Blog & Video Archives

Past Bridge Street Mental Health segment with accompanying text.

Give the Gift of Empathy During this Holiday Season : Here’s How.

It is tough to be blue during the holidays. Amid the hustle and bustle of the pre – Hanukkah and Christmas hype there are many folks for whom the season is not joyous or bright.
Although many of us look forward to Christmas as a time for gifts and to celebrate family and friends, there are many others for whom the occasion is difficult and even painful. Death , divorce, financial troubles , loneliness , depression and failing health are but a few of the reasons which keep many folks from experiencing the full joy of the holiday.
While we can’t make things all better when we encounter someone who is blue, being aware of his or her plight can help us to be more sensitive and compassionate in our interactions with them. It is important to remember that what folks who are blue really need during this painful time is empathy and understanding. Here are some tips to help you improve your empathy skills and to show more kindness and sensitivity to those you meet :

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The Deal : How To Restore Trust After Infidelity.

Infidelity is one of most painful issues married couples ever face. While the emotional wounds created by the break in trust are sometimes too great to repair, I have found that if the offending partner is sincerely repentant, remorseful and willing to work on the individual or relational issues which lead to the problem and, if the offended partner is sincere in his/her desire to reconcile and accepts that most infidelity stems from deeper relational issues which involve both partners, the wound can be healed, trust can be rebuilt and the marriage can actually grow and mature in deeper intimacy.
Over my many years of practice, I have discovered a fundamental communication deal, which, if agreed to and followed by both partners, can , with practice, accelerate healing and renewed confidence in their loyalty and fidelity. However, although the terms of the deal are very simple , carrying out the deal is complicated and difficult. Let me explain.

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When Expectations Don’t Work Out.

Expectations. We all have them, that is to say we all have a sense of what is going to happen in our lives. We have routines which we follow and much of our life is predictable. Part of life, however, is unpredictable and folks who naively or uncritically assume outcomes without sufficient reason can be shocked and sadly disappointed.
Indeed, unrealistic expectations or expectations that are not met are a major source of distress in life. The spectrum of disappointment is wide and ranges from trivial things like a sports team losing a game or running into a long line at the bank all the way to a life-crisis event like losing a job or being told that one has a serious disease.
There are lots of events in the middle, however, which, while not serious with a capital S, nonetheless, create inconvenience or worse. Being caught off guard by these kinds of life events is not only frustrating but an situation which can trigger an anger reaction causes us to act out in ways that are socially disruptive and unpleasant for everyone involved. Indeed, being shocked by unexpected happenings is one of the biggest causes of unpleasant outbursts of anger.
Today, we are going to look at how to 1) recognize amygdala-based reactions which often result from unrealistic or unmet expectations, 2) how to calm and reality-test panicked perceptions which generates anger outbursts and 3) how to problem-solve your way to more rational responses to negative and unexpected life events.

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Understanding and Coping with “Controlling” People.

Many have commented about the coarsening of our society and the decline of basic civility in politics and in every day life. Psychologically, this change in public decorum correlates with the complexification of life and a greatly reduced sense of control that people experience over there own lives.
Nowhere is the loss of control more painfully experienced than in intimate relationships and marriage. Indeed, one of the most common complaints of couples is that they feel that their partner is too “controlling”. Here are some important facts about our needs for control and some tips for dealing with controlling people:
1) No one has the right to try to control their partner.
2) Attempts to control are signs of anxiety and panic.
3) When in a state of panic, a person is not in touch with their cortex and thus he/she can not think reasonably.
4) It is not helpful or productive to attempt to struggle with someone who is in a panicked state.
5) Only when the experience of anxiety has been lowered can a productive conversation and respectful negotiations to reach mutually agreeable solutions take place .

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How Breathing and the “Tupperware” techniques can help to control anger.

Violent and uncontrolled expressions of anger are some of the most threatening emotional, social and cultural issues plaguing our society. One of the especially frustrating aspects of anger is its explosive nature which may erupt without warning.
Although it takes practice, a helpful skill to acquire to control the raw acting out of anger feelings is to delay the urge to immediately discharge the impulse . Using the mental image of a Tupperware container , along with breathing exercises, is an effective way to defer the immediate and unfiltered release of anger impulses and to allow time for a more reasonable response to be made . Here is how they work together to give you more control.

