Food and Emotions

We need food to sustain and nurture ourselves.  And food is intricately linked to both positive and negative emotions for almost all human beings.  For example, many cultures embrace the use of food for celebration or to provide comfort in times of sadness or emotional distress. It’s normal for us  to associate food with our emotions.

But how do we know when we are feeding an emotional, rather than a physical, hunger?  And when does this become a problem?  "Emotional Eating" is a behavior that is dictated by the way you are feeling at the moment. Whenever you experience pain, frustration, depression, or boredom, you turn to food to fill the void and satisfy your emotional hunger. While you feel fulfilled during the process, afterwards you’re often left feeling worse than before. It becomes a problem when emotionally driven food habits take over from healthy eating and result in uncontrolled weight gain.  Emotional hunger has been tied to many eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating. 

Here are some ways to distinguish emotional and physical hunger:

Emotional Hunger:

  Is sudden

  Is for a specific food

Is urgent

  Is paired with upsetting emotions and situations

  Involves automatic or absent-minded eating

  Does not respond to fullness

  Comes with feelings of guilt

Physical Hunger:

  Is gradual

  Is open to different foods

Is patient

  Occurs out of a physical need

  Involves deliberate choices and awareness of the eating

  Stops when full

  Realizes eating is necessary

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The most common feelings that trigger emotional eating are stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, anger or frustration, and sadness.  The next time you’re going through an emotional phase, instead of reaching for snack food, you may want to try some of the following:

  • Stop and evaluate your feelings. Become aware of what is happening and know that if you can ride it out, it will eventually pass.  All feelings are temporary.
  • Take time out to write what you are feeling down. 
  • Release your feelings.  If you need to cry, do so.
  • Develop new mood regulation strategies.  For example, when you are anxious or stressed, try exercising, taking a hot bath or have a hot beverage.  Or call a friend you trust to talk about what is bothering you.
  • Food issues can be very complex and often involve messages we received from our families.  Awareness is key.  Often talking to a licensed professional, like a psychologist, can help.

Improving Relationships Through Vulnerability

A universal and very human struggle is how we can feel less alone and more connected to others.  Attachment is hardwired into our brains.  Like it or not, we are all social creatures in need of connection.  It's a basic need for survival, dating back to when we are newborns and are so utterly dependent on another human being to continue life.

In a now famous lecture on TED.com, Dr. Brene Brown spoke about the important concept of worthiness.  The fear that we are unworthy, she says, keeps us from fully connecting to others in our lives, and keeps us isolated and afraid.   Dr. Brown's research shows that people with a sense of worthiness believe they deserve love and belonging, have self-compassion, and possess the amazing courage to be imperfect.  People who have a strong sense of worthiness are also willing to take more interpersonal risks - they are willing to make themselves vulnerable in relationships while being comfortable with the idea that there are no guarantees and certainties in relationships.  They allow themselves to be seen and known by others while embracing their imperfections.

As a society, we are obsessed with perfection.  This also means obsession with appearing not-vulnerable.

 Perfection can mean an unhealthy preoccupation with trying to make all the uncertainties in life certain - a futile quest.  When we realize that we are indeed vulnerable human beings, we tend to try to numb this often scary feeling - by acquiring material goods and overspending, turning to food and drugs, avoiding responsibility and blaming others (just to name a few examples).

Dr. Brown says we all have an immense fear of disconnection from others; she calls this the definition of shame.  This fear is part of being human.  She suggests that in order to improve relationships and have that real connection, we could consider making ourselves vulnerable:

- To let ourselves be seen by others as we truly are

- To love with our whole hearts even though there's no guarantee

Practice gratitude and joy in everyday life

- Embrace the belief that we are enough, that we are worthy of love

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The power of vulnerability - what a concept!

Dr. Brown's full lecture is available here.

New Year's Resolutions - How About a Little Self-Compassion?

Right now we're in that funny place "between the years" - recovering from heavy meals, holiday get togethers, and getting ready for the new year.  New Year's Resolutions are starting to pop up in conversations.  These resolutions can take on a variety of shapes.  Increasing health and fitness, along with decreasing unhealthy habits, is probably one of the most common New Year's resolutions (did you know there's a public run in New York City's Central Park at the stroke of midnight of 1/1/12?).  Others resolve to improve their relationships, change their world view, volunteer and give back, set new priorities, work less and play more, or play less and work more.  I'd like to propose another option - increasing self-compassion.  

