Learn about your Nervous System for Better Health

Have you ever noticed that things like singing, dancing, slow breathing, watching the sea, listening to rain can make you feel calmer? Or maybe you know that you like doing such things and have never really thought about why? There are very good reasons behind this, and here’s an explanation to help you understand. Once you get this, some of your reactions which may have puzzled you will make sense and you will be able to manage them better.

Any of your feelings of agitation, anxiety or lowness, as well as your feelings of peacefulness, warmth and relaxation, are under the control of your Autonomic Nervous System, (ANS) which automatically reacts to things both outside and inside your body, as well as your thoughts, without you being consciously aware of it or in control of it.

The ANS has 3 main branches, Sympathetic, Parasympathetic Dorsal Branch and Parasympathetic Ventral Branch. These 3 work together, in consultation with your thoughts, events happening around you, and how well you are in your general health. The Dorsal Branch and the Sympathetic part of the system are designed to respond to threat, anything they perceive as unsafe, and they produce the fight/flight/freeze reactions you may be familiar with. The Ventral Branch is designed to keep everything working optimally for your health and well being, and, most important of all, to enable you to relate meaningfully to others. In a relaxed situation they are all in balance, ticking along nicely together, and your ability to relate to others is open, comfortable and comforting. You feel OK.

When you are stressed, scared, upset, the Dorsal and Sympathetic elements become more activated and you might feel tingly, tense, nauseous, or sluggish and exhausted. The Dorsal Branch tends to make you withdraw and shut down, the Sympathetic Branch agitates you and motivates you into action, and in both states you are not able to relate to others in a meaningful way. Your ANS is using all it’s efforts to let you know something is wrong, so you can take whatever steps are needed to get to a safe place again. Not all of the ways it alerts you to a threat are actually healthy or helpful. You can behave in out of control or anti-social ways, withdraw and become isolated and depressed, have a cigarette or a few drinks more than usual, feel “out of sorts”.

Listening to music, or sounds of rain or flowing water such as the waves on the seashore, taking a walk in natural surroundings, exercising or dancing, all take the energy away from the Dorsal and Sympathetic reactions and activate the Ventral Branch. This calms and soothes the Sympathetic and Dorsal Branches, and brings you back into balance so the 3 branches of your ANS can return to working together harmoniously. Your brain will be able to think sensibly about what triggered your upset feelings and sort things out calmly. The Ventral Branch will work to help you back into relating well and naturally to others around you, and that is the best recipe for health and well being.

5 reasons couples find it hard to talk about money

Many people find it hard to talk about money  ………..and for a number of reasons. Here are just 5

It’s not a romantic topic    At the start of a relationship money talk is often avoided because it is not a romantic topic, it spoils the emotional atmosphere. In the early stages of a relationship we want to bring only the best parts of ourselves to it, and talking about money is not seen in a good light.

It’s mercenary to ask about it    It can be misinterpreted as wanting to find out how much a person is worth before deciding if they are wealthy enough to be with, or that one person is looking for a free ride and will move on soon, or one person is being mercenary, judgements such as those are made if you show an interest in how much somebody has.

It’s risky! Having different attitudes may cause conflict   Also, from the families in which they were raised, people have different ideas about how money should be used, so in the interest of avoiding difficult conversations or even argument and potential conflict they avoid talking about money altogether.

It becomes a taboo topic  If something is a bit difficult, it’s often best not to talk about it, but when something can’t be talked about it becomes a taboo. The situation can arise where one partner has got into financial difficulties with their own or the family funds and can’t say so. (See Shame Blame and Hurt below.)

We are not confident about it  In western culture we are not good at training children to think about the use and abuse of money. We teach them to add up coins and to give the correct change, some learn to make a balance sheet, keep accounts, but we don’t educate them in the meanings of money and wealth, or provide them with good structures for managing money. This leaves a lack of confidence with the topic, we like to avoid areas where we lack confidence. Another taboo develops, something that has to be kept silent

5 reasons why we need to talk about it anyway

Avoiding it makes it worse  It becomes something we can’t talk about when we need to.

Opening the Taboo    At the start of a relationship we do not usually talk about money for reasons already mentioned, so it becomes a hidden taboo topic without a language in which we can express it. Who pays for dinner is not as far as it goes,  who pays for dinner is often a signal for how paying for things might go in the future, or possible resentments. We really need to talk, the same as we need to talk to each other about sex, dreams and aspirations, future hopes,

Power imbalance    If you find out later that one person is wealthier than you thought, or less wealthy there may be difficult and strong feelings of being cheated, betrayed even. This is because of the power meanings we ascribe to money. Talking about money taps into deeper issues of the power relationship, so getting it to be a familiar topic, easy to talk about is really quite important, as is learning each other’s family traditions and beliefs over the place and importance of money.

