So Much Commotion Over Emotion

So Much Commotion over Emotions

by Adam Maurer, LPC, LMFT, LGBT Therapist

When was the last time you hurled nasty words at your honeybun during a fight?  What vile words did you string together to really zing ’em?  What was it like after all the venom was spewed?  Tense? Quiet? Avoided?  It is a fascinating phenomenon to me. We choose to be with a person, possibly even going so far as to make a commitment to that person on the holy ground in front or friends and family, and BAM! One day we are sinking our fangs into them because they didn’t load the dishwasher correctly. So how did the dishwasher, or whatever dumb catalyst, get two people who once literally made vows to care for each other to suddenly treat one another so terribly?  I think part of the answer is: emotions.  Emotions can be tricky to understand ourselves, and adding another person to the equation can increase the likelihood of chaos.  When emotional escalation happens between two or more people the sparks can really fly.  So, to help keep from lashing out at loved ones let’s take a look at emotions to better understand how they work within us and how to express them in ways that build intimacy with the ones we love.

Emotions Are Typically Mixed

It is rare for us to feel one solo feeling at a time.  People are complex and we often feel a mixture of emotions at the same time, sometimes even contradictory ones.  To recognize all that you might be feeling at the moment think of your emotional makeup to be like a pie chart.  Try to recognize all the emotions you are experiencing and which ones take up the most space.  A part of you can feel sad while a larger part of you feels anxious.  Taking time to recognize your complex emotional state can help you better communicate with your partner.  Hearing that someone is angry with you can be challenging, so hearing the mixture of emotions happening within you might help your love-bug to hear you rather than become defensive.

Emotions Can Be Difficult to Identify

Sometimes identifying the emotions you’re feeling can seem impossible.  While some folks can easily identify their many feelings, others find that they get stuck.  Finding the right words can be a challenge, so take a gander at these resources that offer some organization to label your feelings.

Intensity of Feelings Chart


If you are unable to articulate your feelings with words you might try to describe how it feels in your body to a supportive person.  Mrs. White (played by Madeline Kahn) does a wonderful job of this in the movie “Clue.” ( ) As you use curiosity to guide your exploration of your bodily sensations with a supportive listener, they can help you pinpoint what you might be experiencing.  As you identify your emotions you can ask yourself what the emotion is trying to do for you so that you can address the issue rather than becoming overwhelmed when the emotion fires off during a moment of conflict.

Emotional Intensity Does Not Last Forever

Emotions can be intense and fear of their intensity can lead to avoiding them.  Unfortunately, avoided emotions tend to find a way to be heard, whether we want them to or not.  So, take relief in the fact that emotional intensity does not remain at the same level after you begin to process your feelings.  Eventually, you’ll understand what your feeling and why; and the emotion will not have to bark so loud to be heard.  Before you blast your partner with a zinger, consider if you have fully processed your feelings or if you are simply at the peak of the intensity.

Difficult Emotions Can Help Us

Difficult emotions can actually help us feel better in a number of ways.  If your mood is lower than you ever want to feel, then imagine the bond that can be developed when a loved one reaches out to you with empathy.  Your sweetheart might not be able to alter your difficult mood, but a connection becomes formed.  To be loved and supported when we have nothing to offer, it lets us know that we are valued just as we are; which can actually help us feel better about ourselves and our relationships.  Also, when you express a challenging emotion you have about your partner and they are able to hear your complaint and meet it with compassion, you are not only heard but you have the opportunity to have an amends made; strengthening the relationship.  To help keep conversations about difficult emotions towards your sugar-bee from becoming a battle of who can say the most contemptuous hurtful thing remember these tips:

1) TOUCH!  Hold hands or hug for twenty or more seconds before the conversation (or anytime negative emotions try to take over your) and you will find it much more difficult to sour.

2) Remind yourself of your partner’s positive attributes and how they have supported you in the past.  Doing so will help you feel like you are on a team, fighting against whatever challenges you are facing.

3) If the conversation starts to get heated, STOP.  Talk about taking some time to soothe yourselves and coming back together to try again.

