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Why kindness and connection are important to mental health

How can a psychotherapist help someone looking for connection?

One of the main reasons we’re all unfortunately hardwired to struggle as human beings is that two of our central needs often disconnect us from ourselves and others: our safety needs and our reward needs. Safety needs view everything and everyone with a problem-focus while reward needs can cause disconnecting comparisons, competitiveness and feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration. In fact, much of what people bring to therapy – including anxiety, depression, chronic anger, narcissism, addiction, procrastination and stress – can all be seen as both causing and caused by this disconnection. 

When we feel connected, on the other hand, we feel safe, rewarded, alive and fulfilled. Life has meaning and purpose. Whether it’s to ourselves, trusted others, pets, groups, communities, nature or the environment around us, establishing and maintaining connection - which includes the quality of kindness both as its cause and its result - is fundamental to maintaining good mental and physical health. 


How can a psychotherapist help someone looking for connection?
To add to our biological tendency to do so, many of us also often disconnect easily due to our childhood experiences in relationships. These can include adverse incidents that happened to us, as well as a lack of genuine love and connection during that time. Because it was relationships that led to these difficulties, if we’re going to be able to connect more later on, we have to experience the quality of relationship we initially needed. 

Good therapy holds the very real potential for such a reparative relationship. The experience of being truly heard and listened to, of trusting someone enough to be vulnerable and say the previously unsayable will help with connection in all areas of life.   

Connection often requires conscious and consistent effort before it becomes the norm and each of its facets can be looked at in therapy. We can focus on how to improve connection with ourselves - including our thoughts, values, beliefs, self-image, body, feelings and behaviours - and with others by exploring areas like boundaries, communication and how we express love and resolve conflict. Looking at the client/therapist relationship itself in real-time can also be valuable here. 

If you’re interested in exploring therapy, then visit our website for helpful advice for those looking for an accredited and registered therapist.


Don’t hold on to the wrong connections 
It’s important to remember that nurturing connection and kindness doesn’t mean having to remain connected with others to our detriment. For good reason, our safety needs will be sceptical about striving for connection and kindness with everyone at all times. We all know there are people who are better left untrusted. In fact, disconnecting from another might be the kindest thing we do for ourselves and therapy can be a great place to explore this too. 

Link: https://www.psychotherapy.org.uk/news/why-kindness-and-connection-are-important-to-mental-health/
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How to stay connected with a teenager

Maintaining positive connections with your teen can be difficult as they begin to find independence.

This can be a challenging time for parents and teens to stay connected. Adolescents can react with a heightened sense of emotion and be more impulsive with their decisions.

I often hear parents during this period ask why a child they’d previously felt so close to is now so distant, so the question here is why?  

Here are some reasons why this may is happening:

Scientists have established there are several key changes in brain development during adolescence. As braincells and brain pathways connect more rapidly they perform better; each area of growth and behaviour change can really challenge the teen/parent relationship. This biological change is necessary as it supports coordinated thought, actions, and behaviours for a teenager’s transition to adulthood.

Teens become more outward looking as they explore their identity, focused on establishing connections with others away from their carers. As they develop new interests and become more influenced by people their age, they can begin to copy those they admire. At this stage teens can also misread facial expressions or cues, which is why they’re so quick to argue. The more logical area of their brain is still being built.


How to stay connected in a positive way
Hold in mind change is fast for teenagers in all areas: physically, socially, and psychologically. Coping with fears about relationships, fitting in, self-worth, hoping for acceptance – these can all heighten anxiety. Being emotionally available and empathic even when you are being challenging is key so press pause and acknowledge how difficult this process is. It will allow you to be open and be compassionate with your teen and yourself.
Remember social connection is vital for a child’s wellbeing. A good laugh with friends can introduce all the feel-good chemicals that help low mood or depression.
Avoid stereotyping adolescents and being hyper-critical. Enjoy their company as a new and exciting social connection.
Don’t underestimate how much they value their friends. It’s safer to be curious and non-judgemental within reason. Teens are full of interesting new topics and fashions. If they’re interested in a music artist, get to know the sounds rather than dismissing it. You may gain a shared interest.
Expressing how you feel or showing how you manage under stress can help a teen talk about their large and difficult feelings.
If they’re shouting and being unreasonable, try not to escalate the situation by joining in. They’re probably too angry or hurt to hear. Communicate later when things are calm.

What to look out for unhealthy connections and choices
When facing identity insecurity, teens may follow a group who they think is exciting or offers a sense of belonging. Look out for signs of risk-taking or dangerous behaviour which can be exciting initially, but develop into more serious difficulties:

going under the radar, truanting, dropping out from college or university
self -harm
weight loss, slurred speech, unexplained bruises and cuts, scalds, burns
erratic behaviour, becoming withdrawn, abusive and violent.

When connection is too difficult, psychotherapy can help
Sometimes communication has broken down and it’s important to open the channels again. This can be possible in a safe, non-judgemental space where even the most challenging issues can be thought about. Some teens find talking much too challenging. Exploring their feelings through the safety of imagery and the arts is a useful alternative to talking. Getting help early on can safeguard against issues affecting long-term mental health.


