I grew up with a clever rhyme about beans being a “magical fruit” due to the sounds they often produced after consumption.  Reflecting upon this still brings a chuckle but also is a reminder of how often flatulence, bloating, acid reflux and all sorts of bowel imbalances get normalized in American culture. In my practice, I often hear things like, “oh, this is just how I am” or “some amount of gas is normal, right?” In actuality, all of the above symptoms are signals that your digestion is less than optimal. Why does it matter? In short, poor digestion leads not only to discomfort and potentially embarrassing symptoms but also to systemic inflammation and can develop into more serious disease states. What can you do about it? While every individual is unique and is treated as such in clinic, what follows are a list of some common ways to optimize digestion on a day to day basis.

Build With Quality Raw Materials

Eat a balanced diet composed of fresh, organic vegetables (especially root veggies and dark leafy greens), fruits, nuts, seeds and grains along with grass fed or wild caught meats if you choose to eat meat. These foods provide nutrients for whole body health but also specifically B vitamins and minerals such as zinc and magnesium that are necessary for adequate production of stomach acid and proper assimilation of nutrients. Avoid conventionally grown (non -organic) foods along with processed foods and sugars as they often contain harmful pesticides and herbicides which are known to cause harm to the mucosa of your gut. This disruption of gut mucosa inhibits your ability to absorb nutrients and can further lead to autoimmune and more serious disease states. In addition, processed foods and sugars actually take more energy than they give, depleting your stores of B vitamins and minerals that are critical for normal digestion.

Simply Eat When You Eat

Let eating take center stage by settling down to nosh in a relaxed environment rather than eating while driving, standing or multi – tasking. Avoiding these activities when eating helps minimize the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn helps to regulate levels of stomach acid to ensure proper digestion.  Focus on chewing each bite thoroughly in order to maximize the digestive process that starts in your mouth. Allowing this mindfulness to continue after meals aids in attuning to foods that may provoke digestive upset and would be best avoided or prepared in alternate ways.

Drink Up Between Meals

Imagine concocting a rich, savory stew then pouring a bucket of ice water into it. Ridiculous right? But that’s what we, often unknowingly, do at mealtimes.  Drinking copious amounts of liquids with meals, reduces the production of stomach acid and dilutes the chemical soup of digestive enzymes, stomach acid and bacteria that aid in processing food. Shoot for drinking liquids in between meals in order to stay hydrated but not interfere with the digestive symphony at mealtime. If you desire to have a beverage with meals, choose one with digestive properties such as a cup of ginger or lemon tea, kombucha or occasionally a small amount of beer or wine. If you feel that you need a beverage to swallow your food this is often an indication that you are not chewing your food thoroughly enough.

Befriend Fermented Foods

Have you ever wondered why those little pickles, famously called cornichons, always end up with the charcuterie, the miso soup gets served before your favorite sushi or a bratwurst is often blanketed in kraut? Traditional cultures have long known that the secret to good digestion lies in a bacterial process. Fermented foods are fairly ubiquitous in various cultures, most commonly known in the above examples along with kimchi, yogurt, kefir, apple cider vinegar and kombucha. These fermented foods and beverages contain the trifecta of factors necessary for proper digestion: acid, enzymes and probiotics. In addition, the beneficial bacteria they contain, often known as probiotics, contribute to a balanced gut microbiome. Modern research has shown that a healthy microbiome is involved in normal function of just about every bodily system and helps regulate normal immune, hormone and stress responses as well as brain function. Want to embrace the power of these foods and beverages? Try adding ¼ to 1/2c cup of unpasteurized, fermented veggies or beverages to each meal and observe how you feel. If you notice that adding fermented food increases your digestive symptoms this is often a clue that you may have a bacterial imbalance that would best be corrected via acupuncture, herbs and dietary change.

