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Hurricane Harvey . . . . acute stress and PTSD

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

We are tired of dealing with the wrath of Harvey. It has been exhausting. We want our old lives back. We want to forget about what happened. But we can’t. No matter how hard we try, we can’t. Yesterday I went to the gym for the first time since the storm hit, trying to get back into normal routines. All of the TVs were showing things that made it impossible for me to put my mind elsewhere. Watching Irma swirl towards Florida sent shock waves through my body. I now know what it means to live through a devastating hurricane/flood and my heart was breaking for the people who were going to suffer. Driving around town I see shrubs covered with a grayish white film, showing where the water line was. I continue to hear helicopters and wonder what is happening, whereas in the past I would not pay attention to that sound. And when I pass by the Community Center, I no longer see a Community Center. All I see is the place where I was taking elderly women off of rescue boats, in the pouring rain, carrying them up the muddy hill, with their bag of pills, their walker and their cat in a cardboard box. And then there’s my rubber boots. Those nasty rubber boots that I wore for three days. I can’t look at them. They have been relegated to the garage, and I may have to throw them away, just like I did with the dress I wore to my mother’s funeral. Too many memories. We are all in a state of acute stress. There are painful reminders of what we are dealing with and what we have been through. People who had to be rescued have horrific memories that they will play over and over in their heads. For most of us who were not direct flood victims, we will gradually resume our normal lives, despite living with the annoying inconveniences I already talked about. Our triggers will simmer down and in time our acute stress will subside. For those whose lives have been turned upside down, there will still be many who manage just fine. I spoke with one man whose house flooded and he told me he and his wife would be fine. They both had good jobs and could afford to rebuild, even without flood insurance. He was mentally strong and had a vision of things being OK at some point in the future. But that won’t be the case for some members of our community. Some will develop full blown PTSD. They don’t have a sense that life will be OK. They are struggling, paralyzed by fear, and have no compass as to how they will move forward. Some of the people affected by the flood were not mentally strong to begin with. Many already had a mountain of problems. Some had past histories of childhood trauma that are now getting reactivated . . . they feel like trapped victims all over again. These are the people I worry about because they can’t cope with their new situation. And when we can’t cope we try to numb our feelings with substances or entertain thoughts of ending our life. It’s that painful. As we move out of our own acute stress reaction we need to be there for our most vulnerable neighbors. If you need additional support please get help. If you know or suspect that someone is struggling, please urge them to get help. Alysha Roll, has been compiling a list of resources and she has posted it on our website, and we will continue to update that list as we get new information. We, and other local therapists, are committed to helping our community recover.

Mary Beth George

Hurricane Harvey . . . feeling gratitude

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Gratitude – that’s the emotion of the day. My family and my business were spared the wrath of Harvey, and while I feel grateful for that, that is not what I am referring to. I am talking about my gratitude for all of the people coming out of the woodwork to help with recovery efforts. I am blown away by people’s generosity and kindness. We are helping an elderly couple with disabilities gut their home, and for a variety of reasons this has been no easy task. And just when I think I am going to lose my shit, some angels show up ready to work. A family with 6 children stopped to offer us a cold drink, and when they saw the mess we had they redirected their efforts and put the kids to work. Another person showed up and offered to bleach/power wash the entire house. Wow! People from Hudson and Hundreds Foundation showed up and worked their asses off. I went to Kroger to get more Gatorade for our helpers and the woman ahead of me in line paid for it. A friend from College Station sent a message about an apartment being offered for free. I don’t eat gluten, so much of the food being offered I cannot eat, but someone alerted me to a group that was distributing gluten free sandwiches. My father-in-law texted and said he is sending a big fat check. My BFF in Connecticut is collecting gift cards for me to distribute. We are reaching out to local therapists to join us in offering free counseling services and many have responded with an enthusiastic “Yes”. My 17-year old came out to help for the sixth straight day without complaint. My exhausted husband who had to work at his real job this evening, spent the day helping. AND THIS WAS JUST IN ONE DAY! If this hurricane has done one positive thing, it has restored my faith in humanity. I am on my knees in gratitude. My broken heart is being held together by the kindness of others.