The Surprising Role of Empathy in Traumatic Bonding

Research examines the relationship between traumatic abuse and bonding.

A recent study by Effiong et al. suggests empathy intensifies traumatic bonding—the formation of a strong bond between the victim and his/her abuser. Published in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the study is discussed below.
But first, a few definitions.
What is empathy?
Empathy is defined in a number of ways. Depending on the definition chosen, its meaning may overlap with similar concepts, such as empathic concern, emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, sympathy, care, and compassion.
According to a commonly used definition, empathy is composed of affective and cognitive empathy:
Affective/emotional empathy refers to the ability to generate an appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotions. Affective empathy overlaps with sympathy and compassion.
Cognitive/intellectual empathy refers to the ability to understand another person’s psychological state and point of view (to put oneself in another’s shoes). Cognitive empathy is related to theory of mind.
In the study by Effiong and colleagues, empathy was assessed using the Basic Empathy Scale, which measures both affective and cognitive empathy.
What is traumatic bonding?
Traumatic bonding refers to the formation of a powerful emotional attachment, due to repeated cycles of violence, between the victim and the abuser (whether a boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, or complete stranger).
The fact that the abuse often comes in cycles—meaning that the violence is interspersed with positive reinforcement—also explains, in part, why victims find it difficult to leave their abusers.
For instance, after harming the victim, the abuser may (in an apparent reversal of power) apologize profusely, beg for forgiveness, or behave with great love and surprising tenderness.
Nevertheless, sooner or later, the next cycle of violence occurs, confusing the victim.
Another reason victims of abuse don’t leave has to do with their low self-worth. As the maltreatment continues, the victims—with their self-esteem eroded—find themselves in an increasingly powerless and dependent position.
In fact, they may no longer even believe that they deserve to be treated with kindness, dignity, and respect. This makes it much harder to stand up to the abuser and risk more rejection and humiliation.
The three dimensions of traumatic bonding
Traumatic bonding has three dimensions:
1. Core Stockholm syndrome: Associated with interpersonal trauma, cognitive distortions (e.g., rationalization, self-blame, seeing the abuser as a victim), unrealistic hope for things getting better on their own, believing love will prevent the abuser’s aggression, etc. Many of these behaviors are essentially (dysfunctional) coping mechanisms.
2. Psychological damage: Associated with depression, interpersonal difficulties, low self-esteem, the loss of sense of self, and many symptoms commonly seen in borderline personality disorder, like fear of abandonment or never finding a loving partner after leaving the abusive relationship.
3. Love dependency: Associated with assuming that one’s survival is dependent on the abusive partner’s love and protection, thinking the abuser’s love would be worth any pain, experiencing a loss of identity when alone, and believing that one would have nothing to live for without the partner.
Let us now turn to the new research on the link between empathy and traumatic bonding.
Investigating traumatic bonding in victims of intimate partner violence
Sample: 345 women from the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (n = 145) and the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (n = 200) in Nigeria; average age of 36 years old (18-61 range); married an average of 10 years.

1. Intimate partner violence: Measured with the short version of the Composite Abuse Scale (30 items). Participants were asked about the frequency of emotionally or physically abusive behavior by an intimate partner. Sample items: “Slapped me”; “Told me that I wasn’t good enough”; “Harassed me at work”; or “Tried to rape me.”
2. Empathy: Measured with the Basic Empathy Scale (20 items). For example: “After being with a friend who is sad about something, I usually feel sad,” and “I can often understand how people are feeling even before they tell me.”
3. Traumatic bonding: Assessed with the Stockholm Syndrome Scale (49 items). For instance: “Without my partner, I have nothing to live for”; “I cannot make decisions”; “When others ask me how I feel about something, I do not know”; “I both love and fear my partner”; and “If I give my partner enough love, he will stop getting so angry at me.”
Analysis of the data showed empathy was a mediator of the relationship between intimate partner violence and traumatic bonding, including core Stockholm syndrome, psychological damage, and love dependency.
So, for all three aspects of traumatic bonding, empathy appears to be a path through which intimate partner violence is “translated and intensified” into traumatic bonding.
Empathy, particularly cognitive empathy—meaning the ability to understand another person’s psychological state—appears to be a pathway through which intimate partner violence intensifies traumatic bonding.
One way of explaining this finding is that victims use their empathic ability to rationalize the mistreatment they endure.
For instance, they may view the perpetrator as a victim, a victim who needs their help or one who cannot be held responsible for the aggression or abuse.
Such rationalizations are not surprising. After all, with their self-esteem and sense of self eroded by abuse, these women find it difficult to generate self-compassion and are instead prone to guilt, self-blame, and self-sacrifice.
Not only do victims of intimate partner violence tend to feel unworthy of respect, kindness, and love, but many also feel they will never find someone who treats them well.
Since victims additionally believe they cannot survive on their own (due to impaired autonomy), they find it extremely difficult to leave the toxic relationship, and as a result continue to suffer terribly. Unless, of course, they seek therapy and try to break this vicious cycle.

psychology today