Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Use of Eye Movement Therapy to Tackle Intolerance

Here are the major points I’ve made in previous blogs:

… The early learning experiences from parents and significant others that teach us to overuse “the suspicious eye” – the brain’s survival reflex that mistakes a stick for a rattlesnake - can add fuel to the fire of an aversion to differences.

… If we took ten people who stated openly - “I just don’t particularly care for people from that country” – and measured their brain-body reactions when talking about “those people”, we would find that their fight-flight response was activated at some level, from mild to extreme arousal.

… Stressful events are stored in the emotional centers of the brain, and influence unconscious feelings and automatic reactions in adulthood. It helps answer the question: Why is it so tough to embrace our differences?

… When a negative memory and focused attention to eye movements occur together, the dual stimulation seems to weaken the negative memory. This neural pathway to therapeutic success is one of several theories that are currently being investigated to help explain the rapid success of eye movement therapy.

Can the information summarized above help in the fight to reduce intolerance and embrace diversity? If we transfer the positive results in the last 20 years in stress and trauma reduction (scientifically validated in the EMDR journal) to the areas of bullying, ethnic and sexual intolerance, the possibilities become exciting, particularly for a stress expert like me. Let’s take the example of bullying.

Consider these alarming facts.

…Children and youth in the U.S. are teased and tormented by bullies to the extent that 160,000 students skip school each day (Olweus, 1993).

…86 % of children and youth ages 12-15 said they get teased or bullied at school, making bullying more prevalent than smoking, alcohol, drugs and sex among this age group (Kaiser Foundation, Nickelodeon TV Network and Children Now, 2001).

…The most common forms of bullying are related to physical appearance, disabilities, perceived sexual orientation or gender expression (Survey, 2008). 31 % of gay youth get threatened or injured at school in one year (Bart, 1998).

Bullying is not limited to the U.S. but occurs in countries throughout the world. The most disturbing fact is provided by the course authors who reviewed the studies cited above: “…the common thread in all countries is that children are relentlessly and repeatedly bullied without significant objections or outrage from responsible adults.” (Elite Continuing Education)

Clearly, we need to help children and youth who have been victims of intimidation with every therapy method available. To make a dramatic inroad into this problem, we need to treat the children and youth who are the perpetrators of bullying. And we need to get to them as early as possible. My expertise is primarily with adults, but many EMDR trained therapists, thousands of them, are child experts. They have used their technology very effectively to work with child trauma, stress and anxiety issues, and a host of other problems. The technology is available to apply an eye movement desensitization approach in an early intervention program for children and youth who show bullying and intimidation tendencies.

In order to accomplish this goal, we need a bit of “outrage from responsible adults”: teacher, parents, administrators, government officials, physicians and mental health workers.

This is just one example of how we can get started in making inroads to the rampant problem of intolerance. I hope to discuss other ways in future blogs. Visit for more on EMDR and other relaxation and desensitization technologies.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Intolerance and Reprocessing Bad Memories

