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by Dr. Kimberly Murray, LMFT

Shattered Expectations

No one could have predicted how 2020‭ ‬would go‭. ‬We all entered the year‭, ‬noting how neat the year number of 2020‭ ‬was‭, ‬and got excited at the new decade inviting fresh hopes and dreams‭. ‬No one knew that it would unfold into one of the hardest years of many people’s lives with a once-a-century event‭, ‬a global pandemic‭. ‬Suddenly‭, ‬the excitement we all felt for the year 2020‭ ‬turned into disgust‭, ‬pain‭, ‬disappointment‭, ‬and confusion‭. ‬The challenges were unprecedented‭, ‬including extreme social isolation‭, ‬confinement to home around the clock‭, ‬judgment of and by our neighbors‭, ‬intense financial struggles‭, ‬many business closures‭, ‬learning to home-school our children and work from home simultaneously‭, ‬losing loved ones to a mysterious disease‭, ‬and so much more‭. ‬

Many of us thought that with the first day of 2021‭, ‬the pandemic and its havoc would all finally come to an end‭, ‬simply becoming‭ ‬a distant painful memory‭. ‬But it didn’t‭. ‬Disappointingly‭, ‬not only did this magical moment not happen‭, ‬things actually hit an all-time low at the beginning of the year‭, ‬creating more pain‭, ‬stress‭, ‬and chaos going into 2021‭ ‬than we saw all of 2020‭. ‬The holidays‭, ‬a once joyous time of the year‭, ‬became a period of unprecedented sickness and death‭, ‬leaving lifelong scars that will far outlast the virus itself‭. ‬As a nation‭,‬‭ ‬COVID-19‭ ‬tore us apart in a division of opinions on how to handle the virus and restrictions‭, ‬pitting families‭, ‬friends‭, ‬and neighbors against one another‭.‬

Ascertaining understanding from our hindsight perspective is likely not going to yield the clear lessons we typically expect‭. ‬There is still so much pain‭, ‬confusion‭, ‬and turmoil indicating that the lessons have yet to be completed‭, ‬and thus we are still unsure of what to do from here‭. ‬You are not alone in these experiences and this crazy journey‭.‬

Time to Shift

So‭, ‬where do we go from here‭? ‬The harsh reality is that 2021‭ ‬will likely look similar to 2020‭ ‬with the continuation of the pandemic‭, ‬large-sweeping social restrictions‭, ‬and political and economic challenges‭. ‬Despite this‭, ‬our mindset and personal impact can positively change starting right now‭. ‬While we cannot control the virus‭, ‬our government‭, ‬or even the economic impact‭, ‬we can discover where we do have choices and choose a more positive path for ourselves from here‭. ‬

Fact‭: ‬our happiness is completely within our control‭. ‬I can already hear the‭ ‬“ya but‮…‬”‭ ‬arguments from many‭, ‬but hang in there with me‭. ‬For example‭, ‬while we cannot control the impact the virus had on our household‭ ‬income‭, ‬we can control our reaction to it‭. ‬We can choose to focus on unexpected gains over losses‭, ‬hope over dread‭, ‬gratitude over hurt‭, ‬connection over divisiveness‭, ‬perseverance over quitting‭. ‬We control our mindset‭, ‬behaviors‭, ‬and even emotions in all situations in life‭, ‬including this one‭. ‬When we choose to proceed in confidence and strength‭, ‬rather than victimhood and anger‭, ‬we can truly change our daily experiences‭, ‬interactions‭, ‬and mood‭. ‬

As a therapist‭, ‬I have seen countless people’s lives radically and positively change by simply choosing happiness‭, ‬no matter what is going on around them‭. ‬Their increased happiness and contentment with life did not come from making more money‭, ‬creating more time‭, ‬or becoming the most popular person in the neighborhood‭. ‬Their mindset shifted drastically and permanently‭. ‬Happiness came from a conscious choice to embrace all of‭ ‬life’s ups and downs‭, ‬finding the good in each day no matter how tough some moments had been‭. ‬It is done through learning new tools to capture and embrace our well-deserved happiness‭. ‬So how can we do this at such a challenging and unprecedented point in time‭, ‬one rightfully marked with confusion‭, ‬anger‭, ‬turmoil‭, ‬anxiety‭, ‬and sadness‭? ‬Let me help‭.‬

