Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Love Relationships

Love is one of life's greatest rewards. But, like many good things, there is both a sweet side and a sour side to it. Serious or chronic illness, infidelity, intimacy concerns, changing roles and circumstances, anger, finances, parenting, communication problems all can contribute to distress in marriages or other partnerships.

We start out at a disadvantage because many of us aren't very clear about what love is in the first place. I like to think of it as a behavior and a choice as well as an emotion. This makes the vague and intangible concept of love clearer and more concrete to me. If love is a behavior, then we should be able to see it and measure it. If love is a choice, then we might have a little control over what we do with it. It is much easier to work with something that, to a degree, can be observed and controlled.

In my practice, I sometimes encounter clients who are in relationships that are admittedly very painful and destructive for them, yet they insist they are loved. When I ask them how they know this, they say, "I just know" or "I feel it in my heart". If we take the view that love is a behavior, we should be able to list the ways our partners are demonstrating their love for us. We should also be able to list any unloving behavior we are experiencing. It is also important to consider what your own loving and unloving behaviors are regarding your partner. Are you taking for granted that your partner "just knows" you love them, or are you showing them every day that this is true?

What do I mean by love being a choice? Many of us were led to believe that "love is blind" and that we are powerless over it. Think of the images of Cupid flying by and shooting victims with his arrow, making them "fall helplessly" into love. We are taught that love is forever, that it is fated, and that there is a "Mr. or Ms. Right" or a "soulmate" out there waiting for us. These beliefs can be a problem because they take much of our responsibility and autonomy away from us.

I prefer to believe that we make some conscious and not-so-conscious decisions about who we love. In fact, researchers have demonstrated that we do a sort of "cost-benefit analysis" in our relationships which determines who we invest in and how much of ourselves we invest. Keep in mind that the costs and benefits can be very different depending on the individual and what makes sense to you might seem absurd to someone else. The costs and benefits can also change over time which can in turn change our feelings about our partners.

Everyone is different, but differences aren't always a problem in relationships. It isn't necessary to have most things in common or to like everything about your partner - some relationships are complimentary. However, differences can begin to cause friction over time. Have you ever seen the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Remember the orange sweater? This movie provides a great example of how things that once seemed intriguing or endearing about a person can become annoying or irritating. Fighting isn't always a problem either, as long as it is done without abuse, harsh criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling (see also John Gottman's "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" - NPR interview).

Couples counseling can help partners work through conflicts together and experience greater satisfaction in the relationship. There are risks to couples counseling as well; you may instead discover that the best option is to separate. Either way, couples counseling can help you make thoughtful decisions about and gain insight into your significant relationship.

Couples counseling addresses communication skills, understanding differences, problem solving and empathy. Your counselor should remain relatively neutral and will act as a mediator helping you to communicate effectivley with each other so that you can understand and work through your differences.

Unfortunately, many couples wait until their problems are severe before they pursue counseling. You don't have to be on the verge of a breakup to seek counseling - relationship therapy can also help make healthy relationships even better. In order for relationship therapy to work well, both partners must be motivated to improve the relationship.

If there is active violence or abuse going on in a relationship, couples counseling is not the best starting point. The better route is for each individual to get their own counseling until the danger is eliminated. If you fear for your safety or for the safety of others in your home consider contacting the police or a local shelter or calling a crisis line such as 1-800-799-safe. A good internet resource for researching relationship violence is the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

For more information about relationship problems and other mental health concerns, please visit my website at

Friday, August 8, 2008

Grieving a Loss

Grieving is a normal human response to losing someone or something important. Experiencing a loss can involve strong emotions, troublesome physical symptoms, and may require a period of adjustment.

The way we experience grief can be influenced by a number of factors including the nature of the loss and the meaning we make of it, one's culture, upbringing, life experience, and spiritual beliefs. Everyone grieves differently and for varying periods of time, but for most everyone, the symptoms gradually become less intense as time passes. There is no one right way to grieve, but experts recognize a number of stages or phases people go through when they experience a significant loss (see also Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' classic book On Death and Dying):

  • Denial, numbness, and shock - a state that protects us from intense emotions
  • Bargaining - thinking about what could or should have been, longing for a second chance
  • Depression - involves sleep and appetite disturbance, decreased energy and concentration, crying, deep feelings of sadness, loneliness, emptiness, isolation
  • Anger - defends against feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, abandonment, or that life is unfair
  • Acceptance - meaning making, finding resolution, healing, integrating the loss into your life

Prolonged denial of the loss or avoidance or minimization of feelings, self-medicating, excessive guilt, impaired functioning, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, and/or suicide thoughts may indicate complicated or unhealthy grieving. It may be wise to consult a professional if you or someone you love is experiencing these symptoms.

