Celebrating the Essence of Thanksgiving

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file9021344553210“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”   -Tecumseh, Shawnee leader

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if every day had a little bit more of the essence of Thanksgiving? Although it may seem at first glance that the holiday is all about turkeys, yams and other scrumptious food and flowers that adorn our tables, these things are but the outer trappings.

The deep inner essence of Thanksgiving is the presence of family and friends coming together for a time-honored tradition of joyful celebration with the deliberate practice of gratitude as the central focus. The ritual is there to remind us to be grateful that we are alive and have food on our table, since not everyone on our planet is so lucky.

UnknownA Holiday with Ancient Roots

Although Thanksgiving as a national holiday is a specifically American and Canadian tradition, it is actually celebrated all over the globe by many different names and types of rituals. Thanksgiving is the North American version of ancient harvest celebrations that have taken place for thousands of years wherever crops were reaped and sowed.

Think of the Festival of the Harvest Moon in China or the yam festival in Ghana, Africa, or the Chu Suk in Korea. Expressing thanks is a universal urge and a human strength that can be cultivated, not just at Thanksgiving but on any day.

All of the world’s religious teachers, ancient philosophers, and indigenous people have spoken about the importance of gratitude for over a thousand years, seeing it as an important virtue to be cultivated and practiced. In religious traditions, the saying of grace before each meal is a way of thanking God for the food on your table.

Most parents teach their children the “magic words” of saying “please” and “thank you”. We have always known intuitively that grateful people seem to be happier with their lives and also more able to confront life’s challenges.

DSC_0094Research on Gratitude

Scientists were latecomers to this awareness. Only in the past ten years have researchers started to take a hard look at exactly how and why gratitude leads to increased health and happiness. Now, a growing body of research is emerging that verifies not only this but much more.

Psychologist Robert Emmons from the University of California at Davis is one of the prominent researchers on gratitude, now conducting highly focused, cutting-edge studies on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its consequences. Many other researchers are following suit.

They have found that gratitude helps boost the immune system and is in itself a form of stress reduction. We are also learning that adversity can, paradoxically, bring an increase in thankfulness. People who have faced losses early in life often have higher levels of optimism, suggesting that adversity can add to personal growth over time.

thanksgivingturkeyParenting with a Positive Spin

Research on happy, healthy families has found that the parents in these families emphasize the positive, yearning to bring out the best in one another in spite of individual differences in temperament, talents or interests. They teach core values such as honesty, fairness, kindness and responsibility, and typically foster a spiritual or philosophical perspective that includes serving something greater than just ourselves.

Rather than focusing on complaints or how the glass is half full, we want to teach children–and remind ourselves–how to learn from mistakes, apologize for wrongdoings, and have gratitude for what we already possess. When we cultivate our positive feelings of joy, empathy, gratitude and love, we are opening our hearts and activating pathways in our brain that lead to more helpful thoughts and actions.

mother and sonFilms and Music That Inspire

If you would prefer to be inspired through film rather than through a book, depending on the age of your children you could watch The Lion King and discuss the virtues illustrated in this film classic. Two other favorite movies of mine to help jumpstart more positive thinking are Pay It Forward and The Pursuit of Happyness. Watching a movie together at home, taking the time to talk about what you each have learned, can be a fun way to cultivate more positive outlooks and behaviors in yourself and your kids.

Music is yet another universal way to be inspired and uplifted. What are the songs that build you up rather than bringing you down? I love “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music and “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen. For songs and activities that bring positive messages to young children, check out the Golden Rule song at HappyKidsSongs.com.

If you want to be inspired but don’t have time for a whole movie, take ten minutes when you can stop, breathe, and open your heart to the exquisite beauty of nature. Louie Schwartzberg has been doing time-lapse photography of flowers for thirty years. In a Ted talk, Nature, Beauty, Gratitude, his stunning images are accompanied by powerful words from Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast on being grateful for every day.

mdedit_090Learning to Love What Is

The German mystical theologian, Meister Eckhart, taught, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” This quote made me think about how most people generally pray for something, and we generally pray either for our loved ones or ourselves. We typically ask for good health, for food and shelter, for love, for an end to suffering, for miracles, for a job, or simply for strength or wisdom.

Today, and this Thanksgiving, my prayer is simply this: to be grateful for what is. All of it. The blessings and the suffering, for they both are teachers, and they walk hand in hand. Or as Leonard Cohen reminds us, “There is a crack in everything–that’s how the light gets in.”





Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file000321021304“The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.” -Voltaire

Although we have known instinctively for millennia that laughter, like crying, can be a powerful antidote to pain and suffering, the scientific world is finally catching up. According to the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, laughter may have a direct effect on the body’s ability to fight infections, boosting the number of “killer” white blood cells produced to attack viruses and bacteria.

Laughter is Like Exercise

“We now have laboratory evidence that mirthful laughter stimulates most of the major physiologic systems of the body,” said William Fry, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School, and expert on the relationship of humor to health. According to Fry, a good belly-laugh brings about physiological changes similar to aerobic exercise, speeding up the heart rate, increasing blood circulation and working numerous muscles all over the body.

file000152315752Another way to think about laughter is that it can be like a mild workout and may offer some of the same advantages. Fry claims it takes ten minutes on a rowing machine for his heart rate to reach the level it would after just one minute of hearty laughter.

Laughter Prevents Disease

Fry and his researchers believe laughter may help prevent heart attacks and strokes by easing tension, relieving stress and reducing anger. It can also help lower levels of anxiety, depression, and other negative mood states which leave the sufferer vulnerable to illnesses of all sorts.

Research at the University of Maryland examined the effect on blood vessels when people were shown either comedies or dramas. The group who watched comedies had normal blood flow, expanding and contracting easily. In contrast, those who watched dramas tended to tense up, restricting blood flow.

saw 024Laughter Dulls Pain

The benefits of laughter were first introduced to the public when Norman Cousin wrote his memoir, Anatomy of an Illness. After Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful spine condition, he discovered that watching old comedies, like Marx Brothers films and episodes of Candid Camera, actually made him feel better physically. He reported how ten minutes of laughter enabled him to have two hours of pain-free sleep.