I think we can all agree that intolerance is getting worse in our country and perhaps is spreading like an epidemic. A recent AP poll has found that racism has actually increased in this country in the last four years since we’ve had an African-American president. The same poll found that negative attitudes towards Hispanics has increased as well. Bullying in our schools and neighborhoods is more rampant than ever. Kids who are diverse in any way – disabled, homosexual and those of a different ethnic origin – are reporting more incidents of harassment than ever. There are certainly numerous causes for this increase in intolerance towards diversity, but as a stress expert, I want to explore the role of stress and unprocessed memories in this etiology of intolerance. And, most importantly, these questions: Is there something that can be done about this growing problem? Do mental health professionals have a technology that can help?
To gain a basic understanding of what happens during stress and trauma, consider this scenario: A child is surrounded by the security of his home environment.  Suddenly, the serenity is shattered by the frightening sounds of mom and dad fighting. The child’s two heroes, the only dependable sources of security in his life, are having a knock-down-drag-out.  This scares and overwhelms the child, and his reflexive emotional reactions are fear and anxiety. His heart pounds and breathing is rapid. He wants to flee, to retreat to a safe place, but there is nowhere to hide.
Luckily, the fighting subsides and mom and dad approach their child to soothe his frazzled nerves: "It's just a little disagreement honey. Everything is okay." This nurturing is helpful, and for the moment, he can let go of the trauma.  But the brain has an important job to do: It stores this fear-provoking experience in a memory network that’s coded “dangerous altercations".
Imagine the multitude of times this danger signal becomes activated in childhood.  After years of labeling, storing and coping with stress, our brains have developed numerous networks of memories to remind, prepare and protect us from future threats.  And there are billions of brain cells devoted to this task.
As adults, relationship conflict may trigger the activation of this same neural network and avoidance/flight becomes the norm. The distinction between past and present threat is blurred. As far as our brains are concerned, we are still in danger and escape may be our only mode of survival.
            In a case of chronic conflict avoidance, a therapist who practices EMDR therapy (mentioned in an earlier blog) encourages the individual to call up and hold the threatening memory while focusing on a compelling stimulus (a finger moving rapidly in front of his\her eyes)? The dual task – paying attention and calling up a memory – is inherently difficult for the brain. And, when memory and focused attention occur together, the dual stimulation seems to weaken the negative memory. This neural pathway to therapeutic success is one of several theories that are currently being investigated to help explain the rapid success of eye movement therapy.
A dual attention task like eye movements, when used by a qualified clinician as part of a comprehensive, eight step treatment plan, speeds up the process of change.  Every facet of therapy is accelerated: insight into problems, connecting past to present, the release of powerful emotions, relaxation and behavior change.
The eye movements (and other dual attention maneuvers developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro) have a way of breaking into the neural network of the brain that holds dysfunctional memories.  Once the clinician breaks into the network, the data spring to life.  And when this "release" takes place, resolution is not far behind. According to Shapiro, the memory has been successfully reprocessed.
            In my next blog, I will discuss the potential use of EMDR therapy to tackle the growing problem of intolerance. Visit my blog,, to read my article on this fascinating procedure: Stress Relief Benefits of Reprocessing Bad Memories.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Stress and Prejudice: The Role of Memory in Triggering Intolerance

Consider the following fabricated scenario: As a child, you repeatedly experienced your mom and dad fighting over money.  The greenbacks were scarce in those days and major expenditures created stress, tension and conflict. You grow up motivated to develop your own business and, due to skill and a little bit of luck, you become successful beyond your wildest dreams. You are now wealthy and the green stuff is no longer a scarcity in your life. This should enable you to relax about money and prevent it from being a source of stress, tension and conflict with your spouse. Right? Well, not exactly. Let me tell you why.

The memory of repeated arguments about money are stored in various parts of your brain – particularly the emotional centers – that continue to get aggravated when dealing with major expenditures, even though the common sense, logical brain can say: “Hey, why worry? I’m incredibly rich!” This phenomenon of the “worried rich” is due to what’s called “unprocessed memory”. In a nutshell, your brain is very sensitive about being poor when you were a vulnerable kid. The emotional centers still compel you to believe that spending significant amounts of money is a threatening experience.
Unprocessed memories cause problems in many facets of our lives. Because these memories are connected to the fight-flight response, they tend to override the logical, thinking process of our brains. If there is a perceived threat in our environments, the emotional brain usurps our ability to use common sense. The brain automatically thinks: “This is a matter of survival. Forget logic, let’s send out the troupes”.
This research on stressful and traumatic early memories  - and how they continue to haunt us into adulthood - has been spearheaded by a brilliant Psychologist, Dr. Francine Shapiro, the originator of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy procedure that treats unprocessed memories.  I will write about EMDR in future blogs. For now, it is important to use Dr. Shapiro’s work to help make the connection between memories and intolerance.
Once again, consider the fabricate scenario - your early stressful experience with mom, dad and money. This time, however, substitute greenbacks with tension and conflict over the ‘foreigners’ who moved next door to you when you were eight years old. Mom wanted to befriend them, make them feel welcome in the neighborhood, but dad objected violently to this idea. They fought over this issue repeatedly, and mom finally gave in to dad’s knee-jerk, stereotyped ideas about them, which he learned in his family of origin.
Unless you experienced a major desensitizing experience with these ‘foreigners’ during childhood - like befriending and having fun with their children - you would be prone to shy away from this group, perhaps even, like dad, find yourself with an angry aversion to them as an adult. This is one way that unprocessed memories lead to intolerance of others. These stressful events are stored in the emotional centers of your brain, and influence unconscious feelings and automatic reactions in adulthood. It helps answer the question: Why is it so tough to embrace our differences? My next blog will focus on one potential solution to the issue of intolerance. Visit, for more info on stress and memory.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Stress and Prejudice: The Fight-Flight Response

