Many of the couples I work with say their number one problem is communication. Usually the real problem is learning to stay calm when conversing with each other, especially if the topic is a “touchy” one.
Sadly, it doesn’t take much to turn a loving person into one who doesn’t act loving at all. We can go from asking a simple question to name-calling to shaming in only seconds. And once one person says something awful, the other feels justified saying something hurtful back. Does this couple have a problem communicating? Maybe. What they do have is a need to find new ways to manage themselves.
Here’s one simple skill that can change your life and your relationship–I call it Green Light Practice. Imagine a traffic light over the center core of your body. The green light centers around the abdomen area, the yellow light in the chest and the red light around the neck area. This symbol or image helps you stay connected with your internal experience and helps you navigate the conversation more effectively.
The goal when communicating with someone you love is to stay green. What this means is you are open to hear whatever is said and calm enough to speak clearly in response. In green you are able to speak without offending and listen without defending. The lines of communication remain open in green. The breath expands and releases from the abdomen and the body is at ease.
In green you have the:
Going yellow means the breath has moved up into the chest and you are beginning to feel anxious, angry or attacked. The chest tightens, the breath shortens and anxiety rises. If you’ve gone yellow you may not be able to hear what your partner is trying to say, much less be able to understand them. Your ability to stand firm, respond with kindness and communicate clearly is now compromised. Yellow means you’re in the dangerous waters of saying or doing something that you’ll later regret.
When you go yellow…pause, self soothe, take a deep breath, re-center in your own way. Make an effort to move back down to green. Sometimes you may need to let the person you’re talking to know that you are feeling yellow. An added bonus is you are the one who most accurately reports your internal signals so there’s no arguing about your experience. On the other hand, only you can keep yourself in check. Ask for a moment to take a breath and reset back to center.
When you’ve gone red the emotional thermometer has hit the top of the scale. You are angry, irrational, and may resort to old and ineffective patterns of relating. You’ve lost control and are about to have a head-on collision with a person you claim to love. If you are red and you’re still talking you are definitely going to say things that will hurt the other person and make you feel awful in the end. (Unless making your spouse feel worse makes you feel better…but that’s another post.)
When you have gone red it’s time to take a timeout…come to a FULL STOP. Ideally, you can calm yourself down without having to completely disengage from the conversation. What we know from neurology is that when we’ve gone red we are no longer using the higher level parts of our brain. We are relying on the instinctual protective elements of our mid to lower brains, the same areas that we have in common with mammals and reptiles. If you are red, STOP, let your partner know you’ve gone red and take a break.
So how do we keep ourselves from acting like skunks or snakes?
Learning to stay green is a skill like any other skill you might try to master…it requires practice. It means being in touch with what’s happening in your body, being aware of your emotional state and monitoring your behaviors. Like most aspects of life, effort matters more than perfection. So when you go red, may you have the humility to apologize, the courage to try again and the wisdom to do better next time.
Stay tuned for part two of this post: Tips for Staying Green…
Although she did not mention anything to me about it, she was quite purposeful in choosing this very special gift. While her 10-year-old brother and I were busy gathering the decorations, she was planning the perfect final touch to my office holiday décor…two small ceramic turtles. I’m not sure how a 7-year-old girl connects turtles with Christmas, but she did and it has become a true symbol of inspiration for me this season.
It was a late Monday night early in December. We had a tree to decorate and wreaths to hang. My two children acted as helper elves quietly spreading holiday joy in unexpected places…such as the bright Christmas balls spread out like Easter eggs all over the office. Regrettably, I spent most of my time undoing the disorderly way they had arranged the tinsel. I was so busy I didn’t even notice the two small turtles on the coffee table until the next morning. Sadly, I was more focused on being productive than being present.
Present VS. Productive
It seems the whole world turns into a giant rabbit chase this time of year. We wrap up year-end obligations, plan and attend holiday parties and navigate the overwhelming commercialism of the season. What might it look like to slow down when the world is spinning? How could we learn to be both present and productive?
One Simple Practice
These two small turtles have become a “slowing down” trigger for me these last few weeks. When I see them each day I practice slowing my speech, my pace, and my breath. Two tiny turtles are now a daily signal to slow down and shift inside toward an experience of serenity.
