All posts by Bunny Ninaber

Ten Ways to Work with the Highly Sensitive Client

By Ted Zeff, Ph.D.

Approximately 20% of the population or 50 million Americans have trouble screening out stimuli and can be easily overwhelmed by noise, crowds and time pressure. The HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) tends to be very sensitive to pain, the effect of caffeine and violent movies. Highly sensitive people may also feel uncomfortable by bright lights, strong smells and changes in their lives.

HSPs experience a depth of processing stimuli, are easily over aroused and over stimulated, have stronger emotional reactions and are aware of subtle stimuli. Sensory processing sensitivity is not a disorder, but a normal trait. HSPs are found in equal numbers in both males and females, 30% are extraverts and some HSPs can be high sensation seekers.

Why HSPs may be the majority of clients

HSPs are more affected by an adverse childhood; stressed by trying to live like a non-HSP, enjoy depth of conversation, and gain more than non-HSPs from interventions (due to their conscientiousness). According to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of “The Highly Sensitive Person,” up to 50% of all clients may be HSP.

Why it’s important for therapists to know about the trait

As a therapist, you will not expect HSPs to become like the other 80% of people in society, letting HSPs know there is nothing inherently wrong with them.

Guidelines to working with HSPs

  1. Be careful to reduce overstimulation in your office. Become aware of subtleties in your office, such as noise, your voice, lighting, dress, etc.
  2. Let your sensitive client know their trait is real.
  3. Help your client design a life that is compatible with the trait.
  4. Have your client reframe their past in light of their sensitivity.
  5. Teach your client methods of self-soothing and how to eliminate extraneous stimuli, such as regular meditation breaks, taking naps, and receiving a massage.
  6. To calm their nervous system, show your HSP client how to focus on what is familiar to them.
  7. Help your client pace themselves rather than trying to keep up with non-HSPs.
  8. Encourage your client to receive support and interact with other HSPs as well as not to compare themself with non-HSPs.
  9. Encourage your client to read about the trait of high sensitivity, visit HSP web sites, join HSP discussion groups and watch the movie “Sensitive” (
  10. Discuss the many benefits of being an HSP and show your admiration for their sensitivity.

Ted Zeff, Ph.D. is the author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide, The Highly Sensitive Person’s CompanionThe Strong Sensitive Boy, Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy and The Power of Sensitivity. Dr. Zeff offers consultations to professionals on how to work with the sensitive child and adult.


Anger Management For Kids: Tips For Dealing With Explosive Children

Most parents are equipped to get through the inevitable tantrums and meltdowns of little kids. As children grow they gain patience, develop more skills, learn problem solving and then low and behold the tantrums subside. Or they don’t.

For some children the anger or explosiveness only gets worse as they age. It was one thing when they were 30 pounds and stomping their feet, but now they are big and can hurl a chair across the family room.

There seems to be real rage in their bellies. Scratch the surface and BOOM -– they go off. The frequency, intensity and duration of these episodes goes beyond the explanation that your kid is simply having a bad day.

If you have a child who is destroying property, physically attacking others or repeatedly berating themselves, take matters seriously. Here are some ways you can deal with the situation.

Educate Yourself About Anger 
Anger is called “the fighting emotion.” We activate our anger when we want to go to battle to fight and win. The fight, flight, freeze (F3) response in our nervous system kicks in, which increases our heart rate, sends blood to the muscles so they are stronger and accelerates our breathing so we are good and oxygenated.

These massive bodily sensations are enough to overwhelm a child. It’s a big biological event that can even feel scary -– like they are out of control.

Anger is actually a secondary emotion. Your child feels another emotion first, which is the primary emotion. And that is the one you need to discover and learn from. It’s likely one of these five triggers:

1. Threats to self-esteem (rejection, victimization, rights removed or infringed on) that come from these common childhood experiences:

• The feeling a sibling is preferred
• Inconsistent enforcement of rules (this is not fair!)
• Public correction that embarrassed or humiliated them
• Offering help or instruction when it wasn’t needed (micro-management)
• Seeing an injustice done to another
• Loss of sense of control or a sense of autonomy
• Lack of understanding of others (low empathy)
• Others reject or deny what the child is genuinely feeling (misunderstood)

2. Biology: hunger, low blood sugar, tired, in pain

3. Stress/Anxiety (illness, impending divorce, moving schools, new caregiver, upcoming test)

4. Sadness (due to death or big change in their life)

5. Frustration (communication problems, lack of dexterity or knowledge, perfectionism and hatred of mistakes, believing that asking for help is failure or inadequacy)

If you can identify and solve the primary feeling, your child’s need to fight with anger would not be necessary.

Basic Health Check
Double check your child is eating well, sleeping sufficiently (Do she snore? Could it be undiagnosed sleep apnea?) and reduce their stress.

Is he over-scheduled? Is he feeling undue pressure to excel? Parents are notoriously blind at seeing childhood stressors but they abound.

During a Blow Up, Be Calm and Empathetic
It’s very easy to get pulled into a child’s state. Instead, you have to act in calming ways to help her de-escalate.

It’s very easy to look fed-up and roll your eyes. You are so tired of their antics. But a cold, terse composure that is meant to brace yourself for the storm only adds fuel to her fire.

Instead, communicate calm, loving support. Watch your body language. Keep your tone sweet and quiet. Your facial expression should be one of empathy and compassion.

If he will allow you to offer comfort touches (rubbing his back or a hug), do it. Show that you understand he must be deeply upset to be this angered, but keep your words sparse. Give him space and time to re-group.

