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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Do Fathers Matter?

While the role of mothers on the development of children is well established, research is also clear on the essential contributions an involved father makes in the lives of his children. There is a upsurge of interest in this issue, and a new science of “fatherhood” was born as psychologists, geneticists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and sociologists all began to investigate the role of fathers in their children’s and families’ lives.

In many ways fathers have been minimized as little more than sources of authority and economic stability in the lives of children. However, research shows that fathers play many roles in the family, including those of companions, care providers, spouses, protectors, role models, moral guides, teachers and breadwinners.

Many of the findings of this new science of fatherhood have appeared in scholarly journals and not available to the public. Psychologist, award winning journalist, and father of five, Paul Raeburn has authored Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, to be published for Father’s Day, 2014. Dr. Raeburn has spent the past eight years investigating fatherhood and his book pulls together the research and explains what it means for fathers, families, and children.

Dr. Raeburn overturns many myths and stereotypes of fatherhood as he examines the latest scientific findings. Drawing on research from neuroscientists, animal behaviorists, geneticists, and developmental psychologists, Raeburn examines the stages of fatherhood, revealing the profound emotional and physiological connections between children and fathers, from conception through adolescence and into adulthood.

Some of the findings about paternal influence over the life span Dr. Raeburn shares are:
1. At Conception. Biologist David Haig has detected that some paternal genes push a fetus to extract as much nourishment and energy from the mother as possible while some maternal genes seek to deliver the fetus only as much as it needs.
2. In Pregnancy. A recent University of South Florida study shows that infants whose fathers were absent during pregnancy were more likely to be born prematurely or with lower birth weights than those whose fathers were present.
3. At Birth. From the 1930’s to the late 1960’s, fathers were most often not a part of the birthing process. As men routinely were welcome into the delivery room, women reported feeling less pain, and requests for pain medication declined. Additionally, men present for their children’s birth report being more attached to their infants and more involved in their care.
4. Toddlerhood. Swedish researchers found that kids whose fathers helped care for them, played with them, and took them on outings had fewer behavioral problems in early childhood and a lower likelihood of delinquency as adolescents.
5. Early Childhood. Researchers have shown that fathers have more impact on language development than mothers. It is hypothesized that since mothers spend more time with children, they’re more likely to use words with which kids are most familiar, while fathers, less attuned to the child’s “linguistic comfort zone”, introduce a wider vocabulary.
6. The Teen Years. It has been widely known that girls with absent fathers tend to reach puberty earlier and have higher rates of teen pregnancy. Psychologist Sarah Hill of Texas Christian University states that she believes a father’s absence delivers girls a subconscious cue about “the mating system they are born into: Men will not stick around, so they need to find mates quickly.” Their genes then effectively push the girls into early puberty.

Dr. Raeburn’s book identifies how the role of the father is distinctly different from that of the mother, and that embracing a fathers’ significance in the lives of children is a benefit to all.

“Do Father’s Matter?”….the answer is a clear YES!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Impact of Pets on Mental Wellness

Americans love their pets. A recent survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) shows that more than 57% of U.S. households include one or more animals as pets. Many pet lovers intuitively appreciate that quality of life is enhanced from the relationships with animal companions. Numerous scientific studies performed over the past 25 years confirm that physical and emotion health is improved when life is shared with a loved pet.

“Pet ownership is good for your health both physically and psychologically”, says Connecticut psychologist Herbert Neiburg, author of Pet Loss: A Thoughtful Guide for Adults and Children (HarperCollins). Additionally, the CDC identifies the following health benefits of pet companionship: decreases in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels (indicators of heart disease); and feelings of loneliness.

Having pets reduce stress immensely. A study recently published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine showed pet interaction reduces the amount of stress related hormones. Additionally, these positive effects are experienced faster than the impact of many drugs taken for stress. The decrease in stress hormones occurred after only 5 to 24 minutes of pleasantly interacting with a dog. Other studies have shown that when people are asked to do a stressful task, having their pet with them lowers their stress levels even more than having a supportive friend or their spouse close by.

Pets can help prevent loneliness and isolation. They provide unconditional love, companionship and the opportunity for close connection. Pets encourage playfulness and often revive a sense of fun and adventure in their owners. Physical contact is important to good mental health and loved animal companions provide an opportunity for hugs and touch that might otherwise be missing.

Pets have been found to be especially therapeutic for people with mood and anxiety disorders. Dog ownership has been implicated in helping to alleviate symptoms of depression among terminally ill patients, the elderly, and veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Elders can be particularly at risk of becoming lonely, isolated and depressed. Research looked at people 60 and older, who lived alone. The likelihood that a non-pet owner would be diagnosed as clinically depressed was four times higher than that found in the pet owning people of the same age. There was also evidence that these older pet owners required fewer medical services and were generally more satisfied with their lives.

