Words of Advice for “Worriers”

If you are a “worrier” then you grapple with something called negative self-talk.  You become overwhelmed because you have a little voice in your head that tells you that you “can’t” manage things in your life or that there are things you need that you “shouldn’t”.  In order to gain any sense of mastery you need to silence, or at least suppress, that voice. 

There are multiple steps to this process.  First, you need to recognize when you begin to play the “can’t” or “shouldn’t” soundtrack in your head and put a stop to it.  Some people do this through visualization.  You can imagine a big red stop sign, a board where these thoughts are being erased or a remote control where you can change the channel.  Other people do this through the cultivation of what I like to call “the angel on the other shoulder”.  This involves the development of a stronger, more rational voice, which contradicts the negative talk.  You may simply begin to cultivate that voice by having it question your inner negative thoughts.  Sometimes when you feel as though you can’t do something, questioning why you can’t is enough to help you gain perspective.  However sometimes that voice needs to be forceful and insist that you can handle whatever comes your way. 

Once that negative inner voice is stopped in its tracks you can begin to create a new narrative for yourself to help you gain a different perspective.  What are all the things you have achieved even when you thought you couldn’t?  Use past experience to help yourself gain new perspective on the situation and calm down.  You need to find a way to tell yourself that you can handle whatever comes your way.  Sometimes it helps to step outside yourself for a moment.  If a friend was having a similar issue what words of encouragement would you offer them?  Now give those words to yourself!  You deserve at least as much support from yourself as you would give to a friend. 

The final step is to remember to offer yourself a mental high five when you are through your negative experience.  Validating that you were capable and that things turned out alright will help you recall positivity in similar future experiences.  If the task at hand is longer term, remember to praise yourself as every milestone passes and you handle it effectively. 

Like any intervention aimed at using the elasticity of your brain to change your thinking, changing this habit requires lots of practice.  Your brain is capable of muscle memory and you have been training it to worry.  It’s time to train it to get rid of those irrational thoughts so that you can let go of the worry and engage in your life. 


Managing Feelings of Impending Doom

When people embark on a therapeutic journey to combat panic attacks and generalized anxiety one of the toughest issues to overcome is the feeling of impending doom.  Often as people improve and start to feel hopeful, they find themselves waiting for the other shoe to drop.  This feeling drastically inhibits their ability to truly feel happy and healthy.  Like most other anxiety behaviors, the tendency to be fearful of the unknown future is generally an ingrained pattern that has developed over an extensive period of time.  This means that the development and incorporation of new behaviors will also take time to take effect. 

I often talk to my clients about the idea of change as a continuum.  My favorite metaphor to use to describe this continuum is the alphabet.  Just as when you are reciting the alphabet you would not go directly from A to Z, when you are making changes in your thinking and behaviors you cannot go from worrying to not worrying.  There is a whole alphabet of letters, or steps in the healing process, in between.  Often we are so focused on our goals that we fail to recognize the steps we must take along the way. 

The first step on the journey of gaining mastery over feelings of impending doom is recognizing that these feelings are usually self-imposed.  These worry feelings are a reaction to your need for control in your life.  For so long, trying to control things and planning for the worst case scenario have allowed you to feel in control of your life.  This was an illusion.  Truly being in control of your life comes from trusting that you have the ability to adapt to and manage any situation.  It is not realistic to believe that bad things will not happen.  They will.

However, negative events have a lot less power in your life if you feel prepared and capable of handling them.  You need to practice telling yourself often that you are capable of handling problems that may come up and that you are stronger than you think.  Reflect on difficult situations that you have handled well to solidify that thought in your mind.  When the next bad event occurs, focus on what you did well in the situation instead of all the things you did wrong.  Remember change is a continuum and, while you may not immediately be able to handle problems in your life the way you would like to all of the time, effectively handling these problems part of the time is a step in the right direction.  Validate every movement in the right direction and build on it.  Before you know it you will hopefully be free from impending doom.



Can Your Relationship Survive Long Distance?

In our modern society where jobs and relationships can take you anywhere around the globe, many people are faced with periods of time where they are physically separated from their significant other.  As a result, clients often ask me to provide advice for maintaining and growing a strong relationship despite these periods of separation. 

