Psych Central

NEWSFLASH! Free Technique for Healing Pain Described

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file000912201749What if you turned on the news to the following headline…FREE new technique–with no known side effects–is found to improve the mood of 88.8% of users!!! Would you be curious or do you already know what it is?

Touted throughout history, described by Aristotle, Freud, and modern day psychotherapists of many theoretical backgrounds–the answer is allowing yourself a good cry. Weeping helps almost everyone, young and old, male and female.

Not All Tears Are the Same

Our eyes produce three kinds of tears–each of which serves a different function. Every time we blink, our eyelids produce continuous or basal tears to keep the surface of our eyes protected and moist and also necessary to help protect us from getting infections of the eyes.

file0001186408096Reflex tears, like basal tears, are 98% water. Their production is triggered when a foreign object or something irritating gets into the eye by accident, acting like a natural eye shower to keep our eyes clean.

Emotional tears are composed differently and include an endorphin and natural painkiller called enkephalin. “Emotional tears contain higher concentrations of proteins, manganese, and the hormone prolactin which is produced during stress-induced danger or arousal,” says Dr Carrie Lane of the University of Texas. This difference explains why “crocodile tears” (the type used for manipulation and trickery) are not the same as real ones.

Crying Helps Us Heal

sunday 015Dr. William Frey from the University of Minnesota is a biochemist who has been studying crying for over thirty years. He found that emotional catharsis helps shed both stress hormones and toxins. Simultaneously, crying stimulates the body to produce endorphins which not only help reduce our experience of pain but also help turn up the volume of our immune system.

Tears can make us feel better and physically stimulate healing at the same time, which is a pretty powerful combination. If you find this subject fascinating, check out Frey’s book, Crying: The Mystery of Tears. Frey is a believer in what is dubbed “the recovery theory” which hypothesizes that we literally cry things out as a way of helping the body recover from physical or psychological stressors.

Other evidence of substances only found in emotional tears helps support this theory as well. Emotional tears have higher levels of certain proteins as well as manganese and potassium. Manganese is an essential nutrient that must be kept in balance for optimum health.

file000730027686It helps to maintain normal blood sugar levels, to increase the health of nerves, and to keeps bones strong (to name only a few of its many functions). Potassium is necessary for the functioning of all living cells, helping to maintain fluid and electrolyte balance.

Why Women Need to Cry More

Studies have found, that on the average, women cry around 47 times per year while men average 7 crying spells each year. Until puberty, there’s not much difference between boys and girls unless, of course, boys have been shamed or ridiculed for displaying the “weakness” sometimes associated with tears. If the parents and culture allow, both little boys and little girls cry on a regular basis–and should be allowed to–in order to stay healthy and resilient.

After puberty, hormone differences help explain why women cry more often. Women produce more prolactin, the hormone found in emotional tears. In fact, prolactin levels are highest during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They actually increase to ten times their normal level. (I’m glad there is finally something to explain my excessive tears at MacDonald’s commercials, the local news, and a sideways look from my husband during my pregnancies and postpartum).

file000445653028Crying As a Way to Resolve Painful Events

While some researchers believe that crying is cathartic simply because it releases tension that builds up during stressful events, others believe that crying is the body’s innate mechanism to work through painful events that are still unresolved. Why else would people pay good money to get scared out of their wits by frightening films? Or spend hours watching soup operas or tear-jerkers or films about deeply unsetting subjects? Perhaps we are trying to jump-start the flowing of emotions any which way we can…

I’ve written about the healing effects of laughter in other blogs, and how sometimes we laugh so hard that we cry or we laugh when the more appropriate emotional response would be tears. These examples show how grief and catharsis come in many shapes and sizes, tailored by messages passed down in our family of origin, our ethnic and religious mores and beliefs, our shaping by age and gender.

The other way that crying helps in the resolution of past trauma–especially when done with a safe, loving supportive person–is that we are allowed to express emotions that were often suppressed or forbidden at the time. Often new insights and fresh perspectives come only after the painful feelings have been acknowledged and expressed.

file9541282977224Crying As a Signal to Loved Ones

Another function of crying is that it signals the need for help, which is one reason why babies and young children need to cry more often than many adults. Tears sound an alarm that something is wrong that needs attention. Emotional crying–when effective–thus helps to strengthen our attachment to others and to elicit empathy and comforting touch from others.