Too often do we beat ourselves up about mistakes we make or failing to achieve a goal.  While this may be an attempt at self-discipline, it often unfortunately backfires by creating more pressure, stress, anxiety, or even depression.  Most of us would agree that it's easier to feel sympathy and compassion for others than for ourselves.  How about starting to turn a little of that inward - accepting that we make mistakes, and being warm and understanding towards ourselves.  When we start looking at our imperfections and life's difficulties with self-compassion, we recognize that we can be gentle with ourselves and approach our position in life with sympathy and kindness.  This can ultimately lead to greater emotional balance.  

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Kristin Neff, a prominent researcher on self-compassion, defines self-compassion as a two-fold concept.  First, self-compassion entails noticing that we are suffering at a given moment.  Let's say you beat yourself up about your failure to complete a task on time.  Instead of playing over and over in your head that you did something wrong, try to recognize that you are having a hard time with this.  Second, self-compassion means that you feel warmth and care towards yourself, along with a desire to soothe your pain.  So instead of judging yourself harshly for your failure to complete a task, try extending understanding and kindness towards yourself when you fail or make mistakes.  

Now you may find yourself wondering how this approach will help you accomplish your goals.  You may even find yourself arguing that unless you discipline or judge or criticize yourself, you will "never" get where you need to be.  I encourage you to ponder how self-compassion may actually help you become happy and healthy.  By accepting that like others, you too are a human being who is less than perfect and makes mistakes, you can start to let go of unrealistic hurdles you place in your own way.  Life does not always happen according to our expectations.  That's okay.  That's what makes us part of this place called Earth, of this wonderful and diverse humanity.  Every single being on this earth has encountered frustration, loss, made mistakes.  We are all part of this.  Accepting this instead of fighting against it can make things so much easier for ourselves and those around us.

Some resources to learn more about and increase self-compassion:

- Visit  Kristin Neff's website.  

- A great book is The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by C.K. Germer

- Talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can be a great help. 

Staying Sane During The Holidays - Part II

I ran across this fantastic column in the Huffington Post and felt like I needed to share it here.  The author is Laura Munson, who has also written a book and a column in the

New York Times.  In the spirit of the holiday season and taking care of oneself during this hurried time, consider this an opportunity to stop, breathe, and re-prioritize your life.  For more tips on staying sane during the holidays, please also see my previous blog entry.

Check out this great column by clicking on the link below:

Why I'm Not Micromanaging Christmas This Year

by Laura Munson

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The Art of Secret Keeping

Everyone can relate to having and keeping secrets - such as secret romances, illness, sexual orientation or preferences, job or financial problems, drug/alcohol problems, or illicit ways of pleasure seeking.  You may also be keeping secrets

for

others - like a family member or friend sharing something troubling and asking you to not share it with anyone else.  Humankind has kept secrets for thousands of years, but is keeping a secret good for your health?

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James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin dedicated a large part of his career to studying the health effects of keeping and disclosing secrets.  He and his colleagues found that keeping secrets increases the body's stress response.  On the other hand, their studies found that writing down one's deepest thoughts and feelings around private matters (also called expressive writing) can have immense benefits.  Over and over again it has been shown that sharing deep, dark secrets on paper or a computer (for some even anonymously online) can improve both emotional and physical well-being.  For example, individuals who participated in the writing study made fewer visits to their physician and showed improved immune system markers.  

Besides posing a stress to our bodies, how else could keeping secrets hurt us?  People who lead a double life may have more difficulty defining their identity and may be unsure of how others may react if they showed their true selves.  Secretiveness can also affect self-esteem, as it causes people to seek out less (much needed) social support.  The social environment also poses the question of who will listen.  A social network can be of little use if it signals that it does not want to know or see the truth (also called denial).

It turns out the question around sharing vs. keeping secrets is more complex than originally assumed.  Recent research shows that keeping secrets can have a protective function for people.   For someone who is sensitive to rejection, it may be better to keep certain secrets.  And it may not be the secret keeping per se that drives people to ruin, but rather the possibility that secrets keep people isolated from others.

Maybe the lesson to be learned here is that if you choose to reveal a secret, do so to someone who feels safe and close to you.  When applying this to the concept of psychotherapy, it is interesting that one of the major factors of positive change is a positive and trusting relationship between therapist and client.  Therapists are required by law and ethics to keep what is told to them confidential (with some very specific exceptions), which is another important aspect promoting safety and therapeutic change.  This may give way to another lesson: the ability to form a safe and trusting relationship may be a pre-requisite to any big revelation.  If all else fails, we all can turn to the trusty old pen and paper - and then either shred or lock away our written secrets.

