February 2014

When Love Is a Battlefield

Within the past few years, this country has brought home all of our troops from Iraq, and our soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan are expected to come home by the end of the year. As these brave men and women return to the United States, their homecomings are celebrated with waving flags, welcome home signs and joyful reunions. However, when the excitement of the homecoming wears off, veterans and their spouses end up dealing with some difficult times, especially among those who deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The National Center for PTSD has found that the divorce rate for veterans with PTSD is three times higher than for veterans without PTSD, and this statistic shows the devastating effect that trauma can have on marriages and other relationships.

PTSD is a diagnostic term for someone who has gone through a stressful event in their lives, which causes significant emotional reactions years later. Combat, acts of violence and physical injury are obvious traumas, but there are other kinds of trauma that may also leave emotional scars. Attachment traumas are disruptions in important early relationships that caused emotional distress and have a negative impact on future relationships. If one or both partners experienced emotional traumas in their families as children or teenagers, such as parents divorcing, the loss or abandonment of significant caretakers, even sibling rivalry, these may cause psychic wounds that affect future relationships. Many couples I see suffer in their marriages because past relationship traumas haven’t been analyzed and understood. The good news is that we have learned a lot about dealing with attachment trauma in the past several years. If your past is turning your own relationship into a combat zone, let’s take a look at a few things you can do to heal attachment trauma and turn it into an opportunity for personal growth and healthier relationships.

How Does Trauma Affect Relationships?

People who have experienced trauma often show symptoms of distress in regulating and managing their emotions. Communication is often difficult, and a lack of communication makes it hard to deal with common disputes let alone significant differences. Instead of opportunities for negotiation and self-expression, these disputes are experienced as re-traumatizing. Conflicts are likely to be avoided or intensified. Sexual dysfunction is also a common problem, which can add stress to any relationship. In some cases, individuals trying to cope with trauma turn to drugs or alcohol, which threatens to destroy any relationship.

Tips for Recovery

Of course, the first step to maintaining a successful marriage after a trauma is to recognize that the trauma is affecting your relationship. Once couples realize that their marriage is being negatively affected, they can begin moving forward. Here are some essential tips for keeping a marriage strong after going through a trauma.

Talk to Someone: One of the most important steps to keeping your marriage strong despite the trauma is to find a therapist you feel comfortable with. Individual therapy is important for the partner who has gone through the trauma, but couples therapy is also effective. Seeing a couple’s therapist can help the partner begin to understand what their spouse is going through, which is essential and effective. Psychoanalysts are trained to recognize how past traumas are repeated in current relationships.

Patience and Space: Therapy takes time to work, so flare ups or avoidance strategies may continue to occur for some time. To keep these relationship destroyers at bay requires space, support and containment. Try not to overreact. Be willing to give your spouse some space as they work through their past traumas. Empathy is critical. Try to understand how your partner feels even if you don’t agree or wouldn’t react in the same way.

Spend Time Together: Spending time together doing an activity that you both enjoy can act as a lifeline. Focusing on an activity can keep your minds off the problem and helps to rebuild your bond as a couple. Make time regularly to engage in an activity together, building new, positive memories that will help with the healing process.

A spouse that has gone through attachment trauma needs a strong relationship more than ever. Strong relationships boost self-esteem, offer emotional support and provide a sense of companionship. Avoid allowing a trauma to tear your marriage apart. Seek help from a professional and begin working towards a stronger relationship for both of you.

Winter Blues? Tips for Combating SAD

Much of the country was hit by record setting low temps and severe winter storms this year. From Montana to New York, the icy grip of severe weather has kept many of us stuck indoors and in a funk.  Several of my patients have complained recently of depression, low energy, lack of concentration, sleeplessness, weight gain and irritability.  When I mention it might be attributable to dark winter days and long winter nights, many are incredulous. But SAD is a real disorder and should not be ignored.

Winter weather may take a toll on your physical health, bringing with it flu, head colds, bronchitis and other respiratory conditions. But it can also wreck havoc with your mood.  These seasonal episodes of depression are known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as “winter blues” and they are fairly common.

SAD may creep up on you. Circadian rhythms—our daily, patterned biological processes, including our sleep cycle, may shift during the winter when the light-dark cycle changes. We may find ourselves sleepy in the middle of the day as light fades, and wakeful in early morning when the sun comes up.  These changes may destabilize our moods and affect our behavior.

The good news is that SAD is treatable. Like other types of depression, it responds to therapy and antidepressant medication.  Some specialists recommend light therapy to manipulate the light-dark cycle.

But, lifestyle changes may be equally effective.  Here are tips I’ve given my patients to help them get through the winter blues:

Tip #1 – Get outdoors.  Cold and wind may encourage hibernation, but don’t let it. Even a short amount of fresh air and natural light will combat SAD. 15-20 minutes daily is all you need.  On icy days, try looking up from your computer once in a while and gaze out the window! Even light through a window is better than the darkness.

Tip #2- Exercise.   Moving your body is one of the best ways to treat depression, so don’t let winter weather slow you down.  You can always go to the gym, put on a You Tube video in your apartment or dance to your favorite music.

Tip #3- Socialize.  Fight the urge to isolate and call a friend.  Better yet, invite someone for dinner, to watch a movie, play board games or just talk. I encourage my patients to bring back the old fashioned idea of “having company”.  It’s fun and it’s free.

Tip #4—Eat Right. They don’t call it “comfort food” for nothing.  Weight gain is a symptom of SAD, so don’t reach for junk food in place of healthy meals.  Each week stock up on healthy food and snacks for the week.  Planning ahead is the key.  If you are inclined to cook, try a healthy soup or stew. Nurture yourself.

If you are feeling sad, it might be SAD.  Check with your doctor if symptoms are severe, but know you are not alone.  Making an effort to stay healthy and engaged in this winter, will get us through until Spring.