Posts in Category: TMD Counseling

Mental Fitness

I remember being in elementary and having to take the presidential fitness test.  From elementary to college we are encouraged to maintain a certain level of physical fitness.  Scrolling through Instagram or watching a television commercial you can almost be guaranteed to see a reference to one’s physical health.  But what about mental fitness?  We don’t really see references to maintaining our mental fitness.  Wait, do we even know what mental fitness is?

Mental fitness is basically the ability to emotionally and psychologically meet the demands of our everyday lives.  Just like working out and eating right helps us with our physical fitness there are things we can do to help us with our mental fitness.  Here are few things you can try incorporating into your life to help you maintain or improve your level of mental fitness.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the “runner’s high.”  Exercise releases endorphins, which are those “feel good” hormones.  Exercise also increases the blood flow to your brain which increases the level of oxygen to your brain.  The combination of these two can help you reach a calmer, more relaxed state after your workout.  This can lead to better decision making and less stress in your everyday life.

Use Humor
Speaking of stress, stress can cause an increase of cortisol in your body which can lead you feeling fatigued, angry, and/or irritable.  Using humor to help you handle stressful situations can help reduce your stress level and lower your level of cortisol.  If you enjoyed reading the Sunday comics look some up online, or pick up a newspaper.  Read a funny story or watch a comedy to help you destress.  

Focus on one task at a time
Technology can be fantastic, but it can also mean that we are multitasking more now than ever before.  We may feel that if we are not doing 100 things at a time, then we are wasting our time or not accomplishing “enough.”  This can cause us to feel like we have to go full force at all times but what ends up happening is that we may end up depleting our energy source! Take your time and focus on one thing at a time.  

Pick up a new hobby! Learning something creates new neural pathways in our brains.  Or maybe you have an old hobby that you have neglected and you want to get back into. This can be anything from reading to photography to gardening.  Hobbies help you become task orientated and can help you feel productive.

Reach Out
Life gets tough sometimes.  And sometimes we have to reach out.  Don’t fear reaching out.  Utilize your support system.  Remember that show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” had phone a friend as an option for contestant’s life line.  You can choose to use “phone a friend” to help you cope.  Sometimes just vocalizing your stressors helps you feel better.  You can also reach out to a professional.  Call your counselor and set up an appointment.  Or if you don’t have a counselor, you can call the counseling line (512-782-5069) and speak to someone or set up an appointment.

Hope these five tips can help you on the road to mental fitness.  Just like it’s important to keep our muscles active to keep up with our physical fitness it is just as important to keep our brain active for our mental fitness.

Physical Fitness

By: Ari Penalosa, LPC, LMFT TMD Counselor

The Mind Body Connection
Recent research shows there’s a connection between physical and emotional wellness. So, the next time you hit the running trail, take your dog for a walk, or tend to your garden you’ll be working out more than just your body. The mind body connection is powerful and are often interdependent on each other.
Benefits on Mood and Mental Health:
Did you know that physical exercise helps the release of endorphins, also known as “the feel-good chemicals”, in the brain? Considered natural mood lifters, studies show endorphins are increased through moderate exercise. 
Studies indicate people who exercise regularly have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who don't.  Similar studies also show moderate intensity exercise can be an effective treatment on its own for mild-to-moderate depression. Exercise has been shown to ease chronic depression by increasing serotonin which helps your brain regulate mood, sleep and appetite.
Individuals that deal with anxiety and depression can find exercise serves as healthy coping strategy by shifting focus to the here and now and helping them take their mind off their worries.

Other positive aspects of physical exercise can be increased energy levels and improved sleep, as well as prevent and improve a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. It can also serve to increase focus and concentration. For some individuals meeting exercise goals can give them a sense of accomplishment and provide them a boost in self-confidence. 
What does an effective exercise routine look like?
Before starting any kind of exercise regime please make sure to consult with your medical provider.  It’s also important to note that exercise alone cannot serve a replacement for talk therapy or taking psychotropic medications. 
For many the idea of starting an exercise regime might seem tedious and intimidating, even more so for those dealing with depression and anxiety. An effective exercise routine does not have to be time consuming or overly strenuous. In fact, it’s advisable to start slow with realistic exercise goals that will ensure you stick with your fitness regimen. A recent Harvard study showed that running for 15 minutes a day or walking briskly for an hour reduced the risk of major depression.