This explains why crying in the company of another person is associated more often with positive mood change than crying alone or crying in a crowd. If you want to feel better, allow yourself to cry as long as you need to. Don’t stop yourself. When you cry with another person, you are really giving yourself and them a gift.

Since I know that tears are one of the most powerful tools for healing available, I feel happy and relieved when someone allows themselves to cry in front of me or in my arms. Although it is painful to see a loved one suffering from pain or loss, none of us can escape the suffering that comes with being human. What we can do is offer our calm presence, without judgment, and feel grateful for the tears that fall. Tears are precious medicine for body, mind and soul.


Change Your Attitude & Life Will Follow

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

PicCollage copy 2“They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”  -Confucius

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 Attitudefile7181334521100

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 substituting the word “situation”. This situation is worth facing to see what else might be done about it.

Or for an even more positive spin, you can think of the “problem” you are facing as an “opportunity” to learn some new ideas or tools or as a “compelling challenge” or as a hurdle to be jumped. The words won’t change the problem in and of themselves but they will help to open the door to possible new strategies for change and growth.

DSC_0390_Iván_Melenchón_Serrano_MorgueFileBe Realistic About Change

In one of my favorite movies ever, What About Bob?, psychiatrist Dr. Marvin (played exquisitely by Richard Dreyfuss) instructs Bob (the inimitable Bill Murray) to stop trying so hard and to take baby steps towards change, setting small reasonable goals one day at a time. Although the movie takes this idea to a hysterical level, the principle is sound. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Throwing in a dose of humor will also help. Watch What About Bob? if you haven’t seen it (or any other film that makes you laugh at our human foibles) or just be reminded by watching a three-minute clip here.

Another reason that most of us make numerous attempts to change, but then revert to old behaviors, is because the new behaviors don’t always get the desired results fast enough. We live in a culture that likes quick fixes–crash diets, pills for pain, instant messages, everything short and sweet. Most important changes–like confronting dysfunctional patterns of relationship, emotional baggage, or life style habits–take a long time.

Things Can Get Worse Initiallyfile000557708328

John Steinbeck once queried, “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.” This favorite quote of mine can serve as  a touchstone during times of rapid and radical change. Given how easy it is, in the face of change, to feel that everything around you is being destroyed, we all need something to bolster our courage to hang in there.

I remind others (and myself) that whenever we embark on a new path, things usually get worse before they get better. When parents decide it is finally time to begin to set limits, kids often act out even more than before. When partners decide to be more assertive with one another about areas of disagreement, bigger conflicts are usually the first sign of change.

Many couples report how when they finally get away alone together–sometimes after years because of having babies and young children–all they do is fight. Does this mean they are no longer in love? Usually the opposite is true. The renewed closeness can bring up old stored-up resentments, fears of abandonment, and the longing for more intimacy. As any change begins, old habits must die first–which is why progress often looks a bit like destruction.

file000443155139Become An Expert Observer

Almost all bad habits start with a cue (or stimulus) that leads to the behavior that has some reward attached to it. If you can follow this sequence of events and make a tiny change to disrupt the pattern, voila!–change can begin, one tiny step at a time.(Watch this three minute clip from The Power of Habit to get the quick version.)

It helps to substitute a new behavior when trying to eliminate an old destructive pattern. Once you have examined thoroughly the habit loop you are trying to break, change the time, the place, or alter the sequence that leads to the undesired behavior.

Imitate the behavior of someone you admire and ask them how they maintain their positive routine. Give yourself lots of pats on the back or gold stars for every little step you take. This is why AA gives people chips as they accumulate weeks, months, or years of sobriety.

Track your progress on your calendar or with an app on your cell phone. If your goals were not realistic, go back and set new intermediate steps that you can more easily accomplish. And always remember that the road to success is always paved with failures. You are not alone.



Helping Yourself by Serving Others

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file9021344553210“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”  -Mahatma Gandhi

“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.

file9031300633696Acts of Service Can Be Great or Small

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 alone, without loved ones to visit.

Some were silent and looked like they were dead, while others cried and clung to us when we approached their beds. Some spoke gibberish, and many didn’t smell very good. Our children were at times very afraid and hid behind us or begged not to go, and at different ages were more curious, comfortable, and open-hearted.

They learned first by watching, singing from a distance as we held people’s hands, stroked their hair, and wiped their tears. Every year our family shared the miracle of watching perfect strangers, fellow human beings, come alive and smile or weep at the touch of a hand, the sight of a child, or the ring of a familiar song. This has become one of our most treasured rituals of the holiday.

