Stinking Thinking

Photo by Gutter

Changing your thoughts can change your emotions.

We all engage in what CBT practitioners call ‘thought distortions’ (also called ‘stinking thinking’).  Someone at work looks at us strangely and we think ‘They don’t like me’.  We don’t get a job we’re up for and we think ‘I’m a failure’.  We decide to not attend a social function because, ‘I won’t like anyone there.  I won’t have any fun”.  We get lots of compliments on our new haircut but we focus exclusively on the one person who didn’t like it.

Thoughts such as these don’t reflect reality.  They represent our world as seen through a gloom-colored lens.  The reality is that by talking-back to these distorted thoughts, you can improve your mood and begin making healthier decisions.

There are many reasons why we may practice this distorted thinking.  We may be tired or hungry.  We might be suffering from depression, and our brain may not be producing or utilizing serotonin or dopamine correctly.  We may be experiencing the effects of depressants such as alcohol or crashing from stimulants like caffiene, cigarettes or amphetamines.  Normal hormonal shifts in our monthly cycles (men too!) may also affect our thought processes.

So what’s a stinky-thinker to do?  First, we must realize the truth that our thoughts do not always reflect reality.  That’s hard to do as we’re accustomed to relying on our brain to give us valuable information about our environment.  We’re used to seeing a table and having our brain tell us ‘there is a table’, thus preventing us from bruising ourselves as we walk across a room.  But when it comes to more subjective information, it is good to question our first impressions.

Once we’ve accepted that our thoughts are often distorted, we next can begin to identify when we are practicing thought distortions.  A good way to do this is to catch yourself in a bad mood.  When you’re feeling sad, angry, lonely, depressed, or anxious grab a pen & paper and write some of your thoughts down.  Try to get to the heart of why you’re feeling badly. 

Next, start with one of the thoughts you’ve written down and ‘talk-back’ to the thought distortion.  That means you compare your thought to the likely reality of the situation.  This can be difficult to do if you are feeling ‘stuck’ in a mood.  Sometimes it’s easier to think about what you would say to cheer up a friend who was having a rough day.  Here’s some examples.

Distorted Thought – ‘I’ll never get a job I like.’
Talk-back – ‘I’m disappointed because I didn’t get this particular job but I know there are many jobs out there and it’s likely that I’ll find one that makes me happy.  I just need to be patient with the process.’

Distorted Thought – ‘I know if I go to this party I won’t have a good time.’
Talk-back – ‘I might have a good time and I might not.  I certainly won’t know if I don’t go and I certainly won’t have a good time if I go in with a negative attitude.  Sure it’s hard to get out there but the reality is that I often have fun once I get out.’

If you find that you’re having trouble talking-back, then ask a positive friend or your therapist to help you.  Sometimes a more subjective perspective can be invaluable!

Here’s a link to a list of common thought distortions to help you see some of the ways our brains can distort our vision of reality.

Happy Thinking!


April 27, 2008 at 11:54 pm 7 comments

Keeping it New – Long-term Relationships & Brain Chemistry


Photo by Stane

When it comes to comfortable, long-term relationships, we often think that feeling bored with our partner is unavoidable. More than that, many of us have concluded that boredom is just one of those things to be tolerated in exchange for the positives of a long-term partner. Some recent studies of long-term couples have found that boredom may be inevitable, yes, but inescapable? No!

An article this week in the NY Times highlights the need to ‘reinvent the date night’. The studies it describes have shown that asking couples to engage in a new activity that interests them both, when compared to a group of couples asked to engage in a pleasant but familiar activity produces significant differences in their reports of marriage satisfaction.

Why is this? The answer is partly due to brain chemistry. When we engage in a new activity or experience, our brain’s reward systems are activated and happy brain chemicals, norepinephrine & dopamine, are released. These are the same chemicals released in the early stages of a relationship, when excited feelings of new love are being experienced. When you create a scenario that causes these chemicals to be released you are likely to associate this rewarding feeling with your partner.

Not to mention the extra benefits of anyone engaging in a new, novel activity! As we age and our lives become more routine, challenging ourselves to engage in activities we’ve never tried (but have perhaps always wanted to) can be deeply satisfying.

Of course, going sky-diving together is not going to solve complex relationship problems, but it can be a helpful pick-me-up for relationships that have slumped into the boredom of familiarity. Also, couples working through complex problems can use this idea to stay connected in a time when they might be experiencing distance.

So, how to get started?

First, take time to sit down with your partner and brainstorm ideas that you are potentially excited by. You might even email back and forth a developing list of ideas, or sending a feeler out to friends to ask what activities they enjoy. Star those ideas that appeal to you both and pick a date to start! Many new activities can be anxiety-producing and we stop at the planning phase. This is where a partner can be helpful in beginning a new endeavor. Talk to your partner about your anxiety and give each other positive verbal reinforcement about how great it is that you’re both willing to take on this challenge. And remember that the activity does not have to be successful to get a positive rush. When you attend that dance class, or go skiing for the first time, you may not get it ‘right’ but it will still feel good!