Points to Consider:
In order to ensure that you’ll stay motivated and consistent with your exercise regime consider the following:
•    Do activities you enjoy or explore new forms of exercise (Zumba, hiking, yoga, or anything that will put a smile on your face and gets your heart rate up).
•    Think about a set time that’s convenient in order to increase the chance that you’ll follow through with your new plan. 
•    Remember to create your exercise plan with your own needs and physical abilities in mind. 
Don’t get discouraged if find it difficult to stick to a new exercise regime. Be honest with yourself and determine what's stopping you from exercising or being physically active. It’s normal to have setbacks and encounter obstacles. Try to reframe exercise from being a chore to more of a lifestyle change. Be kind to yourself and give yourself credit for any effort made towards this new journey into a more active lifestyle. Your mind and body will thank you for it. 

Healthy Coping

“Coping refers to the human behavioral process for dealing with demands,both internal or external, in situations that are perceived as threats.”

Sometimes we need to cope with things that happen to us, and other times we must cope with things that happen within us. Some events may require us to deal with both internal and external demands. In moments like these, it’s important to have techniques that help you to re-center and move toward a state of calm. 

What does healthy coping look like?

Healthy coping strategies accelerate a return to calm. Building personal go-to coping techniques that are effective for you will help you to create a foundation of mental fitness. Like just about all things related to the psyche, coping skills sound simple — and they are. But just because they’re simple does not mean that they’re easy. 

The following three steps may help you develop your personal coping techniques: 

1. Establish strategies that are effective for you. Identify how you best cope and practice strategies for calm when you’re in an average state of mind.
2. Recognize that coping strategies are not one-size-fits-all. Mental fitness, just like physical fitness, requires a personalized approach. Try different coping strategies, examine the possibilities, eliminate those that are not effective for you, and give those strategies that have potential a genuine try.
3. When you find a strategy that works, practice it regularly. The goal here is for healthy coping to become your first inclination when chaos rears its head.

The Mental Health Wellness Week website describes the following as healthy coping skills:
•    Practicing meditation and relaxation techniques;
•    Having time to yourself;
•    Engaging in physical activity or exercise; 
•    Reading;
•    Spending time with friends;
•    Finding humor;
•    Spending time on your hobbies;
•    Engaging in spirituality;
•    Spending quality time with your pets;
•    Getting a good night’s sleep;
•    Eating healthy.

There are nearly infinite ways to cope with situations that you may be experiencing, it’s simply a matter of finding which ones work for you, and in which situations they are most effective.
Cynthia M. Reyes, MA, LPC
Texas Military Department Counseling Program
Counseling Line 512-782-5069

What it means to be a friend

Webster defines a friend as a person who has a strong liking for and trust in another, or a person who is not an enemy. There are a number of different types of friends in our lives; some we call and speak to every day and share all details with, some we met in school or college, friends that we only speak and hang out with at work, and for those of us in the military we have battle buddies who can eventually turn into family. 

When I served in the military I was a 12C, that’s a bridge-crew engineer, and our unit only had four females total. When we were finally deployed in 2009 we got attached to a CAV unit where once again, each unit only had four females. You could imagine that we took the term “battle buddies” to a whole new level. Being deployed with a bunch of men naturally brought us together, despite the number of fights we had, we always knew we would have each other’s back. Once we returned home, we all went our separate ways but somehow we managed to still keep in contact and check in with each other every once in a while. In 2014, we got word that one of our battle buddies had committed suicide. I know that each of our first thoughts were “What could I have done to prevent this?”, “Could I have been a better friend?” It’s no secret that suicide is high in the military, current numbers show that in 2018 we had a total of 321 active-duty members who took their lives, including 57 Marines, 68 Sailors, 58 Airmen, and 138 Soldiers. BEING A FRIEND IS IMPORTANT!

It took me a little over four years to realize that although I am allowed to be upset at the loss of our battle buddy and my friend, that truly there was nothing more that I could have done to save her, and to be honest, I sleep a lot better knowing that I was a good friend to her. So what does being a friend look like? Friendships can look, sound and feel different but for the most part all of them have some of the same characteristics. We want our friendships to include honesty, loyalty, respect, a place where we feel taken care of, where we can build trust, be heard but also listen, share, allowed to receive space but also give space and finally, where we can apologize and forgive. We have the choice of choosing the majority of our friends, and knowing whom to choose as a friend in our personal lives is extremely important. Some military folks we’re given friends who we then choose to continue building a friendship with outside of our military duties. 

