Saturday, December 12, 2009

INFIDELITY: What Does Stress Have To Do With It?

You don’t have to go far from the sex organs to understand why a man or woman would be unfaithful to his/her partner. Just look straight up to the perpetrator’s brain.

Today’s short neurobiology lesson will help you understand what I mean: Look at the commonly depicted side view of the brain and you see the thick, undulating surface called the cortex, which among other functions allows us to use logic and make rational choices in our lives. Look below the surface and observe a smaller version of the same structure, which contains the stress and emotional structures. They are responsible for the fight/fight reflex, feelings of pleasure, fear, anger and rage. Billions of interconnections between these brain parts allow logical thinking, stress and emotions to work together for a unified, effective strategy of living.

During highly stressful times, logical thinking tends to decrease dramatically. Remember that promise you made to yourself at Thanksgiving: “I absolutely refuse to binge on Mom’s apple and pumpkin pies. This year I’m going to control my urges.” Well…the pies were staring at you, and Uncle Harry was particularly annoying, so bingo!…Logic went down the drain like Aunt Mary’s lousy green bean casserole. Logic was the victim of stress, strong emotions and those pesky pleasures centers in the more impulsive parts of your brain.

Now for the salacious part of this story: A guy or gal that has never learned to manage stress effectively – one who spends too much time in the stress zone and little time in the relaxed zone - is prone to a myriad of strong feelings and bad habits. Emotional eating is one example. Drug, gambling and spending addiction are others. Sexual addiction and infidelity can be added to that list as well.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not the entire story behind infidelity. Your learning history is critical; that is, what you internalized from mom and dad’s levels of commitment and fidelity. And some people have psychiatric conditions that make them more infidelity-prone than others. Each can be risk factors for chronic unfaithfulness - and when you add stress to that formula - you have a loaded gun pointed at your marriage.

This is a case for seeking professional help. As you know, I’m a huge advocate of - to put it in the vernacular - getting your head shrunk. Don’t hesitate. All of us can use an expert’s advice in these trying times.

So this is what I hear people say about megastars being unfaithful: “It doesn’t make any sense. He has everything going for him. Why would he get himself in such a stupid jam? Doesn’t he realize the consequences of his behavior? The money, the marriage, the children. I just don’t understand. ”

Perhaps this brief and admittedly overly simplified treatise can help. You have to manage stress or it will take its toll on rational thinking and actions. No one is immune, no matter how talented, rich and famous. It’s your brain. You are responsible for keeping it happy and healthy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


My new stress book recently earned a Reviewer's Choice designation from the premier online magazine, Midwest Book Review. I'm quite honored to receive this review, so - shamelessly - I have published it below.

Construction work on your home while you're living in it can be a very stressful thing. "Now We Know Why It's Called a Punch List" is a guide for the homeowner facing renovations and wants to try to get their development pushed along in the most painless way possible while having a laugh along the way. "Now We Know Why It's Called a Punch List" is a light hearted yet highly useful read. James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief, Small Press Bookwatch

You can check-out my new book at Below you can read an interview with me about the book.

Dr. Parrino…Why did you decide to write an advice book about the stress of home renovation projects?

Every homeowner has a renovation nightmare story. Over the years, I’ve heard many of them from neighbors, family and friends, and then my wife and I had a personal experience with renovation stress. So it seemed like the perfect scenario for stress management training.

What’s the central message or piece of advice from the book?

It’s about self management: If you can’t control the people and events that hassle the heck out of you, learn to manage your internal reactions to them. Humans are naturally prone to engage in crooked thinking, especially in situations that provoke anxiety and anger. And when our emotions override logic, we react with a fight/flight response that exacerbates stress. So we must learn the very important skills of: 1) recognizing, challenging and correcting crooked thinking; mental and physical relaxation; and assertiveness training.

You mentioned crooked thinking as a stress inducer. I haven’t heard of that before. Can you give me a concrete example?