The Essence of All Religious and Spiritual TeachingsChristmas Carolers

“I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.” ― Kahlil Gibran

“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” ― Lao Tzu

All of the world’s major religions teach that charity and service are essential values to practice and to teach to our children, with the explicit message that helping others is a kind and loving thing to do, which it is. But another, equally important reason to find ways to be of service, not only now but all through the year, is because of what it teaches the giver.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American poet and philosopher, believed that ”it is one of the great compensations in life that no one can help another without helping themselves.” Besides the joy and satisfaction that we can get from knowing that we have helped someone, acts of service can teach us and our children many important lessons. What better way to learn empathy for others, gratitude for what we receive, and familiarity with people who are different from us.file9921250747866

Changing Consciousness from Me to We

As family and as community, we can face together the reality of old age, illness and death. We can share stories of our grandparents and how they lived and died. We can hear the stories of people who fled oppression and of those who are oppressed still. We can hear stories of hope and of perseverance against all odds. It only takes the time to listen deeply without judgement.

Serving meals at a homeless shelter, taking packages to needy children, visiting shut-ins, or singing in hospital wards can be difficult but, then again, so is life. Serving can break your heart…open.

Where Does the Time Go? 5 Tips to Conscious Connection

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file0001853328862“What greater thing is there for human souls than to feel that they are joined for life—to be with each other in silent unspeakable memories.”  –George Eliot

The wish to seek and have a deep sense of family connection and commitment is universal. Ask people what is most important to them and their first answer is always the same–their family. In healthy families, there is a sense of cohesion or family togetherness. Without it, we feel more like strangers than kin.

What gives families a strong sense of connection?

The answer is very simple although often a challenge. We must spend quality time together, just hanging out, or if separated by geography, spend time talking and listening to one another. We need to know that we can count on each other for the relationship to be close. In research on happy loving families, sharing time together is made a priority to build trust and intimacy.

One of my favorite times to talk to my mother is when I am chopping vegetables for dinner with my headset on. We take those minutes to share details of our day, and my mom always asks me what’s for dinner. My husband has long weekly talks with his mom who lives out of town when he goes on hikes to get his exercise.It often helps to schedule talking and listening time in whatever schedule “book” you use, committing yourself to family time instead of slipping into the habit of watching TV, computer surfing, video gaming or answering one more email.

What are the benefits of spending quality time with loved ones?

Only by making the time to share the details of our daily lives as well as our successes, hardships, dreams and disappointments can we reap the rewards of our intimate bonds. Researchers at Brigham Young University analyzed results from 148 studies from the last century and found that social support not only makes us happier to be alive but also literally adds to our longevity, increasing our survival by 50 percent.file50e9dcb10fdd0

Another important ritual for spending regular time together is the family dinner. There is a growing body of research that reveals just how significant this time is for the physical and emotional health of the kids. Routines and rituals such as this provide consistency and structure which not only help families to feel more connected but also help to buffer the negative effects of stress.

Unfortunately, twenty-first century families are more isolated than ever before. With both parents working more hours than ever and with the demands of work infiltrating family time via computers and cell phones, most everyone we talk to complains about the same thing. There’s just not enough time!

file00018101157725 Tips for Creating Family Time

TIP #1: Remind yourself in the following week to take the time each day–even if only minutes– to connect with your family members.

TIP #2: Remember to use the precious times you already have to talk and listen rather than remain plugged into cell phones or iPods.

TIP #3: Catch the moments in between–like driving in the car, eating a snack, walking the dog–to share thoughts and feelings with your loved ones.

TIP #4: Create a daily ritual of checking in. Any habit practiced for thirty days becomes the new normal.

TIP #5: Schedule talking and listening time in whatever calendar system you use, committing yourself to family time instead of slipping into the habit of watching TV, computer surfing, video gaming or answering one more email.

If you have discovered other creative ways to connect with family, please let us know so we can share them with other families like yours.

The ABC’s of Mental Health and Happiness

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file0001244043169How 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.

file3371253285836 Hobbies…help us cultivate broader interests, meet others, lose track of time and get in the flow of creativity.

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 coffee, the color of the sunrise. others can heal broken hearts and will come back to you sometimes when you least expect it. Give to others what you would like to receive.