Next Steps

Since we cannot control that the pandemic remains and our world has been turned upside down‭, ‬let’s discover what we can control‭. ‬Instead of setting ourselves up for failure with unrealistic new year’s resolutions or impossible expectations‭, ‬let’s instead set an intention at the start of the year to put ourselves and our mental health first‭, ‬no matter what this year throws our way‭. ‬We can do countless things to quiet our anxious minds and let joy and peace become our new normal‭. ‬It should be noted‭ ‬that many of the tips I have provided can be used for anxiety and stress anytime‭, ‬not just during the pandemic‭. ‬

Mindfulness Techniques‭: ‬

• Gratitude‭: ‬Wake up each day focused on the positive things that lie ahead and hope for what is to come‭. ‬At the end of the day‭, ‬write down in a journal at least five things you are grateful for that day‭. ‬These can be as simple as‭ ‬“getting a shower”‭ ‬to something like‭ ‬“a meaningful conversation with a friend‭.‬”

• Choose joy‭: ‬Remind yourself multiple times a day that you are the only one in control of your happiness‭. ‬No one else can determine how you feel‭, ‬no matter what they say or do‭. ‬If anger‭, ‬sadness‭, ‬or other challenging emotions creep in‭, ‬pause and say out loud‭: ‬“I deserve and choose happiness‭.‬”‭ ‬Let yourself fully embrace this mentality‭. ‬

• Deep Breathing‭: ‬Sit somewhere comfortable and close your eyes‭. ‬Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly‭. ‬Take a slow deep breath‭, ‬focusing on breathing into your belly‭, ‬pushing your belly button away from your spine‭. ‬When you breathe deeply‭,‬‭ ‬your hand on your chest should not move‭; ‬only your belly hand should move‭. ‬Breathe in for 4‭ ‬seconds‭, ‬hold for one second‭, ‬and exhale for 8‭ ‬seconds‭. ‬Repeat at least five times‭. ‬Try to focus only on your breathing‭, ‬staying present in the moment and on your‭ ‬breath only‭, ‬not yesterday‭, ‬or what you have to do today‭. ‬Try saying‭ ‬“inhale”‭ ‬as you breathe in and‭ ‬“exhale”‭ ‬as you breathe out to keep your mind on your breathing‭, ‬nothing else‭. ‬

• Grounding‭: ‬Place your feet flat on the floor while sitting in a chair‭, ‬and close your eyes‭. ‬Focus on deep breathing‭. (‬See above‭.‬‭) ‬Think about the feeling of the pressure of your feet on the floor‭, ‬connecting your feet with the ground‭. ‬Think about the feeling of your booty in the chair and the feeling of the chair under your hands‭. ‬Think about the connection of your spine to the chair and the weight of your shoulders‭. ‬Breathe deeply and imagine yourself sinking even deeper into the chair‭. ‬Try to stay in the‭ ‬present moment and let your body fully relax‭.‬

• Progressive Muscle Relaxation‭: ‬Lay or sit down‭, ‬and close your eyes‭. ‬Start with focusing on your toes‭. ‬You will work your way up‭ ‬through your head and then out your arms‭. ‬Tense your toes as much as possible for 10‭ ‬seconds and then fully release for 10‭ ‬seconds‭. ‬Think of your muscles melting like butter when you release‭. ‬Move your way throughout the body‭, ‬focusing on one small muscle‭ ‬group at a time‭. ‬

• Affirmations‭: ‬Write at least three affirmations and say them daily while looking at yourself in the mirror‭. ‬A couple of examples‭ ‬could be‭: ‬“I am in control of my body and my emotions”‭ ‬or‭ ‬“I deserve to feel calm‭.‬”‭ ‬

• Embracing the Extra Quiet Time‭: ‬People thrive off of connection‭, ‬but they also need time alone with little stimulation‭. ‬Sit alone in a quiet space‭, ‬without your phone‭, ‬music‭, ‬another person‭, ‬or any other distractions‭. ‬Practice some deep breathing while embracing the quiet‭. ‬Allow yourself to rest without a sense of guilt or urgency to‭ ‬“do”‭ ‬something‭. ‬Let your heart rate and mind slow down‭, ‬embracing the time just to be‭. ‬