Here’s some new date-night ideas from Lawgeek

  • Hiking Sutro Baths + Sunset drinks at the Cliff House
    Two fun bits of SF history right next to each other on Ocean Beach. After drinks, wander down to the far end of the sand on most dark nights and join any number of bonfires to warm up and meet new friends.
  • Burger Joint + Bad Movie Night
    Two great tastes that go great together. Free-range meats and Double Rainbow Milkshakes make “Da Joint” a perfect place for a quick and delicious bite on the way to events in the Mission. The Dark Room’s Bad Movie Night offers hilarious and campy fodder for post-movie discussions over drinks. The best part is that you already know the movie is going to be bad, so no pressure to pick a good one!
  • Rock-climbing class at Mission Cliffs, then Mexican
    Wanna get hot & sweaty on a date? Well, one way to do it is take a rock-climbing class together at one of the Touchstone Gyms in the Bay Area. I like Mission Cliffs, myself, ’cause its also close to great Mexican food, so you can fill up on greasy goodness afterwards. Los Jarritos is one of my favs, but there are literally dozens within walking distance. One nice thing about rock climbing is that everyone can learn how to do it and can feel like they accomplished something on the date.

More great date-night ideas here!

February 12, 2008 at 11:21 pm 3 comments

Laughter Therapy – Hee Hee Ha Ha Ha!

This is a wonderful short video done by John Cleese in his BBC series on the “Human Face” on the “Laughter Yoga”. 

Originated by Dr Madan Kataria in 1995, laughter yoga involves a faciliator leading groups of people in 15-20 minute sessions of laughter exercises.  Kataria uses fake laughter, and silly faces and movements to induce laughter in his participants who seem to be having a blast doing it.  Now the movement has spread to the rest of the world, and is being used with a diversity of populations – even with the U.S. military.

As Kataria points out in his website, laughter has many mental and physical health benefits which include:

  • Controlling high blood pressure and heart disease. While there are many factors for these like heredity, obesity, smoking and excessive intake of saturated fats, stress is one of the major factors. Laughter definitely helps to control blood pressure by reducing the release of stress-related hormones and bringing relaxation.
  • Increasing stamina through increased oxygen supply
  • Alleviating pain and giving a sense of well being by releasing endorphins, the body’s painkiller hormones.
  • Alleviating depression, anxiety and psychosomatic disorders: laughter boosts the production of serotonin, a natural anti-depressant.
  • Gives an excellent internal massage to the digestive tract and enhances blood supply to important internal organs like the liver, spleen, pancreas, kidneys and adrenal glands.
  • Ensures good sleep and reduces snoring because laughter is very good for the muscles of the soft palate and throat

I believe laughter also takes us out of our everyday drama and often can put our difficulties into perspective.   It is impossible to take our daily frustrations quite so seriously after a good, long belly laugh.

So, what if you aren’t feeling very much like laughing?  Dr. Kataria endorses a ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach where you simulate fake laughter until real laughter emerges.  Apparently, the brain isn’t able to distinguish between real & fake laughter and your body receives the same benefits regardless. 

I’ve seen this in action in my psychotherapy groups.  I will occasionally ask my adult groups to engage in childrens games such as musical chairs and duck-duck-goose and it’s always a surprise how transformative these simple exercises are.  A few minutes into play, you have these very serious adults running around red-faced, giggling and tagging each other and, at least for a few moments, letting go of their heavy thoughts and simply enjoying being in their bodies and communing with others.

Want to try your own laughter therapy?  Try a few of these ideas!

  • Watch a funny movie or funny videos on YouTube
  • Play a child’s game with a child or with an adult friend who’s young-at-heart
  • Sit and pretend to laugh alone or with a friend until real laughter emerges.  Just keep going with “heehee-hahaha” until you feel so silly, you’re laughing at yourself!
  • Attend a laughter yoga class here in San Francisco. 
    • Laughter Club – Free, open to all ages – Thursdays 7pm-8pm
      Stonestown Family YMCA – Senior Annex
      3150 20th Avenue, San Francisco
      (under 16 must be accompanied by a parent)

February 4, 2008 at 12:17 am Leave a comment

Events – Art, Emotion and the Brain

Photo by Aoife

San Francisco’s Exploratorium, land of science-y fun for kids (and young-at-heart adults) is hosting a Mind Lecture Series each Saturday at 2pm during the month of February.

This Saturday’s offering is on Art, Emotion and the Brain. Check it out!

