Have you noticed your stress levels have been on the rise as a result of COVID-19? If so, you are certainly in good company. Anxiety is a natural response to the unknown, nature’s way of trying to protect us by pushing us to resolve the uncertainty and figure out a solution to the problem.
In a situation, such as a national pandemic, stress is the normal human reaction. Fear and anxiety about this disease can cause strong emotions in adults and children alike. With news of rising death tolls, massive job layoffs, and orders from government officials to “shelter in place” we may be left feeling a bit shaken. It does not help to keep hearing that hospitals are running short on supplies nor getting contradicting information from different news outlets on this novel coronavirus. People can struggle to know WHAT to even believe is true.
People with pre-existing anxiety and related disorders are *especially* likely to a have a hard time during the coronavirus crisis.
We all react differently to stressful situations. Social distancing and self-quarantine can test the strongest amongst us. Dealing with at-risk family members, a roller-coaster economy, trying to juggle work, keeping your children occupied, and homeschooling all can all be overwhelming. Just simply adjusting to a new, unfamiliar situation can negatively impact you. Moreover, none of us know when this is going to end, which just adds to the psychological distress.
Stress, while not only an unpleasant emotional state, can also weaken your immune system. Reducing your stress is one of the best ways you can deal with this crisis. Hence it is more important than ever to boost your coping skills in order to improve both your physical and mental well-being.
5 Steps to Manage Stress
1)Get sleep and rest. Everything gets amplified when we are sleep deprived. Getting enough rest is more important than ever for both your physical and mental well-being. It is important to be well-rested to deal with the additional stressors impacting our day to day lives.
2)Exercise. Gyms may be closed, but it is still possible to take walks, play with your kids/pets, and workout at home. Endorphins can help you feel better and maintain a positive attitude.
3)Maintain a healthy diet. A bad diet can impact your emotional state. Be sure to help regulate your blood sugar throughout the day which will keep you much more even keeled. Eating well to help manage anxiety is commonly prescribed by doctors and mental health professionals alike. Lifestyle changes are simple but powerful tools in mitigating anxiety and depression, and are an essential component of an integrated approach to mental health.
4)Connect with others. Just because we are quarantining, it does not mean we cannot make a point to connect with others regularly. Isolation and lack of social connection can lead to anxiety and depression Zoom, Facetime, Skype, etc. are all virtual platforms to be utilized to check in with friends and family.
5)Let go of your need for control. As humans, we tend to want to control over our lives. Coronavirus guidelines are very much OUT of our CONTROL. Meditating, journaling, and starting a mindfulness practice are all ways to develop our ability to cope with this trying time. It is important we learn to manage and accept our lack of control at it relates to this pandemic. Tolerating uncertainty makes you less vulnerable to anxiety. Start easing back on certainty-seeking behaviors in your daily life.
Following these steps to manage your stress can add a sense of normalcy to your life. Maintaining a routine is pivotal. As humans, we thrive when we have structure.
In addition, anxiety tends to rise proportionally to how much one tries to get rid of it. I always loved how Carl Jung said, “What you resist, persists.” People try to distract themselves by eating, drinking, self-medicating, or binge watching tv more than usual. They may seek out reassurance on the internet or from loved ones. Other people obsessively check news streams, hoping to calm their fears and seek answers to their questions. While these behaviors can help in the short term, they can make anxiety worse in the long term.
Allow your anxious feelings, thought, and physical sensations to wash over you, accepting that anxiety is a part of the human experience. We are all in this together. Often health threats can trigger this existential fear we all have within us of our own mortality. Take a moment to step back and remind yourself that you are more resilient that you think.
If you are not able to manage your anxiety or depression on your own, please know help is available. If you find you are struggling to maintain close relationships, take care of yourself or others, or that your anxiety is interfering with your daily responsibilities, you might want to get professional help from your doctor or a mental health professional. If you are feeling helpless during this stressful time, it may be time to speak with someone. As a counselor, I am providing tele-health sessions, as are many other providers. It is important to take care of yourself and others around you during this unprecedented time.
If you are struggling to cope during this time and would like to schedule a counseling session with me (***tele-health sessions ARE being covered by insurance**):
Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC
Anew Counseling Services LLC
617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649
The best way to not BE alone is to stand alone.
What do I mean? So many clients come to me and have experienced dysfunction in their childhood and felt lonely all their life. They haven’t had a chance or an opportunity to learn much about self-differentiation. In fact, they learned enmeshment, worried states, anxiety, trauma. Thus, being able to stand alone, which is so important for self-differentiation and relationships, is a must. It becomes a treatment goal.