By now, everyone is familiar with the fight-flight response; that internal, brain-body reaction that occurs when we become afraid (flight) and angry (fight). It also occurs in more subtle ways when we become timid (flight) and defensive (fight). It’s the brain’s way of alerting us to a threat in the environment so that we can prepare to tangle with the danger or get the heck away from it. And this reflex - with all of its accompanying adrenalin rush - is often present when you don’t want or need it: giving a speech or trying to have an important talk with your spouse about the state of the “union”. 
T he stress reaction can leap out of nowhere: a current situation in your life taps an unconscious memory that makes you feel queasy. Your body is giving you a distress  signal that - once upon a time - this stranger you’re talking to reminds you of a guy/gal who bullied you in high school. You experience the feelings but not the bad memory that’s connected to him/her. You don’t know why but there’s an instant  dislike and aversion to this person. 
If we took ten people who stated openly - “I just don’t particularly care for people from that country” – and measured their brain-body reactions when talking about “those people”, we would find that their fight-flight response was activated at some level, from mild to extreme arousal. They might say, when asked about the origins of this dislike: “I don’t know, It’s just a gut feeling.” IF we investigated this response further, we would likely find some aversive memory associated with this automatic dislike that the group of ten was not aware of. This “memory factor” will be the subject of my next blog. For more info about stress and its effect on our lives, visit my website at

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stress and Prejudice: Why Is It So Tough to Embrace Our Differences?


I have been a stress expert for several decades, and my thoughts have recently turned to the effects of stress on prejudice and intolerance. I grew up in the inner city with mixed ethnic groups living and working together, and was accustomed to hearing three languages spoken, sometimes in the same sentence.  My dad only went to the second grade, never learned to read or write, and spoke English with a distinct Italian accent. But people who knew languages would say that he spoke Italian and Spanish as if he had been to graduate school. My high school educated mom spoke four languages. So it makes sense that my mind has now turned to the issue of multiculturalism.

My blogs on this subject will focus on educating you about the potential stress-related triggers to  prejudice. I realize that intolerance and bullying cause an enormous amount of stress on its victims, but the literature on this subject is growing and significantly larger than writings on stress as a potential trigger  for victimizing others.

Why is it so tough to embrace our differences? My belief is that an understanding of the brain’s fight-flight response and the way the brain stores threatening memories will educate readers about one important variable that contributes to the growing threat of intolerance in modern society.

I am a Clinical Psychologist with advanced training in the neurosciences so my focus will be on stress from a brain, body and behavior perspective. In future blogs, I will write about the fight-flight response and the brain’s tendency to overreact emotionally to perceived threat, as well as the issue of early learning and memory storage of emotional experiences.

First a caveat and disclosure: I realize that prejudice and intolerance are complex issues and don’t pretend to know the answer to these problems. Clearly, there are multiple causes that are being considered by other professionals such as Social Psychologist, Sociologists and specialists on racism. My intent – based on decades of work on stress and anxiety – is to fill in the gap of information on the mental, physical and behavioral sides of the intolerance of diversity.

In a way, we all have the capacity to be cautious, suspicious even paranoid about people who are different from us.  It stems from a built-in, automatic brain system that keeps alert about potential dangers in our environment. I call it the “suspicious eye”.  The early learning experiences from parents and significant others that teach us to overuse this “eye” can add fuel to the fire of this aversion to differences.