This personal experience as reported by Cousins has subsequently been studied by researchers. Robert Provine, author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, writes that the most convincing health benefit he’s seen from laughter is its ability to dull pain. Numerous studies of people in pain or suffering discomfort from illness say the same thing: when they laugh, their pain doesn’t bother them as much.

Laughter Amps Our Immune System

DSC_0019Subsequent research has also shown that laughter (and tears) help stimulate our immune system to go into high gear. This is especially important during times of stress when our immune system is taxed. Research suggests that using humor and laughter can raise the level of infection-fighting antibodies in the body and boost the levels of immune cells.

In another study following diabetics, researchers examined how laughter impacts blood sugar. After eating a meal, one group attended a serious lecture while another watched a comedy. Guess which group had lower levels of blood sugar…yes, those that laughed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALaughter is a Social Affair

Provine discussed his own research, discovering that people are thirty times more likely to laugh when in a social setting with other people rather than alone. One of his hypotheses is that folks who laugh a lot may have or perhaps be building stronger connections with those around them. He surmises how that in and of itself may have positive health benefits.

This is just a small sample of the positive effects of laughter. In short, the scientists have come to the same conclusion….Laughter is indeed good medicine, and should be added to the list of things we do each day to prevent serious diseases.

file2021335717961Laughter IS the Best Medicine

And since no one has ever died of laughter that I know of, this is a super powerful medicine with no known side effects- other than, perhaps, increased happiness and longevity for you and your family. If the ability to laugh could be packaged and sold, customers would be lined up around the block to get it.

I was shocked to learn another statistic while I was studying up on this topic. According to Fry, the average kindergartner laughs 300 times a day in contrast to adults who average only 17 laughs a day. Now that’s something to stop and think about.

I don’t know about you but I’m going to start counting my giggles and see if I can get back into the hundreds. Clearly, most of us grown-ups are taking life far too seriously for our own good.

The Hard Truth About Happiness

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW


“I just want to be happy!”

Young and old, male and female, rich and poor, we utter these six simple words. If you ask parents what they most want for their kids, they say the same thing—“I just want them to be happy.” Why is this precious human emotion so available to some and so elusive to others?

Although happiness has been the subject of thought and writings going as far back as the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, it has only been the subject of serious study by psychologists for the past forty years.

What social scientists have figured out so far is that the source of our happiness comes from three distinct arenas—our genetic make-up, from life events that occur, and from the values and beliefs we carry. This helps explain why happiness is indeed more difficult for some people to experience than for others.

file4671348049272Some Happiness Is Hard-wired

In studies of identical twins brought up in different family settings and environments, researchers found that almost half (48%) of our subjective sense of happiness is determined by our genes. That’s big but not all of it.

Psychologists have been long debating about what parts of our personality are due to “nature” vs. “nurture”. We currently know that there are nine aspects of temperament that are inborn. One of the nine aspects that differ from birth is mood. The hard truth is that some babies are happier than others from the start. Ask any parents with several babies and they will tell you the difference in temperament from one to the next.file6511234090560

No wonder Winnie the Pooh is so loved and so timeless. The world really is populated with Piglets (the shy, sensitive types), Eeyores (the often depressed, serious, gloomier types), Tiggers (the hyperactive, funny, easily distractible types), and Pooh Bears (the calm, optimistic, adaptable types). Here is a perfect example:

“There now. Did I get your tail back on properly, Eeyore?” says Christopher Robin. “No matter. Most likely lose it again anyway. It’s not much of a tail, but I’m sort of attached to it.”

Life Events Bring Temporary Happiness

emily and xemenia 251We all tell ourselves stories about what will make us happy when we are not. Here are some of the classics:

  • I’ll be happy when I have a girlfriend, make more money, have a job, house, car…
  • I’ll be happy when I get to go on vacation, do what I want to do, have more sex…
  • I’ll be happy when my kids are out of the house, getting good grades, out of trouble…
  • I’ll be happy when my partner stops criticizing me, listens to me, hugs me…
  • I’ll be happy when I don’t have homework, get into college, pass my test…
  • I’ll be happy when I have my own room, get an allowance, stay up later…

What studies have shown is that while life events do indeed bring us happiness, the positive feelings are quite short-lived. Even when a person accomplishes a goal that has taken years to accomplish, the happiness generated from that success dwindles after a few months.

Painful, negative events also have an impact on our happiness. Some losses and traumas bring more sadness and last for weeks or months while others are more fleeting. All in all, life events determine about 40% of our happiness quotient at any given time. Significant but transient.

IMG_5787Our Values & Attitudes Create the Rest

Since the happiness derived from life events is fleeting, it is critical to live according to values that can bring more lasting satisfaction. Value-driven happiness gives us the sense that our lives have meaning and fulfill some larger purpose. People whose satisfaction derives from religious faith, or spiritual or philosophical beliefs and practice remain happier even in the face of hardship.

Think about what provides the most meaning in your life. If you answered things like family, friends, community, and helping others, then you are likely to be on a path towards more happiness. Few people when facing death are saddened by regrets that they spent too much time with loved ones or helping the world become a better place.

Research also has taught us that unhappy people spend far more time comparing themselves to others. Instead of deriving happiness from within, unhappy people are too focused on what others are getting. The grass often looks greener (and therefore brings dissatisfaction) when you focus on the other person’s prize, accomplishment, spouse, children, or job. If you want to learn to become happier, get to know yourself  better. In this way, you can follow your own bliss–not someone else’s.

file000463903967Rewarding Work Brings Us Joy

Our relationship to work is crucial to our happiness, no matter what line of work we are in. Since so much of everyday life includes doing things we call work–everything from laundry to dishes to childcare to actual tasks on the job–if we have a negative attitude towards work, it can dramatically affect our happiness.