PS:  Dr. Pennebaker co-chaired my dissertation and provided invaluable support and guidance throughout my graduate student days.  I am forever grateful to him.

Resources for further reading:

Anita Kelly

 at

University of Notre Dame

James Pennebaker

 at the 

University of Texas at Austin

Job Burnout - Are You At Risk?

"Without work, all life goes rotten, 

But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies." - Albert Camus

Feeling stressed at work and unfulfilled by one's job is a familiar topic to most people.  But there is a difference between having a difficult set of days or weeks and actual job burnout.  Burnout is not an all or nothing phenomenon.  Fluctuations in motivation and enthusiasm are normal.  Job burnout occurs when enthusiasm and motivation have completely dried up while your job skills and knowledge remain intact - a very frustrating feeling.  Those hardest hit by job burnout are people in the helping and medical professions, those who make high stakes or life and death decisions, and those whose work is very detail oriented.

Burnout is a cumulative process and it is important to be in in tune with early warning signals:

- Loss of interest in work

- Emotional fatigue

- Increased moodiness and irritability in both personal and professional situations

- Increasing frustration with everyday responsibilities at work

- Inability to re-charge your internal batteries while not working

- Interpersonal problems marked by decreased tolerance and patience

- Social withdrawal - becoming aloof and inaccessible

- Indifference towards people and dehumanization of those you work with (eg, thinking of clients as objects not people)

- Health problems as a result of chronic tension or stress

- Substance abuse as a way to cope with difficult feelings

- Declining performance at work

- Being emotionally or physically absent from work

- Ceasing to find meaning in your work

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Most people suffering from burnout share an experience of powerlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness.  They lose a sense of being able to control their work and self-confidence takes a major dwindling hit.  

Re-establishing a sense of empowerment and confidence is key to addressing job burnout.

  Before deciding whether or not to quit a job, it is important that you get yourself to a replenished and rational place first.

Here are some tips to help you reclaim a sense of personal control:

-Learn better ways to manage stress.  Healthy coping is key to replenish those dead batteries and get you to a place where you can clearly assess and evaluate what to do next about your job situation.

-Seek social support.  Even though the first instinct during burnout may be to withdraw from others, it is important to counteract this instinct.  Build a solid network made up of friends, family, and coworkers.

-Increase your knowledge base.  By continuing to build your marketable job skills set, you increase your personal and professional sense of empowerment.

- Manage negative thoughts.  See my previous blog entry on Talking Back to Your Internal Chatterbox to learn how to manage types of thinking that can take control of your emotions.

- Develop detached concern.  This means learning to let go of attachment to how things could or ought to be - a skill that becomes immeasurable especially when you are working with serious or impossible situations.

- If all else fails, consider changing jobs

.  However, it is paramount that you analyze the source of your job dissatisfaction first and explore what is needed to improve the situation.

Talking to a mental health professional who specializes in job burnout can be a powerful tool to regain a sense of control.  It can help to have a neutral person to process the above topic with.  I am a Houston psychologist and enjoy working with job burnout concerns. 

Stay Sane During The Holidays

Ah, they are sneaking up on us - signs of imminent holidays.  Decorations are popping up both indoors and outdoors, there is faint hint of a jingle in the air, commercials are calling out, media programming reflects that 'tis the season, and stores are starting to buzz.  The holidays can fill us with excitement, anticipation, joy, and...stress.  There are parties to attend and/or throw, family get-togethers to get through, gifts to buy (if you're giving), homes and spaces to decorate, and work deadlines to meet.

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For almost anyone, the holidays are accompanied by mixed feelings.  The season calls for celebration, companionship, and (for many) spiritual reflection.  Yet we also often find ourselves confronted by hastiness, feelings of running out of time, financial challenges, and navigating the minefield of family relationships and related politics.

How can we stay grounded in the next few weeks?  Here are some things to consider:

1.  Set healthy boundaries with yourself and others.  This means knowing when to say no.  It also means not letting yourself get pulled into toxic relationship dynamics, often rekindled at family get-togethers.  Pick and fight your own battles, and let others do the same.  Know when to step out and give yourself time to catch your breath.

