Self-Help Resources Articles

Confronting Your Ghosts of the Past: How to Assess Your Relationship

Monday, February 24th, 2014

file000925566270“In every conceivable manner, the family is the link to our past, the bridge to our future.” -Alex Haley

If you were one of the lucky people, raised in a happy loving family, you’ve most likely emerged with many of the skills and strengths necessary to form lasting healthy relationships…and you are probably NOT reading this blog right now.

Unfortunately, far too many people were raised by parents filled with good intentions but plagued by bad, sometimes destructive habits from their own childhood upbringing. These ghosts of the past, if not recognized, can haunt our families.

Our histories pack a powerful punch when we’ve buried (or tried to bury) old feelings as a way of avoiding the pain associated with them. Unfortunately, the unfinished business from our childhood and previous relationships also tends to get projected onto and then played out with our partner and/or our children. It is sad but true that the people we love the most in the world become the unwitting victims of this process.

file0001018506529How and Why Do Our Rational Brains Go Off Line?

Our emotional brains allowed us to survive as a species. We had to learn–and then be able to respond very quickly–about what or whom to approach and when to run like hell. Memories, especially ones with strong emotions, get wired into our brains without our awareness. Events that remind us of an emotionally charged experience from the past then trigger the same thoughts, feelings and body memories.

The emotional mind reacts to the present as if the past event were happening again. The combat veteran who leaps into the closet at the sound of a door slamming is instantly back on the streets of Iraq running for cover. Luckily, most people don’t suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a severe syndrome now widely publicized and better understood. But our brains are wired the same. Every one of us has our “emotional triggers” or “buttons” that move our emotions to the foreground and our clear …


Guidelines for Choosing the Right Therapist–Does the Shoe Fit?

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

file000635087969I will never forget a lecture that I heard in 1973 (which says a lot since there is so much that I don’t remember). The speaker was the late David Rosenhan, Professor Emeritus, in his popular undergraduate class in Abnormal Psychology at Stanford. Each year, at the end of the term, he gave a lecture about choosing the right therapist. His advice was wise and as relevant today as it was forty years ago.

“Choosing the right therapist,” Rosenhan insisted (and I quote loosely), “should be like buying a pair of shoes. You would never buy shoes without trying them on, seeing how they fit, picking the brand that meets your current needs, fits your lifestyle, and is affordable. Even then, if you make your purchase, take them home and find they pinch you in the wrong places, you would not say to yourself, ‘I need a new foot, something must be wrong with me!’ now would you? No, you would take back the shoes and seek out a new pair.”  So it should go, he sagely advised, with choosing the right therapist.
Myths and Misunderstandings About Psychotherapyfile6271273137854
As I mentioned in my last blog, far too many people fail to seek help or wait much too long before seeking professional guidance. There are numerous explanations for this reluctance, and unfortunately, many negative myths also surround the therapeutic process. In the forty years since the Rosenhan lecture, I’ve heard them all many times.

Myth #1: If you need therapy, you must really be sick or messed up. Myth #2: If you need therapy, it means the problems are your fault.Myth #3: All therapy does is blame your current problems on the past. Myth #4: All therapists are the same and most therapy goes on for years.
Why Your Doctor May Not Suggest Counseling (even when it could help)
Myth #5: It won’t do any good, and my doctor didn’t suggest it either. Here’s why:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA …


Create an Attitude of Gratitude

Monday, November 25th, 2013

file5991298749300“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” – Albert Schweitzer

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.

file000458839787Most 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 …


Is Your Child Acting Spoiled? 4 Tips for Parents of Toddlers to Teens

Monday, September 9th, 2013

file0001350794896Does your child whine too much of the time?

Are you delighted that school has started again, and your child is out of your hair for a few quiet hours?

Is “NO!” her favorite word?

Does he continue to throw temper tantrums long after the terrible two’s should have passed?

Does she keep demanding what she wants until it drives you crazy?

If you have answered yes to any or all of these questions, I have a few suggestions for you, depending on the age of your child. If you are the parent of a new baby or toddler, The Happiest Toddler on the Block: How to Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful, and Cooperative One- to Four-Year -Oldby Dr. Harvey Karp is a good place to start.

Harvey Karp, MD., is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, and a parent himself. He helps parents understand the world from the point of view of the toddler, using the metaphor that toddlers are little cave people with undeveloped language and logic, ruled primarily by their emotions and basic needs. They will do whatever they can to get what they want–as long as you, the adult, allow them to.