Many people come into a counseling session and say, “I don’t want to focus on my past I just want to move forward.”
From my perspective as a clinician, it is VERY difficult to move forward with one or two hands tied behind your back. I think a lot of folks who try to put their past out of their thinking or state it is of no value or no importance to be bothered with are actually trying to grow and chance it with one handed tied behind their back (or for some people with BOTH hands tied behind their back).
Clients may respond, “But isn’t that just in the past? How is that affecting me now?” Maybe you don’t live with your family of origin now or may only see them but once or twice a year. Perhaps you have own children and are focused on the family you have created. Or maybe your parents are dead so in your mind, no need to bring up things from one’s childhood. Maybe you don’t believe in blaming your parents for what your current troubles are so you don’t even want to talk about them. Or perhaps you believe you came from a wonderful family, so why bother looking at the past. The reasons go on and on for why clients do not feel the need to discuss the past.
So why is the past important? Because it IS the present. It is STILL in US. In a way we have a lifelong dialogue with our family of origin in us. If you don’t believe that, you don’t have to. Yet most people I know are prisoners to their past or rebelling AGAINST their past.
They have not found a way to neutalize or detach from their past. Neither being a prisoner to one’s past or rebelling from it is FREEDOM.
I believe learning from and healing from our past is a way to navigate knowing yourself and how to interact with others. Working through your past is how you become free from the emotional traps that are playing out in your present life. I have seen it happen time and time again. I believe dealing with the past is the way to REAL change. It leads to self-differentiation, something most of us don’t have enough of, which causes most of our problems in life.
The past IS present and IN you. Most people try to move away from their past, yet the best way is to move THROUGH the past and BEYOND it.
Many people grow up and develop an addiction to love and approval. Whenever we have an addiction to something, we never can achieve it or have it. We are always just searching for it.
Remember, loneliness is a result or symptom of unresolved issues from childhood. I try to show clients that the solution is often NOT near the problem. So, when people try to solve the problem of loneliness, they often get stuck onto other relationships that end up falling apart leading them to feel abandon, left, and with the scars of broken relationships. Thus what they seek after doesn’t happen.
Many of us fear being lonely and abandoned. Often those of us fear being alone, already experience it. Our fear pushes us into unhealthy relationships where what we fear comes upon us.
It is often our own insecurity that causes our relationships to fail. We are enmeshed, we are reactive. We must resolve and deal with our fears to be healthier and have healthier relationships. This is a pivotal part of self-differentiation.
Standing alone with one’s self and giving up on one’s neediness for approval will result in true intimacy, true connectedness, and lifelong relationships. Self-differentiation is the key to connectedness.
The paradox of love and approval is if you need it you will not get it. If you let it go, it will come to you. If you really want it then don’t need it. It needs to become internalized to us.
Remember, standing alone is NOT the same thing as BEING ALONE. I believe the best way to be alone is to not stand alone. Self-abandonment is the root of all adult abandonment issues. We were abandoned when we were young and then we continue that abandonment and we continue that abandonment of ourselves–we then look for someone to fix that abandonment when that fix is inside us.
When we learn connectedness with ourselves, we can then in turn connect with others.
You must be a self to have healthy relationships. You must be able to stand alone to be with others. You need to be okay with yourself.
The goal in developing healthy relationships is to learn how to stop being so reactive. Our reactivity is what causes us to enmesh with those unhealthy people. Learn how to use your reactivity to learn new things about yourself and the relationship. Your reactivity can tell you a lot about how to proceed, what to do, and what to do with yourself. When I’m being reactive, I know it is not healthy and I am being immature. There is something deficient in me that causes this reactivity and I want to learn something about that.
How does one become less reactive and more self-differentiated?
To clarify, reactivity, as it relates to family systems theory, is when the emotional field of the relationship system “pings” one another and we become reactive as a result of it.
It is our deep emotional system that we often inherit from family of origin. It is often deep inside us.
Often it is subconscious and can be traced back to the pinging that went on within our family of origin. Now we can then in turn have conscious feelings that come as a result of being “pinged” but often how we act in relationships is automatic, subconscious, and reactive ways.
Therefore, it is important to explore this and work on becoming less reactive. Rather than dealing with feelings, which are important, we must focus on the primitive part of our emotional field that formed during our early years. It is here that our reactivity should be dealt with and resolved. If we want to have healthy relationships, we must do the work of working on our self and self-differentiation. We need to look at the underlying emotional field.