Keep a Log Book 
Write a log after each blow up. Record the events leading up to the angry outburst and how it finally resolved. Be sure to record not only what your child did — but also what you and others did.

Assign an intensity rating from 0 to 10. Watch the clock to see how long the blow up lasted and record that, too. After a week or a month, can you see a theme?

As you embark on making changes, you’ll want to know things are improving. The blow-ups won’t go away over night, but if they are less frequent, less intense and shorter then you are making headway! Don’t give up too soon.

Talk About Triggers In A Time Of Calm
When children are angry, it is not a good time for productive discussions. You’re best to save your talks for a time when she is calm. Re-visit the incident that made her so mad and ask her to help you understand what was so distasteful that got her so angry. Then listen.

Listen with a goal of understanding your child and her perspective. Don’t defend or correct.

For example, if your child shares: “You let Bella go on the iPad first. She always gets to go first”. Instead of correcting and defending yourself with “that is not true, you went first last time” simply acknowledge her feelings and beliefs.

“So you feel you get passed over for your sister all the time? That I give her more privileges than you? Like going first on the iPad yesterday? Is that right? Well that would not feel very good at all! If I thought that, I would be hurt and hopping mad too!”

Proper Modelling 
Children need to learn that using aggression is not the best way to resolve issues. If you use anger as a means to get your child to listen or behave, stop immediately. You are modelling this behaviour and he is imitating you.

Teach Problem Solving
Teach your child how to solve the problems he is having through positive means. “Besides getting mad, how else could you share that you feel unfairly treated, and how else could we assure that each child gets their turn going first on the iPad?”

Try to generate a few solutions: alternating days, mark turns on the calendar, leave a sticky note on the iPad saying whose turn is next, rock paper scissors, roll dice, etc. Decide on one solution to try for a week and see if things improve. If they don’t, try another solution.

They Have Control Over Their Anger -– It’s A Choice.
Children believe that other people make them angry and that they are just innocent victims of these strong emotions that take over their bodies. Teach your child about the fight, freeze, flight response so they can recognize when they are getting triggered.

Teach her relaxation techniques: breathing exercises, taking a warm shower, going for a walk around the block, listening to calming music, tensing and releasing their muscles.

Challenge Rigid Black-And-White Thinking 
In a time of calm, help your child to challenge his own rigid thinking. Young children often see the world in black and white with no grey scale. Things are right or wrong, good or bad, always or never. It’s part of growing up to see more sides to things and add complexity to our beliefs.

“You are not either a good boy or a bad boy — you are just lovable you, wonderful the way you are.”

“Instead of rigidly thinking your sister is always beating you, you can choose to think an alternate softer thought: many times my sister gets her way, but sometimes I do, too.”

Children who get angry are discouraged and we need to help fill their bucket so they feel good about themselves and improve their relationships with others in the family.

Look for their strengths and share your appreciation for what they bring to the clan. Increase your positive interactions and have fun together. Notice their gentle side.

If things don’t improve, seek out the help of a family counsellor. You’d be amazed what a few sessions can do to improve matters.

Emotional Intelligence – the new IQ

Being an emotion-avoidant society has not served us well. Today, we are valuing emotions and self-awareness as competence leading to emotional health. But what is Emotional Intelligence and how do we develop this capacity?  Here is a great overview.
Brain Hacks

What You Need to Know About Emotional Intelligence

Hint: It’s important for more than just your personal life.
September 22, 2016

In the workplace, the focus has moved from IQ to EQ over the past number of years. Emotional intelligence has been defined as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” Many psychologists have outlined that EQ includes having these three skills:

Related: 15 Daily Routines That Heighten Emotional Intelligence

  1. The ability to utilize emotions and apply them to tasks, such as thinking and problem solving.
  2. Emotional awareness includes the ability to recognize your own emotions and those of others.
  3. The ability to manage emotions includes the ability to control your own emotions as well as the ability to cheer up or calm down another person.

Being emotionally aware is important in all parts of your life. The more compassionate and considerate you are, the stronger your relationships will be. A recent study revealed that emotional intelligence is responsible for 58 percent of your job performance. It also detailed that those with high levels of emotional intelligence make, on average, $29,000 more per year than those with a low EQ.

Check out this infographic that teaches us all about emotional intelligence and the role it plays in our lives, plus tips on how we can advance our own EQ.



5 Things Confident Women Do Differently

We all know those women — the ones who stride with an air of grace into a room. They’re not always the thinnest, prettiest, or smartest. They’re not arrogant. They’re the ones who make you want to be around them.Growing up, all I seemed to do was make people run the other direction. My fears, neuroses, and quirks kept me hating myself. They also threw me into bouts of depression, eating disorders, and codependency.

Why can’t I be thinner? Prettier? Smarter? I continually asked. Then I changed the questions: What creates this aura, this vibe of confidence? What do these women do that I don’t?

Soon enough, I received an answer and I felt my vibe shift. My newfound confidence shifted my world — my career, my relationships, and my health.

After much study, discussion, and practice, I realized these five things are what confident women do differently than women who lack confidence. These have become my must-do’s for confidence:

1. They live their purpose.

Your purpose is to be authentically you. No more, no less. When you applaud your fears, neuroses, and quirks, suddenly these qualities become your assets.

Insecure about your body? So are millions of other women — embrace your goods and teach others to embrace theirs! Shameful of your intelligence? Forget the degrees and do what makes you feel like a genius! When you’re living your truth, you’re unstoppable.

2. They practice their unique ___ (Fill in: calming, uplifting, etc.) ritual.

Some of the greatest thinkers, artists, speakers, lawyers, and performers of our time have a preperformance ritual that gets them revved for show time. While a unique ritual is about doing, it’s also about feeling. A ritual creates the feeling you desire before you actually get to the doing.