Mary Beth George

Hurricane Harvey . . . my emotional meltdown

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

So where are everyone’s emotions today? Anyone affected directly or indirectly by the flood is going to experience lots of shifting emotions, and each day will be a little different. Yesterday was the first day I had a meltdown. The first several days were filled with an adrenaline rush to get people to safety, get them fed and in dry clothes. There was no time for tears. Every time I felt tears forming or a lump in my throat, I would quickly turn it off and get back to work. Then we moved into cleanup efforts, diving into the shit, literally. Again, we had to push emotions aside to get the job done. But yesterday was different because I had to go back to work. I stepped away from the energy of dealing with the flood and was forced to put my mind elsewhere. When I got home I checked Facebook, which BTW has been my lifeline for getting information, and saw several posts about KHS moving to Summer Creek. People’s comments reflected a shift in where they were in the grief process. The adrenaline is subsiding, as is the disbelief in what we are dealing with. People were trying to “bargain” and throw out ideas of how to keep kids in Kingwood, as if Humble ISD had not considered every viable option. And then there was anger. Anger at how their kids would be displaced, how their education might be compromised, and how life would be hard, very very hard. And then I watched the video of KHS, that frigging video that sent me over the edge. My son is a senior and goes to KPHS, but he was supposed to to got to KHS and we transferred before freshman year. We know the kids and families at KHS and my heart just broke as I watched in horror at the devastation. I sobbed and sobbed. All of the tears I held back all week came flowing out. There’s no more denying that what is happening is real, and it ain’t pretty. The reality we are facing is worthy of a big, fat meltdown. I think it is OK to let yourself fall apart a little right now. Let it out. Feel it to the depth of your core. Denying your grief only delays it. There is no getting around it, no matter how strong you think you are. We are moving through grief for our losses, and each day, possibly each hour will be a different emotion.

Hurricane Harvey . . . everyone’s emotional response will be different

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

I want to keep talking about mental health issues because there is not a person in our community that is not affected in some way emotionally. What I want us to think about today is that everyone will have a different emotional response to our current crisis. We need to understand that or we will be jumping into judgment and criticism very shortly, and that will make us lose that loving’ feeling that I am so liking right now. How people manage their emotions is on a continuum, with super over-feelers on one end and logical seemingly emotionless people on the other end. Super over-feelers feel emotion very intensely, and our current crisis is probably sending them into sensory overload that is emotionally painful. They are emotionally flooded and to cope with that they may be shutting down a bit, trying to avoid the pain. They may be posting blueberry cobbler recipes on Facebook instead of jumping into relief efforts. It’s not that they are heartless, but right now they don’t know how to manage their intense feelings so they will try to avoid them. On the other end of the continuum we have very logical, seemingly emotionless people. It seems like they are very disconnected from what is happening in our community. They are going about life as usual, going to the gym or working long hours at work, and not helping with relief efforts. These are people who don’t understand their own emotions, and if we don’t understand our own emotions it makes it very hard for us to deal with emotion in others. They may be offering very logical advice that lacks empathy, because logic is what they are good at. I am not knocking that – we need very logical people right now to help us solve some problems. But these people may be scared shitless to have to deal with someone’s intense pain right now because they don’t know how, so they can’t set foot in a flood victims house to help. The rest of us are in the mid-section of that continuum. We are coping the best we can, but truthfully we are off a bit too. I know I have been coping by eating crap and having a second glass of wine when I shouldn’t. As humans we are a quirky mix of the genes we were born with and the environment we grew up in. No one asked us where we wanted to be on that emotional continuum, so please, let’s all try to understand and not judge. It will help us keep that lovin’ feeling that is so abundant right now.

Mary Beth George

Hurricane Harvey . . . let’s keep talking mental health

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Let’s keep talking mental health . . . . We know that flood victims who lost everything have a high likelihood of developing PTSD. But we sometimes forget that first responders and people helping flood victims can also suffer the effects of secondary trauma. We have all seen disturbing images that will be burned into our memories forever. The sad stories we are hearing are making our hearts hurt. The smell of flooded homes is disgusting and no matter how much we will want to forget it, we won’t be able to. The sound of helicopters, sirens and emergency alerts may haunt us for a long time. Many of us have been working nonstop at relief efforts since the minute Harvey hit. We are exhausted. We may have “survivor guilt”. We may feel overwhelmed by the never ending list of people who need help. I know I “hit the wall” this morning. I need a break. I need to “put on my own oxygen mask first” as the saying goes. By taking some breaks we can recharge our batteries and be better able to serve. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are going to have to rebuild our community and that will take time and effort on all out parts. To avoid compassion fatigue we need to take breaks. We need to give ourselves permission for some self care. I am taking a bit of a break this morning to clean up my own house and go grocery shopping. While that doesn’t sound like fun, it will give me a much needed sense of order in my own life . . . and then I will be back out there this afternoon.