Choices and decisions    Money governs where and how we can live, what we can eat, our education, career choices.  Many of the decisions and choices we make are  decided by the state of our finances, what we can afford. Money is the source of much of our power in the Western world, and in human relationships the balance of power is affected by financial matters, who earns what or who owns how much, along with the other things, gender, physical size, loudness of voice and so on

Shame blame and hurt    Talking about money can be a source of shame, blame and hurt, where money has been used destructively or irresponsibly. I am thinking here of the gambler who loses everything, the business venture that fails leading to bankruptcy, money that has been acquired dishonestly or through criminal activity. Whole families can carry the shame of such tragedies for more than one generation.  And inheritance can raise all sorts of difficulties.

4 things people can do to make it easier

Practice talking and get used to it overcomes the taboo     It is very difficult to talk when there is shame, blame and hurt, but being open and talking about it is the only way to get past it. Keep talking about it to get it out in the open and familiar. Specially important when funds are limited.

Lighten up     A lot of people have very little to spare and have to manage many commitments and go without in some areas. If they can use humor to help them through  hardship it makes a huge difference. Many others will be in the same boat.

Have clear guidelines for distribution of funds    It really helps if people have clarified how their money is used. Each partner has their own private money, an agreed proportion of each part

ner’s earnings goes into the household accounts, savings accounts, holiday spending, big expenditure is budgeted for together.

Plan carefully and be practical     When harder times come, plans for savings, maybe reducing share of the household commitment, whatever is needed to keep a balance of cash in balance with earnings. Talk about how the shift in financial balance shifts the power balance in the relationship, make it all open and explicit and keep talking.


Saying the unsayable……I want to leave you!

As a couple therapist, I mostly meet people who know their relationship is not working for them in the way they want.  They believe it could be much better, they just don’t know how to do it.

Often anger and disappointment have got in the way of showing kindness and love. My job is to help them back into the relationship that fulfils and satisfies them. With folk like these, if they can take the step of coming to therapy, they can create the relationship they want to live in.


However I sometimes meet people who have come to the realisation that they want to leave their relationship, but cannot bear to do so., are afraid to do so, or think doing so might be a huge mistake.  When a relationship ends it can be very complicated, separating is not what was intended when we got together, there may be property, children, friends all sorts of things involved by the time we realise it is not working for us.


Sometimes the seeds of the ending were there in the beginning, if people felt bullied into the relationship, or got into it in order to have children, not because they really loved the person. Sometimes they were in love with the idea of a relationship, not the reality, or they needed security and money, but not the person that goes with it. A relationship is sometimes harder than expected, and if the love is not there in the beginning, making a success of it lacks a vital ingredient. In arranged marriages the situation is entirely different so that is not what I am writing about here.


About thirty years ago,  I met a couple who had been married for a long time and were tense and irritable together, they were arguing, not having sex, did not seem to like each other at all. Originally the wife had rather chased the husband into marriage when he was not quite over his previous girlfriend. They came to therapy to see if fixing the sex would help. Suddenly out of the blue they realised that it was not about sex, they truly did not want to be together. The husband blurted it out first, to his astonishment, then the wife realised that she agreed, and suddenly they relaxed. They had both been hiding from the truth, afraid of what it would mean.


Over the next few sessions we had helped them  to separate amicably, which they did, and I heard from each of them about a year later that each had met somebody else and was happier than they had ever been.


When faced with something we are afraid of, we find all sorts of reasons not to do it, a very human reaction, but not facing things can make us anxious, depressed, preoccupied , irritable, struggling with daily life. One of the reasons people stay is because of the fear of being alone, and the very act of staying prevents them from ever meeting a person they could love and be happy with.

“we have no time for us!”

Any relationship requires attention and will suffer if it does not get it! As humans are mostly programmed to live in intimate relationship with other humans,  we naturally seek out and long for someone who feels like the right person. We spend effort and money finding the person, and impressing upon them how good a relationship we could have. We may even spend thousands of pounds marrying, throwing a big party, inviting everyone in our family and all our friends to celebrate with us. We may make public statements about how important this relationship is to us, and make promises to each other. So why do we find we have no time for it once we have established it and celebrated it so lovingly?

There are several answers to this question, and I am going to just mention 4. One answer is in our brain chemistry, another is in the family culture or tradition we were raised in, another lies in the expectations we had of an intimate relationship, and a fourth answer is in the way life changes our priorities if we don’t watch out.

  1. Once the newness and excitement of a relationship wears off, the chemicals that brought us together change. At first, the adrenaline and dopamine surges make us excited and pleased, they act as anti-depressants, and other chemicals,  oxytocin and vasopressin, draw us into bonding and nurturing behaviour. After a while, the brain settles into a more steady chemical flow, and we need to take steps to maintain freshness and interest. We can do this by bringing each other surprises, sharing enjoyable activities, making love, playing together. Without these stimuli, that steady flow of brain chemicals can make the relationship feel routine and boring, so we are not very interested in giving it time, and without time and attention it withers a bit.

