I’ve been counseling couples and families for over three decades and one thing stands out. Most people wait too long before they reach out for help…years too long. Problems that might have been solved in five to ten sessions become crises that break up perfectly good relationships.
Since only a precious few learned the necessary skills to weather the ups and downs of a long-term relationship, it is easy to slip into negative patterns of relating–either to oneself or to loved ones–or both.
What are the warning signs of problems that need to be addressed?
Sometimes the signs are glaring and obvious–domestic violence, high levels of conflict on a daily basis, serious addictions, repetitive infidelity–but far more often, problems seem to creep up on people a little bit at a time.
In a famous 19th Century science experiment, researchers described how if they put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would quickly jump out, recognizing the danger instinctively. But if the frog was put in cold water that was heated to boiling very slowly, the frog had no idea of the trouble brewing. By the time the water was boiling, the frog was dead meat.
So it can be with dysfunctional families, marriages, or even organizations. It seems OK until suddenly it doesn’t.
Happy loving couples look up from what they are doing and smile when their partner comes home from work. They touch one another with some frequency–a hug hello or goodbye, a hand on the shoulder or leg, a kiss goodnight, holding hands watching a movie, rubbing the back of the neck after a long day.
Some people try to defend their lack of physical warmth by saying it’s not how they are built but when you see them with their children, they touch and tussle, smile and cuddle. Often when affection begins to wane in a marriage, it is a symptom of unexpressed resentment that needs to …
Each January, as the kids go back to school after winter break, after we have watched the ball drop in Times Square and rung in the new year, most of us can’t help but think about the ways we want the next year to be different–and better–than the last. What about you? Are there any bad habits you want to break or new goals that you have set for yourself?
If you are inspired to make some changes in yourself, your family or in other relationships, remember that even change for the better is stressful and discombobulating. As creatures of habit, we get used to the way things are–even when the status quo is no longer very appealing or sometimes downright awful.
Unfortunately, many people make New Year’s resolutions, fail to keep them, and then beat themselves up for failing. Sound familiar? Here’s some hints that may make you more successful in accomplishing your goals…
It All Starts with Attitude
Do you remember the children’s story, The Little Engine That Could? When a red train full of cargo breaks down on the track, a little blue train takes it upon herself to attempt the difficult feat of pulling a load of toys over the mountain. She succeeds only when she tells herself, “I think I can, I think I can, and then delights in her success by saying to herself, “I thought I could, I thought I could!” The little engine models an empowering self-concept, fostering perseverance in the face of hardship.
When you are taught to believe in yourself, confronting an obstacle pushes you to try harder rather than giving up. If you think less of yourself, you will have trouble even getting started let alone persevering when the going gets tough. If you anticipate failure, why bother?
One way to change your attitude is to think about problems, setbacks, or obstacles as situations demanding attention and new strategies. When you hear yourself using the word “problem,” try …
“Let us make one point, that we meet each other with a smile, when it is difficult to smile. Smile at each other, make time for each other in your family.” ― Mother Teresa
This is the time, beginning with Thanksgiving and lasting through the arrival of the new year, that most people think not only about themselves but also about how to help others less fortunate. It is impossible to turn on the news without seeing the needs of others in your community or elsewhere in the world.
Given the difficult parts of the holiday season–extra things to do, children out of school wanting to be entertained, increased financial burdens, bigger crowds, more traffic, and what often feels like exponentially increased pressure from all directions–the attention turned to serving others can be one of the best parts of the season. It can also help you to pause and reflect on what you can be grateful for.
Everyone has something to give. A smile or kind words to a stranger, shoveling snow for your neighbor, soup for a shut-in. No money is required–only willingness to think of someone else. The most precious things we can give are our time, our attention, our touch, or simply our presence.
Even if you are depressed or lonely–or perhaps especially when life is difficult–doing something kind for someone else can take your attention away from yourself and your pain, if only for a moment. Seeing the suffering of others can also make you realize that you are not alone. Every family faces losses–the death of loved ones, the dissolving of relationships, the trials of aging.
From the time our children were toddlers, we went together as a family to sing at convalescent hospitals for the elderly. We always went on Christmas day because the people left were …
How well do you know your ABC’s of mental health and happiness? Let’s start at the very beginning–although you will see that the alphabet of skills below is really a circle that starts and ends wherever you are…
Awareness…because the first step in happiness is to become aware of what you are thinking, feeling, doing and projecting in the world. Awareness leads to authenticity–striving to be yourself, unique and precious, unlike anyone else on the planet.