Mary Beth George

Defensiveness: One of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Monday, April 27th, 2015


The NFL draft is in a few days and some of the best prospects are defensive players.  Being a defensive player may be sought after in the world of football, but not so much in the world of intimate relationships.

Defensiveness is the way we protect ourself from a perceived attack.   We typically think of defensiveness as righteous indignation, which makes you feel very justified in your stance.  It is a way of blaming your partner by saying “I am not the problem, you are”.  We can also shoot out defensiveness to our partner by means of a venomous counterattack.  We keep score and make sure we stay ahead.   A less obvious way of being defensive is to to act like an innocent victim.  This is done by whining and making self-sacrificing statements, like “I guess I am just a terrible husband who can never get it right.”.  You don’t want to be blamed for anything so you assume all of the blame, not giving your partner any room to criticize or shame you further.

When you are defensive you have a hard time seeing your role in the conflict.  You can’t focus on your partner’s complaint or expression of painful emotions because you are too busy formulating your defensive strategy.  You become closed minded, squelching any chance of having a conversation that will help you work through a conflict or feel more emotionally connected to your partner.  Your partner is left feeling unheard, angry, and frustrated . . . very, very frustrated.

John Gottman has identified defensiveness as on the of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, meaning one of the patterns present in relationships that has the power to lead to divorce.  Defensiveness is destructive because we become more focused on ourself than our partner.  We find it impossible to admit any responsibility.  We see every flaw in our partner, but none in ourself.  When you can’t admit that you are not perfect and have room to grow, the relationship suffers greatly.

In relationships that work, couples down-regulate their defensiveness by being aware of their partners pain and remembering their love for that person.  They try very hard to listen to their partner and look for the grain of truth in their complaints.  They take responsibility for how they contributed to the problem.

The first step towards working on defensiveness is to realize that you are doing it.  You begin to recognize how your sensitivity, fears or feelings of inadequacy are interfering.  Then you must work on being able to listen to your partners complaints or pain.  While not always easy to do, you look for opportunities to truly understand what your partner is saying and get to a point where you can say, “I can see why you feel that way.”  When you can accept that your partner’s feelings are valid, even if they are different from your own, your partner will feel validated and understood.

When we are defensive we work on winning the battle, but unfortunately we may lose the war in the process.  When we work on our defensiveness we grow as a person, and our relationship has a chance to deepen and flourish.

 

Mary Beth George, MEd, LPC

Certified Gottman Therapist

Make Communication a Priority in Your Relationship

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

At the end of every initial couples therapy session I ask the couple to tell me what they hope to achieve by coming to counseling. The number one response is to improve communication. They have become ships passing in the night, no longer talking to one another.

Prior to leaving my office we must coordinate a time for the three of us to meet again.  The simple act of scheduling an appointment becomes telling of the pecking order in their relationship. The order is typically 1) work schedules, 2) children’s activities, 3) activities with friend’s or extended family members, 4) personal obligations like salon appointments or cross-fit, and finally 5) their relationship.

What does putting your relationship last on the list communicate to your partner?

When couples tell me they have a problem communicating, I am quite sure they are referring to conversation.  But the definition of communication according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “the act or process of using words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc., to someone else”.

It is true that happy couples talk more, but they also communicate caring, interest, respect and appreciation in myriad other ways throughout the week. How do they do it?

Drs. John and Julie Gottman followed up with couples who attended their Art & Science of Love Weekend Workshop. They found that successful couples reported devoting, on average, five hours per week to one another. Skills learned in the workshop taught them that little things can make a big difference. 1013774_10151678208280865_196800198_n

We all have competing obligations, but devoting five out of 168 hours is manageable for all couples once they make the health of their relationship a priority.

Here’s what happy couples do in those five hours:

1. Have a daily goodbye/parting ritual. Spend a few minutes talking about what each of you has going on that day. Being curious about what your partner has planned expresses interest in them.

2. Have a daily coming home/reunion ritual. Spend 10 minutes each communicating high and low points of the day.  Be supportive of the stressors your partner experienced and communicate warmth and understanding.

3.  Express fondness and admiration. Call, text, leave notes, or say it face-to-face, but find a few minutes each day to express what you like about your partner or what they are doing right.