For example, if I want to have rockin’ confidence before a date, I’ll strut around my apartment in high heels. If I want to feel calm, I’ll focus on my exhale breaths. We all have rituals that calm our nerves, get us in the game, or prepare our mindset for focused action. Know yourself and what you need to get in the zone.

3. They spend (and love) time alone.

A drop in confidence can come when plans aren’t made or fall through and you’re left with time alone. How empowering is it when this time comes as a gift?!

There’s nothing that revives my confidence more than time alone. Wait, let me clarify: time alone that I occupy with self-love. If I spend my alone time wallowing in misery, I perpetuate my insecurities. When I shower myself with love, in the form of a bubble bath, rest, or yoga, I realign with my core values.

Know what you need to make this precious time with yourself the best time. There is nothing sexier than a woman who ADORES her own company.

4. They take nothing (or very little) personally.

Do you know any confident woman who takes everything personally? Those with true confidence know that any perceived ego blow is more a reflection of the speaker than of them.

When you’re able to hear criticism and not take it personally, your reactions change. You’re able to feel compassion and love for all, regardless of how they treated you. Life isn’t as much of a drama. Confidence emerges naturally with life-love.

5. They ask empowering questions.

We’re constantly making evaluations for what things mean and what we should do. Such neural associations are initiated by questions. Simply, the more empowering questions we ask ourselves, the more confident we will be.

If you ask disempowering questions like, “Why does this always happen to me?” your mind will come up with an answer. In contrast, ask, “What am I happy about now? What could I be happy about if I wanted to?” Or if there is a problem, ask, “What is great about this problem? What can I feel grateful for?” Then you can shift into the confidence required to solve it.

When empowering questions become second nature, you have no choice but to find confidence-inducing answers.


A young man walks into the desolate desert

For many people, watching porn is something they think they can separate from the rest of their life. It may seem like someone’s porn-watching life and real-world life are isolated from each other, but that’s not exactly how it works. Our brain doesn’t compartmentalize what we like to watch online with what we like in real interactions, because it’s all interconnected.

Neurons that fire together, wire together. Just like other addictive substances, porn floods the brain with dopamine. That rush of brain chemicals happening over and over again rewires the brain’s reward pathway ultimately changing the make up of the viewer’s brain. This can result in an increased appetite for porn.

Yep, you read that right. Porn physically changes your brain.

One of the most exciting developments in our understanding of the brain in the last two decades is the discovery of something called neuroplasticity, “neuro” meaning brain and “plasticity” meaning changeability. In other words, scientists have discovered that your brain is a lot like a never-ending game of Tetris, constantly laying down new pathways based on your experiences. [1]

To explain how it works, brain scientists have a saying: Neurons that fire together, wire together. [2]

If you’re wondering what a neuron is and why it’s on fire, here’s what that means. A neuron is a brain cell, and when brain cells get activated at the same time by something you see or hear or smell or whatever, they release chemicals that help strengthen the connection between those neurons. [3] For example, when you eat something delicious, your brain releases dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good. [4] Or if you hold hands with someone you care about, your brain releases a chemical called oxytocin, which helps you bond with people. [5]

So if every time you went to visit your Uncle Carl he gave you a big hug and then took you out for ice cream, you’d probably start feeling pretty great about Uncle Carl, since your brain would build pathways connecting Uncle Carl with feeling happy and loved. You have these kinds of brain pathways for all sorts of things: riding a bike, eating a sandwich, and walking the dog. And when a person looks at porn, their brain creates new pathways for that, too. [6]

Just like other addictive substances, porn floods the brain with dopamine. [7] But since the brain gets overwhelmed by the constant overload of chemicals that comes with consistent porn use, it fights back by taking away some of its dopamine receptors [8]—which are like tiny ears on the end of a neuron that hear dopamine’s message.

With fewer receptors, even if the brain is putting off the same levels of dopamine in response to porn, the user can’t feel dopamine’s effect as much. [9] As a result, the porn they were looking at doesn’t seem as arousing or exciting, and many porn users go hunting for more porn or more hardcore porn to get the effect the old porn used to offer. [10]

As a frequent porn user’s brain acclimates to the new levels of dopamine flooding through it, regular activities that would normally set off a burst of dopamine and make the person feel happy aren’t strong enough to register much anymore, leaving the user feeling down or uneasy whenever they go for a while without looking at porn. [11] That’s one reason why pornography can be so addictive. [12]

Once addiction sets in, the user has a whole new set of problems, because addiction damages the part of the brain that helps you think things through to make good choices—the brain’s limit setting system. [13] For more than 10 years, studies have shown that drug addictions can cause the brain’s frontal lobes to start shrinking. [14] While “frontal lobe” sounds really technical, basically it’s the part of the brain that controls logical problem solving and decision making. [15] But recent studies have found that it’s not just drugs that cause that kind of damage—the same problems show up with other kinds of addictions, such as overeating, Internet addictions, and sexual compulsion. [16]

And here’s the really scary part: the more porn a person looks at, the more severe the damage to their brain becomes and the more difficult it is to break free. [17] But there’s good news too: neuroplasticity works both ways. That means that the damage to the brain can be undone when someone gets away from unhealthy behaviors.