Sprout It Out

Grains, nuts, beans and seeds all are contained in a convenient protective coating in order that they may survive until conditions are ripe for germination. If these foods are consumed before they have the opportunity to be sprouted, the protective outer coatings can cause digestive distress and inflammation due to the phytates and lectins they contain.  Once again, we take the nod from traditional culinary systems and see that sprouting these foods not only removes the protective coating with its inflammatory compounds but also improves nutrient assimilation by creating digestive enzymes. Sprouting is fairly easy to do but pre-sprouted products are also available in most health food stores and even some major grocery chains. If you’re keen to give sprouting or fermenting a try, a great resource is the cookbook, Nourishing Traditionsby Sally Fallon.

Aperitif anyone?

Digestive bitters, traditionally derived from plants such as gentian root, have long been utilized to improve digestion, often in pre- dinner cocktails. Their efficacy lies in the ability of the plants’ bitter compounds, once detected by taste buds, to signal a release of stomach acid enzymes, and bile thus priming the body for digestion. Prepared bitters are widely available in a variety of flavors but check to make sure they are free of artificial colorings or flavors. If you feel inspired, you can also make your own concoction.  And no booze is necessary to enjoy. Try a bit of your favorite bitters in a small amount of sparkling or still water with a wedge of citrus. Refreshing and effective!

Harness The Power of Herbs

Once again, we look to the wisdom of cultures past who have traditionally incorporated herbs and spices into daily cooking not only for their flavor but also for their digestive benefits. Chances are you may have some helpful medicine hiding out in your cupboard or fridge right now!  In fact, many commonly used herbs such as ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, black and red peppers, and various mints have powerful digestive properties. If you’d like to explore utilizing culinary herbs as medicine, a great resource is Alchemy of Herbsby Rosalee De La Foret.  This book provides great insight and recipes on how to incorporate common herbs into your diet and also speaks to the unique properties of each herb that may make them more suited to one type of person over the other. If this peaks your interest in utilizing herbs more intensively as medicine, keep in mind that practicing herbal medicine safely and effectively takes years of study. Therefore, it is best to seek guidance from a trained herbalist if you wish to incorporate more concentrated forms of herbs such as pills, powders or tinctures into your treatment regime. A trained professional can best assess what combination of herbs will best support your unique constitution and chief complaints.

Back Away From The Tums!

Antacids and Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) are often used to treat acid reflux or indigestion. Initially these might sound like a helpful solution as they can neutralize acidity but they in truth make reflux even worse. Here’s why: Adequate levels of stomach acid are crucial to breaking down food, in particular proteins and fats. When the pH of the stomach becomes more basic, food (especially proteins and minerals) will sit and essentially compost, creating heat that rises up in the form of bloating or reflux. In addition, low stomach acid levels leave your body more prone to pathogenic bacteria such as H. Pylori which can cause and exacerbate acid reflux. So instead of reaching for an antacid, focus on utilizing a fermented food or digestive bitters with each meal to help restore the proper balance of stomach acid and bacteria. Sometimes these measures are enough to correct reflux but more stubborn cases respond best to a regime of herbs, acupuncture and dietary change.

Give It a Rest

Minimize snacking between meals and stop eating at least 2-3 hours before bedtime to allow your digestive system a chance to rest and reboot. In addition, implementing periods of intermittent fasting of 12 or more hours per day has been shown to not only improve digestion but also to lower insulin and cortisol levels, improve mental clarity and help maintain healthy weight. If you are drawn to try intermittent fasting start slowly, fasting 8-10 hours per day between dinner and breakfast. If you do not experience weakness, headaches or dizziness you can increase the length of the fast slowly. Some patients report feeling their best fasting 14-16 hours per day, but every individual can have a different response to extended fasts. Please note that intermittent fasting is not indicated for everyone. If you are a diabetic, elderly, frail or have a history of eating disorders intermittent fasting is not advised without the supervision of a medical provider.

While this list contains only a handful of suggestions, even these can be overwhelming for some individuals. If you feel led to experiment with some changes, try integrating just one this week and observe how it impacts your digestion and overall well – being. Then try adding in other tools, one at a time. Many patients find it helpful to keep a journal in order to keep track of  strategies they’ve implemented along with the symptomatic changes they’ve observed. Finally, in all things the key to change is mindfulness. Keep paying attention and your body’s inherent wisdom will start to point you to lifegiving dietary rhythms and a more harmonious digestive system!