Learning…lifelong learning…is what it takes to become a kinder, happier, more loving person. Life gives each of us many lessons along the way. Cultivate the mindset of a child with the openness to learn something new each and every day.

Mindfulness and Meditation…help teach us how to quiet our monkey minds (the incessant chatter in our heads–often negative), how to remember to breathe through pain, and how to stop ourselves before saying something cruel or unnecessary.

Nature…is Herself a great Teacher and healer for children and adults alike, teaching us to be observant, to play, to be alone, to be more imaginative, and to be in our bodies.

Optimism…is an outlook on life that fosters hope. It helps us to live longer, get along better with others, and persevere in spite of suffering. Is the glass half full or half empty?

Practice and Persistence…are crucial to the success of any venture–including happiness. As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1 % inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Question…yourself and your current state of mind with curiosity and the willingness to change. Don’t get stuck in believing that you are right when it brings you little joy or connection. Don’t take things that others do so personally. Instead, cultivate curiosity and remember that everyone else is trying to learn things too.

file000809379634Rituals and Routines…are the best ways to ensure that new skills and attitudes get incorporated into daily life. Just as we learn to brush our teeth at night before bed, if we practice gratitude or meditation or any life-enhancing skill at the same time each day, it will become second nature.

Sleep..and enough of it, is necessary for not only our physical health but our emotional stability as well. Without it, it is easy to fall prey to pessimism, irritability, and depression.

Talk…to others about your troubles. Therapy is not for the weak or the sick but for those with the courage and determination to make their lives–and that of their children and loved ones–better. Talking to others (anyone!) also builds trust, opens us to new ways of thinking and allows us to test new behaviors.

Understanding…how our body, mind and spirit are connected helps motivate a healthier lifestyle. There are many curricula available through books, lectures, and classes about cultivating mental health and well-being. Increasing your knowledge will increase your motivation and persistence.

Volunteering…helps build more positive relationships. As we see the suffering of others, we realize we are not alone, building greater empathy and compassion. We also feel better about ourselves which in turn promotes more self-care and self-compassion.

Work…is an important way to put all of the above into practice. It is relatively easy to be happy when you are doing things that are fun. Some people are blessed to do work that fulfills them, but many spend countless hours doing things that are tedious or boring. Learning to see one’s work in a positive light–it puts food on the table, it builds discipline–is truly walking the walk.

Xpression of feelings…in a balanced way–not too much and not too little–helps us stay attuned to ourselves and others. Crying can help us heal from the pain of loss or betrayal. Learning to express our anger in non-violent ways helps us move to compassion.

file6331286648519Yoga…is a physical, mental and spiritual practice from ancient India that was designed to bring peace of mind to the practitioner. Think of the difficult moments of life–whether in your job, your relationships, or your physical health–as your yoga. Many of the most important lessons learned in life come from transforming our mistakes into opportunities for growth and learning.

Zeal and Zest…are the end product of putting the ABC’s into practice. They also make the journey more enjoyable along the way. Laughter is one of the best medicines–and certainly cheap enough for everyone with no known side effects other than increased optimism and well-being.

Which brings us back to the beginning. They all go together. Start anywhere you like. Or just start with A….one ACTION towards health and happiness.

Create an Attitude of Gratitude

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

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 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.

file5171267885752Teach Your Children Well

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.

If you did not come from such a family, you may need some help to be able to change your thinking towards a more optimistic, positive point of view. Negative thinking and complaining can be habit forming. And to break any habit takes conscious effort and deliberate practice. Make it a goal to be more positive but don’t be hard on yourself if you slip into doom and gloom.

Self-Help Books on Positive Thinkingfile0001727698973

A great place to start is with one of the books of psychologist Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. Seligman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the current Director of their Positive Psychology Center. Author of many classics in this rapidly rising field, check out his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, published in 2006.

Not only does this book give the reader an overview of the theory and research on both optimism and pessimism, it includes tests for both parent and child to determine levels of positive and negative thinking. The final third of the book provides the most hands-on learning with worksheets for both parents and their children.

file0001362503108Films 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 album on Happiness and Attitude at

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.

-2Loving What Is

The German mystical theologian, Meister Eackhart, teaches that “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 for somebody, ourselves or our loved ones. We might ask for good health for ourselves or our family members, 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.”





Why Do Fools Fall in Love? Our Brains Have Some Answers.

