Though it's not developing at the break-neck speed of the physical or biological sciences, research is developing our understanding of what helps relationships to work, and why. As a couple's counsellor or therapist I was reading the research summarised below to help me to help the couples I work with, though you may find that you can directly apply these findings to your own relationship and get some benefits. Research summarised in psychology today affirms that couple's therapy does work, and looks at first factors that give the most benefit.
Though this is a list for couples therapists, none of it is anything that you can't improve on your own. On the other hand, if you would like a helping hand with this, please get in touch with us!
Leaving or needing to leave a relationship is a frequent reason for people to seek psychotherapy or counselling. For some people the process of ending a relationship, though painful, is relatively straightforward, and certainly does not require therapy. However for others, the process is agonising, protracted, and can even be disabling in terms of a person's ability to work, care for themselves, or maintain other important relationships.
Recent research suggests that addictive processes may be involved, for those who struggle severely with ending relationships. Particularly early on, relationships can trigger the dopamine system in our brain - that's the pleasure center that makes us feel really good. Drugs like cocaine similarly stimulate the dopamine center of our brains. The researchers of this study have wondered if the task of leaving a relationship or "falling out of love", for some, might be the equivalent of an addict giving up cocaine.
While I don't know enough about neuroscience to critique the research, certainly subjective addiction related feelings of craving, difficulty with self soothing, and obsessive focus on the substance (or person) of addiction rings true. If leaving an addictive relationship is like giving up a drug habit, then perhaps the following common features of counselling or therapy for addictions might be helpful for some:
Motivational interviewing: The therapist does not take sides about the need to leave or stay in the relationship (in contrast to friends and family who probably have strongly expressed opinions), but helps the client to come to their own decision based on weighing up the alternatives in a personal way.
Relapse prevention: Going back to an addictive relationship is common. Having a relapse prevention plan may help by identifying triggers, such as loneliness or comparisons with others who are in relationships, and making practical plans for coping with these feelings.
A supportive therapeutic relationship: Just as addiction is often isolating, and accompanied by immense shame, sometimes people feel ashamed of their difficulty leaving a relationship, and may have become isolated from supportive friends. A warm and non-judgmental therapeutic relationship can form a regular stable base in a person's life, from which they can make the courageous changes they wish to make.
A recent research study summarised here in Science Daily has found mindfulness based cognitive behavioural therapy to be more effective than ongoing use of antidepressants to reduce the risk of people relapsing into depression. This is a significant finding, because four fifths of people who suffer from an episode of depression will relapse into another episode at some point in their life.
To be fair, the differences between mindfulness based therapy and medications was not statistically significant. However, even if the two treatments are equally effective, as might well be the case, this will still be significant for many people. Many people do not like to take psychiatric medication, either due to side-effects of the medication, or due to a wish to be pro-active rather than relaying on a pill. The alternative, that of doing eight 2.25 hour long group sessions, with the option of four sessions of follow up over the two years, is not onerous. Furthermore, some participants reported feeling empowered by learning mindfulness skills - something I've never heard in relation to taking medication.
Whilst both options can be effective, it's nice to hear alternatives to medication validated, as well as the transformative power of mindfulness.
Finding motivation and staying motivated for change can be hard. Whether you're trying to lose weight, improve your work performance, or become more focused in your sports training, these tips can help. How do we know this? These principles are drawn from a form of psychotherapy or counselling called motivational interviewing. The evidence shows that it can help with the hardest of changes, like getting an alcoholic to stop drinking, a heroin addict to stop shooting up, or even with stopping smoking cigarettes (which is more addictive than alcohol or heroin!) If this approach can work with these issues, then do you think that maybe it can help get you to the gym? You might want to try these tips in the order presented.
Tip 1: Explore the Ambivalence
Be honest, you want this change that you're thinking of, but you also don't want it. Change would be nice. If you get fit you might feel healthier, more sexy, your mood might improve from the endorphins, you might attract a partner, and lots of other benefits. Make a list of all of the benefits of making the change you want.