Creating Healthy Habits That Stick!

A new year is here, ripe with fresh opportunities to cultivate changes for a more balanced and vibrant life. Why is this important to consider?

 

Research indicates that what we think about and how we spend our time determines who we will become. In other words, the daily choices we make and habits we follow are forming who we will be for better …or for worse.

 

You may have already set some “resolutions” for the New Year or perhaps are still considering what healthy changes you’d like to incorporate into your daily rhythms. Whatever your good intentions, consider applying these science – backed tips to help your new habits survive the long haul…

 

  1. Create GOALS that are MEASURABLE and EASILY ACHIEVED IN 2-3 MINUTES. Why? HABITS STICK when we FEEL SUCCESSFUL! When we succeed at something it positively reshapes the way we view ourselves which encourages more healthy habits. Starting small may seem silly but oftentimes people create goals that are unrealistic then feel defeated when they don’t achieve them and subsequently give up entirely. Want to avoid that pitfall? Consider modeling your goals after the following examples…If you want to work out more, consider a goal of doing simple exercises for 2 minutes 1-2 x/week. Similarly, if you want to include more healthy food options consider a goal of eating 1-2 vegetables / week. Small successes really do compound to create big, long term dividends!
  2. REWARD THE NEW BEHAVIOR IMMEDIATELY and TANGIBLY. Why? Our brains respond to a rewarded behavior by releasing This helps us FEEL HAPPY and creates a DESIRE to do the SAME BEHAVIOR AGAIN to receive the reward. It’s important to make the reward VISIBLE and TANGIBLE as our brains are encouraged by VISUAL PROGRESS which drives us to repeat the new behavior. Consider keeping a tally sheet, marking a calendar or a using a marble jar to keep track of your successes. Be sure to make a check mark or add a marble to the jar IMMEDIATELY after doing the new habit. This will help your brain connect the new behavior with the reward. After you’ve accumulated a week’s worth of marks or marbles you might reward yourself with something that aligns with the overall goal. For example, if your intent is to implement stress reduction practices such as prayer or meditation you might reward yourself by getting a massage, taking a luxurious bath, or downloading some new music that is calming or brings you joy. After completing your daily goal for a longer period of time such as a month, you might consider treating yourself to a relaxing weekend away.
  3. Make NEW HABITS YOU’D LIKE TO CREATE OBVIOUS AND APPEALING and keep HABITS YOU’D LIKE TO GET RID OF OUT OF SIGHT AND UNATTRACTIVE. Why? Our brains follow the path of least resistance so whatever is most visible and easily accessed is what we will innately choose. Therefore, if your intent is to read more in place of scrolling on social media you might create a special reading area or room and leave engaging books in plain view while keeping your cell phone turned off and in another room. You can also PIGGYBACK A NEW BEHAVIOR ONTO AN ESTABLISHED HABIT. This established habit will act as a CUE to remind you to implement the new behavior you’d like to establish until it too becomes engrained. For example, if you regularly have tea or coffee in the morning, utilize the time it takes for water to boil to pray, meditate, make a healthy lunch or do some simple exercises. Following this with your favorite healthy morning beverage can also serve as the reward for the new behavior!

Whatever new habits you are being encouraged to develop, know that you hold incredible power and freedom to change the trajectory of your life through your daily thoughts and the choices.

How will you harness this power to grow in 2021?

 

WANT TO LEARN MORE…CHECK OUT:

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: Tiny changes, remarkable results : an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Fogg, B. J. (2019). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

EATING FOR AUTUMN: OPTIMIZING LUNG AND LARGE INTESTINE HEALTH

EATING FOR AUTUMN: OPTIMIZING LUNG AND LARGE INTESTINE HEALTH

Ah… autumn is in full swing which means changing leaves, cool, crisp days and all the pumpkin spice you can handle.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the season of autumn is an opportunity to intentionally nourish and detoxify the lungs and large intestine.  And whew! With a global pandemic, cold and flu season around the corner and unprecedented wildfires and smoke in the Western US there couldn’t be a better time to focus on the health of these vital organs!