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file000960252474There 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

The Brain in Lovefile0001052648856

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 authorHelen 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 romantic behavior is hard-wired. (Check out her great TED talk on “The Brain in Love” to get a closer look).


The first “operating system” affecting our relationships rules and causes our sex drive. This drive is mostly controlled by testosterone, in both males and females, and evolved in order to ensure the survival and reproductive success of our species. The intense craving for this hungry love is strongest during the childbearing years, diminishing as levels of testosterone gradually lower with age.

As most of us know, you can feel lust towards unavailable partners and inappropriate choices. This drive is very impersonal and very physical. When testosterone is high, it can be as uncomfortable or painful as deep hunger.

Romantic Love

The second system, which drives our need for romantic love, is caused by an increase in dopamine, stimulating the pleasure centers in the brain. Although people often think of love as an emotion, when dopamine goes up, it feels more like an addiction, stimulating the same reaction as a rush of cocaine. People in love describe thinking about their beloved 24/7 and constant craving to be with that person.

But did you know that when people are in this early phase of increasing interest and infatuation, they have a decrease in serotonin? No wonder this stage is so intense and perhaps why we call file000846429979it falling in love. It is well known that increased levels of serotonin are correlated with a sense of serenity, good moods, and an ability to inhibit behavior. So even though you might think that falling in love would make us happy (and raise serotonin), this is not what happens in the brain.

During this stage of falling for someone, our moods are highly unstable–like someone suffering from an anxiety disorder. We are happy when things are going well and unhappy when they are not. We might even feel a bit bipolar. The drop in serotonin also helps explain our wild inability to control our thoughts during this intensely emotional stage. (Serotonin is also low in people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder). It is both confirming and almost a relief to know why love can so easily mimic an addiction.

Why, you might ask, was the brain wired to make falling in love so much like an addiction? Evolutionary biologists suggest that this operating system helped humans to stop lusting for all nearby two-leggeds in order to narrow the focus of attention to one potential mate. Because human babies need care and protection for much longer than most animals, the bond of the parents needs to be intense.

file000582850807Deep Attachment

This leads us to the third operating system in the brain which fosters attachment or bonding, modulated mostly by the increase in two hormones, vasopressin and oxytocin. These neurotransmitters are responsible for creating pleasurable sensations, specifically the feelings of calm and security, and help us develop deep and lasting bonds with our loved ones. 

After the pain, the craving, and the turbulence of the first two stages has subsided–assuming you are still with the person you fell in love with–the brain helps us form attachments with our beloved. Just as parents feels empathy, compassion and a sense of protectiveness towards their children (even their adult children), so too this same kind of bond evolves with our mates. This is why people often describe even partners they have divorced as “family” and why many happily married adults describe their partner as their best friend.

Mother Nature designed our brains with intricate design. The mystery of it all is still unfolding.


Has Contempt Crept into Your Communications? Watch Out!

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file000453698099Contempt is a relationship killer. It can and does destroy marriages. It can wound a child’s self image, poison the workplace, and push your friends away.

If you don’t know exactly what I mean by contempt, it is disdain for another, openly acting patronizing, insulting, and disrespectful. Contempt is criticism with a twist. When I have contempt for another, I put myself above them. It is criticism with a holier-than-thou attitude mixed in.

Who could possibly act this way? The answer is: we all do. Hopefully, not very much.

On the other hand, if you grew up in a family where your parents had lots of contempt for each other or for people who were different-racially, politically, religiously, ethnically-then you probably picked up this bad habit without even knowing it. If you want, as most of us do, to have close, loving relationships, it is essential that you know about contempt, and that you do your best to eliminate it from your arsenal of emotional weapons.

Many of the couples that come to me for therapy love one another and are trying to practice good communication. They usually have no idea how often contempt creeps into their relationship, particularly in times of disagreement and difficulty. Or how much damage it can do to an otherwise happy marriage.

The Face of Contemptfile3431234958311

The psychologist Paul Eckman is probably one of the world’s foremost experts on human emotions and how they can be seen in facial expressions and body language. (If this interests you, watch reruns of the TV series Lie to Me, based on the application of Eckman’s research to uncover liars).

Eckman studied contempt in both Western and non-Western cultures around the world, and believes it is universally communicated in the same way. When a person feels contempt for another, the corner of the lip on one side of the face is tightened and raised slightly and the head is tilted slightly back. It is even easier to spot when it is accompanied by the rolling of eyes.