BUT! Making this change also won't be nice. Exercise is hard. At times you won't feel like it. You might feel awkward at first, or might be afraid of failure. Make a list of all of the reasons not to make this change. Be honest, there's a reason you haven't done it yet.
Now sit back and weigh up the pros and cons of change. It's not a guarantee that you'll pick change, but it will probably help you to move out of stuck ambivalence, which is tiring and frustrating.
Tip 2: Feel the Discrepancy Between How Things are and How You'd Like Them to Be
Our motivation comes from this discrepancy - things aren't how we'd like them to be... otherwise, we'd have no motivation to change. Spend some time reflecting on, or telling a friend about how things are and how you'd like them to be. You might start with the facts of the situation, but what really motivates us is feelings. When you can feel your dissatisfaction, rather than ignoring it, you're much closer to being ready to change. This might be a bit painful or scary or frustrating, but if you're focusing on something that's good for you, it may be worth it.
Tip 3: Focus on What's Possible
You might have done the above two steps and feel really fired up about making your change, but not do the necessary actions to make that change real. Why? If you don't think it's possible for you to succeed, you probably won't try. Make a small, realistic goal, or problem solve the challenges until you feel confident enough to actually try.
Good luck for making your changes!
Spirituality or religion, and the science of psychology have in general not been good friends, at least in Western countries. From the beginning with Freud's radical attacks on religiosity for it's censoring and punitive aspects, to the later behavioural revolution that tried to sideline everything personal about a person (let along anything as difficult to observe or quantify as religion or spirituality), religion and psychology have often been at war.
Thankfully this is changing. This article nicely summarises research that makes the religion vs psychology debate more nuanced. Formal religiosity itself is mildly protective against depression, but in particular shared personal spirituality between a mother and daughter has a staggering 80% rate of effectiveness in protecting daughters from experiencing depression, in families that are vulnerable to depression. This rate of effectiveness is higher than any form of therapy or medication available today.
Here's the catch though. Attending church doesn't in of itself get you that benefit, which is predicated on personal relationship with a form of spirituality, not going through the motions or dogmatic adherence to scripture. Parents can make use of these insights by being supportive of an engaged with healthy spirituality in their children. But what about psychotherapists and counselors who are often the ones who are engaging adolescents who are experiencing some form of depression?
What I've taken from this is that it could be helpful to check myself in my therapeutic practice. Am I being open to my client's expressions of spirituality and religiousness, and do I make use of these strengths in the therapeutic work?
Like many of us, over Easter I got away from Christchurch to take a break, and to get a bit of the nature cure. As it does for lots of us, it worked for me, but I also feel that I got some more insight into how we relate to our environment, particularly those of us who have more environmentalist tendencies.
I was looking out over a lake at the view, and began to notice the wind pick up very quickly. This disturbed my reverie. I began to watch the people on the beach below me take cover. Boats out on the water adjusted their course. The trees began to sigh and whistle in the wind. It was then that I got it: rather than my normal environmental thinking that the earth is fragile, and that frankly there are more than enough of us humans to go around, I shifted my thinking.
Maybe it was the vastness of the high country landscape, or the fierceness of the wind, or the human response to take cover. The earth and it's ecosystems are robust, and will survive (albeit changed) us humans, however much environmental havoc we may create. We humans are vulnerable, with precariously teetering economies, ultra specific needs for lifestyles and health, and a sense of cultural harmony and good will that is fragile at the best of times.
Perhaps that is why psychotherapy and counselling are useful for addressing environmental issues - or at least another reason for it's value. Psychotherapy, the art and science of working with human vulnerability, is exquisitely attuned to working with the ways we deny or guard our vulnerabilities - and the consequences of this.
So, if you find yourself as an environmentalist assuming your own robustness, and projecting your vulnerability onto the earth, then try turning it on it's head. See if you feel more refreshed and human, and maybe even feel a bit warmer towards not only yourself, but the rest of the human race!