Archive for November, 2010

Nov 29 2010


We all make many, many mistakes in the way we communicate.

Unless these mistakes are corrected, we can go through life fighting all the time,or avoiding and ignoring each other.

Either way, it can be pretty unpleasant.

In the next series of posts,  I will begin to explain all the
mistakes we make so anyone who is willing to spend a few minutes each
week can become more knowledgeable and effective in helping their
relationship be a little warmer, friendly and fun.

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Nov 28 2010

Balancing Joy and Conflict in Marriage and Commited Relationships

Making marriage and intimate relationships work these days is a complicated balancing act.

It takes time to communicate, resolve conflict, raise children and manage the challenges of busy careers.

Marriage and family researcher, John Gottman, PhD and his research colleagues have had a huge influence on the course of marital and family therapy over the last twenty years.

I use many of the marital satisfaction surveys Gottman has created and find them helpful to couples trying to identify and work on their problems.

His research has compiled huge amounts of data and increased our understanding of what helps and what hurts marriages.

Rather than try to research a specific therapy method or style of marriage or family life, Gottman studied many marriages and families over several decades. He was able to begin to see what really worked for couples and their families.

The results of their research is found in Why marriages succeed or fail…and how you can

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Nov 27 2010

Learning the Speaker-Listener Exercise: An Essential First Step in Making Marriage and Commited Relationships Work

The first goal in my work with couples is to teach a method of speaking and listening using research based communication concepts. These concepts include “I” statements,  non-defensive or active listening, and asking clearly for what you want.

It’s more difficult than it looks. The key problem is most of us did not grow up in families where effective communication was either taught or modeled.

As a result, we learned some very bad lessons which keep us unhappy in our relationships.

These bad lessons are called “cognitive distortions” or unhealthy rules/beliefs about the way we should relate to each other, including blaming, criticizing, mind-reading, and black and white thinking. Click here for more examples and definitions.

In the exercise, the speaker only makes “I” statements, identifies and expresses feelings and says what they wish for.

The listener only active listens, reflecting what the speaker is saying, using the speakers words, and helping them say more about their thoughts, feelings and wishes.

It works.

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Nov 26 2010

Limbic Resonance: The Biological Basis for Love Feelings

Just for a moment, remember the last time you gazed into your lovers eyes and felt the hot passion of love. Maybe your heart seemed to tingle, your face was flush, and you could tell that they really loved you and you loved them back.This is called the physiology of love,or limbic resonance.  And yes, all mammals (humans are mammals:) experience this incredible process.

When we look into each other’s eyes, a complex neurological process begins which enables us to really experience the non-verbal, unconscious sensations and feelings within the other person and project our own feelings back to them.

Call it the love gaze. I hope you have it with more than your loving cat or dog who are thrilled to see you when you get home!
Read more about it here and here.

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Nov 24 2010

Amygdala: How Our Brain Processes and Stores Emotional Memory

The amygdala is the part of our brain’s limbic system responsible for the processing and memory of emotional reactions and triggering the fight, fight, or freeze process for human beings.

In the image below, the amygdala (dark red color) can be seen as part of the limbic system, just below the thalamus (also dark red).

The amygdala has been called the “emotional sentinel” of the human brain because it is primarily responsible for helping us to know when it is safe and unsafe.

The amygdala receives signals from our senses which it quickly evaluates. If the signal is safe, all is good.  However, if the amygdala determines the signal to be a threat, it sends a message to the hypthalamus to produce dopamine, epinephrine and norepenephrine which provide the chemical fuel for us to fight, flee or freeze.

The studies related to the amygdala have demonstrated that damage to the amygdala or negative personal experiences can result in such things as an inability to determine safe or unsafe facial expressions, hyperarousal, exaggerated fear responses or absence of fear responses.

So, if you grew up in an abusive, dangerous household, it is likely your amygdala has processed and stored those memories in a way which may keep you hyperaroused and unsure about the intentions of your partner.

Any tension or conflict with your spouse may easily result in a yelling match leaving you both depleted and demoralized.

Biology mixes with personal history, with disastrous results for personal and intimate relationships.