Eckman classifies contempt as a secondary emotion since it is the combination of two of the primary emotions–disgust and anger. (The other four primary emotions, according to Eckman, are fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise). Although we normally think of emotions as internal reactions, they also play a significant role in social interactions. Contempt signals disapproval, often from a social or moral standpoint. In an instant, without resorting to violence, contempt (like shame) sends a message loud and clear: Knock it off and go away.

Contempt Corrodes Connections

John Gottman, author of numerous books on marriage and creator of the Love Lab in Seattle, began doing research on couples in 1972. To date, he has completed 12 studies with more than 3,000 couples. He became famous when his study–showing how his team could predict divorce from watching a couple fight–was featured on the cover of Newsweek in 1986. These studies are probably among the most replicated in the family research field.

Gottman outlined what he labelled “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” for relationships. Although everyone uses some or all of the four on occasion, the research shows that when they are evident even in a fifteen minute discussion, the couple is rapidly careening towards big trouble. Of all the negative emotions, contempt is by far the most damaging.

on foot in hors, Lajosmizse, HungaryFour Horsemen of the Apocalypse

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

1. Criticism: 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?”

2. Defensiveness: 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!”

3. Contempt: Start with criticism and send the same message but from a one-up, judgmental position. Roll your eyes and fire away.file000905908966

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.”

4. Stonewalling: 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.

PicCollage copy 2Conflict without Contempt

If none of the above applies to you, consider yourself blessed. Somewhere in your life, you learned how to fight fairly without resorting to the hurtful tactics above.

If you are like the vast majority of people, you will have one or two “favorites” of the horsemen–generally whatever you learned in your family of origin. Like any habit, this can be changed.

The first step is to become aware of your own use of these four communication stoppers. Share this blog with your mate and with other friends and family.

Start by choosing to eliminate contempt from your conversations since it is the most deadly. Enlist the help of those around you.

Make it your long-term goal to eliminate all four horsemen from your repertoire, and be patient with yourself and your partner as you move in that direction.

When someone is drowning and the’ve been dragged to shore, what does the rescuer do? Pressing on the chest forces the water out of the lungs and stimulates healthy breathing…Out with the bad air, in with the good. So it is with learning to deal with differences. Out with contempt, in with compromise…out with contempt, in with compassion…out with the bad air, in with the good…again and again.

Honesty Rules: 10 Steps to Get There

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file1331246481918If you ask parents to name the most important values that they want to instill in their children, honesty is almost always high on the list. The same is true of qualities that we look for in a mate or close friend. In order to build trust, we need to believe in someone’s word. How many times have you asked a loved one, “Please, just tell me the truth…”

If your goal is to build honesty and discourage lying in your children, what’s the best way to do it? If you do catch your child in a lie, what should you do then?

The answer is not so simple. Indeed, it depends a great deal on the age of your child, the type of lie being told and the motives behind it. In the last blog, we explored the when, where, and why and just how often kids lie. The first step in dealing with lying–or any other troublesome behavior–is to know what is normal given the age of your child. Bright, lovable (normal) kids lie–first as a way of avoiding punishment but eventually learning how to lie to be liked and accepted by others and to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

Step #1: Remind yourself that children who tell lies are not bad–they are simply afraid of getting in trouble or making someone angry at them.

Take a deep breath and wait until you can respond calmly. Blowing up at your child can backfire. It gives the behavior a lot of attention (even if it’s negative).file0002043339321

Step #2: Don’t press your child to confess or act like a private investigator trying to catch someone.

Usually you know that your child has done something wrong and then has lied about it. For example, your older child takes a toy away from the baby and then denies it; or your daughter eats cookies before dinner when you told her not to; or your son has not finished doing homework but starts playing video games which is against your rules.

Step #3: Either ask your child to explain to you what rule has been broken or, explain to your child what was wrong about his or her behavior.

Decide on a reasonable consequence–meaning one that “fits the crime”. In the examples above, you could take the “stolen” toy away from your child for the day; tell your daughter that she will not be able to have dessert after dinner since she ate the cookies; tell your son he cannot play video games for the rest of the day even when his homework is finished.

file0001905049667Step #4: Now address the lying. Ask your child to tell you why they lied about the behavior. Really listen and have some empathy. It is difficult to obey all the rules when you are little!

The most common responses will either be because your child didn’t want to get in trouble or didn’t want to make you (or a teacher or friend) mad at her. Perhaps it is difficult for your child to make a mistake. Be curious about the motive for the lie, and help your child see how lying didn’t really make anything better.