4.  Be physically affectionate. Hold hands, snuggle on the couch or give a back rub. Be sure to kiss hello, goodbye, good night and good morning.  Physical affection conveys tenderness and caring.

5.  Have a weekly date.  Find time each week to devote a few hours to each other. Ask open ended questions and explore your partner’s thoughts and feelings on everything from where they want to go on vacation to what their biggest fears are.  Even if you can’t afford a sitter or expensive restaurant, sit out on the patio after the kids are in bed and devote time to one another. Dates are meant to be fun and relaxing and a way to re-connect.

6.  Process a fight or regrettable incident.  Even if it has been a rough week, don’t store up your anger and resentments by shutting down and turning away from your partner.  Process the deeper meaning of conflicts and you will be surprised by how much you learn about your partner and how you can feel more connected in the process.

The bottom line is, if you feel like you and your partner are not communicating well, expand your definition of communication and find five hours in your weekly schedule to devote to one another.

Mary Beth George, MEd, LPC

Certified Gottman Therapist

 

 

 

Is Facebook the Source of Relationship Problems?

Monday, August 18th, 2014

The recently published study of Facebook participants and how emotions can spread across social networks caused a big stir.  The researchers called it “emotional contagion”, meaning that our moods are affected by our friend’s posts.

That study is the tip of the iceberg on how social media affects us.  As a couple’s therapist I can tell you not a week goes by that I don’t hear the myriad ways Facebook impacts relationships.  And yes, that definitely affects your mood.

Here are some common scenarios . . .

1.  Singles often use Facebook as a free, online dating site.  You could meet new people through friends of friends or reignite an old flame. Meeting someone this way feels safer than engaging with total strangers.

The down side is everyone makes themselves look better on Facebook.  You miss body language, facial expressions and tone, three things that help us discern sincerity from deception.  Online communication often turns from platonic to flirty (or sexual) very quickly.  While that may be ego boosting, it can also cause poor decision making early in relationships as we can confuse lust for love.

2.  Facebook can be a source of relationship betrayal, and that includes everything from arousing feelings of jealousy to actual infidelity.

Our egos demand that we collect many Facebook friends, the higher the number, the better.  Problems arise when these friends are not friends of the couple.  Exes, co-workers and old friends are all targets of jealousy by your partner.  Commenting on how great your co-worker looks in her bikini seems innocent enough, but problems with trust almost always ensue.

Since it is easy to meet or re-connect with someone on Facebook, it is the genesis of many extra-relationship affairs.  Facebook is available 24/7, thus increasing the temptation to communicate.  It is easy to hide messages from your partner, and you can even change your password or block your partner from seeing your timeline.

3.  We all have curiosity about our exes when we break up, but Facebook makes it easy for us to keep tabs on them.  Why unfriend your ex when you can see their relationship status, where they are going, who they are with and how much fun they are having?  Facebook stalking is a form of throwing salt on your own wound.

It seems logical to point an accusing finger at Facebook for these relationship issues, but social media is not the the problem.  Poor boundaries, loss of friendship/romance, and lack of trust are the underlying causes of pain.

The internet provides convenience in all aspects of life, and that includes relationship issues.  Before social media we would “go the store to get milk” to create time to see our affair partner.  Now all we have to do is log on and that could be while we are in bed next to our spouse.  We used to have to drive by our exes apartment or workplace to keep tabs on them, but Facebook stalking is much more efficient.

The internet gives the illusion of secrecy so we say and do things we wouldn’t dream of saying in person, especially in the presence of our spouse. Making negative comparisons of your real life partner to a photoshopped Facebook picture makes the fantasy of a perfect partner feel more real.  But these things are major boundary violations in your relationship and help you to jump on the express train to infidelity.

If your relationship is suffering and Facebook is a central theme, it may be wise to dig below the surface.  Facebook is most likely a symptom of bigger problems.

Mary Beth George, MEd, LPC

Certified Gottman Therapist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Houston, We Have a Problem

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

This is Houston, say again, please. 

Houston, we have a problem . . . our marriage is failing and we need help . . . fast. 

Failure is not an option.

Forgive my embellishment of these famous movie quotes from Tom Hanks and Ed Harris in Apollo 13, one of my all-time favorite movies.  Having seen the flick at least a dozen times I never tire of the suspense, the drama, the teamwork and the fact that it is a true story.  It’s for the same reasons that I love working with couples.  Often they radio in with their crisis and hope that the expert can help them navigate back to safety.

