mind will naturally return back to whatever is stressing you out. If you’re stuck thinking of effective distractions, I recommend an activity that is active or new so that you have to concentrate on the task at hand. Think about the first time you drove a car on your own. If you were angry that day, consider how difficult it would have been to maintain the intensity of your anger AND concentrate on following all the steps to drive. Your mind doesn’t have the mental capacity to do both at the same time effectively. Instead, you have to mindfully focus on driving so that you don’t crash.

2) Have a bunch of coping strategies to use in a moment of crisis.

Some days we’ll only need to dance along with music in the car to ease our anxieties. Other days, we may have to eat a chocolate bar, go for a bike ride, snuggle up with our pets AND practice some breathing exercises. Neither options are wrong. It just depends on our needs in that moment.

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

3) Use the acronym ACCEPTS

This is a great term from dialectical behaviour therapy that is useful for distress tolerance.

A= Activities (Participate in activities that you enjoy, or help you stay effectively distracted)

C= Contribute (Helping others out makes us feel better about ourselves, and it takes us away from our own stress)

5 tips to deal with stress: Reach out to Kasi Shan Therapy for counselling support online & in-person in Kitchener, ON

C= Compare (Think about a time when you struggled more than this present moment. This helps you recognize that you were able to overcome hardships, and puts this current issue into perspective).

E= Emotions (What will create a different emotion than the one you’re feeling? Watching sitcoms makes me laugh. Going for a run makes me feel confident. Giving my son hugs makes me happy. What works for you?)

5 tips to deal with stress: Reach out to Kasi Shan Therapy for counselling support online & in-person in Kitchener, ON

P= Push away thoughts (Definitely not one I recommend long-term. It’s okay to tell yourself that you cannot think about a certain stressor right now. For example, if you’re supposed to be concentrating on your exam, it’s probably not the ideal time to be thinking about a fight you had with your partner the day before. Pushing away thoughts is a helpful method so long as you come back to the thought at a more convenient time).

T= replace Thoughts (Focus on something else. Plan your family vacation. Think about the book you’re reading. How do you think it will end? Basically, focus on anything else except the present issue).

S= Sensations (Find safe physical sensations to use as distractions. i.e. a soothing cup of tea, a cold ice cube, a hot compress).

5 tips to deal with stress: Reach out to Kasi Shan Therapy for counselling support online & in-person in Kitchener, ON
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

4) It’s okay to take a mini-vacation from the stressor if it takes a long time to get things sorted.

5 tips to deal with stress: Reach out to Kasi Shan Therapy for counselling support online & in-person in Kitchener, ON

Whether this is a physical escape or a short mental break (i.e. guided meditation, pushing away thoughts). The stressor is still there when you return from the break, but the rest gives you some time to feel calmer and more at peace

5) Problem solve whenever possible!

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

At the end of the day, nothing will help you feel fully at peace until the stressor is resolved (or you willingly radically accept that the issue will not be fixed). This means hunkering down and brainstorming various solutions. As always, everyone’s situation is unique. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out.

Anxiety

How to stop panic attacks: A quick strategy to help you calm down

Here is a quick DBT skill to help with your anxiety. Give it a try and see how it stops your panic attacks quickly!

One of my favourite teachings from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is the temperature exercise. This skill is based off of the “mammalian dive reflex”. Basically, if you jump into a pool of ice cold water, your body will slow down in order to conserve energy for survival. Any body functions that aren’t vital will start to shut down. There is no thinking involved; your body will automatically do this on its own.

A quick tip to stop panic attacks. Contact Kasi Shan Therapy. Treating trauma and postpartum/ pregnancy mental health.
Photo by Lucas Allmann on Pexels.com

What does this have to do with panic attacks? When we’re panicking, it’s really hard to tell our mind “to just calm down.” There is no way that kind of malarkey is going to work when you’re freaking out. Instead of trying to change your thoughts, the temperature change activity forces your physiology to quickly change.

Here are the steps:

  1. Fill your sink or a large bowl full of cold water.
  2. Dump in a bunch of ice cubes (or frozen veggies, whatever you have handy!)
  3. Bend forward from the hip
  4. Place your face in water (Yes! Your whole face! I kid you not!)
  5. Hold your breath as long as possible
  6. Come up for breath as needed, and dive right back in
  7. Continue to keep your face in cold water until your body regulates (this usually takes about 2 minutes)

Check it out in action:

As you can likely see, this is a miserable strategy, and NO ONE enjoys it. But, if you have been struggling with panic attacks or severe anxiety, this skill will be able to calm you down as quickly as two minutes!

Words of caution: This is a really cold activity. If you have a heart condition, I’d strongly encourage you against trying this skill. This skill is effective in getting you to calm down, but it is a coping strategy not a problem solving technique. Meaning, if that original panic-inducing trigger has come back, you may need to plunge back into that cold water to get regulated. Give it a try and let me know how it worked for you!As always, feel free to share this post, or contact me for more details/support.