4) Remember HALT.  If you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired then address those needs before having a potential volatile conversation.  Doing so will help you better manage your emotions in the moment.Just ask my husband, if I’m hungry he knows this lady NEEDS to eat or the beast will be unleashed.

5) If you do erupt into a fight, wait for things to cool off and talk about it.  Take responsibility for your part and work together to avoid the same mistakes in communication.

Emotions can be tricky and with a little work, you can learn how to manage them within yourself and your relationship.  As you practice these tips give yourself permission to make mistakes, no one is flawless (except maybe Beyoncé).  If you or your partner (or partners) find it too challenging to work with emotion then a therapist can help.  The perspective of an expert offers a break from old patterns, allowing you to make emotions work for your life and your love.  So, give us a call today to make a counseling appointment and help your relationship grow. If you would like more information prior to making your decision, you can read about couples counseling on our dedicated page.

If you liked this, you might also like Relationship Lessons I Learned From My Dog, Solutions Aren’t Everything: Strengthening Relationships Through Reflecting and Feeling, and What To Expect From Marriage Counseling.

Why Do We Get Nervous

Why Do We Get Nervous?

When I talk to clients about anxiety, I often hear stories of people feeling like they are drowning in anxiety. When you feel this way, it’s hard not to want to never feel this way again but anxiety is actually a healthy thing. Kevin Fall, PhD, once described anxiety being like fire for when you are cooking. A little is good but too much and it burns things quickly. Below is an interesting short video on the science behind what happens in our body when we get nervous.

What’s the difference between being nervous and having anxiety?

Nervousness is a normal state that affects all of us when something threatens our system. This could be a job interview, performing on stage, or giving a speech. When your nervousness becomes irrational, feels overpowering, and possibly even prevents you from participating in everyday life situations, then you may be experiencing anxiety.

What to do when you feel anxious?

One of the most important parts of nervous anxiety is to try and understand the sources. The analogy I will use is one of a two liter Coke on a car ride home. If you open up your Coke when you get home and it spews over, you would likely think about the pothole you hit on the way home, the sudden stops, etc. Our body can be very similar to this as we pressurize too from different events that jolt us over the day. In the moment, they may not seem like much, but that pressure can build. This varies a lot from person to person but there tend to be micro and macro triggers behind our stressors and the first step tends to be identifying them if we haven’t already. Journaling, tools like Optimism Online, and even an Apple Watch (keeping track of your pulse) can help you with this process.

The second step involves a process of grounding yourself as anxiety comes up. Breathing exercises can be very helpful and so can exercise. Below are a few that might be helpful to you:

  • 5-2-5 Count: Using your stomach, inhale for a count of 5 seconds. Then, at your maximal point of inhalation (the point where you feel you can’t breathe in any more) hold your breath for a count of 2 seconds. Then, exhale all the built up air over another count of 5 seconds. This cycle should be repeated twice, followed by 5 cycles of breathing normally. The overall point of this exercise, and why it’s proven to be effective as panic attack treatment, is because it focuses the person on breathing – and the process that pertains to it –instead of focusing on the intense fear and anxiety caused by the panic attack.
  • Physical Exercise: Although this isn’t directly a breathing exercise, it is one of the best methods of panic attack treatment. Doctors suggest working out 30 minutes a day will reduce the onset of panic attacks. It’s more of a natural habit (like sleeping and eating healthy) that tends to lead to a healthier and more ordered mind.

Counseling can get into the deeper underlying issues. I see this a lot with people going through stress, PTSD, and transition in their lives. This could be do to a divorce or things that they aren’t even aware of on a conscious level like being unhappy with a job not realizing it till they have symptoms of the stress manifesting through things like panic attacks. Counseling can dig deeper down into these issues and help lead to insights which will reduce stain and implement improved coping mechanisms. If you choose to try counseling, I suggest you sample several counselors and see who feels like the right fit for you. If you don’t feel like it is the right fit, you aren’t going to do good work.