The lungs and large intestine both share the functions of taking in nourishment via water and oxygen or nutrients and filtering out toxins that don’t serve us. When these organs are in a state of dis-ease, respiration and elimination are often impaired, and the immune system can become weakened leaving us susceptible to pathogenic invasions, cancers and autoimmune conditions. Yikes!

Since food can be such incredible DAILY medicine, what follows are some general guidelines to optimize lung and large intestine health, that will also benefit your overall well – being!

5 FOOD GROUPS TO FOCUS ON: 

  1. Pungent Flavors: radishes, onions, garlic, hot peppers, horseradish, ginger

Pungent or spicy flavors have a dispersing or moving nature and can help to break up and clear out excess mucous and phlegm. If left unchecked phlegm can impede proper organ function and provide a breeding ground for pathogenic bacteria, viruses and fungi. In TCM the lungs are said to “open” to the nasal passages and radishes, horseradish and ginger are especially helpful at relieving sinus congestion. These can be grated and added to food or juiced for extra potency. Use these and hot peppers with caution if you tend to have a “hot” constitution (red face, chest, sweat easily) or excessively dry throat.  Regular consumption of the particularly pungent allium family, that includes garlic, onions, leeks and chives has been associated with significant reduction in cancers of the esophagus, stomach and colon, lung, breast, pancreas and prostate. With the incidence of various cancers on the rise, be sure to include these tasty, sulfur rich foods on a daily basis!

  1. White Colored Produce: daikon radish, turnips, white fleshed fruits such as apples and pears, onions, garlic, white pepper and mushrooms

According to TCM, white is the color associated with the autumn season and interestingly, if you explore your local farmers market, many white or white fleshed foods can be found this season. Apples and pears have the ability to mitigate dryness that often accompanies the season and are rich in pectin, a soluble fiber that helps feed beneficial gut bacteria, normalizes digestion and aids in detoxification. These fall favorites are also rich in antioxidants such as quercetin that reduce inflammation and slow aging and their skins contain valuable insoluble fiber…so leave those peels on! Turnips are high in immune boosting Vitamin C, rich in fiber and as a cruciferous vegetable have been linked with cancer prevention. While Shitake and Maitake mushrooms are well known for their immune supportive beta glucans, the more commonly found Crimini or white button mushrooms are also wonderful choices. These little guys are an affordable and excellent source of immune supportive Vitamin D and are rich in trace minerals, B vitamins, fiber and protein. Consider adding to your next soup, stir fry or simply as a meat alternative.

  1. Cruciferous and Orange Root Vegetables – cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale, turnip and mustard greens, carrot, pumpkin and winter squash

Vegetables in both of these categories are rich in protective antioxidants such as beta- carotene which helps to nourish healthy mucosal membranes, boost immune function and has been linked to the reduced incidence of both lung and colon cancers. The green cruciferous veggies are also rich in chlorophyll and sulfur compounds which help to inhibit viruses and aid the body in detoxifying harmful chemicals that are ingested, inhaled or absorbed on a daily basis. Boost your capacity to cleanse naturally by adding in at least one cruciferous vegetable per day, ideally steamed or sautéed rather than raw to optimize absorption. Pumpkin, carrots, and other squashes are strengthening to the digestive tract and help to regulate bowel movements. They may be easily prepared by baking or consider utilizing them either chopped or puréed in soups for a delicious autumnal meal.

  1. Mucilaginous Foods: seaweeds, flaxseed, okra, slippery elm and marshmallow root

For proper function, the lungs and large intestine both require the maintenance of a light, and moist protective mucosal coating. The mucous layers that line our respiratory and digestive systems act as protective barriers from pathogenic or toxic substances that can be taken in via air, water or food. Supporting mucosal health protects not only the health of the lung and large intestine but also our entire bodies.  Foods that are rich in mucilage have the ability to sweep out old and pathogenic mucous and help to restore a clean and healthy mucosal layer. These foods are likely less common in your diet so try working them in via the following suggestions. Seaweeds can be added to soups or eaten as a snack, flax seed can be ground and added to oats, okra is a natural thickener for soups (think gumbo!) and slippery elm and marshmallow root can be purchased raw or found in many prepared organic teas.