A porn viewer’s brain can return back to normal after some time and effort. If we eliminate porn as our main source of these chemical releases, our brain will start looking for new ones. We need start to connecting to positive things in our life that will actually support our physical, emotional, mental and social health. These connections might start off small, but they will grow and eventually replace the old neural pathways. [18]

Porn can alter the brain and desensitize it to be okay with unhealthy behaviors. Unlike real, meaningful relationships, porn never satisfies; it only increases the appetite for more porn. Bottom line—watching porn isn’t a harmless activity. It has the potential to lead a viewer down a path they never intended to go.


[1] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, preface.
[2] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 63.
[3] Bostwick, J. M. and Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated with Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 63.
[4] Hilton, D. L., and Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2: 19; ( Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 107; Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Hold and Co., 75; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There a Common Molecular Pathway for Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449.
[5] Schneiderman, I., Zagoory-Sharon, O., Leckman, J., and Feldman, R. (2012). Oxytocin During the Initial Stages of Romantic Attachment: Relations to Couples’ Interactive Reciprocity. Psychoneuroendocrinology 37:1277-1285.
[6] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767; Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721.  Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 108.
[7] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767; Georgiadis, J. R. (2006). Regional Cerebral Blood Flow Changes Associated with Clitorally Induced Orgasm in Healthy Women. European Journal of Neuroscience 24, 11: 3305–3316.
[8] Hilton, D. L., and Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2: 19; ( Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721; Mick, T. M. and Hollander, E. (2006). Impulsive-Compulsive Sexual Behavior. CNS Spectrums, 11(12):944-955; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There a Common Molecular Pathway for Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449.
[9] Hilton, D. L., and Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2: 19; ( Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721; Mick, T. M. and Hollander, E. (2006). Impulsive-Compulsive Sexual Behavior. CNS Spectrums, 11(12):944-955.
[10] Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721; Zillmann, D. (2000). Influence of Unrestrained Access to Erotica on Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Dispositions Toward Sexuality. Journal of Adolescent Health 27, 2: 41–44.
[11] Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Hold and Co., 90.; Berridge, K. C. and Robinson, T. E. (2002). The Mind of an Addicted Brain: Neural Sensitization of Wanting Versus Liking. In J. T. Cacioppo, G. G. Bernston, R. Adolphs, et al. (Eds.) Foundations in Social Neuroscience (pp. 565–72). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.  
[12] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 107; Berridge, K. C. and Robinson, T. E. (2002). The Mind of an Addicted Brain: Neural Sensitization of Wanting Versus Liking. In J. T. Cacioppo, G. G. Bernston, R. Adolphs, et al. (Eds.) Foundations in Social Neuroscience (pp. 565–72). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.  
[13] Hilton, D. L., and Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2: 19; ( Leshner, A. (1997). Addiction Is a Brain Disease and It Matters. Science 278: 45–7.
[14] Lyoo, K., Pollack, M. H., Silveri, M. M., Ahn, K. H., Diaz, C. I., Hwang, J., et al. (2005). Prefrontal and Temporal Gray Matter Density Decreases in Opiate Dependence. Psychopharmacology 184, 2: 139–144; Thompson, P. M., Hayashi, K. M., Simon, S. L., Geaga, J. A., Hong, M. S., Sui, Y., et al. (2004). Structural Abnormalities in the Brains of Human Subjects Who Use Methamphetamine. Journal of Neuroscience 24, 26: 6028–6036; Franklin, T. E., Acton, P. D., Maldjian, J. A., Gray, J. D., Croft, J. R., Dackis, C. A., et al. (2002). Decreased Gray Matter Concentration in the Insular, Orbitofrontal, Cingulate, and Temporal Cortices of Cocaine Patients. Biological Psychiatry 51, 2: 134–142.
[15] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767.
[16] Yuan, K., Quin, W., Lui, Y., and Tian, J. (2011). Internet Addiction: Neuroimaging Findings. Communicative & Integrative Biology 4, 6: 637–639; Zhou, Y., Lin, F., Du, Y., Qin, L., Zhao, Z., Xu, J., et al. (2011). Gray Matter Abnormalities in Internet Addiction: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Study. European Journal of Radiology 79, 1: 92–95; Miner, M. H., Raymond, N., Mueller, B. A., Lloyd, M., Lim, K. O. (2009). Preliminary Investigation of the Impulsive and Neuroanatomical Characteristics of Compulsive Sexual Behavior. Psychiatry Research 174: 146–51; Schiffer, B., Peschel, T., Paul, T., Gizewshi, E., Forshing, M., Leygraf, N., et al. (2007). Structural Brain Abnormalities in the Frontostriatal System and Cerebellum in Pedophilia. Journal of Psychiatric Research 41, 9: 754–762; Pannacciulli, N., Del Parigi, A., Chen, K., Le, D. S. N. T., Reiman, R. M., and Tataranni, P. A. (2006). Brain Abnormalities in Human Obesity: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Study. NeuroImage 31, 4: 1419–1425.
[17] Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721.
[18] Lisle, Douglas and Alan Goldhamer. The Pleasure Trap. Summertown, TN: Healthy Living Publications.

The Real Reason Why We Love Bad Boys, Toxic Partners and Emotionally Unavailable Men

by Shahida Arabi

Joel Sossa

Joel Sossa

Bad boys wreak havoc on our lives, our bodies and our brains. The reasons we love bad boys, toxic people and emotionally unavailable partners are not just emotional and psychological – they are downright biochemical.

The truth of the matter is, our brains can be rewired to fixate on people who aren’t good for us. Emotionally unavailable men, toxic partners such as narcissists or sociopaths and pickup artists alike all depend on these effects to get us hooked. We can become addicted to the highs and lows of dangerous romantic relationships in a way that makes a break-up from a toxic person similar to rehab from a destructive drug addiction.