There are many factors to consider when evaluating the potential success of a long distance relationship.  First, what is the expected duration of the separation?  In my experience, relationship separations that have defined time limits fare better than those that are indefinite.  Second, during what stage of your relationship will the separation occur?  While individual experiences will vary, a period of separation may be less impactful at the beginning of a relationship when oxytocin levels are high and you are insulated by the euphoria of a new love than during other periods of increased stress and uncertainty (for example, when you have recently embarked on the journey of parenthood where responsibilities have increased while oxytocin levels are dipping drastically). Finally, is either person in a high risk factor group for infidelity?  These groups can include things like substance abuse issues, major life transitional periods, and high stress work environments. 

So if being apart from your partner is unavoidable or you decide it might work for your relationship, how do you give yourselves the best chance for success?  As with all aspects of a relationship, communication matters.  Discuss expectations and set clear boundaries for what constitutes infidelity.  You would be surprised how many couples take this for granted and end up discovering that they have very different ideas of what actually defines infidelity.  Use technology to your advantage.  Programs like Skype and FaceTime allow you to stay connected and close the geographical gap by maintaining visual contact with your partner and their living environment or new friends.  If you and your partner are separated by a significant time difference, use email or text messenges to leave your partner a surprise to wake up to.  However, don’t forget the power of a phone call. Communicating by phone while away from your partner may actually allow for deeper communication.  Not having to look someone in the eye while talking to them often removes inhibitions and may make emotional subjects easier to discuss, leading to heightened emotional intimacy.  It is crucial to also have plans to see each other regularly because there is no substitute for physical contact and sharing of daily living.  I also recommend small surprises such as mailed letters, flowers, funny cards/post cards or small silly gifts to let your partner know that you are thinking of them, even when you are apart.


While there is no foolproof plan for making a long distance relationship work, making your relationship a top priority gives you the highest likelihood of success.  Communication and maintaining a strong connection is the key to any health relationship, even a long distance one.  Don’t despair.  Despite what you may have heard (including from your friends and family), long distance relationships can work. 



Finding "The One"

As someone who works a lot with couples with troubled marriages, I am often asked by individuals how to find the right relationship that will last for a lifetime.  One of the things I have learned throughout the years is that we often end up marrying people who have some traits in common with one or both of our parents.  While this statement often makes sense to people, they are often confused by the fact that these traits are not always the ones that made us feel secure and connected in our relationships with our families.  For instance, if we grew up with a parent who worked around the clock and left us feeling upset when they missed all of our important milestones, we are more likely to marry someone who will repeat this pattern despite how it made us feel in our childhood. 

Inevitably, whenever I point this out to couples they express a fear that something must be wrong with them to repeat this pattern of hurt voluntarily. The truth is that even if our parent’s trait is a negative one, it is at least a familiar one.  We, as humans, are always more comfortable with the familiar, even if it is unhealthy or upsetting.  The problem becomes that as adults (with our presumably fully developed reasoning skills and maturity) we are sure that our reactions to these similar slights will be much more evolved.  However, despite our growth in the logical parts of our brains, the slights we experience with our partners trigger the same emotional response we had as a child, typically at the same developmental level as when we first experienced it.  So the behavior it elicits often puts us squarely in the middle of the struggles we wish we had left behind through maturity, which often lands people in my office. 

So how do you avoid that problem?  First, it is important to have self-awareness.  What are your triggers and the stimuli from your youth that still hurt you when you think about them in adulthood?  Do you feel like your parents never listened to your opinion or valued the things that were important to you?  Then take a realistic look at your potential future partner.  Does he/she have the same tendency?  What traits does he/she have in common with your mother and father?  Are those traits you admired or traits that hurt you?  Take a step back and consider whether your reactions to these traits are likely to be conducive to a healthy relationship.  Examining potential partners from this fresh perspective may even cause you to see other acquaintances, you may have completely overlooked before, in a totally new light. 