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Rethinking the language of mental illness: From nuts and crazy to irrational and disordered.

Recently, a husband in a counseling session turned and asked me to tell his wife that she was crazy. In declining to do so I asked if he could tell me what he was feeling when he made his request. He responded by saying that he felt exasperated. Indeed , sometimes we hurl words like nuts or crazy when we are frustrated and don’t know what else to do. When we feel powerless, name-calling is sometimes the only thing we can think of to do. That’s because cutting remarks about the other person makes them appear smaller and makes us feel better .
Apart from the session, it got me to thinking about how his comment , in addition to being hurtful, is a sign that, despite all that we have learned and despite all the progress that we have made, that we still have a long way to go to get beyond the fear and stigma attached to mental health issues.
Part of the prejudice stems from ignorance and a gross misunderstanding of psychological disorders. This confusion has been and continues to be perpetuated, in part, by the common usage of antiquated and misleading terms such as “crazy” and “nuts”.
Today, let’s explore the linguistic origins these hurtful anachronisms and consider better alternatives to use when discussing mental health issues.

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S.H.I.E.L.D. : Six steps to protect your brain from Alzheimer’s Disease

This is Alzheimer’s awareness day and here is an acronym that everyone should learn: S.H.I.E.L.D.
SH.I.E.L.D. stands for the six things that everyone can do to help protect their brain from this dreaded disease.
In the past research was aimed at protein build-up (plaques and tangles) but the latest thinking is that INFLAMATION is the culprit.
Here are six life-style changes that can help reduce inflammation in the brain and better protect you from Alzheimer’s disease.

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The Absense of Empathy: Psychology’s Take on the Origin of Sin and Evil.

The incessant reports of gun violence has stimulated deeper questions about the very notion of human sin and evil. A recent report in the New York Times interviewed a theologian and a psychiatrist about their understanding of these mysteries. As one who is an ordained minister and also a licensed psychotherapist, I found the discussion fascinating and relevant to modern concerns about why bad things such as mass shootings happen. Further, the dialog provides a good example of the kinds of issues which pastoral counselors address.
In a recent article in the New York Times a theologian and a psychiatrist were asked about their understanding of evil and sin. Specifically, the psychiatrist expressed the widely held view of how modern brain research and psychology understands the concepts of evil and sin. This evolving bio/psycho/social perspective provides a different slant on traditional religious views of evil but, ultimately, is congruent with the fundamental message of biblical beliefs. Here is a look of how science informs and relates to the theological concept of sin.

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First Aid for Anxiety : Part II – Anticipatory Anxiety

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how to employ first-aid for anxiety. In that discussion, the type of anxiety being addressed was the kind which was triggered by a perceived external stressor in the person’s environment, such as a having a difficult conversation with a person or receiving bad or threatening news .
— Today I want to talk about a different kind of anxiety which can also produce intense dysphoric symptoms but which originates in the neo-cortex of the brain and comes from an internal-anticipated threat, rather than an actual or immediate one.
— Rather than relying on physical isolation from the distressing stimulus, a technique which I call Sensational Distraction (SD) can be used to disrupt distract the stressful cascade of thoughts and anxious feelings. With SD a person can shift the focus and attention of their immediate experience from thinking thoughts to perceiving sensations in their body and thus stop the flow of disturbing thoughts and calm the distressed state of mind.
— Although many distractors can be used , an especially effective technique for lessening and stopping anxiety I call the Orange. The orange relies on SD and is the first step, after a person realizes that they are experiencing anticipatory anxiety, calming one’s mind. The technique involves four steps and goes like this:

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Political attempts to blame the mentally Ill for mass shootings is wrong.

I know it has been a couple of weeks since the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton.  I also know that mass shootings have become so frequent that our ability to really comprehend and feel the horror has been saturated beyond human limitations.