While it is important to remember that there is no "right way" to grieve, healthier ways of coping with a loss include:

  • Expression of feelings (memorializing, talking to friends or family, journaling, crying, creating or enjoying art or music)
  • Good self care (paying attention to diet, exercise, hygiene, stress management, etc.)
  • Giving yourself permission to grieve your own way in your own time
  • Being prepared for difficult times ahead such as holidays, anniversaries and other reminders

If you or someone you know is looking for online support for coping with a loss, try Tom Golden's Crisis, Grief, & Healing page or, an "Internet community of persons dealing with grief, death, and major loss". For more resources pertaining to grief, loss, and other mental health concerns, please visit my website at

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Our society values and encourages selflessness. We think about self-sacrifice and putting others before ourselves as virtuous qualities. To be selfless means, "having no regard to self". Although we may choose to act selflessly at times (which can be a wonderful thing), we cannot completely disregard ourselves. Remember the Zen-Buddhist saying, "Wherever you go, there you are".

I watched a TV program about a man who ran a monkey sanctuary in Africa. He had only this ancient, rickety truck to transport supplies, rescue monkeys, and get from one place to another. The truck was an essential tool for carrying on his work at the sanctuary. Every morning he had to spend some time taking care of the truck; making minor repairs and preparing it to withstand the bumpy, unpaved roads he would be navigating. The truck was precious to him because he could not afford to replace it.

Like the truck, your body and mind are precious tools that need care and protection. If you allow yourself to be used up or completely worn out, you will no longer be able to carry out the good work you do with your family and friends, on the job, or in the community. Unlike the truck, you are irreplaceable. There is only one of you and your self is essential to your doing good things for the universe.

What are the caring things you need to do for yourself so that you will be ready for the bumpy roads ahead? Of course you need the basics like good nourishment, adequate sleep, and exercise. Often these are the first things to be neglected when we are very focused on others needs. Human beings also need time to recharge which may include things like relaxation, pursuit of hobbies, or socializing. This means everyone has to say "no" sometimes in order to make time for ourselves. Setting limits is showing regard for yourself and helps others understand how to better relate to you.

One problem with being overly selfless is that we have to make assumptions about what other people want and need so that we can give it to them. Sometimes our assumptions are wrong and we end up intruding on or complicating things for them. Do you find yourself inevitably feeling resentful in your relationships? Do you feel like you give and give and never receive? It is important to honestly examine your intentions and determine whether your giving is truly altruistic, or are you hoping to receive something in return. The better course of action is to ask for what you want and need directly.

Another problem with being overly selfless is that relationships work best when they are reciprocal. Other people in your life want to feel they have something to offer you and it is good to let them give sometimes. It can be boring to your friends and partners to have no work to do in the relationship. For children, it is an unfortunate lesson to teach them that they are entitled to all the benefits of a relationship with no effort required on their part. You can send the wrong message to others in your life when you give too much. They may come to expect it from you and believe it is what makes you happiest. They may also become frustrated and give up trying to reciprocate if you've made it hard for them to do so.

Remember, it is your responsibility to take care of yourself which involves committing a little time each day to self care activities, setting limits, and sometimes saying "no". If you take good care of yourself you will be better prepared to care for others.

For more resources relating to self care and other mental health concerns, please visit my website

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Slipping Into the Test Anxiety Zone

You’re sitting in your classroom before a major test. Your senses are heightened. The lights seem too bright. You hear your classmates chattering nervously about how hard this is going to be. In your head you try to quickly review what you studied, but your mind is too flooded with worries and self-doubts to think clearly. You are now entering the Test Anxiety Zone.

Most students experience a reasonable amount of anxiety before a test, which is necessary for top performance. But, when anxiety begins to damage test scores, it becomes a problem. Test anxiety is relatively common among college students. Some researchers have estimated it occurs in 15 – 20% of college students at any given time. Test anxiety involves changes in physical processes, emotions, thinking, and behavior that can impede test performance.

Test anxiety is most often caused by being under-prepared, but this doesn't necessarily indicate laziness. Under-preparation for a test can also arise from limited study skills, poor study habits, poor time management, or learning problems. Some other factors that can contribute to test anxiety include inexperience with tests and college level material, excessive pressure to do well, competitiveness, over-valuing test results, and low self-confidence.