If you’re reading this and analyzing some of your relationships thinking, “How can I be a better friend?” I have a few tips for you. First, make plans and make time for others. Call, text or FaceTime more often. EXPRESS GRATITUDE. Remember the little things, be adult enough to talk through arguments, do random acts of kindness, give honest and open advice, be reliable, keep some things private, try new things together, and finally, sometimes JUST LISTEN or PHYSICALLY BE THERE. 

Author: Yulanda Jackson

Effective Communication

Communication is …....

    “The act or process of using words, sounds, behaviors, and signs to express or exchange information” - Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Communication is more than words, it also includes the following:

•    How you say it -  including voice tone
•    Why you say it – intention behind the message
•    When you say it – during an argument, the time of day
•    What you do not say – What you do not say can give a clearer picture of what is going on
•    Your body language – including facial expressions, gestures, and posture

Effective communication is not instinctive, we are not born knowing how to do it. Often we say one thing, and the other person hears something entirely different, causing misunderstandings, frustrations, and conflicts. When communication goes wrong, it can also cause problems in our home, work, and school relationships. For most of us, learning to communicate more effectively requires our gaining several important skills.  We can all learn effective communication.

Effective communication is more than the exchange of information. It is also understanding the emotion and intention behind the information. In addition to clearly conveying a message, we also have to LISTEN in order to gain the full meaning of what is being said, AND ensure that the other person FEELS heard and understood. Effective communication includes four (4) skills:

1.    Engaged listening- is LESS talking, MORE listening! While listening for understanding there should be an attempt to also understand the EMOTIONS the person is trying to convey. When we are really listening, we are engaged with what the person is saying - we will hear the subtle tone in their voice that tells us what they are feeling and will sense their emotion. Engaged listening will make the person feel HEARD and UNDERSTOOD, thereby building a stronger connection. So, you must focus on the person, avoid interrupting or redirecting the conversation, set aside judgment, and provide feedback by paraphrasing what was said.
2.    Non-verbal communication – or body language, includes facial expressions, body movement, gestures, eye contact, voice tone, muscle tension, and breathing. For example, uncrossed arms, an open stance - sitting on the edge of your seat, and maintaining eye contact with the person indicates engagement. It is important to keep cultural differences in mind, be careful of assumptions when a person lets go of eye contact, or briefly crosses their arms. Consider their signals as a whole for understanding. Improving non-verbal communication involves your words matching your body language, standing tall with shoulders back, smiling, maintaining eye contact, and when necessary giving a firm hand shake. You will feel confidant and the other person will be at ease.
3.    Managing stress- When you are calm, you are able to determine if the conversation requires a response, or if the other person's signals indicate that you should not respond. You can manage stress by giving yourself time to think, asking a question, making one point and providing an example, speaking clearly in an even tone, making eye contact, and having open body language. If the conversation gets heated, it is important to remain calm by recognizing when you are becoming stressed. Take a moment to calm down and breathe, bringing your senses into play through sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell. You can take a deep breath, put a mint in your mouth, squeeze a stress ball, or clench and relax your tightening muscles. Humor is also a great way to relieve stress when used appropriately. Be willing to compromise by giving a little and if necessary agree to disagree.
4.    Respectfully asserting yourself means expressing and standing up for yourself while respecting others. It is NOT about being hostile, aggressive, or demanding. Remember, effective communication is always about UNDERSTANDING the other person, not about WINNING the disagreement, or FORCING your opinion on the other person! To improve assertiveness, value yourself, know your needs and wants, express negative thoughts in a positive way, receive feedback in a positive way, and learn to say NO by knowing your limits. Look for alternatives to ensure a positive outcome. Practice assertiveness in less risky situations to build your confidence. YOU CAN DO IT!

Written by
Cheryl A. Scott, LPC
TMD Counselor, Fort Worth, TX



My name is Tracy Keating Ward.  I am one of the therapists with the Texas Military Department.  I have been asked to write a “blog” on forgiveness. Looking back on my career of 22 years as a therapist I have worked in many places:  prisons, probation offices, parole offices, pain clinics and here at Camp Mabry.  What I have learned in the area of “forgiveness” is that FORGIVENESS IS THE BEST MEDICINE.  

