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My Election Choice

 

Almost there.  End of Election Day 2016.  In seriously considering how to be a good citizen in this election, I came across a sure fire one.  It’s research based, and all respected professionals agree with this one.

Communication in love = improved relationships.  

Yeah, that’s right.  I suckered you into reading this.  But why stop now?  This is good stuff!  

I’ve seen a lot of head-shaking and apathy this election season.  As a mental health specialist, I have been watching the behavioral and relational patterns of interactions, whether from leaders at a podium or the lay person on the street.  I actually DO see some really good communication patterns in some people who exhibit characteristics that follow.  But as I wrote about in a blog post entitled “Effective Communication” a few years back (right before the last election), the examples many of us see reflect abysmal communication styles.  Well, at least if we want to be respectful.  IF you’re attempting to minimize, disrespect, and emotionally distance, fair WARNING: do not read and apply the following.    

PAA

Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication styles have very clear results in various settings (in case you are wondering, passive-aggression can often be placed as a subtype under aggressive).  Assertive communication is based on mutual respect, regardless of how much you disagree with the other person.  Abusive language or behavior are out of the question.  Assertiveness always involves respect.  You may strongly state a point or quietly listen, but finding an assertive sweet spot is key- speaking the truth in love, and sometimes learning to just close the mouth.  

Check out the Mayo Clinic’s thoughts on this one, or for organizational settings, look at Daniel Ames’ research at Columbia Business School.  

Turning Towards

The famous marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, found that turning towards a partner (which is not passive/casual agreement, but a positive stance of staying invested in one’s spouse), is significantly correlated with couples who stay together versus divorce.  This means that in every “bid” that’s made for attention or connection, the masters of marriage turn towards the other person most of the time.  I think there’s a lot to learn by studying successful couples’ interactions- after all, these are the people who are able to somehow stick with the same person for YEARS!!

Distress/Uncertainty Tolerance

Distress Tolerance is the ability to manage high levels of upset (distress), while staying grounded.  Intolerance of uncertainty (IU), seen especially in OCD and anxiety disorders, can be successfully redirected by developing Tolerance for Uncertainty.  Maybe the most common misconception with these are similar to misunderstanding forgiveness: to forgive doesn’t mean to just smile and approve.  These all involve character-building at a deep level of maturity where a person can still hold to what is true, while at the same time having peace when the world around seems (or is) out of control.  

Understanding

Back to Gottman.  He joined up with Anatol Rapoport to form an amazing Conflict Blueprint.  It involves working hard to really “get” what the other person is saying, and it recognizes underlying longings- and respects them- in the other person.  READ: NOT the same as adopting their perspective.  Furthermore, Softened Startup entails bringing something of significance and/or pain to another’s awareness, while staying gentle and guarding against criticism, blame, and shame.  

These things are actually really simple.  But they take discipline and deeper metamorphosis to bring about in daily life.  What can you do when all around you people communicate with disrespect and contempt?  Be a difference maker by communicating in love.  

That’s my election choice.  What’s yours?

Sincerely,

Justin K. Hughes

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What A Year Off From Facebook Taught Me

Happy September (Recovery Month)! School’s back in session and vacations are over for many.  If you’re like most, you’ve been seeing everyone’s summer pics on facebook and Instagram. While you might expect this post, written by a Professional Counselor, to talk about the influence of social media on self-esteem or depression, I want to invite you into a more personal journey- one of compulsive behavior, learning, and communication.

The Back Story
Starting early in 2015, I had been recognizing for months how distracting my daily social media consumption was to me (especially facebook)- and how much time and emotional energy was being spent. And then a stroke of insight came- why not just stop? I didn’t have to make any extreme commitment or do a PR campaign. Why not just see what happened? And see what happened I did. With no end in sight, I stopped personal social media (facebook, etc.) use through May 2016.

My days started to become more efficient at work; I found creative ways to engage or disengage with people; I was less stressed over the high dose of negative news I was seeing; I let go of the pressure of having to keep up with posting or needing to respond; I focused on the core things that mattered as opposed to the (look, a SQUIRREL!) distractions.

I began to see how compulsive I had become, even a little dependent. I felt fear about missing out on something. I got a “hit” (or high) from that next new message or like or share in my notifications. I had worried if someone didn’t respond soon enough.

The Addiction Framework
In the addiction world, physiological dependence is two things:tolerance (more is needed to achieve the same result) andwithdrawal (I feel powerfully adverse negative affects when the “drug of choice” is removed). The treatment world has been closely watching the impact of using the internet, apps, social media, and the like- to see how it activates and affects the brain and body and mind in similar ways to substances. And we’re starting to acknowledge how behavior can trigger some of the same brain processes as a substance being ingested. DARN, I guess I can’t say, “Well, it’s not like I’m abusing drugs or anything.” Actually, sometimes I am abusing the chemicals already in my brain that drugs simply play with.  Varying levels of compulsivity exist, and my expertise in Professional Counseling focuses on providing help and hope when a person can’t break through their compulsive patterns.