In this simple mindful practice, new meaning is ascribed to a symbol or everyday behavior. Bridging the great divide between the physical and meta-physical realm, it is like the staircase in a two-story house where all the daily physical activities occur on the bottom floor and the higher-level activities happen on the top floor. Here of some examples of how making new meaning out of everyday behavior can change the experience altogether:
• brushing teeth becomes a reminder to speak kindly to others
• getting dressed becomes clothing oneself in gentleness and compassion
• taking a shower becomes an inner cleansing and releasing
With simplistic awareness, these daily activities are suddenly transformed into a spiritual practice. Symbols can be powerful reminders to add meaning, joy, gratitude, spirituality and compassion to our lives.
Sometimes the connections are already there, but not by choice. We are often caught off guard by reminders of painful experiences. A helpful exercise I use in my work with survivors of trauma and loss is to identify and name negative sensory triggers. Sounds, smells, sights, and images can bring back a painful memory in an instant. Sometimes the holiday season is challenging for this very reason. Or sometimes it is the happy memories that hurt as we are reminded of those no longer with us.
Because of our drive to survive, the brain is wired to be constantly on guard. Usually triggers associated with pain get our brain’s undivided attention, but what if we create competition….like turtles do at Christmastime? The turtle represents slowing down in the midst of the everyday hustle and bustle. Truths are often packaged in paradox. What if we intentionally chose to connect with ourselves in ways that create comfort instead of chaos? Here are some basic steps:
1. Identify an activity you do regularly OR an object/symbol you see or use regularly.
2. Consider how this activity affects your day or the lives of others. What connections can you draw between the activity, object or symbol and gratitude or spirituality? How does the activity, object or symbol have implicit meaning that can remind you to be present, kind, grateful or connect to your own personal values?
3. Write down some possible meanings you could connect to the activity or symbol. If you are stuck…ask a friend for help.
4. Practice it! Notice what you notice and revise. Then practice again…
I wonder what competition you might use to invite yourself to be more present with yourself and those you love this season. How might you more fully enjoy the moment-to-moment gifts that really matter in the next year? Surprisingly, I’ve been invited by two small turtles to mindfully slow down in the coming year.
Whatever your situation, may you discover gift in the simplest of things. May symbols of joy, peace and gratitude carry you into the next year with hope, comfort and love.
Amy Fuller PhD
a company that provides public data online to raise awareness.
Watch this 2 minute video on Walk to Action to learn more…
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It’s the day she dreamed of since she was a little girl hanging a pillowcase off the back of her head. So much thought has been put into this one event…not to mention dollars. Each detail is carefully planned from the way the wedding party stands to the meaning behind which flowers are in the brides bouquet.
A wedding is not a funeral. Some couples choose to use what is called a unity candle. After each of the mothers light an individual candle, the bride and groom use these flames to simultaneously light the center candle, called a unity candle. THEN THEY BLOW OUT THEIR OWN CANDLE as if to extinguish their own life and live solely as one!
The idea of “becoming one” is not the issue. It is a good and beautiful thing as “two become one” in marriage. This is part of the reason we do choose to marry, because it feels good to be unified with another person. We are created for this kind of secure connection. Something deep inside of us longs to share our lives with another person in perfect harmony. Consider how two ice skaters move together in perfect symmetry. It appears they are the same in mind, body and soul…and this beauty somehow dismisses, however temporarily, the loneliness that tends to linger from time to time. Even happily married folks feel lonely sometimes.
Unfortunately, real life does not look like the ice skating rink. We do move together sometimes, but we most often move in our own style. We are constantly battling the drive to be connected and the drive to be separate. We must maintain our individuality in order for real intimacy to occur. What is crafted during a wedding is not “one” but a mystical “three.” The mysterious quality of the oneness is similar to that observed in the Christian Trinity as God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are “one” but also “three.”
Do NOT promise to make each other happy! Sometimes when couples choose unique vows they will commit to make their spouse happy saying “I promise to make you happy…” This is simply not possible. A wife cannot be made happy by her husband unless she chooses to respond with happiness. Most people get married because they believe it will make them happy. It is true, sometimes being married can improve one’s happiness, but it’s because they are two people who know how to create and experience happiness as individuals.