Rewarding work is not about money either. Once people have enough money to meet their basic needs, having more money does not correlate with increased happiness. According to one recent survey, almost three-quarters of Americans say they would not quit their job even if they suddenly received enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. How does this make sense?

file5611249566448Work, when in alignment with our core beliefs, gives us the way to live a life of value. As Franklin D. Roosevelt so wisely reminded us, “Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”

Happiness is Luck–and Then Somefile801343155029

If you look into where the word “happiness” came from, it was thought to be all about luck. Hap, the Old English and Norse root, means luck or chance. The Germans gave us the word Gluck, which to this day means both happiness and chance. Clearly the ancients believed that happiness was in the hands of the gods. Although so much of life is out of our control, we now know that we can change our mood states with conscious thought and practice.

In addition to meaningful work, one of best ways to become happier is to bring happiness to others around you in any way you can. For those who are suffering, we can bring empathy, kindness and compassion. Happiness grows in a circular motion. What we do for others helps us grow. Joy, like sorrow, is contagious. What we give, we receive–the circle continues.






Do You Want to Avoid the Next Fight?

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

argument1227837759.jMost people are now aware that high levels of conflict–loud, angry or bitter fighting–can be tremendously destructive not only to marriages and intimate relationships but can cause lasting harm to the children caught in the crossfire.

As painful as divorce can be for kids, what we know now is that excessive fighting is what troubles kids–whether the family remains intact or not. On the flip side, disagreements and differences go hand in hand with any relationship whether it be marital partners, parents and children, co-workers or siblings.

One of the crucial skills we must master in order to sustain close, long-term relationships is healthy communication. Not only do we need to be able to communicate our positive feelings of love and appreciation but we need to be able to talk through issues when we don’t see eye to eye.

file1601299643113The Elements of Healthy Conflict

  • Both parties involved talk and listen, taking turns at sharing. Rather than gearing up to defend one’s point of view, there is a desire to understand more about what the other person feels, thinks and wants. Both realize that compromise is essential to trust and intimacy.
  • Although difficult conversations may be heated, there is no name-calling, yelling, threatening or bullying. In other words, there is a certain level of respect and self-control that is maintained.
  • When one or both parties gets overcome by strong emotions, the couple knows that it is usually wise to take a break to cool down, finding another time to resume the discussion when both parties are calmer. There are many resources (books, articles, videos) and how-to instructions with tools for healthy communication.

The Elements of Destructive Conflict

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn destructive conflict, all bets are off. Psychologist John Gottman’s land-breaking research on couples brought to light the negative aspects that can lead any discussion to the dark side. He aptly labeled these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because once they are predominant in a couple’s conflict, the likelihood of divorce dramatically rises.

Here are the four negative habits that every couple should watch out for:


Think of any complaint that starts with YOU, and that places the fault squarely on the other. Although the person doing the criticizing might think they are “helping” the other to see the problem, in truth the complainer is describing negatives in their mate or even worse, generalizing about their whole character. Criticism is often accompanied by “always” and “never”.

Examples: “You’re always late!” “You only think about yourself and not about anyone else in this family.” “You’re such a prude.” “Why can’t you ever clean up after yourself?”


Think of how to protect yourself when someone is launching an attack on you. It can look like giving lots of excuses for your behavior or it can look very aloof and indignant. It can quickly launch into counter-attack and criticism.

Examples: “I am NOT (fill in the blank)!” “I didn’t leave the kitchen that way–you did.” “I’m not the selfish one–look who’s talking.” “I can tell you all the things I did today for you and you are going to criticize me for being late!”


Start with criticism and send the same message but from a one-up, judgmental position. Roll your eyes and fire away.

Examples: “I can’t even believe that you could be so dumb as to think that was a good movie…” “How could you possibly have worn those pants to school today–you look like a tramp.” “Too bad you don’t know how to be a good father or you would know what to do.”


This is what someone does who blatantly refuses to participate in the conversation. It is often accompanied by arms folded and lack of any eye contact. It sends the message that the person has completely withdrawn emotionally and is not engaged.

Examples: “I am not going to talk to you about this.” “I’m out of here!” Or it is just giving someone the silent treatment or the cold shoulder.

AgreementMore Tips for Prevention

Don’t start talking about your conflict when you are hungry.

A new study conducted by Brad Bushman and colleagues actually measured levels of blood glucose in over 100 married couples and found that those people with lower levels, i.e. the hungry ones, were far more likely to express anger. This was true for both men and women and was more significant than the overall level of relationship satisfaction. Almost all of us are cranky and impatient when are tummies aren’t full.

Don’t start talking when it is too late at night.

It is certainly tempting to talk late at night because finally the kids are in bed and you have some privacy. The problem is that most Americans are already chronically sleep-deprived, and tired people don’t think as clearly and certainly have less ability to listen patiently. The other downside of late night confrontations is that if the argument does not go well then one of you might spend the rest of the night tossing and turning or choosing to sleep somewhere else.

IMG_1217Don’t start talking when one or both of you is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

It is hard enough to practice fair fighting when we have all our wits about us. When you add substances to the mix (so to speak), all bets are off. Ask any police officer how he or she feels about confronting a suspect who has been drinking… Although not everyone is a mean drunk, the risk of verbal and physical violence dramatically rises.

Equally destructive is the inability to censor mean-spirited comments or to take a time-out when needed. Remember that anything really worth fighting about can wait for the clear light of day. Although it FEELS like we have to talk now, that very urgency is likely to tilt things toward the negative.

file1331246481918There is an old saying in Alcoholics Anonymous that cautions against becoming too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. It reminds members to H.A.L.T. because of the risk of relapse with any of these factors. HALT! turns out to be good advice for all of us.

The next time you have something important to work out with your loved one, make a plan to talk when you can do so without interruption and when you can both arrive rested, centered, ready and anxious to compromise or at the very least, to learn something about your partner’s feelings. The health of your family depends on it.


