Friday, April 18, 2008

Exercise – It Does A Brain Good

New studies show that exercise increases serotonin in your brain which lifts your mood and keeps depression at bay.

Are you finding yourself feeling a little down recently? As we settle back into the hustle and bustle of everyday life following the holidays, it's natural to feel a bit sad. Everyone feels this way from time to time, either out of the blue or as a result of difficult life circumstances. However, occasional sadness is very different from clinical depression

Depression is defined by prolonged feelings of sadness, rejection, and hopelessness. Many people who suffer from clinical depression report several of the following symptoms: low mood, low energy, changes in sleep, changes in appetite, loss of interest in enjoyable activities or hobbies, feeling worthless or guilty, difficulties with concentration, feeling hopeless, helpless, and restless. In severe cases, depression can cause individuals to struggle with social, work, or family situations.

Depression is very common. Recent studies found that one in four women and one in six men will suffer from depression at some point in their lives. While the exact cause of depression remains unknown, it is thought to come from a combination of several factors, including genes, environment, lifestyle, brain chemicals, psychology and personality. As such, the treatment for depression aims to address several of these factors.

There's great news for many of us who suffer from mild sadness to clinical depression – exercise can change chemicals in your brain to lift your mood and keep depression at bay.

New studies show that not only is exercise great for your body, it also has tremendous mood lifting potential. One recent study compared the effects of exercise and medication in treating depression. The participants were divided into three groups who were evaluated over a 4 month period. Group one took antidepressants, group two started exercising aerobically, and the third group did both, that is they used both medications and exercise. The results of the study showed that:
· All three groups improved.
· Group one (antidepressants only) improved the fastest, but had only moderate success.
· Group three (antidepressants plus exercise) improved more slowly, but had the most success after treatment – 69% of them were no longer classified as clinically depressed, as opposed to group one or two, who recovered at slightly lower rates, 66% and 60% respectively.

The changes illustrated by this study have to do with an important brain chemical called serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that acts like a "messenger chemical" which regulates your sleep and wake cycles, libido, appetite and mood. Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters that has been strongly linked to depression. Many of the pharmaceutical treatments for depression work by elevating the levels of serotonin in your brain, thereby influencing your mood.

Some researchers have found that regular exercise, and the increase in physical fitness that comes from exercise, boosts serotonin levels in the brain and leads to improved mood and feelings of wellbeing. Some research indicates that regular exercise also boosts body temperature, which may ease depression by influencing brain chemistry. In addition to changing your brain's chemistry, exercise can help you to feel better by increasing your self-esteem, giving you the chance to socialize, depleting stress chemicals like adrenaline, and helping you to break out of negative thinking cycles.

Some ways you can use exercise to help manage depression include:
· Choosing a wide range of fun exercise activities, perhaps joining a team
· Asking a friend or family member to be your exercise partner, this will help you stay motivated and consistent, as well as adding conversation to the activity, which will make it even more enjoyable and rewarding.
· Aiming to exercise 2-3 times per week, for at least 30 minutes, at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate.
· Incorporating warm up and cool down times, as well as stretching and strength training activities.

If you have been inactive for a while, it's ok, you can still get mood benefits from exercise, you just need to go a little slower. It may be best to start with lower intensity activities for shorter periods of time, like walking for 5 minutes, instead of swimming for 30 minutes. You do not want to strain your body or incur any injuries, so gradually build up to your desired frequency and level of intensity.

The best news is that you can play an active role in your recovery from depression. While research suggests that regular exercise may be effective to prevent depression and also to treat mild depression, it is not a "cure." It may also be that if you are clinically depressed, you are suffering from some other conditions that exercise may not help. Exercise can work to supplement your medication and therapy to help you get better faster, but it is not a stand alone treatment. Your best bet is to work with your doctors and therapists to make your treatment as effective as possible, wherein exercise can play a big role. And if you're not currently depressed, exercising may be one of the best things you can do to stay happy and healthy.

by Britton Arey, MD and Kathy Nickerson, PhD
for OH Magazine, March/April 2008

Sunday, February 17, 2008

ELIZA - Online Virtual Psychologist

Hi Friends. Happy Sunday.

I just ran across something I used to play with as a kid that was very fun. It's ELIZA, an artifical intelligence based "virtual psychologist". Basically, you type in your problem, and it will help refocus your thoughts. As a kid, I thought it was so great; as an adult, it certainly seems less sophisticated. But if does help to draw answers out of you.