Have you wondered why you were unable to let go of that one person who defined your relationship ambiguously, treated you inconsistently and unfairly, brought up your worst insecurities while simultaneously subjecting you to sweet talking and fantasy-prone fast-forwarding? Unfortunately for those of us who have a tendency towards dating bad boys (or girls), our addiction to toxic partners is actually strengthened by their mistreatment of us.

When we first meet a toxic partner or an emotionally unavailable person, our bond with him or her becomes cemented through their excessive attention combined with their emotional withdrawal and withholding throughout the relationship. The knowledge of what a toxic partner does to our brain makes it more likely for us to cut back on our investment on those who we perceive may not be a good fit earlier on, detach from any attachments we may already have to toxic people and realize that the powerful bond that’s been created has arisen from our biochemical bonds, not our true standards.

Remember that rejection and affection often go hand in hand in such a turbulent relationship where a partner is fluent in giving you mixed messages. Rejection can hurt, literally, and it’s no surprise that your brain circuitry during a break-up mirrors your brain circuitry when you are in physical pain. A break-up with a toxic person who has mistreated you throughout the relationship compounds this effect and makes it that much more difficult to recover from.

These are a few main chemicals and hormones involved which make for a powerful cocktail of attachment that have little to do with the merits of the person you’re dating and everything to do with their shady behavior:


Positive experiences like unforgettable dates, over-the-top attention, flattery, amazing sex, gifts, and grand romantic gestures can all release dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the pleasure center of our brains which creates reward circuits, which then generates automatic associations in our brain that link our romantic partners with pleasure and even our survival.

The catch? Dopamine flows more readily in the brain when there is a “intermittent reinforcement” schedule of rewards rather than a consistent schedule. The inability of a toxic partner to give us what we need leaves us pining for the good times and continuing to invest in the relationship, much like a gambler at a slot machine who hopes for a perceived gain despite the inevitable losses of such a risky investment.

Dr. Helen Fisher discovered that this “frustration-attraction”experience of obstacles in a romantic relationship actually heightens our feelings of love, rather than hindering them. She discusses how the brains of those in adversity-ridden relationships become activated in an eerily similar way to the brains of cocaine addicts.

Emotionally unavailable men or otherwise toxic partners are masters of intermittent reinforcement; they do things on their own schedule – literally. They may disappear for days, they may have a plethora of side chicks, they may constantly woo you and also withhold from you that coveted relationship status. They’re always on the precipice of commitment or changing for the better before they press the reset button once again. They are always uncertain (or too certain when they’re sweet-talking you into bed) about the future, and they leave you guessing about their true intentions on a daily basis.

When we don’t know the next time we’ll see someone or are unable to predict their next move, that person becomes much more alluring to our brain. So that nice guy who performs these kind acts consistently rather than periodically feels less rewarding to the brain than the bad boy who takes turns treating you to wonderful dates and then also mistreating you with his disappearances, false promises, ambiguous statements, hot-and-cold behavior and sudden withdrawals of affection.

In other words? Our brains can become masochists, seeking the very people that hurt them. They become so accustomed to good behavior from nice guys that they stop releasing as much dopamine. That’s why even in a healthy relationship, we can become so “used to” the safety and security of a gentle partner that we find him or her less exciting over time.

On the other hand, taking a reprieve from a toxic partner, which will surely happen at some point because he’s not one to stick around for too long before he’s onto the next best thing, gives the reward circuits of our brains a good “reset” so that the next time they’re into us and hoovering us back in, the dopamine effect feels that much sweeter. A charming player who comes along to sweep us off our feet, only to later replace us with another member of his harem – ultimately and sadly steals the show. The unpredictability of when we’ll get our next “fix” of this elusive person creates stronger reward circuits, which leaves us wanting more and more. Unfortunately, the higher the emotional unavailability of a partner, the more exciting he appears to us – at least, to the reward center of our brains.

In order to be mindful of the dopamine effect, we have to understand that the reason we’re so obsessed with a toxic partner isn’t because he’s better than the nice guy with whom the romance may build more gradually and organically; it’s usually because he’s much worse. Resisting the dopamine effect means resisting creating new pleasurable memories with the person who provides us pleasure primarily through pain.


Let’s not forget about how we bond with these partners through the power of touch. Physical intimacy enables women in dysfunctional relationships to indiscriminately release oxytocin, aptly named the “love” or “cuddle” hormone. This is the same hormone that bonds mother and child at birth, and it also bonds you with the men that are undeserving of you.

Oxytocin promotes not only attachment but also trust. Research shows that when oxytocin is involved, betrayal does not necessarily have an effect on how much a person continues to invest in the person who betrayed him or her. So the deception of a toxic partner doesn’t necessarily derail us from trusting him blindly, especially if we’re physically enmeshed with him. The oxytocin effect may also be stronger for women than for men; according to Susan Kuchinskas, author of the book, The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love, estrogen tends to promote the effects of oxytocin bonding whereas testosterone dampens it.

Emotionally unavailable men, toxic partners and “bad boys” are often more exciting in bed. Whether this is because the intermittent reinforcement of their hot-and-cold behavior tricks our brains into thinking so or whether bad boys tend to have more sexual prowess remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is, once we’ve bonded with them sexually, we’ve also bonded with them psychologically and emotionally.

Cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine

Toxic partners evoke spikes in our levels of cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine, all of which regulate our reactions to stressful situations and work with our “fight or flight” response. Except what often happens in a toxic relationship is that we “freeze” in the relationship with a sense of learned helplessness rather than fight or flee (though we may also certainly fight too).