    As I see it, Forgiveness comes in many forms.  There is offering forgiveness to those who have hurt you.  There is requesting forgiveness from those you have hurt.  There is requesting forgiveness from your Higher Power.  And last, but not least, there is forgiveness for yourself. One thing I do know is that we all make mistakes.  These mistakes hurt others.  These mistakes also can be the agent to bring about change and healing.

    Years ago, when I worked in the criminal justice arena, all my clients were convicted felons.  One day I heard a young chaplain speaking to a group of my clients.  He started his talk by saying, “Hello Brothers.”  This was such a compassionate kind and totally unexpected greeting.  These men looked at themselves as the worse of the worse.  For a chaplain to refer to them with the sincere greeting of “Brothers” made a huge difference.  As the chaplain talked he referred to self responsibility and said something I have never forgotten.  He said, “When you offended, you offended against your own self.”  HUH?  For a moment I thought he meant to say… “When you offended, you offended against your victim, your family, and your community.”  Hurt themselves?  How?  How is this true?  I had never had this thought or spent anytime in therapy sessions looking at how their actions had impacted their own self.  I had completely left my client’s healing out of the equation.  The chaplain continued by saying that each time we hurt someone we hurt our own soul.  What an interesting concept.  We have to be held responsible for how we treat ourselves, not just others.  WE EACH MATTER.

    My next place of employment was a Pain Clinic.  I saw 6-8 clients a day who suffered from various degrees of chronic pain.  Research states that 70 to 80 percent of all people who suffer from chronic pain have an unresolved traumatic event in their past.  I witness each day how people’s anger, sadness, fear, and resentment all impeded their desire to forgive and their bodies just did not heal.  I also witness people choosing to forgive those that hurt them (many times these were family members who were suppose to love and protect them) and then close the door on the past.  They did not deny that the trauma occurred or that they were not hurt.  Just the opposite.  They chose to accept that they were hurt (abused), that it happened in the past, that they no longer wanted to spend anymore of the present time concentrating on the trauma and that they forgave the person by “wishing them well and wishing them no harm” (a version of agape love or the love you give to your neighbor).  Many were people of faith and they made the decision to let their Higher Power be the True Judge of the situation.  As for themselves, they chose to give up their desire for vengeance and with it the anger and resentment that accompanied it. I saw these client’s pain reduce, their bodies heal, and their mind’s become still and peaceful.  Sometimes we don’t even realize how much of TODAY we lose by reliving the ugly events of yesterday.  

    Now working with soldiers I experience another type of struggle with forgiveness.  Forgiving yourself.  Soldiers tend to forgive others much easier than they forgive themselves.  That may be due to the fact that they have a higher level of standard for themselves than they do for others.  By the time a soldier comes to a therapy session with me he/she has usually struggled with their own guilt and shame for a while, even to the point of suicide.  I love to share with the soldiers the following quote:

    We think that we feel regret about a mistake then ask for forgiveness, when actually the forgiveness has already been sent, that is why we feel the regret. 
Sufi Saint 

    I love this quote because it brings so much relief and so much grace.  Within minutes many of the soldier’s eyes tear up.  There is mercy in the quote because for many they had thought they had committed the “unforgivable sin.”  That thought leads to depression, separation, and hopelessness.  Forgiveness of yourself leads to healing. 

    So in conclusion, here is what I have learned about Forgiveness from my best clients.

•    Forgiveness is the best medicine… and it is free, no prescription needed.
•    All of us have made mistakes and need to request forgiveness sometime in our lives.
•    We have a responsibility to care for ourselves and when we offend against others we offend against ourselves and need to forgive ourselves too. 
•    You cannot fool the body.  It won’t heal when it is angry, resentful, fearful or sad. 
•    Forgiveness brings tremendous healing for our body, mind and soul.
•    If all possible, forgive then shut the door to the past.  Doing so will make room to enjoy the present.

If you want to discuss more about the Healing Aspects of Forgiveness talk to a therapist, chaplain, or your spiritual leader.  What do you have to lose, except a lot of pain.