2.  Practice self-care.  This means staying in tune with your stress level and practicing active stress-management.  Pay attention to your body - the holidays often pack on the pounds, so set your food goals early on.  This could mean limiting your intake of sweets (just one cookie for me, thanks) and avoiding going back for seconds.  Make time to exercise. Make time to relax with a cup of tea.

3.  Connect meaningfully.  Think about the relationships in your life which leave you filling energized instead of depleted.  In the holiday rush, we may lack time to make that phone call or have coffee with a friend.  Be mindful of your time to allow for meaningful conversations and connections.  Holidays can be a time of sadness and loneliness.  Seek support when needed.

4.  Take time to reflect.  Make sure to allow space for spirituality or meaning, whatever this means to you personally, during this season.

Happy Holidays!

If you are having trouble navigating the many stressors of the holiday season, support is essential.  Sometimes, talking to mental health professional can help. 

Are You in an Abusive Relationship?

There is an irony - the fact that Halloween, where everything is fun and games around ghosts, spirits, and haunted houses also marks the end of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Many survivors of domestic violence continue to be haunted by their experiences even after they exit the dangerous situation.  Statistics show that 1 out of 3 women will become or has been a victim of domestic violence. Men, women, and children are victims of domestic violence and abuse daily.


Below find some warning signs that a relationship is becoming emotionally and potentially physically abusive:
1- Becomes involved quickly and pushes for a quick relationship
2-  Jealous and possessive, exhibits frequent calling and checking in behaviors
3-  Exhibits controlling behaviors
4-  Unrealistic expectations
5-  Isolates you from friends and family
6-  Blames others for his/her problems, feelings and mistakes
7-  Checks your phone for text messages and call history. May track you with GPS
8-  Says his/her feelings are easily hurt
9-  Cruel toward animals or children
10-”Playful” use of force during sex
11-Yells and calls you names
12- Subscribes to rigid gender roles
13-Sudden mood swings
14-History of battering
15-Threats of violence
16-Threatens to reveal personal or damaging information about you to your family, friends or employer

If you are in an abusive relationship, please seek help from a professional and/or a trusted friend or loved one.  If you know someone who is in an abusive relationship, please be non-judgemental and supportive and encourage the person to get help. 
NATIONAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE: 1-800-799-7233

Gratitude - It's Good For You

It's that time of the year when things are getting busy.  Thanksgiving is about one month away, and before we know it, the holidays and new year will be upon us.  This is a hectic time.  It's easy to lose touch with self-care and we may take pause less often.  What better way to give ourselves a break, especially with Thanksgiving approaching, than by acknowledging what we're grateful for.  As it turns out, practicing regular gratitude helps boost our physical, social, and psychological well-being.  More important, being grateful appears to be one of the major keys to happiness.

What makes gratitude so transformative?  First, it brings us back to the present moment by teaching us to value something we have, as opposed to fretting about something we don't have.  It allows us to notice the positives in our lives more mindfully, and move away from taking things for granted.  Second, gratitude is a wonderful antidote to toxic, negative emotions.  Try feeling resentful or envious while also feeling grateful - it won't work.  Third, gratitude gives us perspective during negative life events or stressful times.  It helps us take a step back and re-evaluate.  And finally, by recognizing what has been given and provided to us by others, we can learn to see ourselves in a more positive light.

So how can we cultivate this important virtue of gratitude?  Here are three simple tips:

1.  Keep a gratitude journal.  Every night, jot down 3 things you are grateful for.  This is like counting your blessings consciously and mindfully.

2.  Accept lessons learned, even hard ones, with gratitude.

3.  Make "thank you" a daily part of your vocabulary.  Besides using it consciously with strangers (such as the bagger at the grocery store), also make it a point to sit down with a loved one and tell them why you appreciate them.  It will do you both good.

Gratitude is an important part of emotional health and can also be one of the many techniques learned in counseling or psychotherapy.  

To read more about the gratitude research that inspired this posting, visit Dr. Emmons' article at

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good/

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Negativity: Talking Back To Your Internal Chatterbox

Thousands of thoughts run through our head every day. 

Just consider your own internal dialogues all day long – about your own actions, about others’ behaviors, about the world as a whole, about what has happened in the past, about what is yet to happen.  The way we talk to ourselves can be positive, negative, or neutral.  Or even a mix of all of those.  Self-talk is often a mostly automatic and even unconscious process.  These dialogues can turn very unpleasant – such as beating yourself up in the face of perceived “failure”.