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Nov 24 2010

The Neural Bases of Empathic Accuracy: An Article by Psychology Professors Kevin Oschner and Niall Bolger, graduate student Jamil Zaki, and Research Assistant Jochen Weber at Columbia University Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 2009

A Columbia University research project using functional MRI scanning has mapped the two brain systems responsible for empathic accuracy, the parietal and premotor cortex.These two brain systems help humans understand the intentions of simple gestures, interpret the meaning of those gestures and place them into context.

The researchers used a group of volunteers (objects) to talk about emotional events in their lives while being videotaped. Later, these volunteers watched themselves on video and evaluated whether they felt positively or negatively while talking about these live events.

Then, a second group of volunteers (perceivers) watched the same videotapes and were asked to evaluate the positive or negative experience of the initial volunteers as they described their life events while also hooked up to functional MRI scanning devices to measure which brain systems were activated.
When the perceivers were accurate about the emotional experience, the same brain systems, the parietal and premotor cortex were activated.

Interestingly, when the perceivers were wrong, a third brain system was activated that involves the control and management of one’s own feelings.

This suggested to the researchers that a persons attention to their own feelings may cause them to miss the gestures and other behaviors linked to the feelings of others.

Read the summary of the study here.

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Nov 22 2010

Yes, Rage And Fear Are Automatic Responses Triggered By The Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for triggering the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction in human beings.

As you can see from the image at left, the sympathetic nervous system functions to activate the major organs identified, especially the heart, lungs and adrenal glands.

As you may know, the adrenal glands produce adrenaline (its other name is epinephrine).
Adrenaline is only our friend when we have to fight, escape or hide from big scary things, like our ancestors.

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Nov 15 2010

Forgiveness Resources from Ken Pope, PhD.

Click here.

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Nov 08 2010

Journaling: Use These Structured Writing Exercises to Enhance Psychotherapy

Here are some journaling or structured writing exercises to provide a little inspiration or guidance:

  1. What would you like to see improved about your life right now?
  2. Describe yourself and your family. Go back as far as you can and describe grandparents, greatgrandparents and other extended family. Draw a genogram or what looks like a family tree to create a picture of your family. For an example of a genogram, look here.
  3. Who were you closer to growing up, your mother, father, siblings, grandparents, others? Explain why you think you were closer to these family members and not the others.
  4. What emotional messages did you receive from your parents, family, teachers, others? Pay attention to the feeling of the message. Note that people can say they care about you in words, but the feeling can be very different.
  5. Create a timeline of significant events in your life. Focus on all events that you can remember, including times when you may have been mistreated, neglected or abused. For an excellent example of a family therapy timeline, go here.
  6. If you wrote a 3-4 word slogan to describe yourself, what would it be?
  7. You are stranded on an island, but can bring 10 items and 3 people to be with you. What and who would you bring? Why?
  8. If you drink or use other drugs, when wasthe first time you drank or used?
  9. Describe your history of alcohol and other substances. Focus on what role substances play in your life.
  10. Go here to the Alcohol Assessment website and complete the questionaire.
  11. What did you learn about yourself and your use of alcohol?
  12. For another questionaire, go here and complete the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test.
  13. What old or new information did you learn about your use of alcohol or other substances.
  14. Describe times when you felt like you may have been mistreated or neglected. Who, what, where and when.
  15. Draw a line. On either end of the line, write the words really special or unworthy. How do you feel about yourself? Put a mark on the line that describes where you are on the continuum.
  16. Imagine you can do your life over. What would you change?
  17. Where do you want to be in 5, 10, 15 years?
  18. Describe how you would like to die? Who would be there? What would happen?
  19. What secrets do you keep? Describe the pros and cons of maintaining these secrets.
  20. Do you feel trapped in your life? Why or why not?
  21. If you have certain problems to face, do you think you have the power to change things or do you feel powerless?
  22. In the privacy of your own thoughts or writing, describe your feelings about sexuality and your sexual experiences. Have you ever felt mistreated sexually in any way? Have you ever been the victim of sexual harassment or any other behavior which made you feel uncomfortable?

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Nov 06 2010

Psychodrama: Healing Grief from an Alcoholic Family

As he began to calm and soothe himself, he realized that he had been holding onto those powerful feelings for a long time…

Note: This is a fictional case presentation.

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