Protect Your Mental Health‭:‬

• Choose patience over judgment‭: ‬Try to be patient with yourself and others as we navigate completely uncharted territory‭. ‬Resist‭ ‬the urge to judge and instead practice compassion and empathy‭. ‬We are all human‭, ‬and we all deserve a bit of grace‭, ‬including you‭. ‬

• Let go of what is truly outside of your control‭: ‬When anxiety or stress creep in‭, ‬take a mental inventory of the source‭. ‬Take a‭ ‬moment to pause and truly consider if the stressor is something you have control over‭. ‬If the answer is‭ ‬“yes‭,‬”‭ ‬plan out the next steps to resolve the stress‭. ‬If the answer is‭ ‬“no‭,‬”‭ ‬it is time to let it go‭!‬

• Turn off the news and clean up your social media‭: ‬Nothing good comes from continuously consuming news‭, ‬the chaos of the world‭, ‬or people’s negative outlooks‭. ‬Allow yourself just a few minutes a day to update yourself on current events and then shut the news off until the next day‭. ‬The same goes for social media‭. ‬Only engage in social media for a few minutes a day and then redirect your energy to something more productive and positive‭. ‬Furthermore‭, ‬delete any social media connections that focus on the negative and fill your social media with people who embrace their own positive mindset‭. ‬

• Choose to be Teflon‭, ‬not Velcro‭: ‬Let things slide off your back that do not serve a positive purpose in your life or that bring‭ ‬you down‭. ‬You choose where to put your energy and what input and emotions to let in‭. ‬Don’t waste your mental space on pain‭, ‬negativity‭, ‬and anger‭. ‬

• Seek Out Support‭: ‬We all need additional support or tools at times‭. ‬I challenge you to consider trying out therapy‭. ‬I have been‭ ‬on both sides of this table and know how challenging seeking out therapy can be‭. ‬Take the plunge‭! ‬Trust me‭, ‬it will be oh‭, ‬so worth it‭, ‬and you will not regret it‭! ‬

• Get Ready Everyday‭: ‬Regardless of your plans for the day or if you have to leave your home‭, ‬wake up each day as you typically would before the pandemic‭, ‬following your routine as normal‭. ‬Commit to getting dressed‭, ‬brushing your teeth‭, ‬doing your make-up‭, ‬or whatever it takes to fully get ready each day‭, ‬even if the furthest place you will go is your living room‭. ‬When we look good‭, ‬we feel good‭.‬

Create Connection‭:‬

• Revisit Happy Times‭: ‬Scroll through your photos and videos on your phone daily‭. ‬Let yourself remember those good times‭, ‬reminding yourself that those times will once again return in the future‭. ‬Practice patience and mental presence in the meantime‭. ‬

• Family Time‭: ‬If you are isolated at home with your family‭, ‬use this time to discover new things about one another‭, ‬play games together‭, ‬learn about one another’s needs and interests‭, ‬and truly embrace this time together‭. ‬Set aside one day a week just to focus on and connect with one another with all work and schooling set aside‭. ‬One day‭, ‬this time of extra connection will be gone‭, ‬and I can almost guarantee you will miss it when that time comes‭. ‬

• Stay connected‭: ‬Commit to calling‭, ‬texting‭, ‬or video chatting with at least one friend‭, ‬neighbor‭, ‬or family member each day‭. ‬Reach out to those that bring you joy or could also use that moment of connection in their day‭. ‬

• Reinvest in Lost Connections‭: ‬Reach out to old friends or distant family members to restart those once treasured connections‭. ‬

• Date Night In‭: ‬The pandemic is no excuse to stop dating your significant other‭! ‬Take turns planning a date night in each week‭. ‬Some examples could be‭: ‬testing out a mailer date box‭, ‬watching a movie on Netflix‭, ‬trying a new meal‭, ‬or taking a romantic bath‭ ‬together‭. ‬