But just like in the real Apollo 13 drama where the crew did not know if they would survive, we can’t always answer the frantic “Can you save my marriage?” call with a resounding yes.  Like the NASA team, we assess the situation and determine how bad the damage is.

In the course of that assessment we look for the predictors of divorce.  We observe the couple in their interaction to see if there is a sense of we-ness (a good sign) or a sense of me-ness (a warning sign).  Are they joining together or leading parallel lives?    We look for expressions fondness and admiration, as well as feelings of negativity.

In addition to keeping our eyes peeled on their patterns of interaction, we interview them extensively about the history of their relationship.  In the early 90s John Gottman conducted research that showed we can predict marriage stability by looking at how fondly or critically couples remember the course of their marriage.  Asking questions about how they met, their early dating phase, decision to commit, good times/bad times and how they traversed the course of their marriage over time gives us clues on how disillusioned they are about their relationship.  Gottman found that disillusionment and disappointment, especially in men, was the single most powerful predictor of divorce.

For example, if a husband was hopeful about marriage recovery he might recall their first date like this:  “I got lost going to the restaurant and I was so worried that she would think negatively of me.  She thought it was funny and we laughed the whole way . . . we figured it out together”. If he is disillusioned in the marriage he will rewrite history and remember it like this:  “I got lost on the way to the restaurant and I felt like she was laughing at me.  She never let me forget it and to this day she criticizes my sense of direction.”

This is valuable assessment data, but we don’t stop at assessment.  Gottman’s work has also given us preventative measures/antidotes to the problems that lead to such disillusionment.  Like the NASA team, we are eternal optimists.  We work with couples so they learn how to do a zillion small things in their relationship to help them “re-enter  the earth’s atmosphere without burning up”.

Mary Beth George, MEd, LPC

Certified Gottman Therapist

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turning Towards Your Partner Every Day

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

Much to my dismay, football, it seems, can be viewed any time of day or night, any season of the year.  Now I am not a football hater by any means.  In fact, I love watching the Aggies, the Nittany Lions, the Texans and of course my teenage son.  But I have my limits with the ad nauseam verbiage on ESPN . . . and that’s where my husband and I differ . . . a lot.

A while back we were on the couch.  I was reading my latest Nook book while he was engrossed in an ESPN story about a coach and a sex scandal.  I could tell he was excited about the words coming out of their mouths because he was talking back to the TV quite loudly.  And then all of a sudden he shifts in his seat and starts talking to me, telling me the details of the sexual tryst du jour.  Unprepared to shift gears from my book to his excitement, but being the good Gottman Couples Therapist that I am,  I knew I quickly had to make one of four choices:

  1. I could glance up, smile, nod my head and acknowledge he was speaking to me, and return to my book.
  2. I could put the book down and ask a few questions to get the latest dirt, joining in his excitement.
  3. I could keep reading and pretend I didn’t hear him.
  4. I could get angry for the unwanted interruption and say something harsh, like “Shut up, can’t you see I am reading?”.

Of course you all know that Number 2 is the best option for marital happiness, followed by Number 1.  These two options demonstrate what John Gottman calls “turning towards”.  Simply put, that means whenever our partner makes a bid for our attention we turn towards them in some way to let them know they were heard.  The second option outweighs the first because it is enthusiastic and more likely to generate lively conversation, a necessary ingredient in closely connected couples.

If I opted for Number 3 I would be “turning away” from my hubby and he would have had a failed bid for my attention.  This one failed bid would not be disastrous for my relationship, but over time if there were many failed bids, emotional distance would ensue.

Option Number 4 is an example of “turning against”.   Turning against his bid in a harsh manner would have indicated that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse were sharing the couch with us that day and we would most likely be headed for relationship disaster.

Turning towards your partners bids for attention is one of the best ways to keep the love alive.  During any given day your partner can make several bids, anything from telling you about their crappy day at work to their desire to have hot sex with you.  You always have a choice in your response . . . what kind of relationship do you want?

Mary Beth George, MEd, LPC

Certified Gottman Therapist


Couples Counseling and Psychotherapy Associates provides service to Kingwood, Humble, Atascocita, Porter, Fall Creek, Summerwood, North Houston and surrounding areas.

Couples Counseling & Psychotherapy Associates

2330 Timber Shadows Drive
Suite 106
Kingwood, Texas 77339
Ph: 281-812-7529

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