Absolutely! Expecting life events to unfold exactly as they are supposed to is an example of crooked thinking. The key words here are “expecting” and “supposed to”. This happens chronically in renovation projects. We expect goals to be met on time and costs to reflect what we were promised. When the time frame is changed and the costs have doubled, we have a “stress fit”. Believe it or not, you can learn to be much less reactive to the inevitable changes that take place in a remodeling project…and life in general . That’s what I teach in the book.

Why did you combine advice and humor?

First, there is plenty of evidence that humor and a good laugh are exceptional stress relieves, and there are very few advice books that use them as teaching devices. Secondly, the coming together of homeowners and construction crews create a very diverse group of characters, an odd coupling if you will. Take my situation. I’m a bona fide egghead who wouldn’t know a drill bit from a sledge hammer. The subs looked at me like I was from another Universe. Yet we were thrown together in one of life’s most stressful encounters. It made for some interesting dynamics and – depending on the way you think about it - a lot of humor on the way to the punch list.

The book was a quick, fun read, and the advice was easy to follow. Did you have fun writing it?

Oh yes! It is my most creative book, no doubt. And working with a talented illustrator like Susan Antinori was a blast. I would write the narrative, think of an image that accentuated it, and she quickly captured my idea in a dramatic, funny illustration. She really nailed the humor that is inherent in the wild and crazy family that is created when homeowner meets a contractor and his subs.

Friday, November 13, 2009


In my previous blog, I outlined a method for becoming a Stress Watcher; that is, someone who pays close attention to the build-up of mind and body stress in order to manage it effectively. The following is the application of this technique to help you be savvy about holiday stress.

Americans have a love/hate relationship with the holidays. We adore them as an opportunity to divert ourselves from the grind of everyday living, spend time with loved ones and indulge in fattening goodies that are forbidden the rest of the year. But we loathe the festive season when it adds stress to a mind and body already stressed to the max.

I teach my stress management clients to recognize stress by counting blocks. This exercise can be helpful for recognizing and changing the tension that many of us experience during the holidays.

Start with a scale of zero (0) to ten (10). The low end of the scale indicates total relaxation; the high end represents panic. Zero (0), for example, may be attained on a long seaside vacation. A ten (10) is appropriate if you’re visiting the zoo, a gorilla has escaped and he’s looking specifically for you.

Let’s assume you’re loaded up with five (5) blocks of stress simply from everyday living. Now observe what happens when you confront the season. Add the following stress blocks:

$ One for extra shopping.

$ One if you plan to travel to spend time with relatives.

$ One for financial distress.

$ Two for the feeling that your pants are getting tighter.

$ Five if you plan to spend time with a headstrong, stubborn, controlling or volatile relative.

Five (your regular stress level) plus 10, of course, equals 15 (maxed out). By New Years Day, you’ll be ready to run away from home to join the circus.

The solution is simple: You have to (A) start with fewer blocks of stress, and/or (B) learn to subtract stress blocks as they pile up.

The fewer-blocks-of stress solution is a reasonable option if you can do something drastic, such as take a vacation from one of the holidays. In the past five years, my family has opted for this one, and it has worked beautifully. We steal away to the beach for Thanksgiving, thus easing into December on the lower end of the scale.
To execute Option B, you have to be a bit wicked. I don’t mean wicked in the negative or amoral sense, but rather in the sense of being assertive and a little mischievous, willing to say no to events and people who demand too much, and yes to yourself.

Staying balanced can include subtracting the following stress blocks:

$ One for keeping your shopping down to a reasonable level.

$ One if you decide to stay home instead of travel.

$ One for conducting a family meeting in which you decide together to spend less this holiday.

$ Two if you give yourself permission to allow a little natural tightness in the waistline, thus avoiding the double-digit stress of gaining weight and enormous guilt at the same time.

$ Five if you manage to avoid the stress carrier relative in your family.

