Most of us experience it from time to time: the sense that our level of stress has exceeded our capacity for coping. People vary in their capacities to deal with stress, of course. Some people are able to soldier on through great difficulties without feeling beleaguered, while others – especially sensitive people – may find themselves responding with a high degree of emotionality to life’s ups and downs.
The feeling of being overwhelmed is more than an intellectual sensation. We experience this sort of stress in the body. The chest may tighten or muscles ache. Maybe we find ourselves feeling flushed, or our stomachs become queasy. The challenge for many people is that these physical sensations are so uncomfortable they add to the sense of anxiety, and the situation just gets worse.
What to do if you find yourself in this sort of place? Start by noticing what is going on in your body. Take a few deep, slow breaths. Deep, slow breathing triggers the body’s relaxation response. Consider getting outside to go for a walk to interrupt the buildup of discomfort and to change your surroundings – to literally change your point of view. And exercise may help build our capacity to handle stress.
Notice what you’re thinking. If you are worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, and which might never happen, you’re borrowing trouble. Our minds often scan the horizon, looking for danger. While this is helpful in some situations, in others it most definitely is not. Notice if you’re becoming your own worst enemy.
Change what you can. Are there things you can do that would make the situation better? Sometimes confronting what’s worrying us is a practical way to ease our distress. If you’re worried about money, for instance, taking action is much more likely to reduce stress than avoidance.
Accept what you cannot change. Not every stressful situation is under our control. Some days it just rains and rains. That doesn’t mean life will always be a downpour, but it does mean understanding there is nothing you can do to stop a thunderstorm.
Know when to get help. If you are experiencing distress that has gone on for several weeks, or if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed on a regular basis, consider whether it is time to call for help. You may need to learn new ways of handling distress, or there may be patterns in your life that really aren’t working for you and which need to change.Read More
My clients often come in, sit down and put their cell phone on the couch right next to them. It didn’t used to be this way; just a few years ago it was unusual to bring a phone into the counseling office. Nowadays, phones are constant companions – or constant task masters. Being separated from them makes us anxious, or just seems impossible.
While I often encourage clients to give themselves a break from technology when they come in to see me, it is often more difficult to do so at home. Technology ends up extending the workday into the evening – particularly if you’re working for an employer with offices across more than one time zone. But even people who don’t face employment pressures to be instantly available face the urge to stay electronically connected. Why? Louis C.K. offers his thoughts here:
A recent article in the New York Times offers additional thoughts and is worth a read.
I used to think that we had just gotten ahead of ourselves technologically and hadn’t figured out the emotional, relational and social implications of ever-more-intrusive technology. Lately I’ve been thinking it is less a matter of changing the way we use technology than one of how technology is changing us.
Is Louis right? Do we use technology to avoid not only loneliness, but feeling at all? Technology provides new and better ways for us to distract ourselves and fill spaces and interludes in our life. Does this really enrich us? Are we happier?
When we hear the little chime that indicates a Facebook update or a text message or email arrival, we experience a physiological response. Human beings are social creatures, and we’re hard-wired to respond when another person reaches out to us. Our attention shifts for a moment. We are pulled away from where we physically exist. Just sensing the vibration of the phone in a pocket or on a tabletop affects us.
Disconnecting can feel like disloyalty. It feels irresponsible not to respond immediately. But when we prioritize the disembodied person on the other end of the electronic connection, our face-to-face interactions suffer. That’s especially true for couples. Work/life balance has become trickier in the face of always-on life. We want to be noticed, heard and appreciated by our partners. But even the most desirable lover may find it hard to compete with the siren song of our devices. Multitasking may seem efficient, but it often means that nothing gets our full attention and we enjoy everything less than we would otherwise.
Boundaries help us maintain health; don’t let technology take over your life.
- Keep your gadgets away from places you eat. You don’t need to work or communicate while you’re eating; this goes double if you’re eating with a friend or partner.