Medication can be a piece of the puzzle for successful treatment but many times it will only treat the symptom and not the problem. Many doctors will prescribe things like Xanax for panic attacks but people can become addicted to drugs in the class very easily and it is very short acting. For anyone struggling with panic attacks I would suggest they consult with a well reviewed psychiatrist for a medical evaluation. General practitioners like your family doctor are not as experienced in issues like this and may miss things or misdiagnose what may be obvious to a psychiatrist.

If you have any specific questions that we may be able to help with, don’t hesitate to let us know! You can contact us to make a counseling appointment and check out anxiety counseling for more information. Want to read more about anxiety? Read some of our articles on how to manage anxiety and stress:

How to cope in our crazy world

How to Cope in Our Crazy World

by Margaret Fiero

Nonstop shelling in Gaza, Ebola outbreak, a passenger plane being shot down in Ukraine, ISIS making  Al Qaeda look like the Lion’s Club, natural disasters occurring with an alarming frequency… at times it feels like the world’s crumbling around our ears.  These tragedies are difficult for those with robust mental health to contemplate. Those who grapple with mental illness often face even greater challenges dealing with world strife.

Individuals affected by depression and anxiety may experience a sort of tunnel vision, in which they have a hard time seeing a broader perspective. An onslaught of negative news can feed into that narrowed view, compounding feelings of despair and doom. It is natural to feel helpless during times of tragedy, as if the problems we encounter in the news are too big to comprehend, let alone solve. Individuals struggling with mental illness may take those feelings a step further through personalization, which may involve feeling as though they should be doing more, or feeling guilty, as if they can’t enjoy life in the midst of so much suffering.

It’s normal to feel some anxiety, fear and sadness in trying times. These feelings are part of what it means to be an empathetic human, so consider it healthy to reflect on the world around you, rather than just pretending everything is hunky-dory. This doesn’t mean you should let yourself fall down a rabbit hole of internet sensationalism, just that there’s a happy medium between complete disengagement and morbid fascination. Here are a few suggestions on how to cope with traumatic world events:

1) Take your news in bites: Media outlets need to push the envelope on their news delivery to get the ratings they want. It’s our job as savvy consumers not to get sucked into the sludge. Some in the mental health community may advocate taking an occasional “news fast.” If media coverage of events is affecting your functioning, by all means, take a break. If you’re upset by the state of the world but want to remain an informed citizen, I would advise checking into the hourly newscasts on NPR, which are short and stick to the most important facts. For something more comprehensive, try The Week,  a magazine that summarizes the biggest news of the prior seven days. Sometimes it can be easier to stomach the news through print or on the radio, as opposed to viewing disturbing images on TV.

2) Show compassion to others AND yourself. You might be tempted to feel guilty for your relatively comfortable existence, or regret that you should be doing more, but these are the times when you the best thing to do is focus on being grateful for the life you have. Maybe I’ve been living in Austin too long, but my advice would be to live in the now, avoid living in the past, live life to the fullest, and show kindness to strangers, loved ones, and yourself. Enjoy your health, your safety, those who are dear to you and your community. You may not be able to save the world, but you can “give back” by volunteering, donating to causes, being an activist, and/or sowing peace through your interactions with others and yourself. To cite the oft-quoted Gandhi line, “Peace begins with me.”

3) Seek professional help from a therapist if needed. Signs that you may be experiencing more anxiety and depression than normal include symptoms of panic attacks, chronic sleep issues, extreme fears, preoccupation with traumatic events, and self-medicating with alcohol and/or drugs. Make your mental health your priority and talk to someone sooner rather than later. If you feel that your or a loved one need help immediately, do not hesitate to make a counseling appointment. We have a skilled team of clinicians with expertise in many areas. You can also get more information from our adult counseling page. For more information on anxiety, you can also read Why You Should Understand Your Anxiety and Can You Talk Your Way into Anxiety?

photo credit: Stephen Poff via photopin cc

The Simplest Way to Overcome Anxiety and Depression

The Simplest Way to Overcome Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression can be debilitating. Both cause distress, impair your daily functioning, make it difficult for you to work towards your goals, and interfere with your sleep and appetite. Furthermore, both prevent you from doing the activities you used to enjoy. Depression can make people too tired, sad, and hopeless to initiate previously rewarding activities, while anxiety renders individuals too fearful. Unfortunately, with so much overlap between the two ailments, is it all too common for people to suffer from both simultaneously.