In sum, use the stress-blocks approach to monitor the buildup of holiday stress. Start off with less stress by radically changing your approach to one of the holidays, and make a commitment to subtract one block of stress for every one that you add. Get your family to do the same.

This little exercise may help create the happy and relaxed atmosphere you’ve always wished for during the holidays.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


The following incidents were recently reported in the news:

…A trained healer, a Physician, punches a woman in a road rage incident.
…A coach who helps manage rage on the football field assaults his assistant.
…A guy spanks a child (not his own) who disturbs him in a supermarket.

What could these - and hundreds of others incidents of anger and rage - have in common? My work in anger management suggests that stress could be a significant factor in these acts of aggression.

Stress is pervasive these days and exerts its influence on how we act and feel. And it has an especially powerful effect on the expression of potentially dangerous emotions like anger and rage. Let me show you how stress, anger and rage are connected, and how Stress and Anger Management (SAM) can help people change.

First, think of your stress potential as ten small blocks that tend to pile up in your brain and body. Your stress potential builds as soon as you experience a stressor in your daily life. If one, two or three blocks build up in your day, you’re relaxed and in pretty good shape (emotionally speaking). Five blocks represent the midpoint on this stress scale. It is the threshold point. Once you pass five, you cross into the danger zone. The closer you get to ten blocks of stress, the more apt you are to blow your top.

Okay, let’s start your day. A poor night’s sleep earns you two blocks of stress. Traffic bumps you up to four. Your bosses’ insensitivity pushes you over the threshold (five +) and into the danger zone. This stressed state primes you for emotional reactivity. You are ready to fight or flee at the slightest provocation, and you’re not even home yet. If the atmosphere at home is perfectly calm, you can subtract a couple of stress blocks, relax and enjoy your family. However, a tense home environment adds insult to injury. There’s a good chance that the minor hassles of family life will trigger irritation, hostility or full-blown anger.

Many of us race through life with chronic stress; that is, we carry between five and ten blocks of stress throughout our nervous systems on a perennial basis. I can’t be sure about the three cases mentioned above, but my suspicion is this: They were at eight, nine or even ten blocks on the stress scale. Powder kegs ready to explode.

The first step of my SAM program is to watch/monitor your stress blocks on a daily basis. You must become a good stress watcher. That means checking your stress levels three to four times per day. Stress watchers ask themselves the following questions on a regular basis: “How’s my breathing? Is it rapid or slow?” “What about muscle tension? Do I feel braced or relaxed?” And what about my mental state? Am I worried and overwhelmed by rapid-fire thoughts or am I thinking calmly and clearly?

In sum, your stress scale can build rapidly unless you learn to recognize the escalation and manage the stress before it reaches the danger zone. Through stress watching, you can begin to become keenly aware of your propensity to anger and rage. It encourages self statements such as: “I am getting awfully close to five, my danger zone, so I’d better back off, take a deep breath and deal with this situation when I’m calmer.” That slight pause prodded by self awareness is a powerful stress and anger management technique. Try it and see for yourself.

To read more about the management of stress and anger, take a look at my latest book: NOW WE KNOW WHY IT’S CALLED A PUNCH LIST: How to Cope When Your Beloved Home is Invaded by a Gang of Tool-Wielding, Tattooed, Organized-Challenged Contractors and Subs at

Future blogs will outline the other steps in my SAM program. And remember, you may discover – through your stress watching - that your anger and rage is already chronic and potentially dangerous. Please reach out for professional help. Like the three incidents mentioned at the start of this blog, there are times when stress has passed the point of self help and an expert’s advice.

As always, may your habits be calming and health-enhancing.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


The following is a model for understanding stress. It is the backbone of my stress management program, and I will return frequently to this model in future blogs.

The Stress Management System (SMS) is our primary instrument for coping with stress. It’s made up of thoughts, emotions, body reactions and actions, four of the five hardworking horses of the SMS. A simple example of how these four horses help us survive is illustrated in the fight/flight reaction to a threatening situation. You’re walking down a dark alley and a large figure confronts you. There’s no time for logical thinking. No…your brain and body go to automatic mode: an instantaneous fear response (emotions), size up the danger (reflexive thoughts), physically reactions (adrenalin rush), and take action (fight and/or flight). Logic sets in afterwards: “I’ll call the cops”.