- Keep your phone out of your bedroom to avoid distractions when you should be sleeping.
- Consider putting the stuff away (or even turning it off!) after a certain point in the evening so you can have peace and quiet.
I was recently interviewed by Brian Rzepczynski, MSW – The Gay Love Coach – on the topic “Magnetic Relationships: When Positive and Negative Meet & Mate.” You can listen by clicking here. Additional thoughts on the topic are here.Read More
Manuel (not his real name) is healthy and happy and living well with HIV. When he found out he was positive several years ago, he decided it would keep things simple if he only dated other poz guys. He soon found out that his heart didn’t share that agenda. “I’ve been with John for three years. He’s negative,” he told me. “I didn’t expect this. Most of the time I don’t think it makes any difference. But sometimes….”
Some men are just too worried about the possibility of infection to get involved with someone whose HIV status is different from their own, and that is their right. Taking care of yourself and making decisions that are right for you is key. For most others, though, HIV isn’t a make-or-break issue when it comes to dating and relating. If the attraction is strong and the chemistry is right, HIV is just another factor that complicates human relationships.
We don’t have good language to talk about couples where one partner has HIV and the other does not. “Sero-discordant” is the official terminology. I think that’s obnoxious language; relationships are difficult enough without labeling one “discordant.” “Sero-different” seems like a step in the right direction. Some people prefer “magnetic couples,” as in one is positive and the other negative. Whatever.
Years ago, HIV was tragic and largely untreatable. Fortunately, those days are long gone and most people with HIV are lead healthy and fairly normal lives. Living longer and healthier means more opportunity for relationships. And compared with years past, the distinction between positive and negative doesn’t always seem so great to many men nowadays, particularly younger men who never experienced the bad old days.
One way HIV makes relationships more difficult is that some guys in mixed couples may find less support from poorly-informed friends or family with out-of-date ideas about HIV. Since social support is important in relationships, couples need to decide what is best for them. For some, that means not disclosing private information they know family or friends can’t handle. For others, dealing with this head-on through frank conversations with family and friends is important, letting others know they expect support and encouragement, not fear or disapproval.
It’s probably no surprise that sex is the area of intimate relationships that is most directly impacted by HIV. Someone unwilling to take any risks at all is going to find it tricky to be in a mixed-status relationship, but how do the guys involved decide what is safe for them – or what risks they are willing to tolerate?
The ability to tolerate ambiguity and make decisions each partner is comfortable with is very helpful in mixed-status relationships. There is still controversy about whether having an undetectable viral load means sex without condoms is OK for mixed-status couples. Staying informed, having a supportive medical team and talking things through helps. What is really important in a meaningful sex life, for instance? Mixed status couples can have good sex if they are honest about their needs and desires and if they are willing to be creative in bed. That sounds like what most couples need, doesn’t it? The twist for mixed-status couples is that talking about anxieties is also important, and about what sexual health looks like to each partner.
While new medical treatments have certainly made life with HIV better, they can also cause new stresses for the couple. Treatments sometimes affect sexual desire, and usually not for the better.
Couples may find that they avoid topics that emphasize their differentness from one another. Talking health concerns may feel awkward for the HIV negative partner. Similarly, the positive partner may hold back in talking about their anxieties, symptoms or medical problems for fear of seeming like they are “always talking about HIV.” Often there is a desire to avoid emotionally charged issues like health care regimens, illness or disability based on a desire to “protect” the other partner from potentially unattractive possibilities.
What couples sometimes overlook is that if any relationship endures – regardless of HIV status – and is truly lifelong, the relationship includes facing the realities of illness and mortality. If mixed-status couples avoid these topics, they are avoiding a conversation that is an inevitable part of sharing life together.
Manuel and his partner found themselves avoiding any talk about HIV. They got into couples counseling for something unrelated. “We found out that we each were avoiding talking about it to protect the other guy” he said. “How stupid was that? I mean, there were times when I really could have used his support, but I was afraid to tell him I was scared.” Manuel’s partner had his own worries. They learned they weren’t protecting one another – they were simply avoiding conflict.