I made this mistake when I walked down the aisle 17 years ago. Opting against the traditional, “Here Comes the bride,” I had chosen and carefully choreographed coming down the aisle to the Triumphal Wedding March from the opera Aida. When I walked down the aisle it was more like walking the red carpet. A theater person in my former life, I didn’t mind being the center of attention. The problem was I forgot to first make eye contact with my soon-to-be husband who was so anxiously waiting for me to join him at the altar. Instead of connecting with him, I smiled out at friends and family and even reached out to touch a few. My eyes did meet his as I got closer to the front, but he wished I had focused on him sooner. Luckily, it didn’t make any difference in the long run…since he is still the love of my life!
The opposite can also cause a lack of connection with groom or wife. Most people actually feel quite uncomfortable being the center of attention and are so overwrought with anxiety that they miss some of the magical moments. Filled with worry and insecurity, the time seems to either drag on forever or becomes just a huge swift blur. The anxiety of all the eyes of the guests steal the joy and gift of the present moment. Luckily, most brides and grooms have videos of the ceremony so these particular moments remain present over the years.
Sometimes, brides and grooms are simply distracted. It’s easy to get caught up in the details and miss what really matters. With so many details to attend to it is important for brides and grooms to remain present with each other during the ceremony. This means maintaining eye contact, especially during the vows. Being present means practicing mindful awareness during the event itself…being in the moment with your spouse instead of in the moment with your wedding planner.
So whether you are getting married soon or in the day-to-day of marital life…do yourselves a favor and give yourself and your partner a present as you present yourselves to each other with presence.
Dr. Fuller offers pre-marital counseling at her private practice in Houston Texas. A discounted premarital therapy package is also available through Fuller Life Family Therapy.
Most of us don’t like to think about bad things happening to children. The reality: it happens. Child abuse is happening right now, in this moment, and in homes where we do not expect it to occur. The global impact of child abuse and neglect is astounding.
Each April, we do stop to talk about child abuse with Child Abuse Prevention Month. Maybe talk is not enough, but it is one of our main lines of defense in the battle to prevent child abuse and neglect. One reason the public is not fully informed is because “73% of child victims do not tell anyone about the abuse for at least a year [and] 45% of victims do not tell anyone for at least 5 years.” When our society talks about the reality of abuse more openly, we increase the likelihood that this number will go down and these children will courageously speak up.
malice, is immune from civil or criminal liability.
If you have real concerns about the health of your marriage, here are 7 reasons to begin Marriage Counseling NOW!
Some people describe insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If you’ve tried to change your relationship in many different ways, but keep getting stuck in the same mess, then it’s time to reach out for help from a professional Marriage Therapist. Relationship counseling works best with both people involved, but even individual therapy can change the nature of a relationship.
So often couples present for marriage therapy about five years too late. Then the call to a marriage professional is the direct result of one person dropping the “D” word or there’s been an affair. Just like a garden that is not tended will grow out of control or die, a relationship that is not nurtured and cared for properly will most likely deteriorate. Marriages do not take care of themselves. If they are taken for granted or ignored, weeds grow and hurt abounds. Seek help before the weeds take over your relationship garden.
Growing and maintaining a healthy relationship is like staying healthy physically. If you want to have a healthy body, then directed and purposeful effort is required to get into and stay in shape physically. Relationships are the same. They must be nurtured, fed and maintained in order to grow. If your marriage is out of shape, seek a marriage expert to help you bring it back to health. Hoping things will get better is not the same as
Going to therapy is an excellent way to transform a current struggle into a new and better relationship. You may have heard that sometimes you take two steps back and one step forward. However, a new step in the right direction can change the dance altogether and for the long run. Once the crisis has passed, couples are less likely to take the brave plunge into counseling, even though the underlying issues are most often not resolved.
Sometimes people fear being open about negative feelings will cause irreparable damage to the relationship. But how does hiding true feelings about valid concerns help the marriage? There is a chance these hurts will resolve in time, but at what cost? When it comes to close relationships, open closeness always feels better in the long run. With love, healing is always possible!
Tough negative feelings can sometimes add instability to an already strained relationship. A two-wheeled bicycle is not stable if one hasn’t learned how to ride well. Adding a marriage professional to the experience provides a stable third wheel so the couple can learn to navigate difficult issues without too much bruising.
If you talk to anyone who’s been through a divorce the cost is much greater than the decree’s bottom line. Ending what was hoped to last a lifetime hurts on so many levels. If something in you says your relationship may not last, please do yourself (and your family) a favor and seek help from a marriage and family therapist today!