If you have your heart set on partnering with someone who does share one of the negative traits that drove you crazy as a child, don’t despair.  There are ways to work on yourself to make that relationship work.  Maybe it is time for you to seek therapy to help you let go of that old childhood pain.  Ultimately, make sure that you ask yourself whether you are willing to live the rest of your life with this person if nothing changes.  If the answer is yes you have a strong foundation to build upon.  Never enter into a marriage expecting that you can change your partner over time.  Personality traits are not the same as bachelor cleanliness or frilly throw pillows.  Assuming you will be able to modify your partner’s personality to better suit your preferences is a recipe for disaster.




Parenting and Technology

Any parent is familiar with the idea of limiting “screen time” with their children, but, due to rapid advances in technology, parents today have a whole new expanse of concerns that former generations have never faced. The consequences of these decisions are bigger than you might suspect.  These days, you cannot watch the news without being faced with stories of children being lured away by online predators or bullied through online forums.  There are tons of books and resources advising parents on how to protect their children from these risks, but what about the quieter and more insidious issues technology presents for children?

First of all, screen time effects sleep.  The back lighting of any screen stimulates the human brain, interrupting REM cycles of sleep, so any screen time within half an hour of bedtime will prevent you from having quality sleep.  It is highly unlikely that our teenagers, who typically sleep with their phones next to their beds, are abstaining from screen time at least half an hour before bed.  This leaves us with a portion of the population (who already requires extra sleep due to biological changes occurring at this stage of their lives) feeling even more sleep deprived.  Poor school performance, low ability to regulate their emotions and poor attention span are just some of the things that can result from this sleep deprivation, which can compound over time.

Technology also appears to be creating children with lower empathic ability.  It is easy to be brazen or hurtful when you don’t have to look someone else in the eye and experience their reaction when you do it.  Kids have always had the capacity to be very cruel, especially in groups, but technology has offered them even more access with which to be cruel, intentionally or unintentionally.  Previous generations never had to worry about being excluded from a party and seeing the evidence of your exclusion on multiple social media platforms in real time.  All of this translates into generations of people who struggle with real human connection.  Think about the time before a class or seminar began or before a meeting at work when you would actually make small talk with others around you.  That small talk sometimes blossomed into friendships, and sometimes it didn’t, but it was all practice that made you feel more connected to your fellow man.  All of that has largely disappeared as we watch people looking at phones or tablets right up until (and sometimes even after) their attention is required.  Technology is isolating and is leading to higher levels of depression.  Even people who are not inclined toward depression can find it extremely isolating when they are struggling with challenges only to open Facebook and see how wonderful everyone else’s life seems to be.  This unfair comparison leads to a feeling that you are alone in your struggles which exacerbates depressive symptoms.

The final scary thing about technology is that it is addicting.  Who can ignore the recent New York Post article that likened Minecraft to digital heroin (this can be found on my home page for reference)?  The truth is that text messages and IM have been linked to dopamine release in your brain and have much the same effect as gambling.  Studies have shown that adolescents who begin using drugs or alcohol are much more likely to become addicts.  It seems that the over use of technology during these impressionable years could lead to similarly addicting outcomes.

Despite all the negative impacts that come from technology, there are a myriad of benefits too.  It is wonderful to be able to use cell phone tracking to know where your child is at all times, or to know they can reach you in emergencies.  Most schools use a lot of technology in the classroom to expand learning opportunities as well. 

So my advice is to teach your kids good technology habits.  Wait as long as possible before giving your child a phone.  Decide as a family when acquiring a phone makes sense.  I suggest that you wait until your child is often attending activities without you or without a supervising adult.  Have periods of time for unplugging such as family dinners and model the behavior you want to see.  Everyone should take that time as a charging break where they plug their phones in and leave them plugged and out of sight for the duration of the meal.  Turn off your phone and give your child your full attention sometimes to model how they should treat others in their lives and allow them to feel truly important to you.  Leave phones at home when you are going out as a family or just have one person take a phone for emergency use only.  Most importantly, buy them an old fashion alarm clock and have them turn off their phones and leave them in a basket near the front door at least a half an hour before bed.  Take your children to volunteer to help those in need to teach them the importance of empathy.  Finally, talk to them often about things they might encounter on line so that they learn how to avoid, and respond to, the pitfalls that may come with technology.

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