The release of stress hormones is sure to sharpen your focus on that particular partner, as we have a tendency to become hyper-aware of anything that has caused our stress hormone system to go into overdrive as an evolutionary response to threat. This is likely to cause you to seek out the source of both your comfort and discomfort: the toxic partner that simultaneously becomes both your safe haven as well as your shitty excuse for a relationship.

According to Christopher Bergland, oxytocin, adrenaline and cortisol work together to consolidate and reconsolidate fear-based memories. So your fears and anxiety about abandonment by this partner, combined with your physical intimacy with that partner make memories related to this partner more vivid and more difficult to extricate yourself from.

The unpredictability, fear and anxiety associated with a partner who either causes you to walk on eggshells and habitually leaves your head spinning releases adrenaline which has an antidepressant effect. We can become addicted to this effect. Fear also releases dopamine, which again feeds those pesky reward circuits in our brain, leaving us longing for that adrenaline rush. Fear and pleasure inevitably become intertwined despite our best efforts to expose and dismantle the seeming irrationality of our behavior.

This is why a couple who rides a roller coaster together or experiences a life-threatening event tend to bond even more closely. It is also why you tend to inadvertently bond more deeply with someone who has hurt you or has even subjected you to abuse – we call this “trauma bonding”.


When we fall in love, we become obsessive like people with OCD…literally. Research has revealed that serotonin levels in our brains drop in a similar fashion when we are in love as they do in the brains of people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Since serotonin regulates and stabilizes mood, curbing obsessive thinking, you can imagine how low levels of it when we’re romantically involved with someone can cause our decision-making abilities and judgment to go haywire.

Low levels of serotonin also encourage sexual behavior, so serotonin only makes it more likely that we’ll also be swept away by bonds created by oxytocin and dopamine as well. Since dopamine is also released when we recollect pleasurable memories, constantly daydreaming and reminiscing over the first romantic moments of a charming partner often has the effect of amplifying this circuit in the brain.

That’s why you’re usually hanging onto every text, waiting anxiously for the next phone call or fantasizing about the next date even if it’s with someone you know logically may not be a good fit. Toxic partners and bad boys tend to dominate our brains 24/7 with their unpredictable behavior as well as their love-bombing, so it’s no wonder that we develop an otherwise irrational compulsion to go back to the very people who hurt us.

While our brain is definitely not out for our best interest when it comes to bad boys, that doesn’t mean our brains can’t be rewired for positive change. Neuroplasticity makes it possible for our brains to make new neural connections in productive ways such as exercise, healthy social bonds, music, new hobbies, interests and passions. The key to healing from bad boy addiction lies in substituting this unhealthy drug with healthier rewards and obsessions – those that truly nurture and nourish us, rather than those that starve us and leave us reeling for our next fix of crumbs.

Falling in love with a dangerous partner is very much like becoming a serious addict. In order to survive the withdrawal effects, we have to go cold turkey, or at the very least, begin to wean ourselves off from the high dosage of toxicity.

Are You Being Gaslighted? 

Anxious Children

5 Tips for Supporting Anxious Children

Amber McKenzie  

Upset problem child with head in hands sitting on staircase concept for bullying, depression stress or frustration

Pax woke up each morning to his father calling his name from the hall. Pax often woke breathless, unsure about what. They had visited the family physician, who could not find a cause for Pax waking this way. Pax would sit in bed paralyzed and could not move, despite wanting to. He knew his parents would be upset with him in a few short minutes.

Each morning his father would repeatedly call to him and, exasperated, would call Pax’s mother to go into his room and get him ready for school. His mother was also consistently frustrated and would plead with him to get up, or try to bribe him out of bed.

Pax could not contain his tears at the mention of getting out of bed to get ready for school. He tried every excuse to get out of it: strep throat, headaches and stomach aches. Pax tried to explain the dread to his mother, and how his heart seemed to thump so loudly that all the other children looked at him.

Each morning, Pax’s mother felt her palms get sweaty and her mind begin to race as she contemplated how to get him out of bed.  She thought she had failed him and was not fulfilling her roles as mother and wife. She felt powerless about how to help her little boy. It seemed that each morning, as she became more frustrated with him, he cried harder, making her feel worse and more confused.

Children experience anxiety in a number of different ways. A child might explain it as a feeling of dread, panic, sadness or fear. They might talk about it in terms of physical symptoms like sweaty palms, trembling, butterflies in their tummy or a fast heartbeat.

Children’s anxiety can manifest as a limitation in their ability to concentrate, experiencing “clamming up” or “going blank.” Some children may get caught in worry, or say the same thing over and over. Other children may experience somatic complaints such as a headache or tummy ache.

Some children will have no language to described their symptoms, and their anxiety may show up through refusing to go to school or not wanting to play with their friends. They may follow the parent around like a shadow, watch too much television or use electronics to excess.

Here are some strategies to work with children who are facing anxiety.

1. Manage Your Own Anxiety First

Anxiety is almost contagious. If you are anxious, and supporting an anxious child, your lack of anxiety regulation can influence the child’s anxiety, making it worse. It is important to work on your own ability to calm down.

2. Create Emotional Safety with the Child

Emotional safety in a child’s brain is the foundation for emotional regulation. When a child feels safe with the person supporting them, they create a story in their brain that tells them they can feel good about themselves, they can connect with others, and their needs will be met.

To do this the supporter needs to make the child feel seen, safe, and soothed. Emotional safety needs to start with the supporter being predictable and consistent in the child’s life. It is critical that the child knows what to expect from the supporter, as this predictability make the world increasingly secure. Another thing the supporter can do is to engage the child in affectionate and nurturing play.

