By Kristin Snowden MA, LMFT
Many of you are in great pain and struggling in various aspects of life due to relational trauma. You may have recently uncovered your loved one’s infidelity. That infidelity may be serial in nature or even sex/porn addiction. You may also be in an emotionally toxic or abusive relationship. Whatever the betrayal, your head is likely reeling as you try to make sense of what just happened, where it all went wrong, and where to go from here.
When we’re in pain and struggling, we’re usually looking for one main thing: change. We want to change from pain to relief, from unhealthy to healthy, from grief to joy. This article is written to help you better understand how your mind and body experience these life-altering moments, and to provide you with a few tips on healthy and healing choices you can make during difficult times.
To start, I can say with a bit of confidence that change is already happening. If you’re reading this article, you’re most likely researching, asking for help, seeking answers to painful questions, and becoming aware of your new, strange surroundings. Unfortunately, our brains are lazy organs that like us to remain in the status quo. So we stick with the same patterns and plug along in the same neuropathways, even if those pathways are painful and confusing.
Any new reality or new challenge brought to our brains will create a stress response. Our brains respond to stress by releasing hormones that increase our heart rate and breathing. As we uncover unknown information about a loved one’s betrayal or struggle with some other difficult relationship dynamic, more oxygen and blood are being used by our brains as our brains work to establish new neuropathways. This typically unconscious and involuntary process can be extremely uncomfortable. (See my previous article on the effects of trauma in the body.)
Adding insult to injury, relational crises often carry a heavy dose of uncertainty, and this tends to intensify the stress and fear responses in the body. Our instincts are to attempt to control a crisis or push back against it. But most aspects of relationship crises are out of our locus of control because they depend on another person’s choices and behaviors. Unfortunately, the more we try to control a crisis or push back against it with our many defense mechanisms (denying its existence, blaming others, etc.), the more miserable and damaging the outcome.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-Based Program for Personal Transformation, asserts that the key to managing stress is to acknowledge its presence and to try your best to not “fight back” against it. Dr. McGonigal says the more we push back against the involuntary stress response that occurs in our bodies, the more exhausting and unsustainable it becomes for us. However, if we instead pay mindful attention to its presence, feel it in our body, and talk about it with others, we can improve the process and outcome of the stress response (i.e., less exhaustion and suffering).
Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on the importance of self-compassion and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, also encourages a form of mindfulness where we take a balanced approach to negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. In other words, it’s important that we acknowledge the pain and discomfort, but we cannot allow it to define us or take over every aspect of our life.
Dr. McGonigal encourages us to explore our perceptions around stress in a crisis. We must ask ourselves how we believe stress is affecting us and our life. When we do that, statements like “This is part of the process,” “My body knows what it’s doing,” “I will get through this,” and “This is the new reality that I need to adjust to,” can all contribute to less pain and discomfort during the crisis.
Above all else, Dr. McGonigal implores us to avoid the instinct to isolate during stress or a crisis. In fact, our biology encourages us to reach out and connect to others by releasing the neurochemical oxytocin when we connect with supportive others. Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone. Dr. McGonigal theorizes that this is the body’s way of encouraging us to seek connection during stress. Connecting versus isolating helps us heal and calm our bodies during stressful times.
It’s important to seek support from both professionals and loved ones when you’re struggling with a relationship crisis. Relationship crises are not something that should be faced and endured alone. The more love and compassion you can show yourself during this difficult time, the more success you will have at transcending this life-altering crisis.