This emotional field is always working within us and is tricky. When it is triggered, we feel feelings and often “react” as opposed to “responding.” Often in counseling, a therapist will address a client’s “presenting” feelings but not address the client’s deeper “lizard brain” part of them–which is part of this emotional field. The lizard brain is the most primitive part of our self where we process feelings and emotions. If you change that lizard brain, you change that emotional field and you will change your sense of self. Basically, Bowen Family System theory is this view that the deep emotional part of us, the limbic part of us i.e. the lower brain, needs to get changed and it in turn we can feel more mature and less reactive.
Changing the emotional system is the way to make meaningful change as adults—emotionally, behaviorally, and in relationships. Yet oftentimes in our family of origin we have a “fixed role.”
This fixed role is the way we are expected to function and perform in our family. If we don’t comply, we are often made to feel guilt, shame, fear. If you don’t do way your family system wants, you may find your mother, father, etc. are disappointed in you and in turn they withhold their “conditional” love. With this conditional love being withheld, you will in subsequently feel abandon. Thus, oftentimes, we take the path of LEAST RESISTANCE—we continue to stay in these fixed roles despite it not making us happy.
Our choices often are a fight or flight response. We can come and be mad at our family. Or we can withdraw in reactivity and not come around anymore because we don’t want to confront everybody. One is too aggressive; one is too passive. We all find ourselves falling between those two sides when we can’t deal with the emotional minefield within us or playing out in our family of origin.
What do we do to become less reactive?
1)Observe. Work on observing not absorbing. We often absorb other people and relationship systems and then our functioning remains immature and the same. Observe the pinging rather than think “I’m JUST my feelings and you are JUST your feelings.”
2)Listen more. Listen to you, listen to others. Resist absorbing the other person and their feelings, take a think more and feel less focus, identify and break the family of origin beliefs/values/rules AND roles. We challenge those innately when we become self-differentiated. Our authentic self may go along with our family of origin’s values, rules, roles, etc. If it doesn’t, we begin to resist it, slowly, calmly, and maturely. Over time that changes our lower brain and our functioning, and we begin to become less reactive.
3)Focus on deep change and the hard work of changing your INSTINCTIVE brain to raise your level of self-differentiation. Change your emotional functioning position in your family of origin. Bowen always talked about our family of origin imprinting on us the most–that deep level, that family brain. When we begin to change how we function there it will begin to change how we function in every other relationship. Increase your awareness when you are pinged and function more independently. Meaning if I am pinged, I need to resist doing what the other wants me to do and be my authentic self.
4)Act to be more of a separate self. Embrace your emotionally reactivity and embrace your patterns of distancing, over focus on others. Remember it takes work to increase your emotional backbone and go without love and approval.
5)Deal with and resolve with your resistance to becoming a self. Oftentimes we have so many anxieties, fears about becoming our real self and we need to work on those. We need to work on those downsides of what we believe when we become a true self. If you can learn to resist the pull and push for you to remain in your allotted role in your family of origin and the powerful forces that want you to function as you always have, the system will eventually recalibrate to a higher level of functioning. This is best for everyone and will result in more authentic, healthier relationships.
If you are able to function at a higher level and be the more authentic you, many will not like that at first, including members of your family of origin. People find comfort in the familiar and may fight to keep you in the box they put you in. The key here is to allow the resistance phase and your family wanting you to change back. Eventually this will recalibrate your family and the relationship system. You will be more accepted–the newer you, the higher functioning, more authentic you.
6)Become more aware of your programing and emotional circuitry as you are connected to others—you ping them, they ping you. This holds true in all family systems. Begin to learn that system. You can then begin to make changes in it.
7)Define yourself—WHAT DO YOU WANT? WHAT DO YOU NEED? WHO ARE YOU? WHAT DO YOU PREFER? WHAT DO YOU CHOOSE? WHAT IS YOUR TRUE, AUTHENTIC SELF? That is who we want to be–it will calm our system down the more we choose to be that true, genuine self.
To become your true self requires strength of conviction, an understanding of the way family systems are organized, a sense of humor, and an ability to become more objective and strategic.
Start small in defining yourself with others and your family of origin. Become more authentic in small ways that don’t challenge the system so much while staying confident you. You want to choose you while also not rejecting them. Watch and observe resistance in the relationship system. You will get pushback. Either ignore or say WE ARE JUST DIFFERENT or that is what I choose.