Step #5: Explain the difference between white “lies” and inappropriate lies.

Since small children are very literal, make sure you explain that sometimes you keep “your feelings” (white lies) to yourself in order to keep from hurting another’s feelings. Think about how confusing this concept must be to young children trying to learn about telling the truth. It takes many years to figure out the complexities.

Step #6: Transform mistakes into teachable moments about the importance of honesty. file000599705286

A time honored story about the negative consequences of lying is one of Aesop’s fables, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. (If you are unfamiliar with this story or want to show your child a short video, here is a link). This teaching tale is a good one when a lie is motivated by the desire for attention or when lots of exaggeration and drama are thrown in.

Interestingly enough, Victoria Talwar, one of the foremost researchers on children and lying, found that The Boy Who Cried Wolf was not terribly effective at eliciting honesty in her experiments. Her explanation is that kids already know that lying can get them into trouble. They need to learn the positive effects of telling the truth instead.

file5431250397296Step #7: Teach your child that you will be happy and proud of them for telling the truth.

The story that Talwar found reduced lying between 50-75% of the time was George Washington and the Cherry Tree. In this legendary teaching tale, the young George uses his new hatchet to cut down everything in sight–including his father’s cherry tree. When his angry father confronts him, George confesses, and his father tells him how proud he is, and how hearing George tell the truth is worth more than a thousand cherry trees. In fact, just telling your child that you will be really proud or happy if they tell you the truth helps kids open up.

Step #8: Reward truth-telling and have consequences for the lying itself.

Another strategy that reinforces honesty is to tell your child that you will not punish him (or be angry) for the inappropriate behavior if he tells you the truth. When you hear the truth, tell her how proud you are. Then explain what the consequence will be if the troublesome behavior is repeated in the future.

Far too many parents punish the child’s behavior (the one he just lied about) but do not punish the lying. Why shouldn’t the child try to lie again the next time? A more effective approach is to give a consequence not only for their bad behavior but also for lying about it. In other words, reverse the incentives to make honesty bring some rewards.

Step #9: Remember that kids don’t internalize the psychological costs of lying until older.file9841279612478

When asked if lying is wrong, over 90% of 5 year-olds say yes, because lies get you in trouble. It is not until the age of 11 or 12 that the majority of kids understand how lying hurts other people, damages trust in relationships, and makes you feel guilty and bad about yourself.

Rather than emphasizing how terrible lies are, it is essential that parents teach kids how and why honesty is so important. Use songs and educational activities starting when your child is very young (like the song H-O-N-E-S-T-Y) to help build emotional intelligence and develop character.

Step #10: Model truth-telling. As your child gets older, share lessons from your own life. Think about times when you told the truth even when it was difficult, and you had to accept the consequences of your mistake. Find books, movies and other media for older kids (like the Pass It On commercial) to bring home the point of honesty and integrity. Be the kind of adult you want your child to grow up to be. Tell them the truth. It is a long and winding road.





Honestly Sweetie, Are You Telling Me the Truth?

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

file0001350794896“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”  -Mark Twain

Do you remember the first time you caught your child in a bold-faced lie? Perhaps your son told you that he had not stuck his finger in the chocolate cake but the telltale sign of chocolate on his cheeks told you the real story. Or you saw your daughter smack her sister but she vehemently denied it. Or you ask who let the bird out of the cage and the one possible culprit in the family says that Daddy did it.

Perhaps you worried if this was a serious warning sign about the future character of your child or wondered whether or not this kind of behavior was normal. This blog will hopefully clear up any misconceptions you might have about how often young children, teens, and adults lie and why they (we) do so. (Sorry, but you’ll have to wait for the next blog to learn what you can do about it.)

When Is a Lie Really a Lie?

At what age does a child really understand the concept of truth and falsehood? Researchers have been studying this for many years in order to determine at what age children’s testimony in court should be considered valid. Psychologists had to determine under what conditions might a child lie even when under oath.file0001956356954 2

Researchers concocted various kinds of studies to answer this question. One of the most common designs is a temptation experiment. In this study, preschool children of different ages are left for a few moments in an empty room. The experimenter tells them not to peek at a toy placed on table behind them while he is gone. When he returns five minutes later, 90% of the toddlers have looked at the toy, and only one-third of the children tell the truth when asked. Another third simply lies, saying they didn’t peek and another third pretends not to hear the question.