Here's the link:

It's based on an artifical intelligence algorithim that scans for keywords (like never, always, I feel...) and then it helps you to reflect and asks you more questions. It's absolutely better for some problems than others.

If you'd like, give it a try then let me know what you think.Maybe it will be time for folks like me to retire. :)


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Can my relationship be saved?

Lately a lot of folks have been asking me if their relationship can be saved. They report that their relationship has been bad for years, that they're pretty sure they want to leave, and they want to know if I think they should get a divorce.

So here's where I have to admit some bias....I am always on the side of marriages staying together.

However, here's what I would say to someone wondering if they should stay or leave their marriage:

I'd always encourage you to act in ways that make you feel good about yourself and your life. If this relationship has reached a point where it can no longer be saved, that's a decision for you to make. I always believe there is hope and that any marriage can be made better, but as to whether or not we should keep trying, that's something I cannot tell you. Any decision needs to be yours because you know yourself and your feelings better than I ever will. I am always on the side of trying to make things work, but if you do not feel that's in your best interest or that it can work, I will certainly understand and support you. You deserve to be happy and to be in a relationship that brings you joy.

Here are some questions to ask yourself and to think about:

-Can you say that you have done all you can to make this work?
-Have you taken responsibility for the things you have done that have caused the relationship to be in this state?
-Is anyone else a factor in this relationship?
-Do you have realistic expectations of what things would be like if you left?
-Can you feel comfortable looking at your kids 5-10 years from now explaining the decision you might make?

Your answers to these will be so telling....

It would be easy for me to tell you to stay or go, but in so doing, I am "playing God" - I can't know what's right for you, I can only say that I trust that you to know what's right for you, that you have the answer inside of you, and that the best I can do is help bring that answer to the surface.

But to run with it a little more - how would you feel if I told you to throw in the towel?

Should I stay or go? Questions to ask if you think you want a divorce:

How To Know When to Call It Quits

How do you know when to throw in the towel or when your marriage has reached the point of no return? Ask yourself some key questions before making the decision to file for divorce.
  • Are the two of you fussing with one another over trivial matters?
  • Does just about everything about your spouse irritate you?
  • Has your spouse physically or emotionally abused you? Are you afraid of your spouse?
  • Do you believe that your love, patience and hope have just all run out?
  • Can you communicate about anything or do you always end up in a disagreement?
  • When you fight, do you fight fair? Do either of you bring up past hurts?
  • When was the last time you had fun together?
  • When was the last time you felt sexually attracted to each other?
  • Do you still make love?
  • Do the same problems keep resurfacing again and again?
  • Have you tried counseling?
  • Can you accept that your personal unhappiness is your own responsibility?
  • Does your spouse constantly put you down, attack your self-esteem, and/or criticize you?
  • Do you have any respect for your spouse? Does your spouse respect you?
  • Are you willing to co-parent the rearing of your children with your ex-spouse?
  • Are your goals and values different?
  • Can you compromise on important issues?
  • Has your spouse been unfaithful?
  • Do the same problems keep resurfacing again and again?
  • Do you have dreams of divorce or that your spouse died?
  • Do you have a plan if you do divorce?
  • Are you able to cope with the financial and emotional stresses of divorce?

It is important that you face the realities of divorce and not the fantasy.

Sometimes an unhealthy relationship cannot be saved and divorce is inevitable.

Realize that you must keep yourself emotionally and physically healthy through this stressful time.

You won't make rational decisions if you are depressed or sleep deprived.
©2007, Inc., a part of The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The thing you are ripening towards....

Hi friends. I was browsing through a book store last week and came across the most amazing book - BLOOM by Kobi Yamada. It's a collection of inspirational quotes and thoughts.

This one was especially moving...

The thing you are ripening towards is the fruit of your life. It will make you bright inside, no matter what you are on the outside. It is a shining thing.-Stuart Edward White

I might have changed it to say that YOU are a shining thing.

When we are struggling through a hard time in our lives, it's so natural to turn our thoughts to all of our flaws. It's so easy to forget that there's so much good in us. That we are all works in progress and that we are all becoming better, taller, stronger, brighter every day.I hope this quote touches you and inspires you to bloom into all that you're meant to be.


Dr. Kathy Nickerson is an expert counselor who helps couples and families improve and strengthen their relationships. She specializes in marriage counseling, couples counseling, and pre-marital counseling. Many of her Kathy's materials, including audio recordings of the how-to questions she is most frequently asked, are available at no cost on her website: Kathy would love to hear from you and she may be reached at 949.222.6688 or via email to

Update - Dr. Kathy on COX Forum

Hi Friends. Just wanted to let you know that you can see my on Cox Channel 3 Forum on 02/14 at 7pm. I will be talking about the effects of violence in the media on kids. I'd love for you to watch and let me know what you think! Thanks so much.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

How to HEAL from Anger

Do you ever find yourself feeling very angry and frustrated that you can't do anything about it? If so, you're not alone.