The first line of defense against test anxiety it studying well. Thorough preparation for tests involves:

· Showing up for every class and participating
· Talking to your instructor about their expectations and testing style
· Keeping up on readings and assignments
· Finding out where you study best and using it
· Planning ahead to study about 2-3 hours per credit hour per week
· Studying a little every day, taking reasonable breaks (don’t cram)
· Studying during your most alert and productive times
· Knowing your learning style and capitalizing on your strengths
· Learning the material using several study methods, not just one

The next line of defense is developing good test taking skills. It is possible to improve your performance on a test just by knowing good test taking strategies. It is also possible to do poorly on a test, even when you know your stuff, by letting the test outsmart you. There are many types of test questions (short answer, essay, multiple choice, true/false) and each requires different strategies for success. Most colleges have a learning center that offers help with test taking skills. For national and major standardized tests, there are companies who will teach you specific strategies for a fee.

Manage your time and learn to identify your time wasters. Set priorities and focus on what’s most important first. Use a calendar or planner and review your schedule at the start of each week to make sure you have allocated enough time for everything. Recognize your limits and delegate tasks when you can. There are only 24 hours in a day; learn to say “no” when you need to.

Get organized. Establish a productive work environment that is clean and spacious with limited distractions. Break large tasks into smaller steps to prevent them from becoming overwhelming. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to clear your work area and plan for the next day,

Remember to take care of yourself. Don’t stay up all night abusing substances before a test. Resist the urge to misuse stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, or speed to stay awake and focus. Get plenty of rest, eat right, and exercise. Reward yourself for your accomplishments.

Sometimes test anxiety is a symptom of a deeper problem such as an anxiety disorder or other emotional issue. If you suspect this is the case, a mental health professional may be able to help. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy. You can also call the behavioral health number on the back of your insurance card or visit your insurance company website to get some referral options.

Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

When Kids Have Trouble Reading

As a psychologist who evaluates children with learning difficulties, I often encounter parents who are worried about their child's reading. Sometimes this is due to the presence of a reading disorder, also known as dyslexia.

I find that many parents have the mistaken belief that dyslexia means reversing letters and numbers when reading and writing. The truth is that letter and number reversals are not unusual for any child learning to read and write.

While some children with reading disorders may demonstrate reversals, there is much more going on than that. Some early signs of dyslexia include difficulties with learning letters and numbers as well as recognizing the individual sounds and letter combinations that make up words. Kids with dyslexia may have trouble sounding out words and remembering familiar words by sight. Reading may be slow and labored and the child will often have difficulty comprehending what was read. Spelling and grammar are frequently poor. Children with reading difficulties typically struggle with math and writing as well.

Dyslexia is not curable, but many people are able to overcome the unique challenges associated with it. Some examples of successful individuals with dyslexia are actors Tom Cruise and Henry Winkler. When parents are involved with their child's learning through talking to teachers, asking about school work, and listening to their child read, they are more aware of problems that develop and can act on them quickly. Experts say that children whose reading disabilities are recognized and addressed before the 3rd grade have the best outcomes; however, many helpful interventions are available for older children as well.

Having worked with college students for many years, I have seen that an undiagnosed, untreated or poorly understood reading disorder can lead to a variety of problems including poor academic achievement, reduced self-esteem, and underemployment. When an older child or adult with dyslexia understands their own unique strengths and challenges, how to communicate these effectively to school officials and employers, and how to advocate for themselves at school or on the job, they are more likely to reach their full potential and attain their goals.

Additional information about learning disorders and other mental health concerns is available at my website

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Evaluating Learning Differences

What do you do when you know a child is bright, but their teachers don't seem to realize it? Maybe the marks they bring home don't reflect their true capabilities. Or perhaps they seem to be falling further and further behind their classmates. One possibility is that the child may have a learning disability.

Children with learning disabilities are born with differences in the way they input, process, and express information. An undetected and untreated learning disability can lead to academic problems and low self-esteem. The earlier learning problems are recognized and addressed, the better the prognosis.

If you suspect your child has a learning disability, you can request an evaluation from your school or a private evaluator like a psychologist. If you request an evaluation through your school, it is a good idea to do so in writing so there is a record of your concerns. It is important to realize that school districts differ in terms of their resources for and attitudes toward special education. For more information about how to interact effectively with your school, please visit the Wrightslaw website for education law and advocacy.

A thorough psychoeducational evaluation includes a review of history and records, assessment of potential such as an IQ test, and tests that measure school achievement. When appropriate, your evaluator may also recommend assessments of other areas such as communication, daily living skills, motor skills, and behavior.

Based on the unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses that emerges from an evaluation, recommendations are made for improving your child's learning experience. A thorough and accurate evaluation report can open the door to services children with learning differences need to progress in school. Detecting and addressing learning disabilities early will increase a child's chances for future success.

The website, LD Online, is a good place to start to find out more about learning differences. Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.