Breaking Free from Your Victim Story

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

fitnessjog“You can either be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It all depends on how you view your life.” -Paulo Coelho

How often do you say things out loud or to yourself like: “He makes me feel stupid” or “I’m depressed because she is always criticizing me” or “I would be happy if my partner would only treat me better? He/she won’t let me do that, think that, feel that…”? Underneath these statements is the same negative belief–I can’t change because…

If you believe that your self-esteem or happiness (or lack thereof) are caused by how your current or past family members treat you then you are falling into the role of “the victim” whether you like to think that way of yourself or not. Any time we blame someone else for our problems, we are telling ourselves a victim story.

file000255429846Don’t be afraid to admit it. We all do this sometimes. Some people seem to do it constantly. The problem is that once we get lost in this hopeless narrative, we become more depressed, angry and fearful. If someone else can readily manipulate your mood state then you are like a puppet on a string. Someone else is in control. Pause to think about this for a moment: Who have you allowed to become your puppeteer?

Having a victim mindset vs. being a current victim of crime

Of course, there are times when a person is a very real victim. There are numerous websites and blogs to describe the psychological effects and treatment of victims of domestic violence, child abuse, rape or assault, embezzlement or theft, not to speak of the aftermath of war, terrorism, or poverty.

This blog is not attempting to address recovery from trauma (a very big subject indeed with countless books on it) but to examine how a victim mindset can plague anyone long after the trauma has ended.

Holding fenceIt is certainly true that people who have been the actual victims of trauma often struggle with this problem more than those who have had less childhood adversity but sometimes the reverse is true. Some of the most empowered individuals that I know are people who faced trauma early on and fought to become survivors and thrivers rather than victims. No longer victims, they made themselves the heroes in their life stories.

How to break a victim mindset

The first step in changing from victim to hero is to notice whenever you are blaming someone or something else for your current negative feelings. Say to yourself, “I am choosing to allow the other person’s words, actions or thoughts to make me feel bad. I can choose to feel differently about myself.”

The moment that you realize that you have a choice in the matter, you are no longer a victim. If you choose to agree with the other person’s opinion of you, then you have become a willing co-conspirator instead. You and the other person can agree that you are to blame.

IMG_0127Or you can take another step out of your victim story and not take what the other person says so personally. When trapped in a blaming cycle, much of what another accuses us of is really about that other person not about you. Our partner could be angry or mean to us for many reasons that have nothing to do with us–he could be sick, tired, frustrated with something else in his life, or merely projecting his unhappiness onto those closest. Haven’t we all done the same?

Set clear firm boundaries with others

What often is helpful when trying to break free of victim-like thinking is to examine where you need to set clearer boundaries. One mark of a healthy relationship is the ability to maintain boundaries that are neither too rigid nor too flimsy.

file000935340585When our boundaries are too rigid, we tend to close ourselves off from our own or others’ feelings, creating an impenetrable wall of “I don’t care what you feel.” This stance does not allow for enough closeness.

When boundaries are too soft, we worry so much about what the other person feels that we fail to stand up for what we think, want and feel. If anyone in your life is “making you” feel inferior, think about how to create a better boundary.

This can be done by communicating (“please don’t speak to me that way”), by choosing to spend less time or by spending your time together differently (having certain topics you won’t discuss). You can also construct an internal boundary where you silently remind yourself that you don’t have to believe everything you hear. Remember the childhood comeback: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me!”

file3751334604150Become the hero in your life story

“The victim mindset dilutes the human potential. By not accepting personal responsibility for our circumstances, we greatly reduce our power to change them.”
― Steve Maraboli

If you give yourself the control of those puppet strings, you can begin to believe that you–and only you–have the power to change your view of yourself and your behavior as you see fit. Although every hero confronts obstacles along the way, he or she also learns valuable lessons from mistakes and hardship.

Heroes persevere against the odds, find friends and allies to lean on, and build on their own strength and resources to achieve their goals. It may sound like a tall order if right now you feel disempowered and alone, but breaking free from your victim story is the first step of the journey. Are you up for the adventure? The treasure of believing in yourself is worth it.

10 Tips to Help Kids Cope with War & Traumatic Events

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

yolo “I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?'” ~Eve Merriam

These are uncertain, turbulent times, colored as they are by fears about war and terrorism. As a result, children as well as adults are experiencing higher levels of stress.

When a flu bug is going around, conscientious parents make sure their child is getting plenty of sleep, vitamins, and a healthy diet to build their immune system. How can we, in a similar fashion, build up our children’s capacity to deal with current stresses?

Although there is no magic pill, there is a healthy diet of social and emotional skills that you can provide children. Increasing these skills is the most effective way to help them deal with the current threat, as well as learn valuable lessons to last a lifetime.

It is normal for them to feel afraid, yet there are things we can do to help our kids function optimally in these trying times. Here are some tips for parents, teachers and child professionals…

Tip #1: Ask questions and listen.

_DSC0285Discuss the concerns that your children have by first asking them what they are hearing from peers, school and the news. Don’t push the issue. It’s best not to fill them with fears they don’t have, but also realize that concerns don’t go away if we try to ignore them.

If they are worried, reassure with words like “I can see you are feeling really scared. This is a hard time for us.” “I know we’ll feel better when it’s over.” Avoid telling them “Everything will be okay,” because if something does happen, you’ll lose their trust.

Tip #2: Help them separate imagined from realistic fears.

Entertainment and real events can blend together and their imaginations can run wild–like thinking that a war with Iraq will be like Star Wars. Many kids who saw the twin towers falling on 9/11 insisted it was a movie. Others seeing the image repeated on the news thought the event was happening over and over again. Children need to know that very few people are terrorists and that adults are working hard to keep us safe.

girloncomputerTip #3: Limit children’s exposure to the media.

A young child’s experience of “the world” is very different from that of adults. In many ways, they live in a container or bubble that is their immediate social environment—their family, friends and school.

They need protection to preserve that bubble of safety. The news and violent programming can be too upsetting.

If you want to watch the news, do so after they go to bed. It isn’t helpful for them to see people trying on gas masks in hardware stores or bodies being found in the rubble. If they insist on watching, watch with them so that you can gauge their reactions and talk about it.

Tip #4: Attend to your own stresses and emotions.

Kids can literally feel your feelings and stress. The greatest gift you can give them is your own sense of well-being. Provide patience, safety, support and consistency to help them feel secure. If they sense your distress or fears, they can feel overwhelmed and unsettled.