7)Become more of your true self with each person in your life. Do more self-care. Become more authentic in relationships. Work on discovering the difference in your life between fact and feeling. Many of us feel/think. We just have those feelings and it causes us to think in a certain way. We want to be able to separate what is feeling as opposed to what is thinking. If we can separate our feeling and thinking processes, we will feel much more self-differentiated, calm, less reactive, etc.
8)Grieve the loss of love and approval. If we are addicted to love and approval, we need to grieve that because when we are being reactive, we are trying to get our “fix” of said love and approval. Visualize being supported by you. Give to yourself what your family of origin was not able to give to you. If I am behind me, then others don’t cause all these reactions in me as much. I can stand there and be me with other people.
Self-differentiation is achieving the balance of staying connected while being yourself.
9)Think about this is–if everyone left you and you were left alone, what would you choose to do? If I didn’t need the love and acceptance of others, what would I choose to do?
10)Work at being or standing alone when interacting with others. Is it okay to be an island? Some people say nobody is an island, but I say everyone is an island! The healthy ones have bridges, walkways, and ferries that bring people in and out of your life. Every healthy man or woman is. I don’t mean a cut off island but an interconnected island.
If you find you are struggling with being reactive, consider seeking out counseling to help you better yourself and form better relationships in your life.
If you find you are struggling with reactivity in YOUR LIFE and would like to schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):
Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC
Anew Counseling Services LLC
617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649
I am a big fan of family systems therapy—specifically Murray Bowen. One of the pivotal concepts he posits is differentiation of self. Level of differentiation of self can affect longevity, marital stability, reproduction, health, educational accomplishments, and occupational successes. This impact of differentiation on overall life functioning explains the marked variation that typically exists in the lives of the members of a multigenerational family (Bowen).
Bowen also explores how the most trying part of becoming emotionally healthy is not over functioning in our relationships.
What do I mean by “over functioning?” By over functioning I mean doing your part and the other person’s “part” in maintaining a relationship.
I think the best thing you can do for yourself and other people is allow them to grow up.
What does it mean to let everyone around you grow up? It means to allow people to be who they are without you swooping in. From a Bowen family perspective, a true “grown up” is a self-differentiated individual–a person who has allowed themselves to grow up and allowed the people in their life around them to grow up (or not grow up).
The truth is some people are not personality wise able to grow up–but most people can, and most people will.
Here are the steps to allowing everybody around you to grow up:
1)Stay connected to others but do not do MORE than your part. This is about knowing where you end and where others begin.
We learn this growing up in our family of origin—if we didn’t learn that well, we can always go back and learn it. Counseling is a great avenue in processing through this emotional minefield. It is not easy for people who grew up in dysfunctional families. The message of self-differentiation is I care about you but no I cannot do that–the message being I cannot do more than I can or want to. This is important for accomplishing self-differentiation.
2)Stop over functioning. If we attract underfunctioners–alcoholics, narcissists, takers, the self-absorbed, the immature, the needy, the demanding–we will be in a relationship system that pushes us to over function. We will find ourselves doing 150% or more of the work in the relationship. This allows these personality types to have a buffer to life’s realities. The truth is we give to others when we have that to give. But the truth is those of us who are overfunctioners, codependents, etc. tend to allow people to take from us when we DO NOT have it to give or do not WANT to give it.
Trying to be perfect is a form of over functioning. Perfectionism is a form of over functioning.
3)Stop figuring people out. The process of figuring people out is a form of over functioning. Now, I as a counselor, am in the business of “figuring people out.” But we should not do this in our personal relationships. We figure people out because they do not want to do the work of figuring themselves out. Sometimes we figure them out to be more self-differentiated but often we are figuring others out to further the over functioning in our relationships. It is unhealthy. Figuring people out in our lives is a form of enmeshment.
4)Stop over empathizing. Having and practicing empathy is not good for those who are not self-differentiated and well-defined (which is probably MOST of us). It is important to become more well-defined before we practice MORE empathy (hence why therapists are pushed to work through their own “stuff” to be effective in their practice). Focus on your thinking process, more than your feeling process to ensure you are not over functioning. Too often other people want us to over empathize and over sympathize to enable us to become enmeshed with them (remember, this is not a conscious process but subconscious). Do not over feel when it is the service of enabling or over functioning—a common issue with codependents. Start thinking more than feeling more.