  1. Fiber Rich Foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains

Fiber is found only in plants and is interesting in that while it is indigestible by our bodies, it plays a critical role in human health. Almost all plant foods contain both soluble and insoluble fiber that occur in varying proportions.  Soluble fiber dissolves in water and is helpful in maintaining normal cholesterol and glucose levels and is found in foods such as apples, citrus, carrots peas, oats, garlic and onions. In addition, soluble fiber plays the vital role of feeding beneficial gut bacteria which aid in nutrient assimilation, hormone and immune modulation, cancer prevention, regulation of inflammation and maintenance of healthy weight. Insoluble fiber is found in the bran of grains and plant cell walls, does not dissolve in water, helps to create the bulk of stool and to regulate normal movement through the digestive tract. Studies indicate that high fiber diets have value in preventing various cancers, diabetes, heart conditions and are helpful in maintaining a healthy weight.  To maximize the health benefits of fiber, shoot for 30g/day of a mix of insoluble and soluble fibers. To get started you might utilize a fiber calculator to see how much fiber you are already getting per day.  If you fall short consider slowly adding in high fiber sprouted legumes for one meal or mix in ground hemp, flax, nuts or seeds to your oatmeal or salad or switch out white rice for quinoa.  In general, the more you can stick to an unprocessed plant – based diet the more easily you’ll reach the 30g/day mark and reap the health benefits of fiber!

 

FOODS TO MINIMIZE OR AVOID 

  1. Refined Sugars, Pocessed and Fried foods, Alcohol

These “party foods” are all inflammatory in nature and tend to cause the production of pathogenic mucous and suppress immune function. In addition, these essentially “dead foods” contain little to no nutrition and cause a net loss of nutrients as they require B vitamins, zinc and minerals in order to be digested. If these foods make up more than 20% of your diet, consider swapping out one processed meal per week with an unprocessed vegetable – based meal to start. Or for a larger step, consider limiting these foods and alcohol to just the weekends or special occasions. Even small steps can help to reduce your inflammatory load and benefit your overall health today!

  1. Animal Dairy

Dairy, especially pasteurized, can cause congestion and excess mucous production in some individuals. Telltale signs of an intolerance to dairy include sinus congestion, runny nose, headache, phlegm that can’t be cleared from your throat or digestive disturbances. If you are still inclined to eat dairy, consider raw (unpasteurized) forms or fermented products such as unsweetened yogurt of kefir that still contain enzymatic activity and beneficial bacteria respectively. You might also consider sourcing goat or sheep -based products as their proteins are more similar to those found in human milk and tend to cause less reactivity. For a more sustainable alternative, there are also a wide variety of plant- based yogurts and milks that may be more easily digested and tolerated. If you’re lost and don’t know where to look, the suggested alternatives above can be often found at your local health food store or farmers market.

  1. Non – Organic and Grain Fed Animals

Animals, including humans, store toxins in their fat. Therefore, when we consume conventionally raised (non -organic) meats we end up taking in whatever toxins were stored in that tissue such as antibiotics, hormones, chemicals and pesticides. Since the goal is to help aid detoxification and not impede it, be intentional to choose 100% organically fed animals. Also opt for animals that are 100% grass fed or wild caught fish from sustainable sources as they contain anti-inflammatory Omega -3 oils linked with a myriad of health benefits. Conversely, grain fed animals contain high amounts of pro- inflammatory Omega -6 fats that when consumed in excess have been linked with increased incidences of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, arthritis, autoimmune conditions, mood disorders and cancer. Yikes! For a more cost- effective, sustainable and health boosting alternative you might also consider substituting a fiber rich, plant -based protein such as lentils for one meal a day or week. Think hearty lentil soup, three bean chili or black bean tacos!