3. Give Anxiety a Language

When we recognize our feelings, we can develop the ability to accept them, learn about them and conquer them. When we do not understand a problem, we cannot solve it.

Therefore, we need to help the child understand the problem. We could say “When you are feeling your heart thud quickly in your chest and your hands are shaking, this is called anxiety,” or “Oh, you blanked out on your math test? Anxiety must have hijacked your memory.”

Often the act of giving anxiety a name can calm anxiety down.

4. Acknowledge the Struggle

Validate the difficulty the child is having. Do not pretend the problem does not exist. When we ignore the anxiety in hopes to make it go away, this usually fuels the anxiety and makes it stronger.

You could say things like “I know it’s overwhelming to go to dance today,” “You are trembling; come here, I’ll hug you,” or “Going to birthday parties with new kids can be really scary. You can do it, I believe in you.”

5. Practice Coping

Practice, practice, practice. The person supporting the child with anxiety is like the coach in anxiety regulation. It is the coach’s job to practice, practice, practice with the child. The more times you practice a coping technique with a child, the more you are reinforcing a new brain pathway. Be a broken record and practice over and over again.

Some practical strategies could involve deep breathing, tensing and relaxing muscles, wrapping yourself in a blanket or hugging a loved one.

It is possible to help a child overcome their anxious patterns. With patience, practice, and persistence, change is possible.

Amber McKenzie, MSc., R.Psych
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.
Content of this blog may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.


Knapp, S.E., & Jongsma, A.E. (2005). The parenting skills treatment planner. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Siegel, D.J. (2013). Brainstorm. New York: Penguin.
Siegler, A.L. (1997). The essential guide to the new adolescence. New York: Penguin Group.


Why We Need a New Way of Thinking About Emotions

Lisa Murray, M.A., L.M.F.T.

We have a glass of wine at the end of the day to take the edge off.  We take a pill to numb us from whatever’s making us feel bad.  We throw ourselves into work to avoid having to come home and deal with the pressures of marriage, finances, parenting.  We use phones, gadgets, and games to distract us.  We use the television to help us zone-out.  It seems we expend so much energy to keep us from feeling anything unpleasant, anything messy, anything real.

The problem is, avoiding our negative emotions doesn’t get rid of the negative emotions.  They are always there, right beneath the surface.  They do come out – usually in ways we wished they wouldn’t.  Over time, it takes exhaustive amounts of energy to get rid of them and yet, they are still never resolved.

Here is an excerpt from my new book, Peace For a Lifetime, that explains why we need a new way of thinking about emotions so we can actually use all of our emotions, even the negative emotions, to work for us instead of against us in our lives.

Most people today believe that all negative emotions are bad.  We are supposed to feel good all of the time.  If we don’t, we must find a pill or remedy to remove the feeling, so we can get back to normal. 

Even in the church, many see positive emotions as divine blessings and negative emotions as spiritual attacks from the enemy.  We pray that God will remove, heal, deliver.  We long for victory.  Few of us stop to inquire about the emotions we are feeling, to lean into them so we can understand them.  In doing so, we miss golden opportunities to grow, to learn, and to heal. 

For many years, I felt emotions simply happened to me, that I was helpless to do anything with these emotions.  I believed emotions were bad, that they were Satan’s attacks over which my only hope was deliverance.  When I realized that God created my emotions and experienced emotions Himself, I began to believe there might be a reason for my emotions other than to torment me.  Perhaps God understood there was an area in which I needed to grow or heal. Instead of delivering me from the emotion, He wanted me to find healing in that emotion, so I could learn what I needed to learn and ultimately overcome. 

My journey here on earth seems to be about growth.  Most of our emotional growth happens in the difficult seasons of life.  Growth requires friction.  Growth requires resistance.  Anxiety is part of the growth process.  Maybe some amount of anxiety comes from the internal struggle with the unknown, the resistance that is necessary for me to grow strong. 

Emotions are not bad.  Even negative emotions are not bad.  Emotions are part of God’s design to help us navigate the waters of life effectively.  Ignoring, numbing, or shaming our emotions leaves us disconnected, wandering, and lost.  Understanding how emotions working together with our thinking creates balance and equips us to experience our emotions as wise guides instead of stumbling blocks.

Emotions are a powerful resource.  My new book, Peace for a Lifetime, unpacks the purpose of emotions so we are no longer forced to ignore them, numb them, or drown in them. I share simple, practical, life steps that can help you understand the life God desires for you.  This material can help you create and experience an indestructible peace – not just for today, not just for tomorrow, you can experience peace…for a lifetime!

Lisa Murray is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Franklin, TN, with an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University, as well as a graduate degree from Trevecca University. In 2007 Lisa founded the Counseling and Family Ministries at Grace Chapel in Leipers Fork, TN, where she not only works to help individuals, couples, and families, deal with the complexities and challenges of life and relationships, she also treats a full spectrum of mental health issues.

Having walked through her own struggles with anxiety, despair, and perfectionism, Lisa enjoys helping others as they explore and discover spiritual and emotional healing in their lives and relationships. You can read more of Lisa’s articles at  You can also follow her on Facebook: Lisa Murray, or on Twitter: @_Lisa_Murray.

The Connection Between Childhood Experiences And Adult Problems

by Marcia Sirota       Author, speaker, coach and MD

As an adult psychiatrist, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about childhood, and there’s a good reason for this. It’s become abundantly clear over the past 20-plus years of doing psychotherapy that childhood experiences are at the root of adult problems.

Every person who’s walked through my office door suffering from depression, anxiety, relationship or work problems, low self-esteem or addiction has a history of some type of adversity in their childhood. It’s become clear to me by listening to their stories that were it not for these painful events, the person wouldn’t be struggling as much as they are, today.