Children benefit greatly from the relationships with pets. Some studies have suggested that children with pets have higher self-esteem and lower levels of fear than those from pet-free homes. New research in the journal Pediatrics, shows that children who live in a home with a pet during their first year of life are more likely to be healthier. “It’s more support in a growing body of evidence that exposure to pets early in life can stimulate the immune system to do a better job of fighting off infection,” Dr. Danielle Fisher, of St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

Additionally children learn responsibility, compassion, and empathy from having pets. Pets are never critical and don’t give orders. They always love and provide a sense of security. Studies have shown that pets can help calm hyperactive or overly aggressive children.

As wonderful and beneficial as life with pets can be, it is not for everyone. Owning a pet is comforting only for those who love and appreciate domestic animals. If you’re simply not a “pet person”, pet ownership is not going to provide you with any therapeutic benefits or improve your life.

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”
~Ben Williams~

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Healing from Unhealthy Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are human emotions which develop in early life. Research suggests that guilt begins to develop around the ages of three to six, while shame occurs much earlier – from fifteen months to age three. Guilt is a more mature reaction to mistakes than shame; and while guilt can be used to motivate change, it can also become unhealthy when unresolved or disproportionate.

Guilt involves self-blame or sense of responsibility for a regretted thought or action. True guilt is what is felt when facts justify the level of responsibility and regret. Perceived guilt is what is felt when responsibility is accepted for something outside of personal control or when the consequences are misinterpreted. Unhealthy guilt can occur when there are unreasonably high standards that result in guilt when unmet.

Guilt can be a helpful emotion when it is justified. It motives to learn from mistakes and make changes. The initial conscience pang when something is in conflict with values prompts a realization of a mistake and a desire to make changes. Healthy people use self-chastisement to steer themselves back on course.

Shame is hardly ever a helpful or motivating emotion and creates a sense of worthlessness or inadequacy. Internalized shame can also lead to other unconstructive actions including: attacking or striking out at others in an attempt to feel better; seeking power and perfection; blaming others for personal faults; being self-sacrificing and attempting to please everyone; and withdraw to numb against the feelings of guilt and shame. Shame is fear based and drives to hide or protect from scrutiny.

When the burden of extreme guilt or shame is carried, there is low self-esteem. The sense of low self-worth creates issues that compromise mental health and can become destructive, debilitating emotions. They can create serious negative consequences such as: alcoholism, drug abuse, and other types of self-destructive behavior; depression, unfulfilled lives, and relationship problems. By differentiating between the action and the actor, we can prevent shame and its negative connotations, while still encouraging a healthy sense of right, wrong, and guilt when necessary.

Steps to accept mistakes without unhealthy guilt or shame:

1. Admit and accept wrong. It is okay to make mistakes, as long as one benefits from the experience.
2. Learn the lesson. Offer thoughtful consideration of underlying motivations that led to mistaken action.
3. Forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness is not abdicating responsibility. It is seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than personal failure.
4. Make amends if possible. A sincere, well-executed apology has the potential to help heal wounds; both for the person who feels guilty as well as for those who were wronged. However, the injured person may not accept even a sincere apology. This is beyond personal control but the action of offering amends is important.
5. Change your behavior so you don’t make the same mistake again.
6. Lose the guilt and move forward with life. This step is the natural conclusion if the previous five steps are taken.

When we feel guilt, it’s about something we did. When we feel shame, it’s about who we are. When we feel guilty we need to learn that it’s OK to make mistakes. When we feel shame we need to learn that it’s OK to be who we are!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Weddings Should Be About More than a Beautiful Day

It’s wedding season – and weddings are fun! Weddings are the birth of a marriage – and are about more than the perfect dress, beautiful flowers, a wonderful meal, and a great party. Sometimes the excitement of getting engaged or planning a wedding can overshadow some of the more important issues about the decision to marry. Making the wedding more about a marriage is important!

Engagement and marriage is one of the most significant psychological transitions in life. It involves more than just finding true love. Often engaged couples believe that their relationship will not experience the relationship problems other couples face. However, nearly half of marriages end in divorce so clearly this belief is incorrect in many cases.

To have a healthy marriage, each partner has to be mentally and emotionally mature. This means having a strong sense of self. Rushing into marriage before becoming a “grown up” rarely is successful. Being in love is simply not enough!

Plan your marriage – not just your wedding! This is about more than one day. The popular TV personality Dr. Phil advises engaged couples to consider developing an emotional prenuptial agreement, outlining how you’ll handle children, discipline, sex, money, household chores, religion, careers, in-laws …… the list goes on. It may not be very romantic, but marriage isn’t all romance – it’s also collaboration and if you don’t plan for and discuss tough issues – you won’t be able to successfully merge two lives together.