Luckily, there is an upside to this fact: Due to the similarities between depression and anxiety, it is also possible to treat them concurrently. Often, clients of mine express the belief that they need to become happier or calmer before they are once again able to delight in former pastimes or new passions. Happily, research indicates that it can be done the other way around. Studies show that people are primarily successful in alleviating anxiety and depression by merely engaging in rewarding activities – be they past hobbies or new pastimes. Psychologists call this straightforward technique behavioral activation. One study of individuals hospitalized with depression and anxiety disorders showed that participants who utilized this simple strategy reduced their depression scores by over 45 percent in just two weeks while the members of the control group saw only a 19 percent improvement (Hopko et al., 2003). Another study concluded that behavioral activation was as effective as antidepressant medication and more efficient than cognitive therapy in treating severe depression (Dimidjian, 2006).

Due to its simplicity and effectiveness, there are many different variations of the behavioral activation technique. One method to write down a list of enjoyable activities in order from easiest to most difficult to initiate and then to progress through the hierarchy in this order.  For example:

Level One

  • Play with the dog
  • Make the bed
  • Talk to a family member on the phone
  • Take a shower

Level Two

  • Call a close friend
  • Go for a walk
  • Wave to a neighbor
  • Cook a meal
  • Read a book

Level Three

  • Exercise at the gym or yoga studio
  • Go to lunch with a friend
  • Meditate or pray
  • Write in a journal

Level Four

  • Go to dinner with a group of people
  • Participate in a Spanish conversation group
  • Paint a picture
  • Join a volunteer group
  • Go hiking and camping

Level Five

  • Attend the office holiday party
  • Go on a date
  • Take a salsa dancing class
  • Take a trip out of the country

This particular style of behavioral activation is my favorite because accomplishing the least intimidating tasks on the list provides a sense of self-efficacy that makes it a whole lot easier to attempt the more daunting activities. I also like it because it very closely resembles an extremely effective treatment technique for overcoming social anxiety – systematic desensitization via progressing through a hierarchy of social activities beginning with the easiest, like grabbing lunch with a close and trusted friend, and ending with the most anxiety-provoking, such as speaking in front of a large group of people.

Although part of the beauty of behavioral activation is its simplicity, it is still a journey that can be daunting and confusing at times. To optimize your experience with this technique – and your success – partner with a counselor. Before you know it, you might be smiling ear-to-ear as you rediscover a former hobby or delight in a new passion – all while bidding farewell to the dark cloud of depression and anxiety. If you are in Austin and find yourself in need of anxiety counseling or depression counseling, you can contact use to make a counseling appointment so we can help you to break free.

If you liked this blog post, also read “Minimize Anxiety & Depression By Living In The Now” or “A Holistic View On Health.”

For a more detailed look at behavioral activation, check out this manual:

Hopko, D.R.; Lejuez, C.W.; Lepage, J.P.; Hopko, S.D. & McNeil, D.W. (2004). “A Brief Behavioral Activation Treatment for Depression.” Behavior Modification 27 (4): 458–469.doi:10.1177/0145445503255489

Other Sources:

Dimidjian, S., Hollon, S. D., Dobson, K. S., Schmaling, K. B., Kohlenberg, R. J., Addis, M. E., & Jacobson, N. S. (2006). Randomized trial of behavioral activation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressant medication in the acute treatment of adults with major depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 74(4), 658.

Hopko, D. R., Lejuez, C. W., Lepage, J. P., Hopko, S. D., & McNeil, D. W. (2003). A Brief Behavioral Activation Treatment for Depression A Randomized Pilot Trial within an Inpatient Psychiatric Hospital. Behavior modification, 27(4), 458-469.

Hopko, D. R., Lejuez, C. W., & Robertson, S. M. (2006). Behavioral activation for anxiety disorders. Behavior Analyst Today, 7(2), 212-233.