Even though a year break taught me about my personal misuse of social media, don’t expect a crusade AGAINST social media from me today. As much as I benefited from my “vacation,” there were a few things I missed out on, too. I overlooked a few announcements (sorry for missing that birthday heads-up). I lost a bit of connection to the world around me. In essence, some communication was actually stunted for me. And I missed out on a little healthy distraction I find encouraging.

The Rest of the Story
My personal story may not be yours. Here are some observations:

The modality of communicating by tech IS effective and helpful for many.  We can complain all day about children not learning to communicate well because they “can’t even” (and I do believe that is a concern to be aware of as a parent).  However, social media can be helpful.

Social media is a communication platform. Whether we like it or not, things like social media are the new telegram or front porch conversation of years ago. And they don’t appear to be going away any time soon, only adapting and changing.

As with many things in this world, the actual vehicle of social media may be relatively neutral- what makes it egocentric, compulsive, and harmful OR helpful and relational, is likely thepurpose and motivation and heart behind its use.  I want to be “linked in” to the latter so I can live free, not compulsively.

Sincerely,

Justin

Further Reading:

Dr. Geraint Evans- “What I Learned in My Year Off Facebook”

Forbes- “Need A Break From Social Media? Here’s Why You Should Take One”

Sex Sells (And How I Survived The Ebola Scare Of Dallas)

doctorWhile purchasing my Kung Pao Chicken with steamed rice yesterday, the young lady at the counter put on gloves to handle money (she normally doesn’t).  Though I always appreciate an extra measure of hygiene, she stated she was nervous about Ebola.  This week, the nation discovered that the first U.S. case of naturally occurring Ebola showed up in a patient at a hospital in Dallas.  Panic for some has ensued concerning Ebola- much more than other riskier conditions.  But why?

Let’s look at the numbers.  Tens of thousands of people die every flu-season from influenza in the U.S.  This number has peaked at 49,000 people per year, according to the CDC.  0 have died in the US from Ebola so far (as of October 3rd, 2014).  Zero.  Just over 3,300 people have died from Ebola- over the span of 50 years!  Don’t get me wrong, Ebola poses a significant threat and is not the same as the flu, but does it deserve some of the extreme responses it’s getting?  Is it reasonable for parts of Dallas to become a zoo?  Unfortunately, some media outlets are using fear to make a buck.  And people all over social media are blowing up posts of doom and gloom.  We all know the saying, “Sex Sells.”  But what does that have to do with Ebola?  A lot, I assure you.

I work regularly with disorders such as Panic, PTSD, OCD, Addiction, and Phobias.  The reasons a person experiences these problems is multi-faceted.  However, one of the commonalities of each is that they are “disorders of the limbic system.”

Neuroscience has offered some great insights into brain functioning in recent years.  Our Limbic System is a section of the lower rear brain where much of our protective instincts, sexual drive, and hunger drive is thought to originate.  This is different from the Prefrontal Cortex, which is where our “executive” functioning comes in- using self-control, deciding how to approach situations- rational thought.  Of course both are important (these are simplistic definitions).  If something triggers our fight/flight/freeze response, it is mostly originating in the limbic system.  These responses can help us gear-up for survival and protection (think: Bear Grylls).  Many problems that occur in life are ones born out of managing our limbic system: fear, anger, difficulty controlling desires, and an inability to regulate emotions.

A case in point, with panic disorder, a client will feel overwhelming physical and/or mental duress, and their anxiety will shoot through the roof for a short period of time- all in the absence of a threat to their immediate well-being.  In counseling, my job is to help clients find hope and experience freedom in the midst of this.  And this goes contrary to being controlled by the limbic system.

Back to Ebola.  How do we handle a threat such as this?  We face it for what it is.  One of the most important things in mental health is to tell ourselves the truth.  If we face reality for what it is- good, bad, and ugly- we will respond soberly.  And this gives us a better ability to confront threats for what they are: to make smart decisions about health and contamination, research options available and new possibilities, accept what can’t be changed, and find peace in the midst of suffering.  Then we can evaluate what is or is not a threat- realistically.  This is a powerful counter for limbic system disorders.

But wait, that doesn’t sell.  It doesn’t grab people’s attention.  To stay rational and at peace, we usually have to go counter-cultural to messages around us.  Many people get rich every day playing off of people’s limbic system reactions (remember, sex sells).  If we can market to the brain’s “pleasure center,” people will crave more.  If we can rouse fear, attention will be won.  If we can play off of a sense of not being good enough without the newest gadget, any product can be sold.