Believe…not only in yourself and your capacity to grow but believe in something greater than yourself–whether that is God, ultimate enlightenment, the unity of nature, the laws of science, or the power of Love to transform people.
Communicate…with courage and compassion. Humans were given the gift of language and the capacity to invent alphabets in order to communicate our thoughts, feelings and desires.
Determination…is a necessary strength that can be cultivated. Mental well-being emerges from consistent effort and the daily practice of empowering attitudes and decisions.
Exercise and Eat well…since our bodies and minds are not separate from one another.
Family and Friendships... provide the social support that we need to combat despair and loneliness. Take time to develop and nurture relationships that bring you comfort and joy.
Gratitude…helps us change our attitude. Instead of feeling victimized by others and focusing on pain and suffering, when we remember to notice small things each day that to be grateful for, it gives our lives new perspective.
Intention...sets the stage for our actions. Envision the kind of person you want to be, and make it your clear and firm intention to practice whatever skills and attitudes will help get you there.
Joy...helps every journey, however long and perilous. Like gratitude, it can be found in the smile of a stranger, the smell of fresh …
Schweitzer’s quote seemed especially timely given the arrival of the Thanksgiving holidays and this year’s rare convergence of Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.
Both holidays are celebrations of religious freedom and of survival against all odds. Both remind us to be grateful to be alive and to have food on our table, since not everyone on our planet is so lucky. That being said, expressing thanks is both a universal urge and a crucial strength that can be cultivated, not just at Thanksgiving but on any day.
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.
The More the Better
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 …
There are probably more books written, more movies made, and more opinions offered about love and relationships than just about anything else. From poets to scientists, everyone chimes in with an opinion. “Love is blind,” proclaims Chaucer, the poet, and Albert Einstein adds the warning, “You can’t blame gravity for falling in love”.
“Why, tell me why, do we fall in lo-ove?” goes the song, Do Fools Fall in Love?, first sung in 1956 by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (quite appropriate for the subject matter), further popularized by the Beach Boys in 1964, sung by Diana Ross in 1981, Missy Elliott in 1998, and The Overtones in 2010. That tells you something right there, doesn’t it? And the answer to the question posed by the song: a resounding yes, fools indeed fall in love.
No wonder we are obsessed with the subject. Fortunately, we are learning more about exactly what happens in the brain to explain our desire to meet, mate, and marry. One angle that explores the source of our obsession comes from anthropologist, Helen Fisher, who has been studying romantic love for thirty-five years and has most recently been a consultant for Match.com.
The Brain in Love
If you are interested in examining love from the point of view of both brain science and cultural anthropology, then you may be intrigued by the book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. The book’s author, Helen Fisher is a research professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University, and her work has examined marriage and divorce in 58 societies, adultery in 42 cultures, patterns of monogamy and desertion in birds and mammals, and gender differences in the brain and behavior.
At the core of her theory is the scientific study of three very different operating systems in the brain. Fisher’s work explores the chemical basis of love. from research conducted on subjects whose brains were scanned using functional MRI’s. The scans pinpointed the different effects of specific chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, proving that much of our …
If you are a parent, think about the first time your baby smiled at you–not the cute quirky face brought on by tummy problems–but the smile of recognition. How did it make you feel?
If you haven’t had this experience, remember a time that you belly laughed with a friend or watched a stupid pet trick on YouTube. If you still haven’t thought of something that makes you laugh, take a minute and watch this clip.
Clearly, we were born to laugh, and now we know that laughter can heal emotional wounds, protect us from the ravages of stress, and help us feel connected to others.
What Happens When We Laugh?
Just as we know that anger creates a cascade of physiological reactions in our brain and body intended to help us survive, so does the expression of any emotion. It turns out that laughter (and tears, which often come together) brings about healing rather than harm to our bodies. How does it do this?
In the short term, a good case of the giggles relaxes the whole body, relieving physical tension and stress. Because we breathe more deeply, it stimulates our heart, lungs and muscles. Endorphins, the feel good hormones, get released by the brain giving us a temporary natural high. Our anxiety and fear lessen, and our mood can change quickly from upset to increased well-being.
In the long run, studies confirm that people who laugh on a regular basis have stronger immune systems, combatting the effects of daily stress. For those suffering from chronic pain, it serves as a natural painkiller. It has also been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems.