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Needless to say, the way we talk to ourselves can give rise to many different emotions. For example, if you tell yourself that if you don’t do well on tomorrow’s presentation at work, then you’ll never get promoted.  Or if you feel like a conversation with a friend felt awkward and you find yourself wondering if they now think less of you.  Both of these examples of self-talk can result in feelings of anxiety or hopelessness.  The key about making self-talk more constructive is learning to be more gentle and compassionate in the ways we talk to ourselves.

Cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapists work with their clients to change negative self-talk into more rational responses.  The goal is that if we can start recognizing our own automatic negative thoughts and then turn them around, we can feel better about ourselves and the world around us.  Much research has been done to back this up as an effective form of therapy, especially for anxiety and depressive disorders. 

There are different categories of negative self-talk, and if you work with a cognitive or cognitive-behavioral therapist, you will get to know them intimately.  Below are some examples of negative self-talk (also called “cognitive distortions”) and more gentle alternatives.  Note that these are simple examples for illustrative purposes.

1. Should statements:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I should be able to deal with stressful situations better.
  • Better:  I know how to deal with stress and I am having a hard time right now.

2 .  Disqualifying the positive:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I hate my life, it always is so difficult.
  • Better:  There are some things going on right now that are difficult and also some things that are actually going right.

3. Emotional reasoning:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I don't feel good right now, so it feels like I can't handle anything.
  • Better:  I feel like I can't handle things right now and I know I can.

4.  Catastrophizing: 

  • Negative Self-Talk:  If I don't do well on this work presentation, my boss will think poorly of me, I'll never get that promotion, and eventually I'll be jobless and homeless.
  • Better:  Nobody's perfect.  I'll do my best on the presentation and know that less than perfect is not the end of the world.

If negative self-talk is ingrained in the way you think, and is regularly

impacting your mood and relationships, you might consider working with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.  Also look for a future installment on this blog about how to foster more self-compassion. 

Is Therapy for Me? Acute vs. Chronic Reasons to Seek Help

Most people seek out therapy or counseling during times of crisis – such as acute problems in love relationships, grief and loss, feelings of debilitating anxiety or panic, or urgent career issues.  However, many individuals are also confronted with chronic feelings of emptiness and lack of happiness.

Such individuals may have all material creature comforts but nonetheless feel that nothing truly makes them happy.  They may have the perfect partner, family, great friends, a fulfilling career.  But they struggle with the very real and human feeling that no outside influence is able to provide any true meaning to their lives.  Sooner or later they may come to the realization that they must search for meaning and happiness inside of themselves.

What is the meaning of life?  Where can we find it?  This question reaches further than any therapy.  But therapy or counseling can certainly help start or advance the journey to the answer(s).  I recommend that anyone who has suffered a lack of happiness for a significant amount of time should ask themselves these questions:

-   Have I lost the ability to feel joy?

-   Have I lost interest in activities or things I used to enjoy?

-   Do I feel guilt or resentment, but I don’t know why or against whom?

-   Do I feel anxious or restless for no apparent reason?

-   Am I obsessed with perfection?

-   Do I always have to be better or more successful than others?

-   Have I lost hope?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes”, it may be good time for you to explore the option of therapy or counseling.  The goal of therapy may not be to reach ultimate happiness, but rather to remove barriers and inhibitions on the way to finding it.

I believe the poet Rainer Maria Rilke captured the very human struggle to find meaning perfectly when he wrote: 

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them now. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, you will then gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I am a Houston psychologist and I work with both couples and individuals.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services.

How Do I Learn to Love Myself?

Our culture uses the terms “self-esteem” and “self-worth” liberally.  Thousands of books are published on it every year and hundreds of opinions written on it every day.  Many of us are constantly and painfully aware of our real or imagined shortcomings and their interference with self-acceptance and self-love.   Consequently, many of us are on a constant quest of self-improvement.

Self-worth is (1) the belief in oneself and (2) self-respect.  It is the conviction that you are competent to cope with life’s challenges and are worthy of happiness. It includes the ability to trust yourself to solve problems rather than just worry about them, take reasonable risks, and nurture yourself.  It also means being able to forgive yourself and giving yourself permission to make mistakes. 