Some engaged couples participate in formal pre-marital counseling before their big day. Such professional sessions can assist in examining compatibility and conflict resolution style. Investing in preparation counseling sessions provides a format for couples to discuss and understand the “hot topics”. Of course, these discussions can occur outside of a professional’s office. The goal is to communicate openly and honestly about what is important to each of you. Not everything can or will be covered before the wedding but by learning effective communication skills, a couple can learn how to navigate future issues of conflict. This skill is critical in marriage.

Agreement on all the issues is not the goal. During these premarital discussions, if you agree on everything, someone isn’t being honest. You are different people and will disagree! However, being able to express strong feelings and respectfully accept a partner’s strong feelings is essential. Finding where you are willing to and how to find that important middle ground is a necessary skill in all marriages.

Living intimately with another person requires making decisions together. It requires consideration of another’s view. Be sure to identify and communicate needs and expectations. It is not selfish to know what is most important to you. Be honest with yourself and your partner about your “non-negotiables” – the deal breakers. We all have them – it is important to understand what they are for you and your partner.

Pre-marital counselor, Dr. Rich Nicastro offers the following five questions for engaged couples to consider:

1. Why do you want to get married? A feeling that “it’s time” is not enough.
2. Why do you want to marry this person? “Because I love him/her” is not enough.
3. What core values do you share with your future spouse? Compatibility on values matter.
4. What are the main differences between the two of you? Understanding and accepting differences are important.
5. How do you envision married life? Discuss expectations.

If a wedding is planned for your families’ summer, take the time to discuss how the wedding day should be the celebration and beginning of a beautiful marriage.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Are You Speaking Your Valentine’s Language?

The Five Love Languages (1992) by Dr. Gary Chapman is an international bestseller that has helped many couples improve their relationship. This book is based on the basic principles that (1) each person expresses and experiences love differently; (2) seldom do a husband and wife share the same primary love language; and (3) problems in marriage can come from the assumptions made about how to express love.

One important tool in keeping a marriage healthy is to express love to your spouse in a way that your spouse understands. Dr. Chapman asserts that many struggle with feelings of not being loved when in fact one or both spouses express love in ways not shared by their partner. By recognizing different love languages, more experiences of being loved and loving are possible. Of course there are many ways to show love, but Chapman identifies five key love languages. While each is important, there is typically identification with one of the following primarily love languages:

• Words of Affirmation: This love language involves compliments, appreciations, words of encouragement, and gentle use of language. Positive verbal expressions are experienced as love and insults are devastating and long remembered.

• Quality Time: This language is when love is felt through genuine sharing, listening, and shared time and activities. This language is when full undivided attention is important to feeling special and loved. For this language, distractions, postponed dates, or failure to listen can be very hurtful.

• Receiving Gifts: This love language is not about simple materialism but rather on the importance of the unique effort and thoughtfulness of a specially chosen symbol of love that represents the value of the relationship. The care involved in choosing something special that has unique meaning is experienced as love.

• Acts of Service: Yes, for some cleaning the toilet can say “I love you”. Any freely given “gift” of doing for your spouse can be a way to show love if your spouse has Acts of Service as a primary love language. However, broken promises or laziness may communicate a sense that their feelings don’t matter.

• Physical Touch: This is not just about sexual touch. It is about all affection that can be ways to show concern, care and love. For a person with this primary love language, hugs, touch, and physical affection are vitally important and experienced as love.

Some difficulties in marriage can be avoided by insuring both partners know, understand, and communicate using the right love language. A wife who is longing to have a special date night with her husband may not recognize his “I love you” when he fixes the leaking sink; and the husband needing to hear appreciations for his long hours and sacrifice to provide monetarily for his family may not feel loved with the new watch selected by his spouse. There is no “correct” language, but because each person has a preference, it is important to find how your spouse experiences love and make the efforts to express love using that language.

It is not difficult to identify your love language. Very often, your language (what you want) is how you express love to others. However, if you are unsure, Chapman has a very short and easy quiz in his book and online (www.5lovelanguages.com) designed to identify you and your spouse’s primary and secondary love language. Use of this knowledge may improve your marriage.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Holiday Stress and Depression

For some, the holidays bring unwelcome guests – stress and depression.
Due to unrealistic efforts to pull off a perfect Hallmark holiday, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the competing demands of work, parties, baking, cleaning, kids on school break, and out-of-town trips or visitors.

Holiday stress typically has three main trigger points: Relationships, Finances, and Physical Demands. While relationships can cause turmoil at any time; with heightened tensions during the holiday season, family misunderstandings and conflicts can intensify. If you have an expectation that difficult relationships will improve just because it’s the holidays, you are likely to be disappointed. Nothing magical “just happens” during the holiday season. Try to accept family members and friends as they are and practice forgiveness.