Tracy K. Ward, LPC-S

Managing Conflict in Relationships

Do not think of knocking out another person's brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago.
-Horace Mann

Drs. John and Julie Gottman are famous marriage researchers in the world of psychology and therapy. Both doctors have put in over four decades of research into the topic of relationships, marriage, conflict, and more. 

Conflict in relationships can leave a person feeling inept, frustrated, and angry. 
 “Dr. John Gottman’s Six Skills of Conflict Management” are helpful tools when dealing with conflict. They are outlined below.

1. Soften Startup
•    How an individual starts a discussion in the first few moments will make a difference on how the conflict will end. 
•    Ask yourself if you can be in a comfortable place when having your discussion.
•    If the conflict will be about a particularly inflammatory topic find some place relatively safe or neutral for the both of you. For example, don’t talk about money in your bedroom.  
•    When communicating in relationships, it is important to not attack, or blame the other individual. Try to communicate in the way that you would like to also be communicated with by the other person.   

2. Accept Influence
•    A person’s approach makes a significant impact on the outcome of the argument. Being able to try to see the circumstance from the other’s person perspective may help diffuse the conflict. 
•    Give your partner your full attention. Turn off or put down any distracting technology. Lean in towards your partner a little bit. Let your body language send a message of connection – especially if you are concerned that the topic may create distance initially.
•    Don’t interrupt! Stay focused, attentive, and connected. Even if you don’t particularly like or simply don’t agree with what is being said. Hang in there and keep your focus on the overarching goal of honest communication – a better relationship.

3. Make Effective Repairs During the Conflict
•    Make statements that start with these aspects in mind.
•    “I feel…scared/insulted/like you don’t understand.” 
•    “I need to calm down.”
•    “Let me try again.”
•    “I want to say this.”
•    “I really messed up.”
•    “I appreciate…”

4. De-escalate
•    Complain instead of blaming your spouse. For example:
•    Blame-“You never do what you say you are going to do.”
•    Complain-“The other day we agreed that this was your responsibility. It still isn’t done and I feel really upset about this.”
•    Blame- “You never do anything with the baby.”
•    Complain- “I feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Can you pick a couple things to do with the baby to help me out?”
•    Reflect back to your partner what you think your partner is saying. Check in with your partner to make sure you are hearing the overall message, not just the words. Say, “What I hear you saying is…” or “If I understand you correctly, than I think you feel…” This lets your partner know that you really care about the message being conveyed and that you are invested in making sure you heard it accurately. 

5. Psychological Soothing of Self and Partner
•    Use “I feel” statements instead of “you.” 
•    “I feel like we should make a budget.”
•    “I feel like you don’t care about me, when you don’t ask me about my day after work.”
•    “I feel like I don’t get your undivided attention when I am talking to you.”
•    Focus on your breathing. Make sure that you are breathing all the way in and all the way out. Breathe into your belly.
•    Stretch your neck, arms, and shoulders when you are feeling yourself getting upset.

6. Compromise 
•    Describe what you see in the situation and ask the other individual to also describe what they see. Continue to do that until you can come to a compromise that makes the both of you satisfied. 
•    If there’s a problem that you are trying to solve, communicate your ideas for solutions with tentativeness. 
•    “Well, perhaps we could try…”
•     “What if I did . . . and you did  . . .” 
•    “I’m stuck. What do you think we need to do next?”
•    Be polite and appreciate. Acknowledge ways that the other person is communicating in a helpful manner. 
•    Conflict does not mean that individuals cannot give compliments or use “please” and “thank you” during the conversation. Remember that being “right” isn’t what is important but becoming a better communicator, feeling validated, and creating a compromise that will help both of you feel heard. 
Improved communication leads to various areas of personal growth
•    Deeper emotional connection
•    Growth in empathy towards others
•    Confidence
•    Active listening skills
•    Get along better with others
•    Better boundaries
•    Ability to approach conflict in a calm manner

My hope is that you can take this information and utilize it in a way that applies to your relationships with friends, family, and significant others. Start small and find what works for you. Don’t be afraid of changing it to make it your own, but continue working on how to develop healthier communication patterns in your own life. 