The knowledge of the effects of stress on prejudice may give us clues to the most important issue: How do we increase tolerance of diversity in our world. That’s my ultimate goal for writing this blog. For more information about stress and its profound effects on brain, body and behavior, you can visit my website at

Sunday, January 8, 2012

NEVER POINT A LOADED GUN AT YOUR MARRIAGE: How to Conquer Stress Before It Slays Your Love

A married couple must confront more than a ‘lack of communication’ to heal a troubled relationship. Stress is a silent killer of love. The brain’s habit of swiftly igniting stress and defensiveness - the fight flight reflex - is the smoking gun of love’s demise.
In my new e book, NEVER POINT A LOADED GUN AT YOUR MARRIAGE: How to Conquer Stress Before It Slays Your Love, I use jungle animals – a Tiger and Giraffe - to symbolize the fight and flight reactions that are natural in all of us. These animals have opposing traits in the jungle, yet they are irresistibly attracted to each other. I often warn my clients: “You know the honeymoon is over when primordial habits appear on the marital scene: Conflict escalates, the Tiger claws at the Giraffe for love, and the tall, repressive animal retreats for cover.”
My mind-body strategy for love relationships is based on the powerful principles of Relationship Stress Management (RSM). Readers will learn to manage destructive thoughts, relax defensive reactions, and emit positive actions in the midst of conflict. As they learn to conquer their impulses to fight (the Tiger) or flee (the Giraffe), they tap the Love Reflex (the Elephant) – an instinctual yearning to reach out and connect with their partners.
This fable is a simple, entertaining and profound story. Readers will experience a personal safari through the jungle of love, and uncover the Tiger, Giraffe and Elephant in their love lives. And they will discover that the principles of RSM are powerful tools in their pursuits of marital health and happiness.

You can purchase a copy of my new eBook on Amazon by clicking here

You can find my website at

Friday, January 6, 2012

Stress Relief Benefits of Humor in Our Favorite Sitcoms

John J. Parrino, Ph.D

Sitcoms give us a chance to relax, let go of reality and experience some good belly laughs. Let’s dig a bit deeper into the dynamics of the characters to decipher how these shows provide viewers with the benefits of stress relief.

Many sitcoms feature a control freak – often a man – who strives to be the center of his Universe. One or more victims revolve around this character and are the brunt of his jokes and putdowns. A counterbalancing force, a nemesis, is often present to keep the control freak in check.

Two and a Half Men is a perfect example. Charlie is the self-centered, control freak who uses sex appeal, money and an outrageous self confidence to control his brother and the plethora of women in his life. Alan doesn’t have a chance against Charlie. He’s divorced and broke, with no place to live and low self esteem. This up-down relationship provides lots of laughs, mainly at Alan’s expense.

Much of the fun in sitcoms stems from the battle between the control freak and his nemeses. Jake, Charlie’s nephew, ignores his Uncle and prefers to focus on food, games and bodily functions. Berta, the brute of a housekeeper, downsizes Charlie’s huge ego every chance she gets. She doesn’t give a flip about his sex appeal or money, and refuses to feed his inflated sense of self. By the end of each episode, nemesis Berta provokes change in the group dynamics. Charlie temporarily loses control of his finely tuned Universe, and Alan recovers a bit of respect at his brother’s expense, only to start again next week with the same old scenario.

Is this an all-too-familiar psychodrama? Of course! In real life, self-centered people are perennially manipulating us for their own good. This is what the creators of certain sitcoms have in mind: Each episode presents reality in an exaggerated, funny way, and then the control freak gets his comeuppance. We identify with the characters and their nutty habits, laugh at them and feel a sense of relief. If we can’t stick it to the bad guy in reality, at least his nemesis does the job for us.

These forces unfold differently in each sitcom, depending on the unique gifts of our antihero. Larry, The Larry David Show, is a misfit of a personality, socially awkward but immensely successful. This gives him confidence and chutzpah, which he uses to control his now ex-wife Cheryl and agent Jeff. Fortunately, he gets a regular tongue lashing from the expletive-proficient Susie.