When looking for a marriage therapist, work to ensure they are either licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) by their state OR they have extensive training in working within relationships. Furthermore, when you find a therapist that makes you just slightly uncomfortable, you’ve found a great therapist. Great therapists are more concerned about helping you achieve the change you desire than making you feel good about yourself or creating a safe space for the relationship. They care enough to be honest and help you be honest even if it means you might not come back. Marriage therapy is not for the weak of heart. It requires great courage, strength and tenacity to address difficult issues in the relationship and that doesn’t usually make people feel safe…the point is to help you get stronger.
For those of us having the luxury of watching color television our entire lives, classic black and white movies can be challenging in spite of the fact that many of these films offer a much richer narrative. In today’s digitally-powered culture, we find the current premium digital experience more sensually appealing and mesmerizing.
The opposite is true when it comes to our own real-life drama and memories. We want to recall good memories with vibrant color and detail and let old or “bad” memories fade into a colorless non-existence. But our brains tend to hold onto any memory that is paired with a strong emotion, be it positive or negative. EMDR therapy has the power to make the positive experiences stronger and the traumatic memory weaker. Read on if you want to know how this happens!
Over time, the day-to-day memories of our lives tends to fade into something far away or “just something that just happened.” This occurs naturally as our brain sorts out our experiences turning some into long-term memory or learning, and simply deleting those insignificant things we don’t need to remember like where we parked our car at the grocery story. As we sleep our brains go into a sort of housekeeping mode and the raw footage of the day is edited. The sights, smells, thoughts, feelings, and experiences are sorted and coded in a systematic nature. This encoding process is quite complex and involves different types of autobiographical memory that shapes our sense of who we are and our value.
These memories and what they mean determine what we believe about ourselves, our lives, and our world. We are, in our own self-perception, the interpretation of the sum of our experience. In our rear view mirror we see who we are, or at least who we think we are since the mirror is most often distorted in one way or another. When it comes to memory, perception is reality, and yet our brain doesn’t just record the facts…what matters most is the feeling.
The more emotion involved in any particular experience the more we will remember about that experience. Much research has shown that if an experience invokes a high degree of emotion, either positive or negative, the the memory will be recalled more often and with greater detail or clarity. This is a desirable phenomenon for our positive memories. We like the idea of recalling moments of joy, celebration and victory with great detail. We want to remember the moment we first met our loved one, the birth of our children or the sweet victory of a high school championship.
Yet memories of pain, suffering or trauma, can detrimentally effect our ability to live well. Since memories of abuse or tragic loss are almost always accompanied with strong emotions such as shock, fear, terror, etc. our brain will hold onto these memories and sometimes they can become “trapped” or “frozen” before they go through the encoding process. This can lead to flashbacks, night terrors and disassociation. Until these memories are healed, they continue to affect our sense of self, worth and behavior in ways that are most often out of our awareness.
Traumatic memories that remain “unprocessed” are like horror films that keep replaying in the mind. Not only are they re-lived in the mind, but the body remembers as well. The punch or rape that happened years ago seems to be happening in the present moment of the flashback. Additionally, the recurrence of these memories reinforces the erroneous beliefs we hold about ourselves because of the memory. For example, when a child is abused the common belief is “It’s my fault” or “I must have been bad.” Reliving these memories makes this seem more true, when it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Since our brains #1 job is to keep us alive, the brain is constantly on guard for anything that even remotely looks, feels, tastes, sounds or smells like that awful event. These “triggers” for negatively charged memories are front and center for our threat detection system. If our brain was a computer theses sensory triggers would live on our desktop. In order to protect us, the brain is hyper-vigilant about making sure something like “that” never happens again. The problem is the brain is not very good at knowing the difference between real vs. perceived threat. If one dog bites a child, the child believes all dogs will bite them. The smell of alcohol can trigger the breath of a rapist from 15 years prior. A loud sound can bring back images of war.
Not all triggers are from Capital “T” kinds of Trauma. Even small things that wound or hurt us, with a lower-case “t” for trauma, can create the same “triggering” response. The look on someone’s face can remind you of a time you felt really hurt by that person. Any negative memory paired with an undesired emotion can result in a “trigger” point and false belief about one’s value.
