Blog & Video Archives

Past Bridge Street Mental Health segment with accompanying text.

Why can’t you just get “over it” ? How to tell when someone has recovered from an affair.

One of the most commonly heard laments when working with couples who have survived an affair is: ” Why can’t you just get over it and move on ?”

While the comment is usually made by the offender who is frustrated that his/her mate still brings up what s/he has done, the remark also raises a good question to which many folks don’t know the answer.  So, today let’s talk about what has to happen emotionally for one to “get over” and “move on” from betrayal and how one can tell when it has happened.

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Halloween, COVID-19 and the Confusing Paradox of Fear and Disbelief.

This year Halloween arrived just as the coronavirus pandemic is surging across America, again.  This ironic coincidence of spooks and a deadly virus  provides an opportunity for us to discuss the interesting but confusing paradox in the human psyche which allows us to fear that which is not real and to deny that which is really threatening or dangerous.

On one hand, we celebrate and enjoy horror movies and other things which can scare us temporarily. Yet , as we have seen in the popularity of Donald Trump and his attack on science and the refusal of so many to wear masks and take reasonable precautions to prevent contracting or spreading the coronavirus, many Americans deny  the reality and the severity of COVID-19.  Although counter-intuitive, psychology can explain, at least in part , why this strange contradiction is so.

To begin, let’s understand why we love scary things like movies and Halloween.  When we are scared, our brain releases dopamine which gives us a rush.  The neurochemical reaction is emotionally stimulating and similar to the terror response caused by a real threat or crisis. However, horror movie thrills are significantly different from the experience of actual danger because the rational part of our brain knows that the scary perception isn’t real.  This enjoyment is the same sensation we feel when riding on a roller coaster or in other thrill seeking activities. We like it because it is exciting but down deep, we know that we are safe. We know that we are safe because our neo-cortex , the part of the brain which is rational, assess the situation to be safe.

On the other hand, sometimes we tend to deny real threats when they are overwhelming, and feel out of control. We become overwhelmed when there is a real threat confronting us and don’t know how to handle the dangerous situation or to feel safe.  Neurologically, to make matters worse, the panic which comes from being emotionally overwhelmed causes the amygdale , the hypervigilant part of the brain which constantly looks for threats, to hi-jack and block access to the logical part of our brain which, in the case of a real threat, would cause us to take reasonable action.

In some cases, fear causes us to become angry and attack the threat. In other cases, it causes us to run away. Denial or disbelief is a type of emotional running away which gives us some emotional space to avoid having to deal with or engage the problem before we are ready.  If, however, access to the cortex is not re-established in time ,denial can complicate or make it impossible to respond effectively to the crisis.

In practical and every day terms, we are often in denial.  For example, we all are going to die and that is , at some level, a real threat.  That said, if we are healthy or don’t suffer from hypochondriasis, we don’t think about it  very often. Denial in that sense is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to live our lives with less worry.   On the other hand, if our doctor tells us that we have a serious condition which needs treatment and we, despite many warnings chose to deny and avoid getting treatment , the results could be catastrophic.

Fortunately, there are effective techniques to help us to sort out and and identify irrational fears and problematic denial from normal avoidance. Here are three  basic steps to follow when fear and denial has blocked  access to your neo-cortex:

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Religion , Sex and Guilt .

October is World Mental Health Month and, as such, I want to address what I regard as a neglected but, nonetheless, a significant obstacle to emotional wellness and overall mental health: erroneous guilt and shame associated with sex.

As a pastoral counselor who has helped folks deal with a wide variety of emotional issues and conflicts over the years, I have witnessed many individuals and couples with this problem. While there are multiple factors which have created this difficult experience, it is indeed ironic that traditional church attitudes and teachings about sex are largely responsible for so much of the unnecessary guilt and emotional pain experienced by so many , especially by Christian believers. To be clear, I believe that much of the problem stems from Christianity’s fundamental discomfort with and ignorance about sex.

Despite the many decades of progress made by our society in the areas of human rights and social justice, our cultural and especially religious attitudes about sex have remained mired in myth and false ideas. It is amazing to me to realize how many folks are influenced by archaic views about sex and are tormented because of them.

Frankly, the way many clerics ignore science and pervert biblical teachings about sex constitutes theological or spiritual malpractice . The extent to which they have condemned as sinful, normal sexual feelings and practices is nothing less than abusive and ethically reprehensible. Instead uplifting and promoting joy, understanding and love, many of the damning attitudes and scowling views have caused spiritual conflict and resulted in personal self-hatred and relational strife.

Fortunately, the damage done by such beliefs is not permanent and can be undone with combination of accurate information and supportive therapy. Today I want to review with you three of the most common , destructive and egregious errors found in traditional church teachings about sex:
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Sex and Religion : Confessions of a Pastoral Counselor.