Psychologist Steven Stosny explains that feelings of anger surge very quickly and that relaxation techniques and impulse-control strategies - often touted as the gold standard for anger management - just don't work. We get too angry, too fast for these standard tips to be effective and when we fail, we feel guilty and ashamed, which actually worsens our feelings of anger.

Stosny suggests a new method for getting over our feelings of anger, he calls it the HEALS technique:

H: HEALING WORD. When you first start to feel angry, think of the word "heals" in your mind. If a situation is upsetting you, imagine a billboard with the word "heals" painted on it; if a particular person is making you mad, picture that person's face with the word "heals" painted on their forehead.

E: EXPLAIN. After you've pictured the healing word, Stosny recommends that you try to talk out or explain your "deepest core hurt" that lies behind the anger. To do this, ask yourself: what am I feeling? What really upsets me so much about this? What's the deepest part of this feeling? What thought makes this feeling so intense?

A: ACCESS. The third step is to "access your core value": Review those things that make your life worth living, like good things you've done, the last compliment you received, the loving relationships you have, the values and morals you're proud of.

L: LOVE. Next, "love yourself" - do this by saying supportive and loving things to yourself. Tell yourself the things you'd tell a close friend or a loved one who was telling you that they didn't think they were good enough - you might say, "It's not true that you're dumb, remember when we all played Scrabble and you won?" or "It's not true that you're insensitive, remember when you took flowers to Mark's house when you heard his mom had cancer?"

S: SOLVE. Finally, "solve the problem": Look at what is really going on underneath the anger. Anger is a normal and healthy emotion, but one we need to be careful with. It's your responsibility to address the feelings that underlie the anger and work on them. My favorite technique for doing this is to write down what I am feeling on a piece of paper, think of all the evidence for and against my feelings, then come up with an action plan.

To become a pro at managing your anger, Stosny prescribes 750 repetitions over the course of four to six weeks, which will train you to automatically go through the HEALS process during moments of stress. "What we try to do is condition this core value experience to occur with the arousal itself," Stosny says. "As soon as you start to get angry, you think about how you love this person. You have to practice getting angry, think about something that got you angry, feel the arousal and then practice it. It's like basic training in the military."

Give this technique a try and then let me know how it works for you - I'd love to hear from you!



Dr. Kathy Nickerson is an expert counselor who helps couples and families improve and strengthen their relationships. She specializes in marriage counseling, couples counseling, and pre-marital counseling. Many of her Kathy's materials, including audio recordings of the how-to questions she is most frequently asked, are available at no cost on her website: Kathy would love to hear from you and she may be reached at 949.222.6688 or via email to

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Morning Pages - My Secret to Rebalancing and Staying Optimistic

Recently a client remarked, "How can you be so happy? All day long you listen to people's problems. I don't understand how that can't affect you."

Well, the truth is, it does affect me. I love the people I help and I am personally invested in their getting better and feeling happier, so their problems become - for a little while each day - my problems too. Some might say that this means I am too involved with my clients, if so, OK, I accept that. But to really hear and understand someone is to walk a while in their shoes.

So to help me re-balance myself and stay optimistic, positive, and energized, I do a very specific exercise: Morning Pages.

In Julia Cameron's book, The Artist's Way, she explains that Morning Pages are "three pages of long-hand writing, strictly stream of consciousness thoughts." So for me, this might be, "I am tired this morning and worried about John, I wonder if he's been doing his homework, although I didn't do much homework." In her text, Julia explains about the value of writing and getting your thoughts out on to paper. Morning Pages are nothing fancy, in fact, very often, they're not even that interesting.

There is something so restoring about starting the day off with a good walk, a cup of coffee, and Morning Pages - where you can dump out all of your brain's overworked thoughts and start creating anew.

For more about Morning Pages, please see:


Dr. Kathy Nickerson is an expert counselor who helps couples and families improve and strengthen their relationships. She specializes in marriage counseling, couples counseling, and pre-marital counseling. Many of her Kathy's materials, including audio recordings of the how-to questions she is most frequently asked, are available at no cost on her website: Kathy would love to hear from you and she may be reached at 949.222.6688 or via email to