Messages swirl around us at all times, including mixed messages about Ebola.  How will you handle it?  How will you respond?  Sex sells.  Fear sells.  But you get to choose what you buy.

Yours Truly,

Justin

Obsessed

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“Why can’t I stop thinking about this?”  “I know it’s stupid, but I can’t get it out of my head.”  “Why must I put up with this?” 

William went to Afghanistan after a Platoon was deployed from Ft. Hood.  Most of what he heard about soldiers’ experiences in the Middle East were rumors and media stories- he had no way to be prepared for what would happen to him.  After nearly 6 months of swallowing sand stirred up by 110 degree winds, William had 5 days left until he would return home.  Momentarily losing his hearing, all his senses were shaken when an IED tore shrapnel through his three closest friends.  They were dead.  Just like that.  After being rushed by helicopter for triage medical care, William soon discovered he narrowly missed death himself- the same shards of nails and rocks that killed his friends were found inches away from where he stood. 

Returning home is where cleaning up the fragments took the longest.  After being debriefed and allowed medical and family leave, Bill struggled getting back to civilian life.  Some of the most difficult times he faced were trying to overcome his own unexpected reactions to situations, usually late at night where he would awake from a noise, pulling his wife down from the bed onto the floor to take cover.  When he became calm, he was covered in sweat, visually stunned by recalling what had happened weeks before- and so embarrassed to be dragging his wife- literally and metaphorically- into the center of his problems. 

This is trauma.  This is the story of William’s PTSD (post-traumaticstress disorder).  Hopefully his story can help bring understanding to struggles faced by those dealing with trauma and respect for our service men and women. 

It’s not very difficult to have some sense of empathy for William’s situation.  It’s often much harder to understand another very real and very overwhelming problem.  It is called obsessive compulsive disorder(OCD).  You may be curious why this article spends so much time talking about PTSD, only to discuss OCD.  Two reasons.  OCD has similar features and neurobiology to PTSD, and secondly, if we are to listen to the struggles of others, often we must start with something wedo understand.

You see, whether a person is triggered into feeling distress from trauma or obsessive anxiety, their limbic system (the area of the brain dealing most with survival and protective reactions) becomes active to ward off a threat.  This is a wonderful system when it is working properly, but when it is overly sensitive, it is like a faulty check engine light on a car that becomes counter-productive.  It is a normal reaction- out of context.  Think of the panic you would feel if you saw someone almost being run over by a car- your limbic system would activate and prepare the body and mind to fight, flee, or freeze.  Now imagine it occurring at random times and being uncontrollable.  

Despite popular references of, “She’s just OCD!” and “He really likes his house OCD,” the diagnosable mental health condition is a serious foe- and far beyond a person’s immediate ability to just “stop” their ruminating thoughts.  Because the anxiety and distress a person with OCD feels is so bothersome and intrusive, they naturally seek to alleviate it- sometimes with elaborate mental rituals to “do away” with the anxiety, sometimes with physical compulsions to feel better (for example: “I feel anxious when some unknown object touches my clean clothes, so I either have to wash the affected area or change clothes”).  To some people, this sounds crazy.  But for the person with diagnosable OCD, their mind and body both SCREAM with discomfort until they do something to alleviate it.  And the compulsion works!  Momentarily.  But what it does is reinforce the neuropathways linked to disorder as opposed to reinforcing healthy, non-compulsive behavior. 

What it takes to find longer-lasting relief is to accept the problem and productively counter it, pursuing a number of treatment options that help free the person from thinking obsessive thoughts or acting upon mental or physical compulsions.  There is hope and treatment that WORKS.  We don’t have to understand, ultimately, to love.  As many as 1 in 100 people wrestle with this.  Look around- that’s someone in your neighborhood or at the restaurant where you last went.  Will you lend a helping hand to those who suffer?

Yours truly,
Justin K. Hughes

What is Love?

For many, a popular electronic song of the 90’s came to mind when you saw that title.  I certainly hope so.  It’s an amazing song.  It’s also an amazing question.  What is love, really?  I love my parents; I love fall weather; I love guitar; I love burgers.  But what does it mean?  The ancient Greeks had multiple words for love, so we will “Greek-out” in exploring multiple definitions of this simple word. 

Let’s start with the definition that’s maybe the most commonly used (and abused)- eros.  The English word “erotic” comes from this word.  Defined as romantic and/or sexual love, it comes and goes quickly.  This is usually what is meant when someone says they are “in love.”  It is passionate, intense, and usually finds itself in short bursts; it is not maintained at a constant rate. 

Phileo is the concept of “brotherly love,” or love between friends.  This entails taking special interest in someone and building a connection.  There is commonly enjoyment that is experienced with phileo.   As it grows, it often develops into loyalty.  It is love based on give-and-take.