Okay, let’s start with a little Rorschach test. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words sex and religion ?  Not so good. Certainly not like cookies and milk. They just don’t go together very well.

From its inception, Christianity has never been comfortable with the topic of sex.  It is important to remember that, when Christianity arose, Roman culture ‘s decadence was at its worst.  It is understandable but unfortunate, that to escape its licentiousness, the early church fathers were unable to understand the spiritual aspects of human sexuality and totally separated it from faithful devotion.

Perhaps Christianity’s failure to integrate sexuality into its theology and deal with it realistically was due in part to its expectation of Christ’s imminent return.  From that point of view, things concerning the body would be of little concern.  However, St. Paul’s discomfort with sex seems to go beyond that. His writings about sex and women are suspect and reveal that he was not actually comfortable with sex at all. For example, he preferred celibacy and only recommended marriage as a way to prevent sexual immorality and deal with sexual desire. (1Cor 7)

For whatever reason, subsequent leaders of the church were never able to fully embrace sexuality in a healthy way. As comedian George Carlin once quipped, the sacrament of marriage was never really able to transform something which was regarded as “dirty” or disgusting into something divine. Sex was largely appreciated for being a means to the end of creating children. (Thomas Aquinas)  Little effort was spent extolling the sheer joy of the experience.  Worse, church doctrine tended to take natural human curiosity and interest about sex and normal physiological impulses like masturbation, and turn them into mortal sins e.g. having impure thoughts or self-abuse.  Indeed, throughout its history, the church has elevated celibacy and sexual purity as the most virtuous and godly state.

I reflect on Christianity’s negative bias against sex in the past because, I, as a pastoral counselor ,  see the pain caused by religiously induced guilt and shame over sex.  Today, the omnipresence of sex in our culture (in advertising and through internet pornography)  heightens the conflict.   Without positive alternatives to offer, the traditional emphasis on sexual purity is psychologically abusive.  The conservative messages are abusive because they give the impression that normal sexual impulses are evil or sinful desires.

Instead of helping folks learn to how to morally and responsibility navigate the choppy waters of the sexual environment found in modern life, the emphasis on purity simply preaches avoidance and condemnation.  This attitude exposes the fundamental inability of some churches to understand that sex is not the enemy of faith .  Likewise, these beliefs are oblivious to the fact that human sexuality is a vital aspect of a spiritually and psychologically healthy person.

Over the years, the physical abuse of children by clergy has been a terrible reality for many people. Beyond the physical abuse, however, it is clear that the guilt and shame created by ignorant and phobic attitudes towards sex and sexual diversity is an even more extensive and pervasive problem which has been often minimized or ignored.

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Marital Journaling: How to Improve Communications between Emotionally Reactive Couples

Journaling is very big.  Everyone  from therapists to staff sergeants are  recommending it.  Likewise there are all kinds of journals.  There are  food, dieting, workout , writing , prayer , dream , travel, reading, gratitude , pregnancy and  creative writing journals,  just to name a few.

Journaling is popular for  a very good reason.  It is a very helpful and effective way to clarify , organize and focus one’s thoughts as well as to ventilate and expel intense emotion which can cloud or distort  thinking.  Best of all , this age old practice can be done by anyone no matter your age , level of education or economic status.

In addition to individual journaling,  there is another type of journaling which does not get as much attention as it deserves which can be a very important tool for couples who are having trouble with communicating with each other. It is called marital journaling (MJ).  With MJ,  partners share one journal and take turns messaging and responding to one another by writing in the diary-like volume that they share.

Writing messages is useful because, rather than speaking face-to-face,  it has been found to be a less provocative way for highly reactive couples to “talk” constructively about issues which they disagree.  MJ is an effective alternative to face- to-face talking for couples who frequently argue and are frustrated because areas of disagreement go unresolved  .  Indeed, for couples whose attempts to negotiate bog down into personal attacks, taking turns composing reasonably thought out  messages in a journal can provide immediate relief which leads to greater communication and understanding between the partners .   Here’s how it works:

Marital journaling works because there is a lag time between each volley of comments. This space has two benefits:

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Intimate Listening: The Key to Re-Building Marital Trust After Betrayal.

Certainly one of the most important qualities in a successful marriage is trust.  However, when it is broken by dishonesty or betrayal, the emotional damage is so serious that the very survival of the union is uncertain.  As a therapist, one of the most commonly asked questions by those seeking marriage or couples counseling is , “Can trust be regained ? “ and  “ Can the injuries caused by the breach ever really  heal ? “    Often, underlying these questions is a sense of hopelessness and the belief that a broken trust can never be repaired.