That said, it is important, in addition to not giving up or giving in to emotionally accepting gun violence as a fact of life, that we not fall victim to our fatigue or fall prey to bogus political attempts to offer facile explanations for  complex problems.  Likewise, we must be careful not to blame an innocent population for inexplicable horrors. You may have heard some politicians suggest that mental illness is the cause of these mass shootings. Frankly, those who do this simply don’t know what they are talking about and are wrong. Here is why:

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First Aid for Anxiety

Anxiety is a serious and complex problem for many people. In some cases, successful treatment requires a combination of psychotherapy and medication. For many, however, employing some basic first-aid can render significant and immediate relief.
Here are four steps which, if followed, can quickly and dramatically reduce the crippling effects of panic and anxiety attacks.

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Fear, Anger and the Difficulty of Being Vulnerable in Intimate Communication

Intimate communication is a major problem for many marriages. Partners often find it difficult to talk to each other or, that when they do, they feel that what they said is being misunderstood. Specifically, discussions which involve anger or fear are some of the most difficult.
Certainly, learning how to speak in ways which are respectful of one’s partner and are non-attacking is important. However, simply learning to use I-statements is often not enough to enable couples to be able to talk intimately and constructively about their true feelings and desires with one another.
Thus, a major obstacle to good communication, apart from the words we use when we talk, is our state of mind. More specifically, we have a natural fear and aversion to being vulnerable , i.e. emotionally undefended in front of another person.
Nonetheless, only by overcoming these fears can couples achieve truly emotionally intimate communication. Let me explain how this is possible.

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Recently, I have been writing about the impact of brain research on our understanding of psychology and its implications for psychotherapy.

In this segment, I wish to explain how the very old psychological concept of empathy has been validated by modern neuro-science studies and why it is so important for emotional healing and growth.
In brief, stress and a perception of imminent threat shift a person into survival mode which is controlled by the limbic system which disconnects him/her from his/her cortex.

Empathy, one the other hand, conveys a sense of safety, turns off the physiological alarm and allows neuro-pathways to the cortex to be re-connected. This science explains why empathy works to help folks who are experiencing great distress. So, let us look in more detail at how empathy functions …

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How Neuro-science Revolutionizes Biblical Notions of Sin

As a pastoral counselor , I am often asked about how my psychological training has influenced my Christian beliefs. While I believe that science does not conflict with my fundamental experience of faith or my belief in God, I believe that it can add to and make more comprehensible some of the more mysterious aspects of life and faith.
The notion of sin is an especially good example. You know the traditional Garden of Eden story and how humankind was seduced into sinning by the serpent. According to Genesis, human beings were a created perfection who were corrupted by the temptation of outside influences. Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden and paradise was lost.
There is, however, another way to understand the nature and origin of sin which does not rely on myth and is more congruent with modern science. If God is understood to be love, then any behavior which does not express love is not of God. Sin is the absence of God. Rather than simply blaming Adam and Eve and seeing the source of sin as stubborn disobedience, sin ( which involves disobedience) may be understood as a sense of fear and insecurity which stems from Adam and Eve’s inability to trust God. A basic understanding of brain physiology reveals the structural basis for human fear and insecurity which makes trusting so difficult.
n other words, unlike a traditional, volitional understanding of sin, a scientific view sees unloving behavior as the consequence of fear and panic blocking our capacity to love. We don’t chose sin. Sin ( selfish – irrational behavior) takes us over. Let me explain in more detail.

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The Secret of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

We all know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and how a loving and compassionate doctor who, in trying to research the secrets of mental illness, unleashed a monster that dwelled deep within his own psyche. Modern neuroscience has gone a long way in explaining how such opposite demeanors could belong to the same person. And, rather than being a “strange case”, this seeming contradiction, (that persons could hold within themselves such opposite traits), is built in to the very structure of the normal human brain .. The key to understanding this mystery and what determines which persona is in control is found in the relationship between the limbic system and the cerebral cortex.
Without having to become an expert or get lost in the details , some basic knowledge about brain physiology can help everyone understand confusing, but less extreme, differences in our own behavior and in that of others.
Here are some clues to let you know when your rational brain is being hi-jacked and some tips to get rational brain back.

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