 ALLOWING NUTRITIONAL DETOX TO LEAD THE WAY …

As you eat to nurture your lungs and large intestine, note that their physiology is a reminder that autumn is a season of refinement for not just body but mind and spirit as well. A call to create life giving rhythms that filter out obstacles to healing and embrace what serves to nourish us and create well -being amidst turbulent times. So, as you take in dietary nourishment you might consider what specific activities, places, people, readings, meditations nourish your soul? And similarly, as you notice your body’s processes of elimination, what patterns, habits or unhealthy relationships are you being invited to let go of in this season?

FOR FURTHER ASSISTANCE:

Please note that the information listed above is not intended to diagnose or treat. To set up a consultation to determine the most applicable dietary protocol for your constitution you may contact Dr. Schmidt here….  https://kairoscw.com/bianca-schmidt/

 

REFERENCES

 Donaldson, M. S. (2004). Nutrition and cancer: a review of the evidence for an anti-cancer diet. Nutrition journal3(1), 19

Elizabeth, L., Machado, P., Zinöcker, M., Baker, P., & Lawrence, M. (2020). Ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: a narrative review. Nutrients12(7), 1955.

Hanson, C., Lyden, E., Rennard, S., Mannino, D. M., Rutten, E. P., Hopkins, R., & Young, R. (2016). The relationship between dietary fiber intake and lung function in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. Annals of the American Thoracic Society13(5), 643-650.

 Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with whole foods: Asian traditions and modern nutrition. 3rd ed., rev., updated, and expanded. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books.

 

10 Characteristics of a Toxic Relationship

Relationships are meant to be life giving, challenging and give a sense of connection and belonging. Unfortunately, I see many clients who are stuck in“toxic relationships” that often do the opposite. When I say toxic relationship, I mean any relationship whether it is a significant other, friend, child or family member. Toxic literally means poisonous. It is something that is harmful to us and our health and functioning. Therefore, a toxic relationship will interfere with our mental and emotional health and keep us from thriving. I also use toxic relationships and emotionally abusive relationships synonymously.

Another way to define a toxic relationship is relationships that involve emotional abuse. If a relationship has any kind of physical or sexual abuse, of course it is unhealthy and unsafe. I focus here of emotional abuse, however, because emotional abuse can often be very difficult to identify and is often a precursor to or a part of physical and sexual abuse. Many times emotional abuse can be just as damaging to a person as more overt forms of abuse. One way to define patterns of emotional abuse that characterizes a toxic relationship is any behavior or attitude that emotionally damages another person, regardless of whether there is conscious intent to do so.

An important thing to keep in mind here is that we do not need to demonize those who have hurt us or who we have been in a toxic relationship with. People who emotionally abuse often do so because that was what was modeled to them. They may not even realize that their behaviors or patterns in relationships are harmful and hurtful. This does not excuse their behavior but can help us have more compassion and realize that it’s not all about us. In addition, I often hear people use the term “toxic” in a very dismissive way (ie: Oh she is so toxic), as if that person should be quarantined and ignored forever. It also seems like using this word is a get out of jail free card to not look at ourselves and what part we have played in a toxic relationship. Of course there are cases when someone is so abusive or sick that there is nothing you can do to change things other than leave the relationship completely, other times, however, we can empower ourselves to change our patterns in our unhealthy relationships if we know what to look for and how to respond. If you are concerned that you might be in a toxic relationship or are unsure, read on to learn some common signs and ways to deal.

Identifying Abuse

Before we jump into some very specific forms of emotional abuse, take a moment to check in with yourself and by asking these questions:

How do I feel after spending time with this person?

Have I changed since spending time with this person? How?

What do my trusted friends and loved ones have to say about my relationship with this person?

Do I feel/believe that I have as much to offer them as they offer me?

Do I feel/believe that my opinion, ideas and feelings matter to them?

How do I feel while I am spending time with them? How does my body feel? (Relaxed, tense?)

You may notice that after spending time with certain people you feel peaceful or fulfilled while after spending time with others you feel drained or unsure of yourself. These are important feelings to pay attention to. Of course if you have one negative interaction with someone that makes you feel uneasy, that does not necessarily mean they are toxic and you should end the relationship. We are all imperfect humans and all good relationships have conflict and discomfort at times. However, if you find your interactions with someone consistently result in you feeling down, drained or insecure, there might be some toxic, emotionally abusive dynamics. Since some forms of toxicity in relationships can be so subtle, it can be helpful to check in with ourselves and our feelings. We might feel nervous or tense when we are about to see a certain person but not know why. What is fascinating is that our emotions and bodies can often pick up on emotional abuse before our conscious minds can. One possible reason is that we have been in these kinds of relationships most of our lives and think they are normal. Or the negative patterns started so small and grew at such a gradual pace that we have not realized how toxic our relationship has become. We can build up a tolerance to being treated poorly. And, the very nature of emotional abuse often leads to self doubt in the abused.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse involves clear and consistent patterns that I will list and go over below. These dynamics are destructive and often the intent is to make the other feel badly about him or herself. Remember, emotional abuse is any behavior or attitude that emotionally damages another person, regardless of whether there is conscious intent to do so. It can be overt and very openly demeaning or covert (more subtle). And as the definition says, it can be intentional or unintentional. You may realize there are some very subtle forms of one of these characteristics that simply need to be pointed out in order to make a change. If you identify any of these dynamics in one of your relationships, you do not necessarily need to immediately cut that person out of your life. It may mean that you need to reassess the relationship and make some changes, however.

These 10 types of emotional abuse are described in The Emotionally Abusive Relationship by Beverly Engel.

Domination: attempting to control another’s actions and always have their own way. The abuser may use threats and/or manipulation to get their way.

Verbal Assaults: Berating, belittling, criticizing, humiliating, name-calling, screaming, threatening, excessive blaming, shaming, using sarcasm in a cutting way, verbal abuse disguised as jokes. The abuser may then belittle you for being hurt by their words and taking it so seriously.

Constant Criticism/Continual Blaming: This can be difficult to identify. The person might put you down under the guise of humor, similar to verbal assaults, or claiming they are just trying to help you to be better. Engle describes this dynamic’s effects, saying “When someone is unrelentingly critical of you, always finds fault, can never be pleased, and blames you for everything that goes wrong, it is the insidious nature and cumulative effects of the abuse that do the damage.”

Abusive Expectations: When someone places unreasonable demands on you (ie: expecting a friend or partner to put aside everything in order to satisfy their needs, demanding a partner’s undivided attention, demanding constant sex, or requiring a friend/partner to spend all of his or her time with them.) Usually they react strongly when you do not meet these expectations.

Emotional Blackmail: Coercing another to do what you want by playing into their fear, guilt or compassion (ie: one partner threatening to end the relationship or withholding sex if they don’t get what they want, silent treatment, guilt trips, making you feel selfish when you do something they don’t want you to do, asking you to give something up as a way of proving your love/friendship/loyalty to him/her.) Again, this blackmail may be subtle or overt.

Unpredictable Responses: This is characterized by drastic mood swings, sudden emotional outbursts for no apparent reason and inconsistent responses. They may react to a situation fine one day and then explode at the same situation the next day. This causes others to feel constantly on edge-waiting for the other shoe to drop. This behavior is common with alcohol and drug abusers/addicts or those with various forms of mental illness. This form of emotional abuse keeps you in a hypervigilant state, needing to be ready to respond to the other’s explosions or mood swings.

Constant Chaos/Creating Crisis: This is characterized by continual upheavals and discord. The abuser may deliberately start arguments with you or others or seem to be in constant conflict with others. The phrase “addicted to drama” fits here. This behavior may serve to distract from their own problems, feelings of emptiness or feel more comfortable for those who were raised in chaotic environments.

Character Assasination: Constantly blowing someone’s mistakes out of proportion, humiliating, criticizing, making fun of someone in front of others, or discounting another’s achievements. This can also involve lying about someone to negatively influence others’ opinions of them and gossiping about their mistakes and failures.

Gaslighting: This term comes from the classic movie Gaslight in which a husband uses a variety of insidious techniques to make his wife doubt her perceptions, memory and sanity. The abuser may continually deny that certain events occurred or that he or she said something you both know was said or he or she my insinuate that you are exaggerating or lying. The abusive person may be trying to gain control over you or avoid taking responsibility for his or her actions. This often results in the abused doubting themselves and less likely to speak up when future abuse happens.