The fifth, and frequently ignored horse, is a nurturing relationship. Yes…most of us have to whine, cry, blab, complain and spew some venom to somebody who cares.

Fortunately, our stressors don’t involve dark alleys but rather the hassles of everyday life. The five horses of stress management conduct their work in these situations as well, except in a more complex manner. Each horse has the ability to fail or triumph under stress. And, the sum of these failures and triumphs determines how well we cope with any given life stressor. You have, no doubt, experienced the following:

…Thoughts can be rational or irrational. You can worry excessively about small life events and be perfectly logical about the big ones.

…Emotions overwhelm us or help achieve a sense of relief. Expressing the right dose of anger feels good, but rage gets you into serious trouble with others.

… Body reactions are short, helpful or they stick around too long and wear out the “furniture”. An acute rise in blood pressure gets you fired up in an athletic event but chronic hypertension is a dangerous medical condition.

…Actions can be constructive or destructive. Hard work “brings home the bacon” but workaholism erodes family bonds and may be a risk factor for heart disease.

Finally, and very importantly,

…Relationships nurture or compound stress. A healthy marriage is a formula for a healthy mind and body, but marital conflict exacerbates the hassles of everyday living.

In sum, your thoughts, emotions, physical reactions, actions and relationships count. I will address each of your “stress management horses” in future blogs with an emphasis on riding each horse on a path to healthy coping.

Until then, may your habits be calming and health-inducing.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


It has been said by some wise guru on a mountain top, probably in India: If stress doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. There is a lot of capital “T” Truth in that statement. But why, you might ask, am I so stressed-out much of the time? And, do I have to get close to losing my “marbles” before learning to cope with stress and life? Allow me to play the modern-day-on-the-computer USA guru and answer these questions.

The brain and body’s Stress Management System (SMS) evolved when we were prehistoric, hanging around caves and ferocious man-eating animals. Thus it paid off to have a very “nervous” nervous system. The SMS overreacted to all threats outside of the cave but immediately relaxed when we were in the safe comfort of our homes. It turned “on” when we needed to be aroused and “off” when it was time to relax. A perfectly balanced system, if you will.

These days, the “on” switch is still very active, but we’ve lost the natural ability to turn the system “off”. Somewhere along the way of becoming “modern”, the SMS got overwhelmed. Think about the big “T’s” in our lives, that is TV, traffic, tariffs, terrorism, even too many tweets. Thus, we are walking the streets of our lives considerably out of balance. That’s why you’re so stressed-out. And that’s why you feel like you’re on the brink of losing your “marbles”. (A good analogy for brain cells: One bangs against another through neurotransmitters like serotonin and noradrenalin and a host of unpredictable, excitable reactions occur).

Okay, have I gotten your attention? Good! Stress research has come a long way in the last few decades since I wrote my first book, From Panic to Power: The Positive Use of Stress (Performance Management Publications, Atlanta, Ga.) It delineated case after case of the brain’s ability to have negative effects on the body. Unfortunately, there were more than a few professionals who were not impressed. “It cannot be” they said.

So here’s the good news: The naysayers, for the most part, have been convinced. When you go to your doc, he/she is now likely to say: “Your medical tests are within normal limits. I think you’re having a stress problem. Here’s an expert I want you to see”. Hooray!!! We’ve come a very long way.

So how are these scientific breakthroughs in stress management going to help you? First, if your doc says “go get professional help”, follow the advice. There a plenty of savvy counselors, Psychologist and Physicians who specialize in stress management these days. Call your local and state professional associations for a referral. Really, that’s a good idea.

Secondly, future blogs will focus on stress management techniques that can help: relaxation training, thought modification, assertiveness training, and many others.