Laughing With Others Is Even Better
One of the …
As a psychotherapist, I am constantly struck by how little the average person knows about emotions– both why we have them in the first place and what we are to do about them when they cause us pain and suffering. Dealing with emotions-our own and those of our kids and partners-can be one of the more painful, frustrating, and ultimately fulfilling parts of being in a family.
After the groundbreaking classic bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, by clinical psychologist Daniel Goleman came out in 1995, the world came to the shocking realization that just being smart (having a high IQ) did not necessarily lead to success in work or in relationships. In fact, being intellectually gifted is very different from being emotionally mature. Don’t you constantly see glaring examples of smart people doing stupid things? I certainly do.
Our emotions, if denied and repressed (buried deep) OR if given free rein (boiling over) can lead us down some dark and dusty paths. On the other hand, if we learn to be more aware of what we are feeling and learn how to express our emotions in constructive ways, these very same emotions can help us build deeper intimacy and empathy. Feelings are an essential part of our humanity, and once understood, we can begin to work with them so they don’t get the best of us.
The emotional mind is like a radar system that tries to protect us from harm and aims us in the right direction. When we sense danger, our emotions allow us to react before we have time to think. When we sense something we need (food, comfort) our feelings tell us which way to go forward. This is why they are a necessary part (not all) of making good decisions.
As infants, our emotions helped communicate our needs to our caregivers, and as adults they still help us to know what we like and don’t like. They are …
“To use fear as the friend it is, we must retrain and reprogram ourselves. We must persistently and convincingly tell ourselves that the fear is here–with its gift of energy and heightened awareness–so we can do our best and learn the most in the new situation.” ~Peter Williams
Barely a week goes by these days without some mention of the skyrocketing rates of anxiety in our culture. Drugs are offered as a quick fix but they come with a price. As discussed in a previous blog, most psychotropic medications like Xanax and Valium are highly addictive, and can be very difficult to withdraw from.
In the psychotherapy research, the use and benefits of various cognitive behavioral therapies have been widely proclaimed as the answer. New research from a team led by Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, now demonstrates how there can be a bit of a slipped cog in cognitive methods. Published last month by Raio et al. with the provocative title, “Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test,” this new research got my attention.
What Is Cognitive Emotion Regulation Anyway?
Cognitive emotion regulation is a fancy term to describe managing one’s feelings by deliberately thinking about them in more helpful ways. For example, millions of people override their fear of flying by reminding themselves that travel by plane is far safer than travel by car. Cognitive therapy teaches consumers to question their fear-inducing beliefs and to substitute them with more accurate appraisals, and these tools have been widely shown in the laboratory to be effective in altering the nature of our negative emotional responses.
However, what this newly published study demonstrates is that even mild stress can derail the ability of someone to use these otherwise effective weapons when they most need them–in real life. “In other words, what you learn in the clinic may not be as relevant in the real world when you’re stressed….Our results …
In the last blog, we learned about what causes emotional triggers–or even worse–a full-blown amygdala highjacking. Sounds a bit like a terrorist attack–only it’s coming from inside your brain. Just knowing that everyone gets triggered (more or less) will elicit more compassion, both for yourself and for others.
It is uncomfortable and disconcerting when those gnarly buttons get pushed, and out comes some ugly, scary or otherwise unintended reaction–most often directed at or caused by someone you love very deeply. Try not to be so judgmental. One of the things I constantly say to my therapy clients is to be easy on themselves since we all come by our negative reactions and neuroses honestly.
Although most of us might choose never to get triggered, this is an unreachable target. Memory and emotion are connected in the brain. By the time you are reading this blog, countless experiences, both positive and negative have been programmed into your memory. These experiences, combined with your inborn temperament, make you the unique person that you are. So the goal should not be to eliminate your triggers but to learn how to work with them. The goal is to be able to choose how you respond in a given moment rather than simply react, and to be happier and more at peace in the present moment.
Here are some practices that will help you lessen your reactive responses. That being said, they don’t call it “spiritual practices” for nothing–none of us but the fully enlightened ever get to perfection–which is why daily practice is essential to cultivating more inner peace.
Originally associated with Buddhist meditation, mindfulness has rapidly grown in popularity because it is an effective technique to overcome many psychological and physical conditions. The Buddha taught that people should make a day to day …