While the challenge of rebuilding trust is not easy or simple, forty years of experience in dealing with issues like infidelity has taught me that there is hope and that restoring a durable trust is possible if couples are able and willing to make the effort  and to make some basic changes in their relationship.

Conceptually, what is needed for trust to be regained is emotional reassurance i.e. confidence and certainty that you can count on your partner when s/he is most needed.  Betrayals like affairs or secretive financial activities are so devastating to trust because they draw into serious or complete doubt how well one knows or understands who one’s partner is.  Doubt about one’s mate shatters the sense of emotional security on which trust is built.

While this sounds good in theory, what, specifically, can couples do to rebuild confidence in one another? Here some tips that can restore needed trust:

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The Coronavirus Blues and Our Obsolete Notions of Retirement.

The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may not be known for years but, already, one of the unexpected effects that the virus has had on those who have been forced to shelter-in-place or to work from home has been to stir up anxiety about retirement.

Retirement ? Hang on. Let me explain. More than one client has expressed similar difficulties which initially involved work restrictions necessitated by coronavirus but ultimately were rooted in a deeper anxiety caused by an outdated notion of retirement.

Unfortunately, even though major progress has been made in terms of medical care and life-expectancy, our image of what modern retirement can be like lags seriously behind what it has become.

Having realistic expectations about retirement in the 21st century is crucial both to prevent dread and to make the transition successfully.

If you have been anxious thinking about retirement, here are some important facts to consider that may change your understanding of what retirement will involve. To help, here is a summary of a case which illustrates the problem.

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Some Thoughts about Love , Addiction and Obsession.

Today I want to talk about a common problem which is, unfortunately, unnecessarily experienced by many folks: being “in love” with an abusive or unloving partner. A common misunderstanding present in these kind of destructive situations is a fundamental confusion about the meaning of love, i.e. where sexual thrills or emotional dependency is mistaken for a mature caring and devotion.
In working with individuals and couples for over 40 years, I have heard the word love used in many ways. Indeed, the Greeks had difference words to capture the many shades of meaning this English word can express.
When it comes to relationships, however, I have frequently observed a confusion between eros and agape or between mania and agape. You really can’t blame folks for being confused. To be honest, American notions of love and romance are a mess. They mush together a mixture of selfish and selfless personal experiences. For example, to be in love may mean feeling a powerfully exciting sexual sensation which is aroused by the person with whom one is in love or it may mean a deep and selfless concern for the wellbeing of the person that one loves. Confusing the two can be problematic. When a person thinks that s/he is in love in a mature way but in fact is primarily attracted to a thrilling sensation, or emotionally/literally is dependent on another person, good judgment is corrupted. Here is how to understand the differences.
Modern science has revealed the neurochemical components of Eros . Eros, which is sometimes falsely

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The Surprising Benefits of Adding More Water to your Diet !

One of the fundamental assumptions of psychotherapy is that, emotionally, we often confuse one thing for another. For example, a man has problems with his boss and then comes home and takes his anger out on his dog or his wife. That phenomenon is called displacement. Another example is when a person is feeling depressed and so they drink too much to numb the pain. That is called self-medicating the symptom. To effectively resolve hidden issues like anger or depression, the underlying problem must be identified and directly addressed. In these examples, the real issues, the conflict with one’s boss or the source of the person’s depression must be recognized and treated.
Sometimes behavioral problems are assumed to have psychological causes when, in fact, they may also stem from or at least involve medical ones. Overlooking physiological dimensions is sometimes the case with “stress” eating or having difficulties sticking to a diet to lose weight. Research has found that sometimes we confuse preliminary dehydration with feelings of hunger. Sometimes over-eating is associated with stress and anxiety when, in fact, it also is a sign that the body is saying that it needs more water. https://www.health.com/weight-loss/11-reasons-youre-always-hungry . If exclusively psychologically-focused efforts to help you stop over-eating or to lose weight have failed , you may want to consider dehydration as a complicating factor. Here is my personal story:
A while back I

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We Need Compassion Now More Than Ever: Four Steps to Increasing Empathy

Given the heightened level of tension and polarization present in today’s world, empathy is, ironically, the thing which is most needed and in the shortest supply.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and care about the feelings of another. It is feeling compassion for someone else. Although neuroscience estimates that 98% of people have the neural capacity for empathy , the current level of societal anger generated by both the hardships imposed by the coronavirus crisis and racial unrest toward police reveals that many folks are not feeling or expressing it. Instead of understanding and compassion, fear and mistrust are keeping us from uniting together against the common threats of Covid-19 and racism.
Apart from the larger cultural and political unrest, empathy is a key ingredient needed in everyday life to help partners , families, friends and colleagues, to get along better and reduce conflicts. The ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and experience and discover how another person has many of the same hopes and fears that we do goes a long way towards overcoming mistrust and hostility. Here are four simple steps to help you improve your understanding of and increase your caring about others:

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COVID-19, Boredom and Stress Eating : 7 Tips to help prevent weight gain during the coronavirus crisis.