Practice Healthy Habits‭:‬

• Sleep Hygiene‭: ‬Create a set routine each night to get ready for bed‭, ‬including the time you go to bed and behaviors you engage in to get ready for bed‭. ‬Stick to it every night‭. ‬Try to get at least seven hours of sleep each night‭. ‬Stop eating at least two hours before bed‭, ‬and stop drinking anything besides water one hour before bed‭. ‬Discontinue all screen usage at least one hour before bed‭, ‬including looking at your phone‭, ‬tablet‭, ‬TV‭, ‬iPad‭, ‬or computers‭. ‬Your bed should only be for sleep and sex‭, ‬not work or watching TV‭. ‬Keep your room cool and very dark while you sleep‭, ‬and consider using a sound machine‭. ‬If you follow these things‭, ‬I can guarantee you will notice your sleep improve within the first couple of days‭! ‬

• Movement‭: ‬Find what you love for moving your body and do it daily‭!‬

• Nourishment‭: ‬Time to put down those holiday treats and shift to fueling our bodies‭. ‬When reaching for a snack or making a meal‭, ‬ask yourself‭, ‬“Will this nourish my body with the healthy nutrients I need‭?‬”‭ ‬If the answer is no‭, ‬perhaps consider eating something else or adding a more nourishing component to your plate‭. ‬

• Faith/Spirituality‭: ‬Set aside time every day to invest in your faith or spirituality‭, ‬depending on whichever most resonates with‭ ‬you‭. ‬It could include prayer‭, ‬reading the Bible‭, ‬meditating‭, ‬connecting with nature‭, ‬reaching for guidance from a spiritual leader‭, ‬etc‭. ‬

• Get Outside‭: ‬Commit to going outside every day‭, ‬no matter the weather‭, ‬your to-do list‭, ‬or your desire to stay inside‭. ‬You need‭ ‬fresh air every single day‭. ‬

Redirect Your Energy

• Learn a new skill‭: ‬What is that one thing you have always wanted to try to do‭? ‬Go learn about it and do it‭!‬

• Take a free class‭: ‬Take a look at your local community resources‭, ‬including the local college or library‭, ‬and see what free courses they offer‭. ‬You are never too old or too busy to learn something new‭.‬

• Read a book‭: ‬Take your mind somewhere else‭, ‬and immerse yourself in a new or favorite novel‭.‬

• Adult Time-out‭: ‬Kids are not the only ones that need to take a time-out sometimes‭. ‬If you notice your thoughts or emotions getting away from you‭, ‬call a time-out‭. ‬Leave your current space‭ (‬ensuring your kids are safely taken care of first‭) ‬and go to a place that brings you a sense of calm‭ (‬either within or outside your home‭). ‬Take some deep breaths and focus on relaxing each muscle‭ ‬in your body‭. ‬Give yourself at least 15‭ ‬minutes to regroup and recommit to a positive mindset and a calm body‭. ‬

• Volunteer‭: ‬There are still plenty of volunteer options available‭, ‬even with the pandemic‭. ‬Giving back to others who may be less‭ ‬fortunate than ourselves reminds us that we are not alone‭, ‬and there are many things to be grateful for‭. ‬When we give to others‭,‬‭ ‬we create a connection and raise our own joy simultaneously‭. ‬

Further Support

These tools are some of many that can help adjust our expectations while embracing the current moment for exactly what it is‭, ‬rather than resisting it each step of the way‭. ‬Each and every one of us need additional support at times‭, ‬free from judgment and shame‭. ‬As a marriage and family therapist with Safe Haven Family Therapy‭, ‬LLC‭, ‬I offer support to individuals‭, ‬couples‭, ‬and families struggling with a wide variety of concerns‭, ‬including managing expectations and navigating this very challenging time‭. ‬I provide this support virtually‭, ‬making it convenient and easy for you and your loved ones to get the support you deserve‭. ‬If you have further questions about mental health‭, ‬how to improve your mindset and mood‭, ‬or the supportive resources available to you‭, ‬please do not hesitate to reach out to me‭. ‬I can be reached at‭ (‬970‭) ‬460-8015‭ ‬or at‭ ‬safehavenfamilytherapy@gmail.com‭. ‬I am happy to connect you with exactly what you uniquely need‭, ‬even if it isn’t with me‭. ‬No one deserves to live in suffering‭, ‬not even for one day‭!‬

Dr. Murray is a licensed therapist and can be reached at‭ (‬970‭) ‬460-8015‭ ‬or at safehavenfamilytherapy@gmail.com‭. ‬