Tip #1: Don’t take things that your child says or does personally. Toddlers are works in progress.
Choose Your Battles Wiselyfile000201850236
Karp divides toddler behavior into three categories: “green light” behaviors, which are positive and should be encouraged; “yellow light” behaviors, which are the annoying but not completely unacceptable things toddlers do; and “red light” behaviors which are unacceptable because they are either dangerous or they disobey a key family rule.With great humor and a gentle touch, Dr. Karp gives specific suggestions for encouraging the positive and eliminating the negative behaviors common to this stage.

Tip #2: Know what you can and should expect from your child at any given stage of development.

Ask your pediatrician, your child’s teacher or other parents if you are in doubt about what is “normal”. For birth to age 5, …


Fighting the Depression Demon in Kids–Alternative Approaches

Monday, July 1st, 2013

file0001976662480“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. -Oliver Sacks

Although for some kids, finding the right medication is a life-changer, there are many parents who are adamantly opposed to putting their kids on drugs–particularly without trying something more holistic first. There is great news on many different fronts as well as new research from around the world, showing that there are alternative approaches to treatment shown to be effective in combatting depression in children and teens. Here are just a few of them that have recently caught my eye…


Depressed? Don’t Just Go for the Pills

Monday, June 10th, 2013

file0002105100289-1“The principle aim of psychotherapy is not to transport one to an impossible state of happiness, but to help (the client) acquire steadfastness and patience in the face of suffering. ” -C.G. Jung

Just yesterday, a friend told me how her family doctor prescribed her mother antidepressants for twenty years. She was outraged that he never encouraged her to get counseling as well. She believes her mom could be happier if encouraged to grieve the untimely death of her husband and directed to build a bigger support system.

Last week, a new client came in for help with anxiety, and her doctor told her she must see a psychiatrist—not a psychologist or family therapist. This was the GP’s advice in spite of the fact that the woman complained about the controlling behavior of her husband. Unfortunately, far too many psychiatrists now prescribe medication (usually anti-depressants but sometimes addictive drugs like Xanax) rather than doing psychotherapy or even suggesting it.

Psychotherapy or Drug Therapy?

This is no small question since one in six people will experience depression at some time during their life. Study after study has shown that psychotherapy helps people–and not just for depression. Given that therapy is available in many forms—and that low-cost or sliding fee scale options are available in most communities across America—why are doctors still not prescribing it as the first line of attack for depression and anxiety?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne answer can be found by following the money. Intense marketing strategies on the part of drug companies sell every new drug therapy as the quick and easy fix–while only mentioning in fine print the negative side effects that typically coincide with any drug. In the blog I wrote about anxiety, I received numerous heartfelt comments from readers who became addicted to prescription meds being taken just as their doctor prescribed.

Perhaps there are so many different forms of therapy out there these days that doctors are unfamiliar with and therefore hesitant to make referrals. While it is broadly …


What Do Men & Women Want More Of In Their Marriages?

Monday, May 27th, 2013

file0001508919007Do you know what the number one answer is? Are you sure? Let’s be honest. Did you guess that men want more sex and that women want more help with the housework?

While certainly both of those claims are true for many, when men in self-described unhappy relationships are asked what they want most from their partners that they’re not getting, the first answer was communication and the second answer was affection. Exactly the same answers that the unhappy women answered!

When it came to the third answer, men said more sex and women more financial security. More sex was #4 on women’s list. So the surprisingly good news is that all of us want more of the same thing…more talking and listening. Although improving our communication can take hard work and commitment, at least we can be assured that this goal is both mutual and a deal-breaker for healthy relationships.
New Study on What is “Normal” in Relationships
This information and a lot more is now available thanks to Chrisanna Northrup and social science researchers, Pepper Schwartz and file000502395545James Witte, who conducted an on-line survey of  more than 70,000 participants from around the world. The results, published in the new book, The Normal Bar, provide us with hard empirical evidence about what really goes on behind closed doors, not only in America but in Europe, Australia, Latin America and Asia. As Northrup discovered, “Cultural stereotypes and the media’s fantasies of romance and lust have little to do with what really goes on in relationships, especially since conduct varies over time and across geographic boundaries.”

Although their study does indeed reveal some differences between men and women and across cultures which I will discuss in future blogs, the broad similarities are striking. Men and women in almost every country described communication as the biggest relationship issue. The only exception were the French respondents who ranked affection first and communication second. Go figure.

“Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation.”  -Oscar Wilde


Anxiety: Breaking the Xanax Habit

Monday, May 20th, 2013

man consoling woman“He who fears he will suffer, already suffers from his fear.” -Michel de Montaigne

I attended a powerpoint presentation recently, given by a nationally renowned psychiatrist, who provided an excellent overview of modern day psychiatry in America. It was quite disturbing to learn that the most widely prescribed psychiatric drug is Xanax. More bad news is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting a sharp increase in fatal overdoses of prescription drugs. In fact, if you look at the top fifteen most prescribed psychotropic drugs, you will find Ativan (at #3), Valium (#8) and Klonopin on the list as well. If your regular doctor is prescribing them, they can’t be all that bad, right?