And third, as I’ve stated before, I will help you distinguish between problems that are amenable to advice and self help versus those that absolutely require a professional. In the meantime, thanks for paying attention, and may your habits be calming and health-enhancing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Stress has two distinct faces: One says “Take me seriously. I’m chronic and long-term. I need professional advice”. The other states “Relax, I can handle this. Learn from me. I’m here today, gone tomorrow.”

When I teach stress management, I often look to the face for clues to the depth of brain and body problems. A seriously stressed individual – even after relaxation training – will hold tension in the corrugator muscles (that crease between the eyebrows), the eyes will appear tense and distant, and the jaw muscles will be clamped shut, as if to say “life is a grind”. What I observe further down the body correlates with the overly braced face: rapid breathing, clenched fists and fidgety legs.

On the other hand, many people respond nicely to a relaxation technique. After one session of training, they drop from stressed (5 to 10 on my stress scale) to the relaxed end of the continuum (0 to 4). They report an immediate tension-reducing effect and feelings of well-being. Their brain/body system is still flexible and amenable to change. And the face tells an important part of the story: no crease in the corrugators, relaxed eyes and jaw, as well as positive changes in breathing and overall muscle tension.

This distinction between serious and short-term stress is critical because it predicts who will respond to advice and self help, and who should out a professional.

SHORT-TERM STRESS. Acute, short-term stress is the brain and body’s way of meeting a challenge. You start a new job and are stressed-out for a while, feeling anxious, worrying, even losing some sleep. You may grumble a bit about your new boss and poke fun at yourself for not trusting your talents. After learning to cope effectively to this new life event, your symptoms of stress subside. A perfectly normal reaction to life’s threats and challenges. Stress lite, if you will.

SERIOUS STRESS. Chronic, long-term stress is a different animal altogether. It’s the tiger that continues to claw at it’s prey long after the battle is won. Or the turtle that continues to hide in its shell when the coast is clear. For example, marital conflict that persistently triggers pervasive anxiety, depression, sleepless nights and distancing from loved ones is serious. A case of stress that begs for professional attention.

The primary mission of this blog will be to focus on the acute, short-term variety of stress that is amenable to advice. I will teach you to become a stress-watcher. One who monitors his/her brain and body’s reactions to everyday hassles – your worries, fears and unhealthy habits. You will learn to become a stellar stress manager as well. And just when you think that I’m taking my “self” and stress too seriously, I might insert a humorous diversion. Humor is good stress medicine, and I will take advantage of the brain chemicals that flow when we poke fun at ourselves, forget about taking life too seriously and experience a good belly laugh.

I will write about:

…How stress triggers crooked and irrational thinking;

…How powerful feelings take our logical brains hostage;

…Why the jaw clamps down in the middle of the night and heart rate soars when we least expect it;

…Why stress and unhealthy habits make perfectly dysfunctional unions;

…How our love relationships seem to be the biggest stress triggers of all; And, of course,

…How to manage the stress beast when it rears its ugly head in your life.

The second mission of this blog is to remind you to stop and check yourself out. To encourage you to be ruthlessly honest with your “self”: Are you perennially anxious? Is it tough for you to shake a negative mood? Has marital conflict gone beyond the realm of self help? Has your alcohol and drug use – even over the counter and prescriptions medications – become excessive?

Is it time to seek professional help?

You would never think of fiddling with a faulty gall bladder. That’s a job for your GI doc and /or a surgeon. Don’t contemplate self help or media advice - even from a professional – for serious stress symptoms. That’s as dangerous as trying to shoot an alligator in your back yard with a BB gun.

Via this blog, I will try to direct you to the right counselor, Psychologist and/or Physician.

Remember…Don’t take your “self” too seriously. On the other hand, serious symptoms are never amenable to self help or media advice. They demand professional help. Learn to notice the difference.

Goodbye for now. And may your habits be calming and health-enhancing.

Dr .John j. Parrino