Share your own fears but do so with restraint. Obviously, with older children and teens, it is helpful to talk more fully about the issues and to be more open about your level of distress.

Brent_and_DaddyTip #5: Use this as an opportunity to teach life-long social and emotional skills.

Programs are available to provide kids with songs, lessons, and activities to learn positive thinking, hopefulness, and prevent “bad” or obsessive thoughts or feelings from overwhelming them.

It’s an ideal time to learn about cooperation and consideration, and remember to celebrate differences rather than stereotype and blame. Provide constructive outlets for children’s feelings such as drawing and writing stories and poems.

Tip #6: Help them take actions to feel involved.

ÇÍÊÌÇÌÇÊ ÇáÇØÝÇáInclude them in the activities that express your own sentiments. “Here’s one thing we can do about it…” Some may want to send letters or drawings to military families or people in public safety jobs.

Tell them “We are doing everything we can to keep safe.” Allow some acting out of war “play” to vent frustrations, but don’t let it become aggressive. You can also encourage playing the roles of helpers, healers, and protectors such as police.

Tip #7: Help them feel loved and safe by maintaining  normal routines.

Children are creatures of habit. They always do better when the daily rituals of connection remain constant and the rules and expectations stay the same. The only places to soften a bit might be if siblings want to share rooms, or if the bedtime “going to sleep” ritual needs to be a little bit longer for a time.

file4171335316332Tip #8: Be alert for signs of increased distress and worry.

Realize that some kids under stress show overwhelm and acting out, some are quiet, and some become immune and numb. Exposure to video games and violent movies makes it more difficult for many kids to understand the reality of war and destruction.

Although some kids are aware of the stress and their feelings connected to it, others may be showing signs or symptoms without necessarily knowing what they are upset about. Watch for signs of sadness, aggression towards others, new fears that may seem unrelated to the war, or problems with making “bad” thoughts go away. Many children will start acting younger than their age and not want to Agreementleave your lap.

Tip #9: Get support for your whole family from your community.

If a family member is serving in the armed forces or is working in a dangerous part of the world, let others know that your children will need extra support and understanding. Tell your child’s teacher, your religious community, and your social network how they can be helpful. If needed, don’t be afraid to seek professional help or guidance.

file7371263387730Tip #10: Emphasize the positive aspects whenever possible.

Whenever there is tragedy in the world, there are also real life stories of love and courage. Traumatic events often pull people together and help us remember to be grateful for our loved ones. They help us put some of our petty concerns into a bigger perspective.

We can use this as a golden opportunity to teach lessons to our children about respect for others, eliminating prejudice, and learning how to manage conflict though non-violent ways of communicating. Although the road to peace may be long and the journey arduous, it can only be taken one loving step at a time.





Could You Be Suffering from the Summertime Blues?

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file1691345353992Summer is in full swing and all around you, people seem to be enjoying themselves. Happy to be outdoors, puttering in the garden, reading cheesy novels, going to the beach or nearby parks for picnics. Not only do you not get it, you feel worse just seeing their rosy complexions. Like Scrooge at Christmas, you want to scream “Baaaah humbug!” but nobody wants to hear your complaints.

Or perhaps it’s not you but one of your kids or your mate who is cranky and out of sorts. What’s going on? It may be a bad case of the summertime blues.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Might Be the Problem

Most people, if they even know about SAD, think of it as a type of depression that occurs each year in the winter–especially in places with long winter nights and little sunshine. Like other forms of depression, SAD occurs more often in women than in men and can first occur either in adolescence or adulthood.

file0001006380164What many people, including psychotherapists, do not know is that a small but significant percentage of people have recurrent bouts of depression every year in the summer. While the winter blues typically make people withdrawn and lethargic, craving carbohydrates, oversleeping and overeating, the effects of summer depression are the opposite.

In the summer version of SAD, people get agitated, anxious, and irritable, struggling to get enough sleep. Since they also lose their appetite, they often lose weight. As with other depressions, they can struggle with suicidal thoughts.

No one knows exactly why summer affects people in these ways, but there seems to be three ways the season triggers symptoms. Some people are the most bothered by excessive sunlight, others by excessive heat, and a third cause is the disruption of the daily body cycles called circadian rhythms.

file801343155029Bipolar Disorder Might Be the Problem

Another cause of increased problems in the summer can be due to bipolar disorder. Too much light exposure can provoke mania in the same way that too little light can bring on bouts of depression. In fact, hospitalizations for mania peak in the summer months. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with Bipolar 1, it makes sense to be on the lookout for signs of mania. For those with Bipolar 2, summer can bring on hypomanic episodes or a less severe form of mania.

In either case, the symptoms to watch out for include increased levels of agitation and hyperactivity; a persistently elevated, extra happy mood; rapid thoughts and speech, with increased talking more than usual; an increase in sexual desire; an increase in daily activity. Other warning signs might be the desire to go out every night, drink excessively or use drugs, spend too much money, make new friends, or start new activities.

These symptoms, especially as they are ramping up, can be difficult to spot. Why? Because they look like the way everyone else is happily enjoying the summer months. And also, for those used to being depressed, feeling a bit hypomanic is like a breath of fresh air until things careen out of control.

images-2Increased Stresses Might Be the Problem

The first two explanations involve very real, biological conditions that affect millions of people each summer. There are many others who struggle more in the summer because of stresses brought about by the season. One problem has to do with what our expectations are for ourselves or our families.

One possibility is that you had great expectations for how wonderful summer was going to be and, unfortunately, it is just turning out to be like the rest of the days of the year. If you are like most Americans, you don’t get the summer off of work and with the kids out of school, there is more than ever to be done at home.

Many parents worry about money because summers can be expensive. If you’re a working parent–which most people in America are–you may have to fork over lots of money to summer camps or babysitters to keep your kids occupied while on the job. On top of that, the kids often add to the stress.

With less structure, many kids fight more with siblings and complain about boredom or about being forced to go to camp when all they want to do is “hang out” (translate “get into trouble” thinks the parent) with their friends. Tensions rise especially on hot muggy days or when parents don’t get enough down time for themselves.