5)Stop the enabling. Enabling is doing for others what they should do for themselves. It is taking the consequences or life lessons for others when they should be experiencing them themselves. Often, we over empathize and enable (especially with our children). In doing this, we are telling and sending them the message they can’t do life on their own–they are not strong enough, smart enough, capable enough leading to learned helplessness. Everybody has the same tasks in life as I do—we have to deal with unfairness, struggles, adversity, work, relationships, families, this is something we all have to deal with. NOBODY GETS TO OPT OUT and say nope, I can’t do it, so you need to do it! Our enabling helps and hurts at the same time. We often learn to enable at a very young age and from our family of origin. We need to root out this imprinting.
6)Focus on your own maturation process–your own self differentiation process. Look away from others and focus on yourself—certainly not in a selfish way but in a knowing yourself and becoming aware of yourself. We far too often become experts on OTHER people and NOT ourselves. Begin to become an expert on yourself!
Learn the lessons of self-differentiation. Learn more about that and how it works. When we are immature, we tend to focus on our fears and neediness AND others’ problems, issues, and immaturities. We need to get focused on OUR fears, our immaturity, and not get all focused on THE OTHER. We will be much more effective as people and be able to help in much more mature way.
7)Stop the one-sided relationships. If we have a relationship that is a combo of giver and taker, with us being the giver, this can become toxic and abusive. One sided relationships are the result of our low self-esteem, fear of abandonment, family of origin issues, fear of rejection, worthlessness, shame and reveal we are looking for love and acceptance from others –specifically others who are immature–no matter what the emotional cost to us. This is when it becomes a problem for us. WE CHOOSE RELATIONSHIPS THAT FIT OUR LEVEL OF SELF-DIFFERENTIATION OR OUR LOW SELF OR FEAR OF ABANDONMENT. Heal your self-esteem and you will heal your relationship choices and how you play your role in relationships.
8)Stop our illusions, naivety, fantasy thinking and feeling. We believe we can change others: FANTASY/NAIVETY. We believe we can make our parents be who we want them to be or fantasize if they will behave as we always wanted–an illusion. We put conditions on the relationship–if I only work harder, than THIS GOOD will come of it. If I do more, love more, become more–whatever the more “is,” I will change my spouse, my parent, my child, etc. No! Those are illusions. We need to root out the nativity in us. Learning about your own naivety is a good way to grow up. We continue to believe we have self-worth when everything points to us not having self-worth–this is denial. Our unresolved family of origin issues make us naive and immature because that is the family system, we grew up in. It is still inside of us regardless of our chronological age. To allow others to grow up, we FIRST must deal with our illusions and fantasy thinking.
9)Step down so other people can step up. Use the under functioning leverage for others to step up. Intentionally try to under function. This places the pressure, pinging, and systemic pressure on the other to step up. Or not. THEY MAY NOT. But the pressure is on THEM to GROW UP. If they don’t choose to, it is time for you to start dealing with your illusions and beliefs about the other. The best way to find out if they can change is you step down so they can step up. If they are not going to STEP UP that tells you something very important which you may not want to hear or know. But is important to our emotional health.
10)Get out of others way. If you’re a caretaker, fixer, overfunctioner, you’re getting in the way of others’ lives. The universe is trying to speak to them to grow up and be more mature and stop under functioning. We get in their way by stepping up too much.
11)Stop defending yourself with others. Defending yourself is a way that you enable other people not to look at themselves. Whenever you defend yourself, others don’t have to look at themselves because you are filling up all the noise with your defensiveness. Your defensiveness only furthers their denial and keeps the focus on you not them. Defending yourself will not bring about change in others but only will reinforce you on low self-image. REMEMBER DEFENDING YOURSELF EQUATES WITH ENMESHMENT. Do anything but defend yourself with those who do not want to grow up. Behave with boundaries, maturity, and calmly. More talking, more defensiveness, more explaining will only stress you out more and not accomplish your goal with the immature around you who do not want to grow up. If you stop the defending, they must deal with you and the situation more.
12)Exit triangles. Triangles are formed to keep the immature around us from growing up. If you told the other, time and time again, something you want them to know or understand and then you go to a third party and go communicate these things—now we have a triangle. Triangles are fundamentally unhealthy in relationships especially in families.
Remember a person can have all the trappings of adult life–marriage, mortgage, career, kids. This does mean they are an emotional grown up.
Letting someone grow up is the BEST gift you can give someone. Letting yourself grow up in the best give you can give yourself.
These are just a few steps in the process of differentiation but there are probably many more. If you find you are struggling with any of the components of being an emotional grown up, counseling can be a great way to explore the differentiation of self-process.
If you find you are struggling with a self-differentiation in YOUR LIFE and would like to schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):
Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC
Anew Counseling Services LLC
617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649