Context has a huge influence on how we define our self-worth.  If you are a student at a competitive university and surrounded by highly intelligent people, academic success may be the main contributor to your sense of self-worth.  The same goes for those of us who define their self-worth by professional success.  And in today’s world where success is often linked to (some subjective definition of) beauty, self-worth is often defined by physical appearance.  If we are going through major life transitions, such as personal or professional changes, we can feel even more vulnerable in areas of self-love and self-worth.

What makes self-love and self-worth so tricky is that we lose sight of the multitude of factors in life that can give us meaning and define our self-worth.  We tend to assume all or nothing attitudes and self-definitions, and if you’re a perfectionist, you are twice vulnerable.  Achievement and looks aside, we play many other roles in life.  We are friends, sons/daughters, brothers/sisters, caregivers, romantic partners, supporters, activists, givers and receivers, spenders of leisure time, writers, speakers, advice givers, team members, etc.  And we make important choices every day that affect these roles.  There are many ways in which we contribute to our environment every day – ways we forget all too easily.

 Here are some ideas to start improving the way you feel about yourself:
  • Take inventory of the many ways you contribute to the world around you.
  • Learn positive self-talk – look for more on this in a future installment of this blog
  • Know your rights – this has to do with assertiveness.
    • The right to take time to slow down and think.
    • The right to change your mind.
    • The right to ask for what you want/need.
    • The right to ask for information.
    • The right to make mistakes.
    • The right to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Practice self-care and balance.  Treat yourself to something meaningful.  Be gentle with your body and mind.  You deserve it.
  • Get in touch with your strengths.  Make a list of personal strengths, both internal and external.
  • Accept compliments. Challenge yourself to simply say “thank you” after you receive a compliment.

If you are struggling with self-worth and self-acceptance, talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help. I am a Houston psychologist and I work with both couples and individuals.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services. 




What To Do About This Pesky Anger...

Anger is an interesting and powerful emotion.  We have all felt it – perhaps as a fleeting annoyance or even as full-fledged, out-of-control rage.  Anger is a normal human emotion designed as a “red flag” to let us know something is causing us stress.  But when anger takes a hold of our life, it can lead to problems at work and in relationships.



Some experts consider anger a “secondary” emotion – meaning it is formed as a reaction to and cover-up for more primary emotions, such as sadness or fear.  It may feel easier or more acceptable to express anger rather than sadness or fear. It is therefore important to first understand triggers for our anger – what in our lives is causing us this emotion.  Is it irritability with rush hour traffic, or is it flying off the handle unexpectedly after the death of a loved one?  Both involve anger but the causes are very different.  It is often helpful to determine the true cause of anger and address it directly.



Here are some thoughts about anger, meant to help guide you in the right direction of addressing it:

  • Do you bottle up your feelings rather than expressing them?  Your anger may be an issue of learning effective and assertive communication to express feelings in an appropriate and timely manner.
  • Simple relaxation tools, such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery, can help calm down angry feelings.  An example would be breathing in for 4 counts, holding your breath for 4 counts, and exhaling for 8 counts.  As you exhale, tell yourself a relaxing word, such as “peace”, “relax”, or “let go”.  Do this at least 3 times.
  • Rigorous exercise can help address anger – this is especially effective if the underlying cause is anxiety.
  • Changing your environment may be the key to address angry triggers.  This may become an “If all else fails” strategy.  For example – if it becomes increasingly difficult to control your road rage, consider public transportation.  If anger is a reaction to a toxic person in your life that drains your resources, it may be time to learn to set concrete boundaries.
  • Pick your battles.  One powerful tool to address anger is learning to distinguish between what we can and cannot change.  Then invest your energy into those aspects of your life that are worth the effort.  This may be particularly helpful if your anger is accompanied with a sense of helplessness or powerlessness.


If you feel that your anger is out of your control, impacting your relationships and important parts of your life, you might consider counseling to learn how to handle it better. A psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can work with you in developing a range of techniques for addressing and managing anger.  I am a Houston psychologist – to learn more about my services, visit DrGortner.com. 


Great Expectations and What's Love Got To Do With It




Romantic relationships are one of the most frequently discussed concerns in counseling.  Lots of people would agree that it is at least as hard to maintain a relationship as it is finding that special someone. 

What constitutes a healthy relationship?  Mutual respect, trust, and support are basic building blocks.  Honesty and safety, both physical and emotional, must be a given, not a privilege to be earned.  Open communication and willingness to negotiate keep relationships steady.  In addition, we all deserve to be respected by our partner as a unique individual, while acknowledging that we can make conscious choices to mutually make positive changes in our behaviors and attitudes towards our partner.