Another trigger for summertime blues can be caused by body image issues. As the temperature climbs, many people–both adults and children and teens most of all–feel terribly self-conscious about their bodies. If you don’t feel comfortable in shorts or a bathing suit, summers can be painfully long. Since many summer events revolve around beaches and pools, some people start avoiding social situations out of embarrassment.

file0001465805005What Can You Do with the Summertime Blues?

If you or a loved one suffer from SAD, bipolar disorder, or depression, it is always best to get whatever professional help you need, and to get social support and daily structures in place. If you’ve had depression or mania before, you probably already have learned that having a reliable routine is often key to staving off symptoms. Check out this blog to get more ideas.

Just because it is summer, don’t throw bedtimes and wake-up times out the window. Everyone–adults and kids alike–does better with life’s inevitable stresses when we get enough sleep, exercise and regular meals. If you are parents, don’t abandon date nights or time with friends just because it’s summer.

Try to have reasonable expectations of yourself and your loved ones. There is nothing wrong with you if you find summer MORE difficult than the school year and don’t be afraid to say so. Just knowing that you are not alone can be the first step toward reclaiming your sanity. Allow yourself some regular baaah humbugs and scream out a bit of your frustration while file000908406355swimming underwater in the pool. It might even help to count the days until Labor Day when the kids go back to school and life returns to “normal”.

If all else fails, put any one of the many versions of the great old song, “Summertime Blues,” on your iPod, crank up the music and sing along. There’s good reason this 1958 song has been covered by bands from the Beach Boys to Alan Jackson to Springsteen. Even Alvin and the Chipmunks chirped it out.

The Aftermath of the Isla Vista Massacre: What Can Be Learned

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

imagesThe tragedy in Isla Vista has left my precious Santa Barbara community—and the nation—reeling. The senseless violence, claiming the lives of innocent young people, has stimulated many different conversations…Conversations about mental illness, about more stringent gun control laws, about violence against women, about inappropriate parenting and the rise of narcissism.

No one, myself included, wants to accept that we are utterly powerless, and that the rising tide of mass murders cannot be stopped. We should all be asking ourselves, our loved ones, our colleagues, our communities and our government officials—what can we learn from Isla Vista, from Newtown, from Aurora, from Columbine?

Is there anything we can do to prevent this kind of violence in the future? Even if we only make a dent in the numbers, we will have made a difference. There will not be one answer or a quick fix. Hopefully, we will respond on many levels.

The Mental Illness Issue

When stories about mass murder break, spotlights are often focused on mental illness. Experts and armchair therapists alike weigh in on possible diagnoses, lack of adequate or appropriate treatment, and decry the culpability of parents, psychiatrists, and an underfunded mental health system. Although an important part of the story, it is only one piece of the larger puzzle.

images-2What are the dangers of limiting ourselves to the conclusion that these crimes are the result of improperly treated mental illness? One negative outcome is that we further stigmatize all forms of mental illness—including the many diagnoses that have no significant correlation with violence at all.

For example, in the case of the I.V. massacre, the perpetrator was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. What most of the reporters failed to mention was that people with Asperger’s or other autism spectrum disorders are not typically violent. In fact, people suffering from these and other mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

In the absence of more complete and accurate information about mental disorders–putting horrific crimes like this into a broader context–we increase levels of fear in our culture about all those who are challenged or appear different. This increase in fear and prejudice can further isolate the very people who need more of our attention or more community resources to ensure their and our health and safety.

The Issue of Violence and Guns

Let’s start with the facts…most violent crimes are not committed by the mentally ill at all. When this issue was highlighted after the Aurora movie theater shooting, Time magazine reported that “looking at the rates of violent crime overall — homicide, for instance — the best estimate is that 5% to 10% of murders are committed by people with mental illness.”

file8011255018400Here’s the tragic (although not high drama) everyday-decades-long-REAL news:

Most violence in America is perpetrated against family members, partners, friends and neighbors—not strangers. From 1993 to 2008, among homicides reported to the FBI for which the victim-offender relationship was known, between 73% and 79% of homicides were committed by offenders known to the victims.

According to recent statistics from the Bureau of Justice, between 1993 and 2011, around 70% of all homicides and less than 10% of all nonfatal violent crimes were committed with guns. Most crimes of gun violence are committed by young men, ages 18 to 24. Issues of mental illness emerge as more significant in mass murders. However, in the past, the NRA has opposed backgrounds checks even for those diagnosed as severely mentally ill with a history of violence. Are we perhaps ready to do something different now?

file5631341282243Even though we have the highest rates of imprisoning people in the world, America has not solved the problem of violent crime. If both sides of the political fence really wanted to curtail violent crime, America would follow the lead of Australia and pass significant gun control laws to protect us from each other.

Passed in 1996 after a mass shooting left 35 dead in Tasmania, Australia’s law banned semiautomatic and automatic rifles and also established a mandatory buy-back program for newly banned weapons. Not only have homicide rates since gone down but suicide fatalities were lowered enormously as a result of gun control.

Given that homicide and suicide are the second and third leading causes of death among teens aged 15 to 19, this is a public health issue of enormous significance. Each day in America, 5 children or teens commit suicide and 7 children or teens are killed by guns. What might happen if this statistic was featured every day on the nightly news?

file000623936896The Issue of Violence Against Women

In the aftermath of the killer’s 140 page “manifesto” and his multiple YouTube and Facebook rants, millions of women have been publicly sharing their experiences with sexism, violence and misogyny. They are being joined by men  on Twitter, in blogs, and in op-eds around the country.

In response to outcry about the killer’s premeditated violence and hateful rant towards women, the Twitter response #NotAllMen began to surface. In a collective display of female protest, #Yes All Women was born. Here is a taste of the ongoing conversation…

#NotAllMen are murderers and rapists! (Most women of course know this already).

Here is a tiny sample of responses…

#YesAllWomen when the cops ask me “What were you wearing?” when I reported an attack and attempted rape.