As restrictions caused by the coronavirus continue and the frustration they have created mount, one of the common casualties reported by many folks is unwanted weight gain. This phenomenon is especially problematic for those who are sheltered-at-home. Changes and restriction in daily customs and work routines has created situations where folks don’t know what to do with large amounts of idle and unstructured time. This over-abundance of unstructured time has resulted in boredom which has in turn has driven many folks to distract and soothe themselves with comfort foods and by binge eating. Likewise, the food’s people are likely to choose for anxiety-based eating , things which are usually loaded with sugar , simple carbs and fats, are not helpful for maintaining a stable weight. Uncontrolled stress-eating combined with reduced activity levels spell trouble for anyone trying to avoid putting one a few pounds.
You get the point. Folks whose lives are normally filled with jobs and other vigorous activities have been caught off guard by the social side effects of COVID-19. The absence of a normal routine and a lack of meaningful stimulation has resulted in people feeling bored. Uncontrolled eating has been what many have relied upon to cope with this unresolved public health crisis.
Nevertheless, it is important to understand that unhealthy weight gain is not inevitable that but preventing it will take some increased awareness and intentional effort. If you are struggling with this issue, here are seven tips to help you resist the impulse to pig-out :

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Is COVID-19 Killing the Romance in your Marriage? Get Silly and Laugh !

With more and more people working at home and sheltering, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many couples are spending additional time in physical proximity to one another. This increased togetherness has resulted in many partners taking advantage of the increased opportunity and having more sex.
Unfortunately, for other couples, the forced togetherness has exposed previously avoided problems of intimacy and romance and created some uncomfortable awkwardness.
As a clinician who helps couples have better sex lives, I see the coronavirus crisis as an excellent opportunity to address and fix an embarrassing and discouraging problem.
The good news is that the solution is really fun but doesn’t involve sex at all. The key for many couples to re-ignite the flames of passion is unlocking pent up inhibitions and learning how to get silly . Yes, that is not a typographical error. Increasing silliness in couple is good and allows passion to follow. Let me explain:

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Frequently Asked Questions about Tele-Therapy .

It’s been almost two months since all counseling here in New York State has been conducted via tele-therapy , i.e. over either a telephone or a video platform.

At first, speaking with your counselor in this way may seem artificial or odd, but my experience and the experience of many others has been that, with a little practice, it becomes quite natural and normal.

While remote counseling is not new,, ( I first provided Skype style sessions for military families with deployed members almost twenty years ago), many folks don’t know much about it.

So , if you have been considering getting some counseling but have been reluctant due to this different format, here are some frequently asked questions and answers about tele-therapy to help you understand it and feel more comfortable with it.

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Understanding and Overcoming the Self-Blame and Shame of Sexual Abuse

Okay , my apologies for not posting earlier about this. With all the attention given to and disruptions caused by COVID-19, I almost neglected to acknowledge that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

That said , I want to address a serious two headed problem faced by many who have been sexually assaulted: Shame and Self-Blame. Too often, even after many years have passed, many folks who have experienced sexual assault as children say that, even though they “know better”, they still can’t shake the feeling deep down inside that what happened was their fault.

It is important to understand that self-recrimination is a common psychological phenomenon experienced by many who have been abused. The good news is that, once understood, individuals can break its depressing hold and free themselves from this false sense of guilt and responsibility . Let me show you how.

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Lessons from Job for Families Dealing with Anger Issues while Sheltering-in-Place.

As the Covid-19 crisis drags on and the isolation restrictions take their emotional toll, how to deal with increased irritability and anger is one of the of the most commonly asked questions by many cooped-up couples and families.

For me, both as a pastoral counselor and a psychotherapist, The Bible is filled with stories which can help us in times such as these. The Old Testament book of Job offers some especially valuable guidance.
What is remarkable about Job’s anger is how it is expressed and where it is directed . Unlike most of us when we get mad, Job did not externalize or displace his frustrations onto others or God. He did not become verbally abusive or name-call nor did he blame or make excuses. What he did in perfect I-statement form, was to talk about his experience and his pain and what he wanted.
Applying this illustrative story to our situation, here are the key points to remember about Job’s model for dealing with anger and frustrations while living in cramped quarters and restricted circumstances:

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2015

Rekindling Passion: Part Two – The Secret to Re-igniting the Fames of Desire

 

2012

Flirting with Your Spouse

 

2011

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