There are clear warning signs that a relationship is in trouble and that something fundamental needs to change.  Possessiveness and controlling behaviors, as well as threats or use of violence are obviously huge red flags.  Less easy to detect are unfair and unrealistic expectations that may slowly seep into a relationship once the initial romance wears off.  These expectations can be of your partner, yourself, or the relationship as a whole.  Some examples of common unrealistic expectations in relationships are:

  • Expecting that he/she will change.
  • Hoping that he/she will never change.
  • Assuming that your partner thinks and reacts as you do.
  • Assuming that your partner knows your wants and needs.
  • Expecting that he/she has the same priorities, goals, and interests as you.
  • Believing that the relationship will fulfill all of your social, intellectual, and personal needs.
  • Giving up other interests, activities, and friends.
  • Seeking improved self-esteem through the relationship.
  • Feeling incomplete without a relationship.
  • Expecting that each new relationship is "the one."
  • Expecting that he/she will never make mistakes.
  • Viewing conflict as a threat to the relationship and to be avoided at all costs.
  • Working hard to get the relationship started, but exerting little effort to keep it going.
  • Trying to be what he/she wants, rather than being yourself.
  • Not understanding that feelings of love and passion change with time, as do your priorities and expectations.

Most people recognize themselves somewhere in these expectations.  Individuals who succeed in relationships are able to recognize and work on unrealistic expectations of oneself and others.

Finally - what many forget is that within a relationship, you also have to be accountable to yourself.  This means that being part of a healthy relationship is taking care of yourself.  This can be deduced from several of the above bullet points.  By being yourself – from the beginning, keeping your own life balanced, and not losing yourself in the relationship, you plant seeds of stability and health within a healthy partnership. 

If you are struggling with finding or maintaining a healthy relationship, talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help. I am a Houston psychologist and I work with both couples and individuals.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services. 

Hot Summer Days Got You Down?

 We are in the midst of another heat wave in Houston as we are braving another hot summer.  For many, being outside during this time can be torture – not just physical, but also mental.  The common expectation is to be happy and outdoorsy in the summer, attending barbeques and other outdoor events.  However, you may find yourself feeling actually more depressed and irritable these days.









You may have heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that affects people in colder climates during winter months when days get shorter and colder.  It is connected with less exposure to sunlight.  What few people know is that there is a summer version of SAD. It is actually more common in the Southern United States and in countries near the equator. Like winter SAD, summer SAD affects primarily women in their 20s to 40s.

Summer SAD is thought to be related to increases in temperature and light, along with decreases in the brain’s production of melatonin, a hormone associated with sleep. Other hypothetical causes include fluctuations in barometric pressure and physical difficulty with regulating body temperature.  Individuals who are naturally sensitive to light and heat may be more vulnerable.

The primary symptoms of summer SAD are the following:
  • Poor or increased appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased irritability and/or agitation
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Increased or decreased sex drive
  • Loss of interest in your usual activities
  • Hopelessness
  • Feelings of Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
If you think you might suffer from summer seasonal affective disorder, here are some recommendations.

Limit your exposure to heat. Stay indoors in air conditioning.  Plan some indoor social activities (for example, game night).  Some people with extreme forms of summer SAD prefer windowless rooms and using ice packs to cool down their body, especially at night.

Get enough sleep. Make sure your sleeping quarters have a consistent cool temperature.


Eat light meals and keep a regular exercise schedule.  Stick to indoor exercise during extreme heat.

Plan your vacation in a cooler climate, if possible. 

Wear Polarized Sunglasses.  This is important for everyone, but especially light skinned and blue-eyed people.  For some, wearing these types of glasses already translates to mild to moderate mood boost.

Recognize you are not alone! The difference between what we think we “should” feel in the summer (energetic, happy, carefree) and what we may actually feel (anxious, bored, uncomfortable) can alone lead to feelings of irritability and depression. Remember, even though it may seem as if everyone else is having a wonderful time frolicking in the sun, many people are not and are coping with some of the same concerns as you!  

Recognize there is help.  If you are having suicidal thoughts or have been struggling for more than two weeks with the symptoms listed above, get help from a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.

I am a Houston psychologist specializing in depressive disorders such as SAD.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services. 

Finding Yourself High and Dry? Navigating Stress During a Financial Crisis

The financial crisis is back on everybody’s mind as we have been watching the news.  Money worry is familiar to most of us.  And it doesn’t help to see this issue illuminated from all angles on our news networks.  No matter what your employment status or how far away you are from retirement.