The most popular sitcoms in recent history make use of this psychological triangle in some manner. Watch how this successful formula unfolds: Jerry Seinfeld is a compulsive control freak with a dysfunctional entourage - George and Elaine - who revolve around his fame. In an ironic twist of reality, Kramer – the weirdo – challenges, frustrates and takes advantage of Jerry, and he drives him a little nuts as well.

In Frasier, the Psychiatrist-turned-radio-personality has a voracious appetite for fame that devours everyone in its path, particularly his brother Niles. Roz and Daphne periodically get a bit chewed up as well. But Martin, his blue collar dad, comes to the rescue and persistently punctures his bloated ego.

Everybody Loves Raymond has the same three forces at play: With the aid of Marie, his doting, manipulative mother, Ray controls his wife Debra and his brother Robert. But he gets his self confidence shattered on a regular basis by Frank, his cranky Italian father.

Control freaks are emotional magnets for the rest of us who lack their grandiose sense of self importance. A good sitcom takes advantage of this attraction to connect us to the characters. We crave laughing at their antics because the humor offers a bit of comic relief. This can be a healthy antidote to reality where our struggles with self-centered people are perennially challenging, and not so terribly funny.

Dr. John J. Parrino is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia, and the author of self help and advice books on stress and relationship issues. For more information on his publications and free online articles, go to his website at

Primaries, Presidential Politics and a Few Good Shrinks

John J. Parrino, Ph.D

The chronic stress of present-day presidential politics must lead all rational Americans to an incontrovertible conclusion: the time has come to assign a few good shrinks to the candidates.

Imagine how bored their Docs must get waiting for plaque to build up in coronary arteries or watching for a polyp to crop up on intestinal walls. On the other hand, psychological experts would have their hands full immediately.

The candidates need real pros to provide feedback when their verbal habits veer off track, help them unload repressed feelings when the media frustrates them, and provide emotional support after the ‘accusation of the day’ from their own and the opposing party.

The presidential aspirants might require a team of specialists: a marriage counselor when things get tough with the prospective First Partner, a Psychologist to help with the self-esteem issues that stem from striving to be adored by several hundred million people, and when all else fails, a Psychiatrist to give their brain cells a boost of serotonin.

We Americans suffer from the illusion that our chosen leaders must have their collective heads on pretty straight. Not necessarily true! When you’re at the top, people get squeamish about pointing out your idiosyncrasies. Would you tell the prospective President of the most powerful country in the world that his temper tantrums with the media represent unresolved rage towards his/her mother? Of course not, but a good Shrink would!

We need a permanent policy mandating a few good shrinks to follow each potential leader. Wouldn't it inspire confidence in our candidates - and set a great example for our kids - if the networks ended their news programs with this important message:

“And finally, ladies and gentlemen, we come to our Presidential candidate Smith, who consulted a counselor today because

.....the pressure of running for the most powerful position in the world was stressing him/her out.

.....he/she had a nightmare last night that revealed deep-seated 
feelings of inadequacy.

.....and, worst of all, the prospective First Partner was peeved at him/her during dinner.

The presidential aspirants exhibit these natural human reactions whether we want to believe it or not. Do you want someone running your country that is not in touch with his/her deep-seated feelings 
of inadequacy?

We should require each candidate running for the highest 
office in the land to submit to a complete psychological 
evaluation. Our team of shrinks could be summoned to the primaries to pinpoint potential problems. Family members would be interviewed to evaluate the level of dysfunction in the prospective First Family. This way, we could tell if a future “Prez” was about to experience a midlife crisis. A candidate with sociopathic tendencies could be eliminated before he/she got into serious trouble.

Think about it! Can we afford to take a chance with the future Big Guy/Gal’s psyche? That's pretty risky! Remember, our lives will ultimately be dependent on the ongoing health of his/her brain cells.

Dr. John J. Parrino is a Psychologist and author in Atlanta, Georgia. His website is
Day: 404 8431612 x5
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