The History of Benzodiazepines

Many of you reading this article may not know that all four medications are classified as “minor tranquilizers” and are from the same family of drugs, called benzodiazepines. The first “benzo” sold in America was Librium in 1960, followed quickly by Valium, which was the number one prescribed psych med for most of the 1970′s and is still high on the list. When Xanax became available in 1981, it was marketed as the best drug for panic attacks. Certainly Pfizer did a great job of marketing, making Xanax the big winner–the most popular psychiatric drug in America–but is this really the best treatment for anxiety?

Some of you who are reading this article may currently be taking one of these drugs as prescribed by your doctor. I am a psychotherapist, not a doctor, and I am not offering medical advice here.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Rather, I am offering information so that you, as a consumer or interested family member, can have more facts at your disposal. Unfortunately, hugely expensive, clever commercials flash onto our screens daily, touting one promising drug or another for various psychiatric conditions. Given how debilitating anxiety can be, it is no wonder that we reach for something, anything, to fix it.

Without going deeply into the chemical composition of benzodiazepines (such information is readily available on line), they …


7 Reasons Why We Miss the Signs of Depression

Monday, May 13th, 2013

file4221287396229What do a 45-year-old professor, several well-educated parents, a retired psychotherapist, a concerned husband, and a college student all have in common? These are people suffering–or intimately connected to someone suffering–from clinical depression who didn’t know it.

How, in this day and age, with so much information available, is it possible that depression can still go undiagnosed and therefore untreated? Perhaps this is part of the reason why the blog “Depression Part Two” on Hyperbole and a Half  just went viral (besides how extraordinarily creative it is). Here are some reasons why smart people can miss the signs of depression:
1. Depression can creep up on you.
Not all depression is so severe that you can’t stop crying or get out of bed. For many people, the feelings of sadness manifest as a growing disinterest in life’s activities. What used to be fun or interesting seems unimportant or shallow. You don’t feel like going to your friend’s birthday party so you make up an excuse. You feel bored by the books or TV shows that used to appeal to you. You don’t notice how, little by little, you are pulling back from others, spending more time alone, locked in your room.
2. Depression seems to be a logical response to life’s challenges.
Since depression often worsens or can be triggered by loss or stress, you figure that you are responding appropriately to what is indeed a painful time in your life. You may have broken up with a boyfriend, had difficulties at work, done poorly on a school assignment, or moved away from a supportive environment. When you don’t snap out of it, even when your life circumstances appear to get better, you don’t realize that your negative mood state has persisted for months or even years. file000349823764
3. Some depression manifests as extraordinary irritability rather than sadness.
One of the most commonly misunderstood or overlooked manifestations of depression is hypersensitivity or irritability. People around you tell you that you are constantly cranky. You seem …


My Kid Was Born This Way

Monday, May 6th, 2013

file9751299641590“Nature, we are starting to realize, is every bit as important as nurture. Genetic influences, brain chemistry, and neurological development contribute strongly to who we are as children and what we become as adults.” -Stanley Turecki, M.D.

Sue and Alan Richardson are like so many other distressed parents who reach out to our counseling clinic. They have three kids. Two have been launched successfully, and they have warm relationships and good communication. Sue and Alan are devastated because one of their kids, now 19, is such a problem. Samantha struggled with depression beginning in junior high, rages at them on occasion, tried to make it at college but couldn’t stand the pressure, and has bounced back home again. What went wrong? They parented all three kids similarly but Samantha was always more difficult and highly sensitive.

Stopping the Blame Game

Parents often get blamed or blame themselves for any problem that shows up in their children. We now know that every baby is born with certain innate inherited characteristics or temperament. Temperament is, by definition, the part of a child’s personality that is not caused by good or bad parenting. Built-in traits will affect each child’s style of interacting with people, places and things throughout their lifetime. The research validates what many parents knew intuitively all along. Some babies are easy, and some are more challenging. Because it is almost taboo to say something negative about one child or to compare your kids, many parents don’t get the support that they need when struggling with a more difficult child.

The Nature Vs. Nurture Debatefile0002083832663

The debate about just how much of our behavior and personality is genetic vs. environmental, or nature vs. nurture, has raged on for the last hundred years. Twenty or thirty years ago, in an ongoing effort to understand why people behave in certain ways, both good and bad, researchers focused more on the nurture side, examining things like the family environment or types of parenting that were correlated with problems or resiliency in children. In the past ten …


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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