These findings are consistent with past research which shows that somewhere between the age of 2 and 3, most all children lie when they have done something they know they were not supposed to do. At this age, they don’t really know how to cover their tracks, so to speak, so their lies are usually ineffective and obvious for parents to distinguish. This is the same age that “no” becomes their favorite word, so what will be the probable answer of “Did you take another cookie after I asked you not to?”

By the age of 4, the majority of children will lie to get out of trouble, to look good in front of others or simply to get what they want. It is, in fact, a developmental milestone of sorts. Kids this age are smart enough to be more deliberate about getting positive attention and  avoiding punishment. Generally, the smarter a kid is, the faster he or she learns how to manipulate the world around them and the people in it. Unfortunately for parents and teachers, as every year goes by, kids get better and better at covering up their lies.

mean girlsAdults Can’t Tell the Difference

Numerous experiments have also shown that when adults are shown videotapes of kids telling stories about something that happened to them, most people are completely unable to tell which kids are telling the truth and which ones are lying.

In fact, some interesting and noteworthy biases are present. For example, people are more likely to think girls are telling the truth than boys when in truth there is no difference. They believe introverted kids are lying more often when the opposite is true.

If you are a parent reading this, you are probably thinking that you know your kid and would be able to tell. The research shows something different. Police officers score worse than chance and customs officials the same as chance (it is a 50/50 shot). Parents watching videos of their own kids test only slightly higher than chance. Teachers come out ahead at around 60% but that means they too are wrong at least 40% of the time.

This is extremely important information! Why? Because adults too often believe that their kids are telling them the whole truth. The consequence: mom and dad don’t form a team, parents undermine teacher’s authority, sides get taken inappropriately.

Rumors often run rampant when kids go from mom’s house to dad’s house. “Dad yelled at me!” might mean that Dad was firm about bedtime; “Mom doesn’t make me eat vegetables” could be a bold-faced lie. “My teacher picks on me” could conceivably FEEL true to your child but not BE true. So take what your child says with a grain of salt…

How Honest are Teens?teens and pot

It isn’t until around age 11 or 12 that kids, when asked why lies are wrong instead of saying “because you get in trouble for them” or “it’s against the law,” begin to talk about the harm they can cause. This internalized sense of right and wrong marks the beginning of a more mature sense of morality. Older kids have more guilt about lying because they now have more awareness of how it destroys trust and hurts relationships.

That being said, the research on just how much lying goes on is both enlightening and perhaps shocking. Dr. Nancy Darling, while at Penn State University, conducted a set of interviews with teens in which they felt safe enough to disclose just how much of the truth they kept from their parents. A whopping 98% confessed to lying to their parents.

Typical topics included things like how they spent their time while parents were at work, when they started dating, how they spent their allowance, when they spent time with friends their parents didn’t like, what movies they saw and who they went with, what clothes they wore when out with friends.

They also lied about even more important things like alcohol and drug use, driving in cars with kids who’d been drinking or smoking, and going to parties or homes without adult chaperones. In short, parents have to assume that teens are–at a minimum–not sharing the whole truth. We can’t all be the 2%, now can we?

arguing with teenWhat About Adults–How Honest Are You?

Obviously teens are lying to parents for many of the same reasons young children do–to be able to do what they want, when they want, and with whom they want. But that’s not the only reason.

It turns out that the motives behind lying are more complicated. Often teens lie because they don’t want to disappoint or worry their parents. They believe that their parents are being too overprotective or controlling, and feel they really can take care of themselves and each other.

They also lie when they feel the rules are less than fair. They lie to protect their friends and to maintain their friendships and social standing.

So the plot now thickens…Think about it. As an adult, don’t you do similar things for the same reasons? You tell “little white lies” so as not to hurt someone’s feelings. You pretend to like a gift, act friendly to someone you can’t stand, or laugh at a joke that offends you.

You buy some new clothing or spend money on lottery tickets and keep this secret from your spouse. You arrive late to work and provide what you think will be a valid excuse (even if it’s not the truth). Studies show that adults also lie–some a little and some a lot. 

Our kids are exposed to headline news chockfull of stories of liars, cheats and thieves–many of whom go unpunished, many of whom remain rich and famous. Before we think too poorly of kids today and judge them for being less than honest, we better take a good hard look at what we adults are teaching them and how to do better.





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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