Work Life Balance

How many times have you felt you were being pulled in too many directions?  In today’s tech-infused world it has become commonplace to see individuals working on their cellphones, tablets, and laptops while at airports, restaurants, libraries and even at the park.  This leaves very little time for family, friends, spirituality, personal growth, self-care, and other personal activities.  In addition, many of you have to squeeze military obligations into a schedule that is already filled to the brim.  According to Susan Heathfield, Human Resources, “work-life balance is a concept that describes the ideal of splitting one's time and energy between work and other important aspects of life”.

Work/life imbalance
o        Feeling overwhelmed with having too much to do
o        Frequently tired and getting inadequate amounts of sleep
o        Difficulty in finding time to spend with family and friends
o        Irritability 
o        No time for self-care
o        Struggling to focus
o        Unable to remember the last time you had fun

According to Mayo Clinic the following are consequences of poor work-life balance:

o    Fatigue. When you're tired, your ability to work productively and think clearly might suffer — which could take a toll on your professional reputation or lead to dangerous or costly mistakes. 
o    Poor health. Stress is associated with adverse effects on the immune system and can worsen the symptoms you experience from any medical condition. Stress also puts you at risk of substance abuse.
o    Lost time with friends and loved ones. If you're working too much, you might miss important family events or milestones. This can leave you feeling left out and might harm relationships with your loved ones. It's also difficult to nurture friendships if you're always working.
o    Increased expectations. If you regularly work extra hours, you might be given more responsibility — which could lead to additional concerns and challenges.

Restoring Balance
Juggling the demands of your career, military obligations and personal life will probably be an ongoing challenge. But if you can learn both to set limits and look after yourself, you can achieve the work-life balance that's best for you. Mayo Clinic suggests the following to help restore work-life balance:

o    Manage your time. Cut or delegate activities you don't enjoy or can't handle. Do what needs to be done and let the rest go.
o    Make a list. Put family events on a weekly calendar, and keep a daily to-do list at home and at work. Having a plan helps you maintain focus.  
o    Learn to say no. Whether it's a co-worker asking you to spearhead an extra project or your child's teacher asking you to organize a class party, remember that it's OK to respectfully say no. When you quit accepting tasks out of guilt or a false sense of obligation, you'll have more time for activities that are meaningful to you.
o    Leave work at work. With the technology to connect to anyone at any time from virtually anywhere, there might be no boundary between work and home — unless you create it.  
o    Reduce email access. Check emails no more than three times a day — late morning, early afternoon and late in the day. If you access email first thing in the morning, you tend to focus on and respond to other people's issues rather than being proactive about your own needs.
o    Ask your employer about flex hours, a compressed workweek, job sharing, telecommuting or other scheduling flexibility. The more control you have over your hours, the less stressed you're likely to be.
o    Take care of yourself.  Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep and make time for fun and relaxation. Set aside time each day for an activity that you enjoy, such as practicing yoga or reading. Better yet, discover activities you can do with your partner, family or friends — such as hiking, dancing or taking cooking classes.

Remember, striking a healthy work-life balance isn't a one-shot deal. Creating work-life balance is a continuous process as your family, interests and work life change. Periodically examine your priorities — and make changes, if necessary.

Lastly, know when to seek professional help. We all need help from time to time. There may come a time when you just want to vent and have someone who is willing to listen. There may be a time when life feels too chaotic to manage and you're consumed with worry, talk with a professional — such as a counselor or other mental health provider. 

Will My Marriage Survive?

Healthy Relationships

Do you ever wonder …?  “Will my marriage make it?  Will it survive?”  Considering that approximately 50% of all marriages in America end in divorce, this is a good question to contemplate.  

What if I told you there is a man who can observe you and your partner arguing for just a mere 15 minutes and with 85% accuracy predict whether the two of you two will divorce or stay married.  If he observes you for a longer period of time his prediction rate goes over 90%.  AMAZING right?  How does he do it?  Crystal Ball?  Tarot Cards? ESP?  All good guesses, but not correct.  

Dr. John Gottman, PhD and his colleagues observed thousands of couples and paired research techniques with mathematical calculations to devise a method to predict whether a couple would divorce or stay together. Lucky for us he published numerous studies, papers and created the Gottman Institute in order to teach couples how to stay happily married and avoid the pitfalls that often lead to divorce.
Through his research Dr. Gottman observed and noted several distinct negative behaviors that are destructive to a marriage and increased the likelihood of divorce. He also calculated positive behaviors that not only enriched the marriage but protected the couple from the impact of negative behaviors.