Additionally, if you have had a recent loss, the holidays may increase feelings of loneliness or sadness. You may want to avoid some of the festivities because they are so out of sync with how you’re feeling. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holidays. Try to tell those around you what you really need, since they may not know how to help. Consider volunteering at a community or religious function. Getting involved and helping others can lift your spirits.

Like relationships, finances can be a stress at any time and given the current financial uncertainties and fears, this year may be particularly difficult. Overspending during the holidays is a national habit. The sticker shock after the gifts, travel and entertainment expenses can create a financial spiral that can result in depression symptoms such as hopelessness, sadness and helplessness. Not exceeding your budget is important. When shopping, look for how you can show love and caring with something meaningful and personal that doesn’t cost a lot. Other alternatives are to donate to a charity in someone’s name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.

The strain of shopping, preparing meals, entertaining, and social commitments is physically exhausting. Over commitments, lack of exercise, and overindulgence in unhealthy food and drink choices contribute to the physical stress of the holidays. Learn to say no and forget about perfection. Ask for help. Plan ahead and do as much as you can in advance. Take time out. Eat well, get enough rest, and make time for yourself. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Pace yourself and prioritize the important activities.

Children love the holidays but they too can feel stress, especially if parents are stressed. Reducing kids’ holiday stress is similar to minimizing your own. Stick with routine as much as possible and make sure your children eat nutritious foods and get enough rest and exercise. Families can work together to relieve holiday stress by making time for family fun and sharing the holiday chores so that the whole family is involved. Children have to learn that their wish is not someone’s command and to curb their desires for instant gratification. Make a family vow that this year you’ll get back to the real essence of the holidays.

Practicing good self care during any time of stress is essential. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings and find activities that are enjoyable. Examine your expectations and make sure they’re realistic. Don’t worry too much about details – live in the moment as much as possible and look for meaningful experiences throughout the season. Many people dread the holidays because their inner experience is so different from what is being hyped. While maybe not “the most wonderful time of the year” the holidays can be a time for reflection, joy and to reconnect with friends and family.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How Important is Willpower?

In recent months the American Psychological Association (APA) has released several papers examining the role of willpower on life choices and making life changes. There is important ongoing research which is increasing the understanding of the role of willpower in everyday life.

Willpower is best defined as the ability to delay gratification, resist short-term temptations so that long-term goals are more effectively and consistently met. Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Florida State University, is one of the field’s leading researchers and has recently released his newest book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength which examines much of the current understanding on the importance of willpower in successful living.

Research suggests that willpower is correlated with positive life outcomes such as higher self-esteem, greater financial security and improved physical and mental health. Students who rank high on self-discipline have better grades, better school attendance, and higher standardized-test scores.

Psychology has identified two primary qualities that strongly impact success: intelligence and willpower. Perhaps surprising to some, level of self-discipline has been shown to be more important than intelligence in predicting academic success. This is important because while there is little that can be done to improve the level of intellectual functioning; research suggests that there are tools to improve willpower and self-control.

Improving the level of self-control and discipline in everyday life has the potential to make a significant and beneficial difference in the quality of life. Willpower touches nearly all aspects of making healthy decisions. Whether it is healthy eating, regular exercise, avoiding drugs and alcohol, studying more, working harder, or financial discipline, the importance of maintaining focus on the bigger picture and the long range goal is undeniable.

Many studies have found that people perform less successfully on tests of self-control when there have been a significant succession of demands for self-control. It is very often advised to “change one thing at a time” rather than setting too many goals at once. This research confirms the importance of this approach as demanding too much control and discipline when focusing on a long term goal is counterproductive.

Studies show that self-control may be strengthened by the foods we eat and when we eat. Glucose is the chemical in the bloodstream that carries energy to the brain, muscles and other organs. Low levels of glucose predict poor performance on self-control tasks. If your goal is to lose weight, letting your blood sugar drop too low will very likely sabotage your ability to stick with your food plan because your will power will be lower. Even if your goal is not food related, maintaining a good brain chemistry balance is important.

It was found that the same energy used for self-control is also used for making decisions. The research suggests that making too many decisions seems to deplete willpower. After experiencing a time where many decisions are required, people perform worse at tasks requiring self-control. Therefore, it is important to not overwhelm yourself with continuous unrelated demands when attempting to exercise self-control.

Some research suggests self-control can be improved through practice by focusing on small tasks in order to strengthen willpower for the bigger challenges. Dr. Baumeister asserts that “as with a muscle, willpower gets stronger from regular exercise”. Engaging in less difficult self-control activities such as a vow to stop swearing, to make the bed every day or to give up just one food for a couple weeks produces improvement in self-control when the focus is on bigger challenges. Start small and move forward from there.