It is important for mixed-status couples to not let HIV become the sole guiding concern in making decisions about moving, financial planning, changing jobs, having children or anything else. The HIV-positive partner may need to let go of anxieties or guilt about being a burden or seeing himself as somehow “damaged.” He needs to notice if HIV is energizing internalized homophobia. And if the HIV-negative partner has codependent fantasies of being the rescuer or savior, he’s going to have to get rid of them as well. It’s important to find ways to express hopes and fears with the other partner in a way that lowers barriers and builds intimacy. Talking about things helps – maybe talking things over with a counselor.Read More
Your lights are on, but you’re not home
Your mind is not your own
Your heart sweats, your body shakes
Another kiss is what it takes
Addicted to Love – Robert Palmer
Healthy relationships require balance, particularly when it comes to autonomy and connection. Too much self-absorption in a relationship weakens the connection to the point where it hardly feels like there is hardly any a bond between partners. Too little sense of self-regard and the relationship can feel smothering. But what about relationships that seem to cycle between the two? Where a partner may feel abandoned at some times and unable to separate at other times?
All relationships go through ups and downs. But what if the cycling becomes so intense that you lose your equilibrium and your sense of well-being suffers? Maybe you find yourself wanting to end the relationship, but thinking about it (or trying to do it) brings up so much worry or sadness that you can’t stay away. The reconnection can feel really intense, you’re sure it is going to be different this time….and then it all happens again. And again.
This pattern isn’t about intense romantic attraction. Robert Palmer almost had it right: You might as well face it, you’re addicted to…the relationship. It isn’t love when a relationship starts to feel like a hostage situation.
As with so many other love issues, the origins of addictive relationships often start with the families in which we grew up. When a child grows up struggling for the attention of parents and having unmet needs for attachment , the seeds of unhealthy relationship patterns have been sewn. The desire to be loved is intense, but may be interrupted by the child feeling abandoned. This pattern becomes familiar. It is what we expect love to look like. And it also creates an intense need to connect to the other, and to stay connected at all costs.
Unhealthy relationships often start with great intensity – a feeling described as love at first sight. The passion of connection outpaces the slower work of getting to know someone, and knowing whether you are safe giving your heart to the other. It isn’t unusual for addictive relationships to begin with the couple living together within a couple of months of meeting.
What are some indications that you may be in an addictive relationship?
- There is a power imbalance in the relationship. You find yourself feeling controlled by the other in ways that cause you to feel dependent. You need the other person in order to feel complete.
- Intimacy is mostly about sex, not about feeling open and safe lowering your guard.
- You find yourself thinking about the other person’s needs more than your own. Not in the healthy sense, but in a way that causes your own needs to be neglected.
- Fights don’t get resolved, except maybe by makeup sex. Things are better for a while, then the pattern repeats.
- You know he’s bad for you, but you can come up with multiple reasons why you should hang in there.
- Leaving makes you feel almost unbearably anxious. You think about ending it, but you keep getting pulled back in.
If you find yourself in an addictive relationship, understand that healthy love requires balance and work. Realize also that you can have drama or happiness, but not both. Professional help is often needed to change these long-standing patterns.
A good place to start is to acknowledge your feelings of anxiety in the relationship. So many problems in life become worse when we get in the habit of thinking we cannot tolerate them and we’ll do anything to avoid the pain. Developing an ability to work through these often-miserable feelings helps us to get through to a happier and more fulfilling future, whether that future involves making changes in the relationship or finding the courage to end it.
If you are single but understand that you have a pattern of relationships with addictive qualities, learn to start relationships more slowly and thoughtfully. Don’t get ahead of yourself. It takes time to get to know someone and to find out how they do intimacy, so don’t confuse feelings of attraction with commitment.Read More