Dr. Gottman refers to the most destructive negative behaviors as The Four Horseman. (Yes, just like The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse in the New Testament.)  The Gottman Four Horseman consist of:

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling

Recognize any of these?  Have you ever used one or two of them when in a heated argument?  Most likely the answer is yes.  According to Dr. Gottman all marriages use some negative behavior. “No relationship is negative free.”  It is also helpful to note that all couples argue. The key is to be aware of The Four Horseman, reduce the number of times you use them, learn to repair after the argument and increase the positive behaviors (also called the Antidotes) which can protect the marriage.

Let's talk about Criticism:

Criticism blames the partner.  It attacks their character.  When we criticize, we tend to use YOU statements and allude that YOU are the problem.  Criticism is different than a complaint.  A complaint is about an issue or a situation whereas a criticism attacks the person.

One of the Antidotes to Criticism is to use “I” statements, and express what you feel and need.  If you have a complaint, try to state it without blame.

Complaint:  “I was worried when you did not call me each night to check in while you were traveling.  I thought we had agreed on checking in nightly.”

Criticism:  “You never think about me.  You are so selfish.  You don't think of anyone except yourself.  What about me?  You were probably having a great time why I was at home worrying.”

Be aware of a pattern of criticizing (blaming the other spouse, and/or attacking their character) because criticizing can be habit forming and an invitation to the other Horseman to operate.

The Second Horseman is Defensiveness.  Many times when we feel criticized we react with defensiveness.  A defensive comeback a type of self-protection which promotes reversing the blame onto the other partner.  This type of communication can progress into finger pointing and very little resolution.

The Antidote for Defensiveness is taking responsibility.  Even if it is for a very small part of the conflict. When we take responsibility it is like pouring water on fire.  It puts out the burn of the conflict and the chance of escalation.  It also sets a tone for cooperation or creating some type of solution.

Question:  Did you make Lori’s dentist appointment today?

Defensiveness:  You know how busy I was today.  You could have made it?  Why didn’t you just pick up the phone at make the appointment for her yourself? 

Taking Responsibility:  No, I didn’t.  I told you I would handle it but I got busy today and forgot.  I will call right now.  

The Third Horseman is Contempt. This Horseman is the deadliest of all the Horseman and the biggest predictor of divorce. Contempt is stronger and meaner than criticism.  It involves sarcasm, disrespect, name calling, taking down to your partner, mockery, insults, eye rolling and hostile humor.  Contempt is both destructive and defeating and contains a level of moral superiority.  Contempt is fed by allowing yourself to think and ruminate about your partner in a negative manner for long periods of time. Pay attention when you are churning negative thoughts about your partner and bring the thoughts to a halt. Your partner or marriage doesn't have a chance against nonstop negative thoughts.  

REMEMBER, negative thoughts breed Contempt and Contempt is the biggest predictor of DIVORCE.  

The Antidote to Contempt is to create an environment of respect, gratitude, appreciation and fondness. Contempt cannot survive or thrive in an environment of respect. Make a habit of thinking kind thoughts about your partner. Make your eyes look for good in your partner’s actions and appearance.  Take time to notice how your spouse contributes to the marriage then compliment them and or say thank you. Making these positive changes to your pattern of thinking and responding positively can make a difference. Research states that healthy marriages have a ratio of 5 positive behaviors to every 1 negative behavior.  Whereas the marriages that end in divorce have a ratio of .8 positive behaviors to 1 negative behavior (meaning they have more negative behaviors than positive behaviors).  