The third word we will explore is storge.  Translated as ‘affection,’ it is based on familiarity and the natural flow of roles- as found in a family.  Present in close relationships, it can be easy to expect this as a way of life.  Storge may take the form of a hug when you leave the house, an “I love you” at the end of a phone call, or helping complete a task for someone.  This acceptance of others does not require passion or excitement.  Another way to look at it is “motherly love.”

The last word is agape.  Unconditional at its core, this love gives and expects nothing in return.  Regardless of the circumstance or reason, this is a love that, well, loves- despite feelings or reasons to the contrary.  In the Bible, when it says “God is love,” (in 1 John 1:8) this is the word that’s being used.  In Matthew 5:44, “love your enemies” is agape love; it is freely given, not under compulsion or fear- but chosen. 
 

What is love?  What definition do you use when you say “love”?  Which one do you want to use?  This post is intentionally different from the rest in that I usually give a takeaway application.  This time, I leave the application to you.  In the midst of Black FridayCyber Monday, Christmas shopping, end of the year company goals, determining tax deductions, and the like, will you take a second to ponder these meanings and how they are relevant to you?  May you be blessed in this season.  

Yours truly,

Justin

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Intensity vs. Intimacy

Possibly the simplest definition of intimacy is this: knowing another and being known.  Intensity is defined as strength, power, or force- in relationship terms, it’s getting a surge of whatever makes a person feel good.  Intimacy is developed over time, with patience, with love, with understanding, with compassion, with sacrifice.  Intensity happens quickly and fades quickly- it is not long lasting.  Those that trade it for intimacy will find themselves dissatisfied and using people like objects.

The implications of this are profound.  It has changed the way I look at relationships.  I have been a “thrill-seeker.”  Oh no, you never would see me cliff-diving, jumping out of airplanes, or swimming with sharks.  I learned to seek intensity in subtle ways- especially with people.  I would feed off of the praise of others; I would pursue the “high” of new connections; I would live for recognition.  I became aware of this through support, seeing my own counselor, and study.  You see, I made a major error- I substituted intensity for intimacy.

They are not the same thing.

This concept is important in understanding Addiction, Bipolar, Personality Disorders, and just plain ol’ dysfunctional relationship patterns.  For instance, with addiction, a person adapts to the world and copes using a substance or person or thing as if it were a relationship- gaining comfort, support, investing time and energy, and to soothe pain.  I commonly hear addicts say that their addiction became their best friend.  Of course, the problem with relying on an intense “high” to feel better is that our brains weren’t made to sustain constant highs.  Our brains will normalize to constant surges of feel-good intensity (aka, dopamine highs), and then we naturally begin to feel depressed when we don’t have this now “normal” high.  The classic term for this is ‘tolerance.’ 

Healthy relationships don’t run on constant highs.  Hear me out: good, healthy relationships can give the greatest satisfaction and offer wonderful highs.  But this is not all the time.  They require consistency, work, patience, suffering, and perseverance.  This goes way beyond just romantic relationships.  Running after intensity leaves a person “high and dry,” trying to be satisfied in ways they were not created to be fulfilled.  The substitute kills.  The real thing fulfills.
 
Yours truly,
~Justin

Effective Communication

From a counseling perspective, when I study communication between politicians, businesses, and portrayals in the media, I often shake my head.  It’s pretty bleak.  Some of the very same dysfunctional communication that happens in unhappy and unsuccessful relationships is often present in these environments- and shown as an example.

Effective communication, like most anything else of value, takes work and practice.  Unfortunately, a lot of models of communication from environments like those listed above are about winning and being “one-up” from another person.  You will never get very close to another if this is your stance.  True intimacy is knowing someone and being known by them- not putting another down, trying to win, or being “right.”    

When I was a counseling intern, I was struck by a question my supervisor posed to a client in group therapy: “Do you want to win the argument or keep your spouse?”  Good question.  What are our priorities?  It’s a good idea to look at them.  Because whatever you ultimately are seeking will come through in your communication patterns.  Do you truly seek to understand, to know, and to connect?  Or are you trying to win, to defeat, and to be the big-shot?    

  

Here’s a few helpful pointers on assertive and kind communication:

-Mutual respect (their thoughts/feelings matter, and so do yours)

-Reflect (share) what you think you heard

-Strive to understand what the other REALLY means

-Ask lots of questions

-Be concise, if possible

-Say no when it’s called for

-Be direct

-If reasonable, thank the person for sharing

-Let another person know they are important

-To love and care for another requires that you set healthy boundaries

-Ask the other person how you can approach something

-Use “I” statements (saying “you,” especially in conflict, often comes across as blaming)

-Remember you are human– be patient with others as they are, too

 

 

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