#YesAllWomen because the odds of being attacked by a shark are 1 in 3,748,067, while a woman’s odds of being sexually assaulted are 1 in 6. And being afraid of sharks is seen as rational while being cautious of men is sexist and “bitchy”.

#NotAllMen are the same but #YesAllWomen live in fear of not knowing the difference between a genuinely nice guy and a potential attacker.

file000244831962Although some of the conversation has included angry and misogynistic rants, thousands of men are adding their voices of solidarity to the conversation. Author Neil Gaiman wrote, “The hashtag NotAllWomen is filled with hard, true, sad and angry things. I can empathize & try to understand & know I never entirely will.”

Or, in the words of New York Times writer, Charles Blow, “Fighting sexism and misogyny isn’t just women’s work.” It will take men joining in the battle. Yes, all men. Given the magnitude of the oppression of women worldwide, this conversation might start to break down barriers between men and women, raising awareness globally through social media.

Violence Grows with Income Inequality

I’d like to add one more thread for reflection. There is building evidence that as the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, violence becomes more and more commonplace. Measuring the level of income inequality may turn out to a better predictor of violence than almost anything else we can think of.

file9711283703792Harvard’s Ichiro Kawachi, M.D. and psychologist Bruce Kennedy discuss this and other issues in The Health of Nations: Why Inequality is Harmful to Your Health. Their much lauded book examines a number of indicators of health, on which the U.S. is slipping, contending that our “consumption cancer” has led to many of our most serious problems, including the rise of violent crime.

With more people working longer and longer hours, we spend less time with families and friends. These factors lead, they argue, to higher rates of violent crime and incarceration, to weakened social bonds and to the outsourcing of the care of our children. We all know the adage, “it takes a village to raise a child” but where have all our villages gone?

file000443155139Let’s Keep These Conversations Going

What can each of us do, starting today, to make the world a kinder, safer place for our families? These are conversations that we need to keep on having until we see evidence of change for the better.

If more and more people ask the hard questions and we practice more compassionate listening, with representation from all political persuasions, races, genders, ages and social classes, perhaps then, and only then, will the I.V. tragedy and all the other senseless mass crimes have served a broader purpose. To engender hope for a more peaceful future, we must rebuild our communities and stand up against the fear and hatred that so readily lead to violence.

Let’s keep the difficult, deeper conversations going this time.


How to Eliminate Envy & Practice Empathy

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW


The White family overwhelms my office with noise and activity from the first moment they arrive for family therapy. The three boys, aged 6, 10, and 13, immediately begin to argue over who sits where.

Pouncing on one another’s laps, they push and poke. The youngest one screams as though he has been mortally wounded. Mom and Dad make a feeble attempt to create order out of chaos but they are clearly outnumbered.

Is this normal sibling rivalry? (After all, boys will be boys). Almost anyone who grew up with siblings, particularly those fairly close in age, will not have trouble imagining this scene or one like it.

Didn’t you fight over who got to sit in the front seat of the car (before the laws changed), who decided what channel the TV would be on, or who got first dibs at the dinner table? Or was it about who mom loved best?

Sibling Rivalry is Normal–and Annoyingimages-1

I’ve listened to so many couples arguing about whether or not their kids are normal…

“It’s way too much!” insists Sylvia. “They might kill each other.” Her husband Sam rolls his eyes. “You never had brothers–girls are different!”

The parents sounded like two kids fighting over the rules of a game. The truth is–no one knows just how much is normal since it depends on the “rules” that silently govern each family.

Depending on your culture, your ethnicity, your gender, your age, the size of your family, and the rules of the family you grew up in, what seems inappropriate or out of control to one family can seem funny or like normal bickering to another.

That being said, one of the most frequent complaints I hear from parents is about the incessant fighting between the kids. If the conflict in your family is driving you crazy, perhaps it’s time to turn the volume down to the extent that you can. The first step is to understand what all the fighting is for.

imagesThe Roots of Envy

Envy is the feeling we get when we want what someone else has. The Webster dictionary describes it as a “painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.” This feeling can range from mild and occasional to chronic and all-consuming.

The roots of envy begin with the family for the simple reason that babies and children need the care and feeding from adults in order to survive. Beyond basic survival, human beings also desire love and attention.

If we grow up feeling like we “got enough” (what’s enough, really?) positive attention, touch, food, protection, time, love…then we grow up less likely to be consumed with envy. If we grew up feeling deprived of many of our fundamental needs, then envy is often more pronounced.

The Positive Side of Envyimages-4

Our bodies and minds are built to help us survive and thrive. When the body is hungry or thirsty, it propels us to seek food and water. The same is true for psychological and emotional needs. The positive side of envy is the yearning for something more or something better.

It is the desire to reach the bottle or the toy that pushes the baby to crawl and the desire to explore that makes us stand and walk. As we get older, we learn by comparing ourselves to others and model what we see our parents, siblings or peers do. A little bit of envy is a great motivator. If you believe that you can get what you want by trying harder, then envy can provide the proverbial kick in the butt. It can help us save money, lose weight, or practice good manners.

images-2Obsessive Envy is a Symptom

“As iron is eaten by rust, so are the envious consumed by envy.” -Antisthenes

But too much envy can destroy relationships. I’ve seen families who treat each other like enemies–lying, cheating, backstabbing, gossiping, spreading rumors about each other. Then there are those who no longer speak to one another.

Parental envy also flares up in many families. Envious parents angrily insist that their children have it too easy. One mother sneered when she told me her daughter “was born with a silver spoon in her mouth”. Instead of being proud of her daughter’s graduation from college, she was burning with jealousy because she had to work at a tedious job to help support her disabled parents.

Envy couples the feeling of disappointment and longing with the belief that “IT’S NOT FAIR!” The envious person struggles to come to terms with the fact that someone else has the beauty, power, talent, wealth (fill in the blank….) that he or she craves.

Eliminate Envy for Your Own Sakefile4801310649783

Unsurprisingly, psychological research reveals that envy decreases life satisfaction and well-being. Envy is closely correlated with depression, and the hostility it breeds can literally make us sick and unhappy. Initially feeling deprived or victimized as a child can lead to an adult feeling victimized by the world.