When we look at a young child who’s beginning to show signs of emotional disturbance or behavioural issues, what we’re seeing is that something has happened to them, or something is happening, that is causing them the beginnings of a problem.

If we’re to do the best for our children, we have to understand the basic emotional necessities of childhood and the types of events that are likely to cause a child difficulties, now and in the future.

Whether we’re dealing with a child who seems mostly well-adjusted in the moment, or one who’s begun to exhibit signs of more significant dysfunction, those of us in the helping fields want to do everything we can to optimize the child’s emotional and psychological well-being so as to prevent future problems.

If we’re to do the best for our children, we have to understand the basic emotional necessities of childhood and the types of events that are likely to cause a child difficulties, now and in the future.

When it comes to the necessities of childhood, we have to remember that perfect parenting is neither necessary nor possible. A child just needs, as the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott so aptly put it, “good enough parenting.”

Good enough parenting means that the child is loved and valued for who they are, not for how they behave, and the child is nurtured, cared for and protected, but not coddled. In fact, the “good enough” parent allows the child to be disappointed and frustrated at times, so that they learn to tolerate and cope with these types of experiences in adulthood.

And interestingly, “good enough parenting” also applies to the other adults in a child’s life; the adults who teach, guide and support the child. Each one of these adults has an important role to play in the child’s development and emotional well-being.

When we think about the experiences that lead to difficulties in childhood and beyond, there are two distinct types: the absence of certain necessities or the presence of hurtful events.

Children need to feel important, but not so important that their agenda supersedes that of the parent. Overly-permissive parents who indulge their children are depriving them of the guidance and limits they need in order to develop appropriately and function optimally as adults.

Love, affirmation, guidance, protection and limits: these are the necessities of childhood. When a child is raised with all of these things, they’re far more likely to grow into high-functioning adults with good confidence and self worth, who have constructive coping strategies in difficult times.

When we think about the experiences that lead to difficulties in childhood and beyond, there are two distinct types: the absence of certain necessities or the presence of hurtful events.

If a child is neglected; if they’re not praised enough — perhaps from a parent’s misguided notion that this will give them a “swelled head” — or if they’re not encouraged to do things, the child will grow up with a lack of confidence and self-worth.

Children take things personally, so what they experience informs their identity. 

If part of the neglect includes a lack of protection from hurtful experiences, the child will grow up feeling helpless, worthless — because they’ll start to see themselves as not entitled to protection — and perhaps even deserving of harm. Children take things personally, so what they experience informs their identity. Love them, and they feel good about themselves; neglect them, and they feel bad.

In terms of adverse events that happen to a child, these experiences can take many forms: a child can be emotionally hurt or abused through harsh criticism, shaming, blaming or the instilling of guilt; they can be physically assaulted via overly harsh corporal punishment or beatings with fists, belts or other objects, or they can be sexually abused.

The child can have an overly-controlling or perfectionist parent; a narcissistic parent who expects the child to excel so that the parent can feel good about themselves, or a parent who competes with their child because they’re threatened by the child’s youth and promise.

A child can be picked on, bullied, made fun of or taken advantage of. They can be ostracized and isolated by those around them, and made to feel worthless and useless.

These experiences can occur at home, at school, during extra-curricular activities or in play-time. Parents, siblings, relatives, friends, teachers, coaches, even members of the clergy can be responsible for hurting a child. Sometimes, more than one person is doing so, which of course adds to the child’s current and future emotional difficulties.

There’s another, more subtle way a child can be hurt, and this is when one or both parents make the child responsible for tasks that they’re too young to manage. This makes the child feel incompetent and inadequate and often filled with shame for “failing” at tasks that developmentally, they’re not expected to know how to accomplish.

These types of tasks can include being made to care for younger siblings or managing the household at a very young age; being put in the role of parental confidante; being thrust into the position of mediator between fighting parents; being responsible for the family’s finances, or being pressured to perform at school, in their hobbies (for example, performing arts, spelling bees or math competitions) or in individual or team sports at a level that is beyond them, or not what they themselves want to do.

Sometimes, it’s not the parents who expect too much from a child; it can be a teacher, a coach or anyone else who is pushing a child beyond the limits of their ability. There’s a fine line between encouraging a child to do their best and making a child feel oppressed by adult expectations. Encouragement and support will most likely bring out the best in a child, but pushing them too hard could cause them to have emotional problems.

If we want to protect our children from harm and prevent current and future difficulties, we need to be aware of the ways in which a child’s self-confidence, self-worth, sense of optimism and ability to function can be compromised.

Some hurtful experiences come from other types of family stressors; for example, when one of the parents or a sibling becomes ill or dies; when one or both parents are very young and ill-equipped to handle being a parent; when a parent is suffering from mental illness and their symptoms are expressed in bizarre or unpredictable behaviour toward their children; when parents are dealing with other difficulties such as work stress, financial problems, crises in the extended family, serious addictions or a troubled marriage.

All of the above are experiences which will have a negative impact on a developing child. If we want to protect our children from harm and prevent current and future difficulties, we need to be aware of the ways in which a child’s self-confidence, self-worth, sense of optimism and ability to function can be compromised.

When we see signs of dysfunction or disturbance in a young child, such as excessive anger, sleep refusal, acting out, defiance, compulsive behaviours, destructive behaviour toward themselves or others, truancy, school failure, agitation or moodiness, we need to search carefully for the roots of this behaviour and as much as possible, address the problem immediately, so as to improve things for the child, now and for the future.

Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood.