During a March 10, 2021 program packed with valuable advice and strategies to help couples, families, coworkers and friends navigate the many relationship landmines that have arisen during the ongoing pandemic, a decorated panel of Albizu University professors talked extensively about how to “Immunize Your Relationship Against COVID Stress.”
To watch a replay of the discussion on YouTube, click here.
Moderated by Albizu clinical psychologist Dr. Isaac Tourgeman, the one-hour event convened pre-eminent Albizu neuropsychologist Dr. Scott Bauer, and Albizu clinical psychologists Dr. Tania Diaz and Dr. Jessica Popham, who explored the relationship conflict process—from what happens to our bodies physiologically during an argument to emotional differences among age groups and psychosocial influences on how we relate to one another.
Opening the program, Dr. Diaz explained the concept of “mental health hygiene” by comparing it to any other preventive health care measure designed to prevent physical deterioration, such as tooth brushing. Getting a good night’s sleep, minimizing alcohol intake and electronic device screen time, setting a routine time for bed, getting plenty of exercise and reaching out to others for interaction are among the ways people can provide a healthy routine that improves mental stability and promotes good brain function for a better baseline quality of life from which to function.
But what happens to stress levels when people have opposing views and no-one wants to back down?
Communicating through the lens of compassion is a powerful way to diffuse conflict, Dr. Diaz explained.
“When people use compassion, the hormone oxytocin is released from the body, helping us to feel good and connected,” she said. “The moment someone feels understood, they are more tolerant of their own personal struggles because they feel that they are being heard.”
To communicate with compassion, Dr. Diaz suggested listening to understand, rather than to be validated or invalidated.
“Really hear what your partner is trying to convey,” she added. “The goal is to identify yourselves as a team, rather than opposing sides of who’s right and who’s wrong.”
Two people don’t necessarily have to feel the same way about a topic, but taking the time to learn about each other’s emotional landscape—what they think and feel—and essentially get on the same page can help bring them closer. By understanding each other’s point of view, common ground is more likely to be found.
Dr. Jessica Popham delved into the concept of “intergenerational occurrences,” which explains how generations of family genetic and emotional patterns and traits shape our lives.
To help identify these patterns, mental health therapists often use a family tree-style “gene-o-gram” to map out where they may exist. Components include ages, names, important dates, type of relationships and histories, such as substance abuse, medical and mental health records.
More often than not, previous generations’ patters of behavior begin to emerge from this process to shed light on problems that may be in the present, with the goal of helping psychology clinicians determine how to best to help.
Indeed, members of a household communicate differently and often negatively, creating anger that distracts from the real issues that may need to be addressed. While anger is a natural emotion, Dr. Popham explained, it’s how others’ response to it is expressed that becomes the issue.
She recommended that the best way to express negative emotions is through “I statements” that focus on one’s own feelings. Phrasing statements in this first-person context conveys the speakers’ ownership of the negative emotion, thus paving the way for more effective conflict resolution.
Dr. Bauer, a neuropsychologist, explained that our brains are like computers that relay messages to all parts of our bodies, whether we’re aware of those messages or not. The hormones and neurotransmitters involved in this process are closely related to our emotions, since that chemical process controls what we think, feel, learn, remember, sense, react or respond to, including arousal and stress, and emotions like love.
He explained that behavioral endocrinology is the study of psychological interactions between one’s hormones and endocrine system—a process that influences behavior. Neurophysiology is the study of chemical messengers like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin that facilitate internal brain-body communication, including behavior.
So much of our emotional expression depends on our sympathetic nervous system, which directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations—also known as “fight or flight,” Dr. Bauer said. And often, because of the natural stimulus response chemistry going on within our bodies, we are often unaware of these automatic and unconscious reactions, which produce complex emotions and resulting behavior.
Becoming aware of these reactions and addressing these feelings can provide a substantial key to managing interpersonal relationships, Dr. Bauer added. “For example, if you’re producing a ‘fight or flight’ response in someone you love, something is wrong. Or maybe you have food cravings, which is symptomatic of a serotonin deficiency. Norepinephrine deficiency causes depression and fatigue.”
“Think of yourself as a car,” he said. “If your dashboard engine warning light is coming on—like you’re screaming and yelling at your family every night–, you’ve got something wrong and you need to see a mechanic!”
Blaming our loved ones for our problems is easy, he said.
“Take some advice from Michael Jackson and look at the man in the mirror. Fighting is easy. A solution is not. It takes work.”
Becoming aware of one’s own internal chemistry can assist in detecting a mood imbalance. Mental hygiene fundamentals like ensuring good sleep hygiene, eating habits, exercise habits, and addressing underlying medical issues or substance abuse problems, including alcohol or pornography, or even restricting the use of addictive electronic devices that can interfere with sleep and person-to-person contact can also help.
Dr. Diaz noted that it’s important to learn to recognize and categorize what problems are out of our control or not.
Indeed, managing what’s in the realm of our control, such as a daily to-do list, can give us a sense of accomplishment, she said. For the things we can’t control, simply focusing on our response can make a dramatic difference.
Our breath is the number one tool we can use to reduce stress, she said. Because breathing is a function that taps in to the parasympathetic nervous system, by taking long, deep breaths, we can help our bodies wind down and even mitigate stress hormones that cause long-term damage like heart disease and accelerated aging.
Being mindful of negative thoughts and actions we may have inherited from our family of origin can also help to reduce stress.
COVID has taken so much out of everyone’s control over the past year, that many are experiencing all types of interpersonal conflicts, especially within their families, Dr. Popham noted. When tempers flare, she suggests using basic active listening, validation of the other person’s statement, empathy and understanding, and boundaries to facilitate clear communication.
Simply pausing for 10 seconds and collecting yourself before responding in anger to a provocation can help, Dr. Bauer added. “You might have to sit outside for a half an hour, but pause!”
Panelists agreed that during these stressful times, the biggest gift we can give to those we love is mental health awareness to prevent problems from spiraling out of control. Being aware of others and how they respond, and using that knowledge to reflect upon ourselves is the best place to begin.
Because we all have the power to positively contribute to our make our relationships better, becoming a mental health change agent on our own can make a dramatic difference in how others react to us.
In closing, Dr. Tourgeman reminded the audience that mental health help and resources are available on a telehealth, bilingual and sliding scale basis from the Albizu Clinic in Miami at clinic.albizu.edu.
Known for its clinical psychology doctoral programs, Albizu University has gained international recognition for advancing a culturally sensitive approach to psychology practice and studies, particularly in Latin-American communities. The school has a campus in Miami, Florida, and headquarters in Puerto Rico.