Sexual Harassment: This can occur anywhere, even with a romantic partner. Unwelcome sexual advances or any physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature that is uninvited and unwelcome constitutes sexual harassment. The perpetrator may coerce you into becoming sexual against your will or into doing sexual acts you have no desire to do or are even repulsed by. Often other forms of emotional abuse go hand in hand with sexual harassment such as gaslighting or constant criticizing. They may claim that they are helping you to be less repressed and more sexually free and criticize you for being uptight and prudish. Or they may claim they were just being friendly and that you are blowing their actions out of proportion. But if it makes you uncomfortable and is unwanted, it is harassment, no matter their intent.

Now What?

Maybe you are seeing that some of your relationships has one or multiple forms of emotional abuse at play. Maybe you are recognizing that you are the abuser. So now what do you do? If you are identifying yourself as the abuser, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself. Beating yourself up will not help you become more healthy. Most likely there is a reason you engage in these abusive, toxic behaviors in your relationships and now you can work to discover what that reason is. You can do this within the confines of a safe and empathetic therapeutic relationship. Many people seek therapy over talking to a good friend because there is no judgement and instead there is unconditional positive regard. That means us therapists believe the best about you and that while you may do bad things you are not yourself, bad. If you want to stop being emotionally abusive to people you care about, find a therapist who can help you be more aware of when you are engaging in these behaviors and what is driving them.

If you are seeing that you have been emotionally abused there are multiple helpful ways to respond. First, you probably need to set some boundaries with this person either directly or just in your own mind. This involves being clear about what you will and will not accept. This may be letting the person know that you do not like being talked down to or being called names and if they start doing that again, you will get up and leave. Many times people feel mean when they hold boundaries, but boundaries are not an ultimatum or empty threat. Instead, they are a way to emotionally protect yourself. Boundaries are also loving towards yourself and the other person and not done as a punishment. When you change what you will and will not put up with it gives the other person an opportunity to change for the better as well.

It is also important for you to be aware of how the abuse has twisted your perception of yourself. Most likely you have received countless subtle or overt messages that you are not good enough, incompetent, unattractive or any other number of negative things. This is going to take a toll on your sense of self, so be aware of any negative self talk and ask yourself, “Is this me or this other person’s voice?” Awareness is the first step to taking control over your mind again. From here you can work to rebuild what the abuse tore down: your self esteem, self confidence, passion, silliness, creativity, etc.

While you are recovering from this toxic relationship, it is immensely helpful to surround yourself with safe, supportive people who can remind you of who you really are and want to build you up. Sometimes we need others to remind us of what is true about us before we are able to do it for ourselves. Setting boundaries and changing our own patterns can be very difficult so it’s also helpful to have people cheering you on and reminding you of why you are making these changes.

You also may need to grieve the relationship as you adjust your expectations and hopes for this person or relationship, especially if it is someone very close like a spouse or parent. You may also experience strong anger as you realize how poorly you have been treated. Anger is an appropriate response and will demand to be felt. As you work through your anger you can eventually move toward forgiveness towards yourself for allowing yourself to be treated so poorly and possibly also towards the abuser. Forgiveness does not mean they have to remain in your life or that you think everything they said and did is okay. Forgiving them is releasing them and believing that you will be okay no matter what happens or doesn’t happen to them. Forgiveness is really for your well being, not theirs, though it may have positive effects for them as well.

Finally, rather than kick yourself for not realizing how bad this relationship was sooner, allow this experience to teach you what to look out for in the future so it doesn’t happen again. I work with many people who are struggling to get out of a pattern of toxic relationships. They wonder why they keep choosing emotionally abusive people. Often it is because they just focus on the other people and not themselves. There is something in us that draws us to these kinds of people and until we address that the cycle will continue. We also need to learn to trust our gut when it tells us something is off about this person. When we can use our previous experiences to inform our current actions in relationship we can make different choices that will lead to better relational outcomes.

 

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