When we are unable to accept that life often dishes out good things to “bad” people and bad things to the “good” ones then envy is the symptom of deeply held resentment. Recognizing this as a universal dilemma, all the world’s religions have addressed the subject of envy.

As the essayist Joseph Epstein noted, “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. Sloth may not seem that enjoyable, nor anger either, but giving way to deep laziness has its pleasures, and the expression of anger entails a release that is not without its small delights.” Envy pains the person who secretly feels its burning bitterness.

Tips to Substitute Empathy for Envyimages-3

If you are a parent…

If you are wanting to be less envious yourself…

  • Remind yourself that envy will only make you more bitter and angry, sickening you.
  • Notice when the thought “it’s not fair” pops in. Gently remind yourself that life isn’t always fair.
  • Following the guidance of “The Serenity Prayer”, make a list of what you can change and what you can’t. Focus on what action you can take to get more of what you want. Focus on acceptance for the parts that cannot change.
  • Keep a daily gratitude journal listing 3 or 4 things each day that you are grateful for.
  • When you find yourself comparing yourself to someone you envy, remind yourself that you really have no idea about what lurks beneath the surface in that person’s life. All human beings-rich or poor-face inevitable losses.
  • Remember that we are all in the same boat together in this voyage called life. Empathy brings us together and envy tears us apart.




Depressed? 6 Tips to Help Find Your Soul

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file000623936896Ashley burst into tears within a few moments of sitting down in my office. “I don’t know why I’m crying. I have a loving husband and two precious children. I work out a lot and I eat well–at least most of the time. I have really great girlfriends although I never get enough time with them. I just don’t know who I am any more…and I don’t know where I lost myself.”

It didn’t take long for Ashley and I to uncover the source of her despair. Like so many of us, the noisiness of all the external demands of life had drowned out the needs of Ashley’s inner voice. She was taking quite good care of herself on the outside but simultaneously ignoring her emotional vulnerability, her desire for quiet alone time, and her connection to her soul.

Are You Tending Your Own Garden?Hummingbird

One of the most important lessons I have had to learn (often the hard way)–and continue to teach the many parents who come for counseling–is how important it is to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others. I often use the metaphor of a garden because even the most beautiful garden, if left unattended, will eventually wither and die.

Just as plants need water, healthy soil and regular weeding, so do budding humans need care and attention in order to thrive. Perhaps this seems obvious (as truth often does), but most of us get so caught up in taking care of the kids, the house, the job and all the other responsibilities of daily life that we simply forget ourselves or run out of time to listen to the crying of our soul’s deep inner longings.

file0001304805699What About Your Inner World?

“Scarcity of self value cannot be remedied by money, recognition, affection, attention or influence.” ~Gary Zukav

Most of us know by now–and are constantly reminded by self-help literature and blogs–that we need to tend to our physical bodies in order to remain strong, healthy and happy. We know that we should get regular exercise, eat well, and sleep eight hours a night. Many people are unable to accomplish this due to the incessant demands of work and family, but physical self-care is at least on our radar.

But this is only half of what it takes to feel happy. The rest is an inside job. If we do not truly love ourselves and make time to listen to the small quiet voice within, we can look good on the outside but feel empty, depressed or at worst, remain full of self-loathing. What can we do to water our deepest roots?

file0001631987134Ways to Deepen Your Connection to Self

“When you recover or discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life.” ~Jean Shinoda Bolen

Tip #1: Slow down long enough to savor sweet moments rather than rushing to the next thing to do.

Find a time each day when you can create a ritual of listening within. Think of a time when you are alone if only for five or ten minutes. This is going to be your daily check-in time. Create a sanctuary in your home or backyard or nearby park where you can find quiet or listen to the sounds of nature. Ask yourself in these quiet moments, what nourishes my soul?

file0001465805005Tip #2: Notice what is going on in your body.

Take a few deep breaths and allow the daily residue of tension to flow out of your body as you breathe into your belly. Are you hungry or full? Do you need to stretch out some muscles? Thank your body for helping you get through your busy day. Ask yourself, what does my body need to feel more alive?

Tip #3: Notice what you are feeling and allow your feelings to emerge without judging them.

Often, when we get in touch with ourselves after being out of touch, we feel “worse” before we begin to feel better. This is because we have spent so much time attuned to the outer world that our feelings have often built up inside and are ready to be released. Allow yourself to cry if you need to. Lean into your feelings rather than shoving them away. Ask yourself, what are my feelings telling me about what I need to feel more peaceful?

file000745356389“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.”- Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Tip #4: Take a moment each day to acknowledge your accomplishments and appreciate yourself for all that you are and all that you are trying to be.

When you hear the self-critical voice that reprimands you for everything you are NOT doing, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are doing the best that you can, and that no one ever gets it all done. Although it is much easier to feel good about yourself when your outside world is in order, our ultimate goal is not to be a human doing but a kind and loving human being. Notice and appreciate yourself for any small steps in the right direction.

photo copyTip #5: Start a journal to keep track of your inner process.

Make this learning process something that you enjoy rather than a chore. Ask yourself questions to get to know what is going on deep inside you. Allow the answers to your questions to emerge over time. You might find answers in dreams, embedded in a book that you are reading, through prayer or meditation, or through signs you see in nature. Cherish the answers even when they scare you. Be patient when the answers don’t come right away. Keep track of who you are becoming.

file451264266022Tip #6: Imagine that your soul, your deepest essence, is a secret garden.

What does your garden look like now? What do you want it to look like a year from now or five years from now? What colors do you cherish? What birds and animals come to your sanctuary? What changes do the seasons bring? Is it sculptured and tidy or wild and overgrown?

Begin today to build this garden in your imagination. This is your safe haven, your place of quiet, your deep inner world. There is no other garden like it in the whole world. Nothing in the outer world has the capacity to affect it. It is always there even when you get to busy to visit. It will always be there…waiting.








How's Your Family Really Doing?
Don MacMannis, Ph.D. & Debra Machester MacMannis, MSW are the author of How's Your Family Really Doing?.

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