When the brain perceives danger it automatically goes into overdrive, or what we call the “fight or fight” response. Born purely from self-protection our heart-rate increases, eyes dilate and super-powered hormones are released into the body. When it turns out to be only perceived threat, we have left-over stress hormones that not only make us fat, but make us feel awful. Under normal circumstances, we have less “real” threat in our modern civilized society than we did millions of years ago. Without laws and cities to keep real threat at bay, our ancestors needed that animalistic instantaneous response to danger so they could survive. Today, we have the luxury of well-secured city zoo’s if we want to encounter the kind of danger they lived with every day. That said, it’s important to remember that our brain is only doing it’s job and working very hard to protect us when we are awake and heal us when we are asleep.
As stated above, the brain at rest, is constantly reorganizing and cleaning house. So those “frozen” memories are sometimes pulled out of the DVD cabinet and viewed for processing as the brain tries to make sense of the experience. When a memory has been fully processed, it is transformed from traumatic memory to meaning memory (from episodic memory to semantic memory). REM sleep is a critical part of this transformation. The problem is the brain must completely down-regulate the neurotransmitter system in order to go into REM sleep and this is challenging when sorting through events that don’t make sense. Sometimes traumatic memories heal on their own this way. Sometimes we just have nightmares. Either way, the brain will continue to try to heal itself.
EMDR therapy is one way these memories are healed quickly and intentionally. Instead of waiting on the natural healing, we consciously address and process the painful experience. While the treatment requires great effort and courage on behalf of the client, the results can be instantaneous and profound. Applying eye movements (or bi-lateral stimulation of the brain simulating REM), desensitizes the memory, experience or feeling. What has not yet happened in the encoding process occurs while we are awake and the emotional color of the memory begins to fade. What bothers someone at a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 can in 10 minutes only bother them at a 2. While it sounds too good to be true, much research has proven EMDR to be the preferred treatment for PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder).
EMDR does not erase the memory or make it never to have happened, it simply resets the emotional charge to neutral. This means instead of reliving horror movies with all the bells and whistles, we gain more objective distance from the event. Old triggers no longer have the power to make us react in ways inconsistent with who we are. A dog is just a dog and a loud sound is just a loud sound. The emotional color has been drained from the memory and reset to neutral or sometimes even to a more positive and empowering way of viewing the tragedy. We are then free to decide what we believe about ourselves from a place of peace instead of letting old memories color our view of self.
For a deeper understanding of how EMDR works see my post EMDR Explained.
Or check out my scoopit! online magazine about EMDR Therapy.
Current patients of Dr. Fuller may schedule a new session and view, update or cancel a future session. Please see instructions below. Click on the image below to login to Dr. Fuller’s Online Scheduling. Email Dr. Fuller (firstname.lastname@example.org) to get your username and password.
1. Login with your username and password provided by Dr. Fuller after the first visit. The login and password are case sensitive so please use only lowercase. If there is difficulty with login please notify Dr. Fuller by email. After successful login you may see all future appointments by selecting “Today’s Appointment.” To update, change or cancel click on the blue date and time of the scheduled appointment.
To Schedule a new appointment follow the instructions below.
2. Select the “schedule date” you want to have for the appointment and the “type of visit.” Type of visit will be couples or family, individual or therapy with a child or adolescent. Appointments will only be available on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday.
3. Click “Find Open Time Slot.”
4. If Dr. Fuller has an opening on that day it will list a box that looks like the one below.
***THE TIMES LISTED ARE IN 15 MINUTE INCREMENTS. THE SCHEDULE SHOWS ALL AVAILABLE TIME THAT DAY. In the example above Dr. Fuller has from 9-10 am open and 11-12 pm open. Read about Fees and Hours.
***PLEASE ONLY SCHEDULE ON THE HOUR OR HALF HOUR.
5. Select a time on the hour or half-hour. If you select 9:30 please ensure that 9:45, 10, and 10:15 are open as well. To schedule a 90 minute session 10:30 and 10:45 must be available as well. Dr. Fuller schedules 60 and 90 minute sessions for Individuals, families and couples therapy and 45 minute sessions for teens and children.
6. On the next screen, click “Book It.”
7. If you have
a future appointment scheduled it will be displayed as above.
PLEASE contact Dr. Fuller if there are any problems with the scheduling site by email: email@example.com or by phone or text at (832) 848-0870.