The Fourth Horseman is Stonewalling.  Stonewalling involves emotionally withdrawing from your partner, looking uninterested in their communication, or no longer responding verbally... to name just a few.  Imagine someone walking out of the discussion, or crossing their arms and acting like they are no longer listening.  Or turning to their phone, while you are talking, and checking their e-mails.  All these are a type of Stonewalling.  The Fourth Horseman may show up when a partner becomes overwhelmed and begins to shutdown physically and emotionally.  
The Antidote for Stonewalling is a Time-Out period.  Research states that it takes approximately 20 to 30 minutes for a person who is overwhelmed to begin to regulate (or calm) their emotional state.  When we get overwhelmed (and it does happen) it is difficult to think straight, to listen well or respond appropriately.  When we feel overwhelmed it is best to verbalize that you are overwhelmed or agitated and need a little time to calm down.  An agreement by both partners to return to the conversation after the time-out makes the time-out period more productive.  During your time-out period choose an activity that helps calm you or soothe you:  reading, exercising, stretching, breathing, watching tv, meditating, doing a simple chore etc.  Remember, watch your thoughts.  Try not to have thoughts of “I’m right.”  Or “Why does she always do this to me?  These thoughts will not calm you down.  They will keep you in a state of agitation. The key is to take the time to calm down so the two of you can think clearly and listen to each other.   

Dr. Gottman noted that one way to protect your relationship is to strengthen your friendship. Knowing and being interested in your partner develops friendship and a deeper level of intimacy.  What does he or she love?  What's important to him/her?  What stresses her/him out?  What are their dreams? Taking time to really know them, understand them, and enjoy them increases the friendship and protects your marriage.  

So to review…..  To increase your odds of remaining together in a happy marriage and reduce your chances of getting a divorce…. Avoid using The Four Horseman (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling) and increase your Appreciation, Fondness and Respect for each other on a daily basis.   

For more information on the Gottman Institute go to

Give Gratitude a Shot

By: Tiffanie Hampton, LCSW

Gratitude is a topic that often comes up when Thanksgiving rolls around, but it’s a worthwhile topic to talk about all year round. I want gratitude to be part of who I am rather than something I just conjure up during the holidays or whenever something good happens in my life.  Why do I want to practice gratitude?  Well, there is a ton of research that shows it can improve our physical health, increase our mental strength, and can help us sleep better.   Don’t we all want to be stronger, smarter, faster, and well rested?  

Physical Health
Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and they report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences. Not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to take care of their health.  They exercise more often and are more likely to attend regular check-ups with their doctors, which is likely to contribute to further longevity.

Increase Mental Strength
A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11.  Recognizing all you have to be thankful for – even during the worst times of your life – fosters resilience.

Sleep Better 
Writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Spend just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, and you will fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

We all have the ability and opportunity to cultivate gratitude. Confession: Practicing gratitude used to sound like a bunch of psychobabble to me.  But hey, what did I have to lose?  Simply take a few moments to focus on all that you have – rather than complain about all the things you think you deserve.  Developing an “attitude of gratitude” is one of the simplest ways to improve your satisfaction with life.  So how do you do this?  Here are some practical ideas.

  1. Share gratitude each day by posting a tweet, Facebook post or Pinterest.
  2. Make a gratitude collage, cut out pictures of all the things that you are grateful for
  3. Reward effort, if someone does something nice for you, do something nice for them.  Try to take note when people do a good job and give recognition when it’s due at work.
  4. Post quotes and images that remind you to be grateful around your house.  You can make it fun and buy dry erase markers to write on your mirrors or fridge!
  5. Say thank you at least once a day. You can do this text message, e-mail, or face to face.  Saying thank you to the barista who makes your coffee can help you both have a better day.
  6. Pause and savor something once a day.  Stop eating while standing up and really taste your food.  Literally stop and smell the flowers outside your office.  Take time to drink your coffee and reflect on the present. 
  7. Write down 3 good things about your day every day for 21 days and keep a gratitude journal. You can journal every day after your gratitude practice of noticing and savoring things.   There is something about writing it down that helps me to consciously think about what is positive in my life.
  8. Volunteer-giving back to others helps us to appreciate what we have.
  9. Spend time with loved ones- Not only will it help you grow closer to them and strengthen your relationship, but it will also give you a chance to practice your acts of gratitude on people that you care about. 
  10. Call your Mom every Sunday and call your grandparents to tell them you love them and express gratitude for a positive memory you have!

Practicing gratitude may not have turned me into some happy-go-lucky person I was never meant to be (or, frankly, wanted to be). But I developed a fundamentally different way of thinking and moving through life, one in which I stopped taking for granted all the tiny good moments that were already part of it. I stopped looking for happiness out there and learned to find it right here. I felt more connected to friends, family, and my colleagues, and even on the toughest days, I managed my stress better (which research shows is a long-lasting effect of practicing gratitude).

My advice? Give gratitude a shot.