Event Information
Title: Mind Lecture Series: Art, Emotion and the Brain
Date: Feb 2, 2008
Time: 2:00 PM
Complete Description:Mind Lecture Series:
Art, Emotion and the Brain
A Panel Discussion Hosted by Pireeni Sundaralingam
McBean Theater, 2:00 p.m.
How do artists affect our emotions? How do our emotional reactions inform art? Join prize-winning war photographer Smith Patrick, Royal Shakespeare Company director Rob Clare, film composer William Susman, and neuroscientist Pireeni Sundaralingam in a symposium on the mood-altering powers of music, drama, and visual art.Host Pireeni Sundaralingam likes hiking around on the Nabokovian ridge where “scientific knowledge meets artistic imagination.” Educated at Oxford, she has held national fellowships in both cognitive science and poetry.

February 1, 2008 at 10:44 pm Leave a comment

Shedding Light On Seasonal Affective Disorder


Photo by Garrette

Now that the winter cold and darkness has descended on San Francisco, many are finding themselves exhibiting symptoms of depression. If you experience lack of energy, lower appetite or sex drive, and depressed and/or irritable feelings more often in the winter, you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Once written off as quack-psychology, Seasonal Affective Disorder is now a well established, and very real mental health concern. And luckily, studies are beginning to give us real answers about treatment of this disorder. The New York Times recently wrote an interesting article on the subject.

“A major biological signal tracking seasonal sunlight changes is melatonin, a brain chemical turned on by darkness and off by light. Dr. Wehr and Dr. Rosenthal found that the patients with seasonal depression had a longer duration of nocturnal melatonin secretion in the winter than in the summer, just as with other mammals with seasonal behavior.”

According to these studies, the solution may be quite simple – exposure to bright light. Amazingly enough, research is confirming that spending at least 30 minutes exposed to flourescent soft-white light at 10,000 lux a day typically produces results in 4 to 7 days. Timing is important, as you are working with your body’s normal circadian rhythms but some are even able to forgo antidepressants utilizing this light therapy.

If you feel you may be suffering from SAD, you can evaluate yourself here. And here’s more on light therapy studies in Medical News Today.

Now if we can just do something about this rain…

January 29, 2008 at 4:48 am 2 comments

Interview by Ethsix Magazine – Harm Reduction


One of the most impressive magazines to come out of the social work media world in a long time is Ethsix. Impressive in that it shows that a magazine that reports on important, relevant social issues can be cleverly written & visually stunning. Ethsix’s name comes from the sixth code of ethics from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which is the responsibility to advocate on behalf of social justice. Ethsix is expertly organized & edited by a one Ms. Eve Ekman – social worker, journalist & artist extraordinaire. The third issue is in the making, but certainly check out the first two (generously offered in full for download on their website) as well as continued updates on issues and events at the Ethsix blog.

I was recently interviewed by Ethsix in their 2nd issue, on the topic of harm reduction. For those of you unfamiliar with harm reduction, it is a pragmatic approach to reducing the negative consequences of destructive behavior. I became a believer in harm reduction therapies during my years as an addictions therapist, working with DUI offenders through a drug court program. It quickly became clear to me, even though the prevailing mindset at the time was an abstinence-based model, that immediately confronting a person with their addiction and forcing them to accept abstinence or leave treatment was not only unrealistic, but it also placed our clients in a situation where they either had to lie or leave treatment if they were still struggling to give up their drugs of choice. Harm reduction allowed each client to go at their own pace with determining their level of addiction and dealt with relapses in a realistic, non-judgmental manner.

Harm reduction abides by the social work ethic of empowerment in that it gives clients the tools to evaluate symptoms and arrive at their own conclusions about their use. If a client does turn out to have a substance use problem, they are much more likely to have internalized this fact than if I had just labeled them that in our first session. And if a client decides to try to quit or cut back, my taking a collaborative, non-parental approach will allow them to be more honest in session without fear of reproach.

Here’s a clip from the article. For the rest of the piece, as well as some amazing social justice reporting, check out the 2nd issue of Ethsix Magazine!

“”Harm reduction to me addresses reality,” she says. “The reality is that simply telling someone they are an addict, or telling someone that the behavior they’re engaging in is risky, doesn’t typically do what it takes to help them reduce or quit that behavior.” Instead, Valentine engages clients in a discussion about their addictions…

…Opponents argue [that harm reduction] only encourages people to continue their destructive behavior. However, the argument is not moderation versus abstinence. Most of those who practice harm reduction admit that abstinence is often the best option, but the difference is that they will never parentally label someone an addict and force them to quit. As Valentine explains, a continuum from moderation to abstinence is often more beneficial in the long-term than encouraging abstinence from the start.”

January 29, 2008 at 3:50 am Leave a comment

Let the blogging begin!

Hello and welcome to my blog!

Check back here in the near future for musings, info, and links on mental health and personal growth.

Here’s wishing you a 2008 of adventure, clarity, and love!

December 21, 2007 at 5:14 pm 1 comment


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