People deal with financial stress in different ways.  Some take the “head in the sand” (aka ostrich) approach by avoiding thinking or talking about the topic.  This can often backfire – the more we suppress certain thoughts, the more likely they are to pop back up in sneaky ways in our minds (research backs this up).  This approach can also leave us in the dark when we may need to make important decisions. 

Other people become obsessed with the topic and find themselves glued to the TV screen, analyzing each minute detail.  This too can be unhealthy, as it takes away important mental resources from our daily lives and may not help us solve the problem. 

In this, as with many other issues, balance is key when we try to cope.   Here are some things to keep in mind:

Be News Savvy.  While it’s important to stay in the know, don’t get caught up in the media hype prophesizing doom and gloom.  Try to limit your news intake to a certain amount of time per day - for example 15-20 minutes from a trusted news source.  Avoid these news first thing in the morning or right before bedtime.

Take Inventory.  It is important to assess what in life we are in control of, as opposed to what we are not.  All too often we grip onto and waste our energy on things that will run their course.  If you are immediately affected and/or have lost your job, create a written outline on how you and your family can manage expenses and finances differently and more efficiently.  Reaching out to credit counseling services and financial planners can help alleviate anxiety.  Talk to your bank, utility companies, and credit card companies about payment options.  Research options for continuing education to make yourself more marketable.

Notice How You Deal With Stress.  Stress can be sneaky – before we know it, we can turn to food, inactivity, smoking, alcohol, or other substances to somehow manage it.   We may withdraw from family and friends and lose sight of what’s important.

Identify Healthy Choices.  Take a walk with a loved one, try a new recipe at home, call a friend.  Be proactive while taking care of yourself.  Reach out for support.  Make sure to eat right and make some room for exercise and socializing – again, things you can control. 

Be Patient.  Uncertain times leave us with more questions than answers.  It takes courage and tenacity to weather these types of storms.  Having question marks in our lives can help us reflect on what’s important.  And this can leave us richer in the long run.

If you continue to be overwhelmed by the stress, it can be useful to seek professional support.  A career counselor can help you create a concrete vision and goals if you are in a job transition.  A psychologist can help you address the emotions and meanings behind your worries and teach new skills to manage stress.  I am a Houston psychologist – to learn more about my services, visit DrGortner.com.  


Need A Good Night's Sleep? Some Thoughts on Insomnia

Many things keep us up at night - a crying child, the financial crisis, stress at work, difficult conversations to be had, a conflict,  just to name a few.  Almost everyone knows the nuisance of occasional insomnia – or, difficulty falling or staying asleep.  About 60 million Americans a year have insomnia frequently or for extended periods of time.  Older people and women tend to suffer more. 
While causes often include situational stress or life habits, medical and psychological conditions can also be a factor.  Sometimes depression or anxiety are to blame.  Insomnia over the long term can affect productivity in work and personal life.
Here are some tips that can help with mild insomnia:
·      Avoid Disruptive Waves:  Turn off any screens – computers, TV, cell phones, reading devices – 1-2 hours before bedtime.  Screens emit waves that interfere with the brain’s sleep function.  Preferably, keep these devices out of the bedroom.
·      Establish a Routine:  Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day, even weekends.  Avoid daytime naps.
·      Set the Stage:  Keep your bedroom orderly and clean.  Keep the temperature comfortable (most people prefer 68-74 degrees).
·      Embrace the Ritual:  Establish a bedtime ritual to signal to your body and mind that it’s time for bed.
·      Natural Remedies:  Herbal tea, warm milk, as well as ginger and lavender products can help with relaxation.  Flat ginger ale at room temperature has worked wonders for numerous people.  Stay away from caffeine after 4 pm.
·      Write It Down:  If to-do lists, ideas, or conversations keep re-playing in your mind, jot them down on a bedside notepad.  That helps clear the mind.
·      Meditation:  In your mind’s eye, outline an equilateral triangle over and over again.  When your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to the triangle. 




It is important to learn the cause of your insomnia.  Some types of insomnia require medical or psychological treatment.  Consult with your health care provider if you suffer from chronic and severe insomnia. 

Talking to a professional about the concerns that pre-occupy you, including insomnia, can be immensely helpful.  I am a Houston psychologist – to learn more about my services, visit www.drgortner.com.