2. Those of us raised in a family will have learned about how an intimate relationship goes from the people who raised us. This learning is unique in each family, and we are unlikely to get into an intimate relationship with someone with exactly the same ideas. These differences can lead us into conflicts, as “our” way feels like the right one, and to complicate things we usually choose someone who manages conflicts differently from us. The person who like to talk it out often ends up with a person who likes to hide it. This can lead to distancing and discomfort, and over time we may start to avoid being with each other because it is uncomfortable and conflictual, and makes us angry.

3. Some of us enter an intimate relationship with a clear idea of how it should be, and inevitably the other person from time to time is going to disappoint us and not live up to our hopes. We then blame them for their failings and start to doubt the relationship. This is frightening, so we avoid being together to avoid having to face this fear. It is hard to realise that the disappointment is about our unrealistic expectations of the other, not about their failings.

4. The final answer I want to flag up today is that the activities of life take over our space and time. Activities such as having babies, going to the gym regularly, engaging in hobbies, watching sport, increased working hours, family commitments, can all seem to require our attention over the requirement of our intimate relationship. These are the subtle things that eat away at the time we used to have for relationship in its earlier days, and eventually we are left with “no time for us”.

Making time for each other is a fundamental underpinning to a nurturing, and fulfilling intimate relationship. There are other underpinnings I will come to in future posts.







Book Review: CBT for Compulsive Sexual Behaviour by Thaddeus Birchard

This is book offers much more than its title would suggest. Yes it offers a CBT perspective but in addition it explains the background to compulsive sexual behaviours, their origins in childhood, the way they affect the brain chemistry that makes it hard to overcome them, the impact they may have on daily life, work, and intimate relationships. It also provides a full overview of the range of approaches available to help those who make the decision to stop their activities, as well as covering the approach developed and used by the author over a number of years in practice.


The author has drawn on his own lived experience, which he generously shares with the reader, to develope his own treatment package. This has been honed over the years of working with men in groups for a limited period of time. In the book he gives the reader the benefit of all his treatment tools. He uses some of these to help the men understand how their behaviours built up,what are the basic ingredients of understanding and overcoming compulsive behaviours. He then provides them with a comprehensive path to follow by which to overcome their compulsions and return to full and healthy living.


The full treatment programme is included in the book, the information he imparts and the strategies he employs can be seen by anyone who wants access to them. He includes reference to other approaches, recommended reading, and where to get further help.


His is a fluent, relaxed style, easy to read, yet well referenced drawing on the most recent developments in research and literature. The chapters follow a logical sequence, although one could dip in and out as well as the interest takes one. I enjoyed reading it and thoroughly recommend it to any therapist as a useful resource whether working with sexually compulsive behaviours or not. We often overlook such matters until we have the informed knowledge that alerts us to their existence.


Book Review “The Chimp Paradox”

Explaining the way the brain works……

I have just become acquainted with “The Chimp Paradox”, by Prof Steve Peters, having heard good things about it from two different sources. It is a very useful book. It provides an accessible way of understanding how the brain works and why it does what it does This is so that where our behaviours, feelings and decisions are not working in our favour, we can examine them calmly, make sense of them and change them.


The author introduces us to 3 parts of our brain, which he calls the Chimp, the Human and the Computer, and explains what they do so it’s easy to recognise how they are operating in us. He adds an autopilot, Gremlins and Goblins, and guides us through ways of recognising and dealing with these so we get the best relationship with ourselves and with others. His metaphors and analogies are based on the facts of neuroscience, but he uses simple everyday language so we can all benefit from the new discoveries about the brain.


In personal relationships this is vital information, because it is there that we are most reactive and most likely to do something hurtful or unhelpful. We are invited to look carefully at ourselves and notice the ways we sometimes behave which we later are very sorry about, and which may have hurt people closest to us. We are helped to learn what the situations are that trigger these responses, and to learn how to respond differently. Just this one step can make a huge improvement to a relationship where there is a lot of conflict.


I have now recommended it to two people, who said they already had it but had not read it! I suggested they made a start, and I look forward to learning what they each thought. If you already have a copy and have not read it, then take a closer look at it. If you haven’t got it yet, I suggest you buy it! It’s an enjoyable read as well as helpful for anyone in a relationship.


Sex after 70: the mechanics

In healthy adults, the effects of ageing bring about some changes in the normal sexual responses. For example, there is a reduction in the sense of urgency for both sexual contact and for orgasm, so people are able to take longer over their sexual times, and choose them carefully.

Physically, in men the erections are likely to be less hard, and may fluctuate, so that the erection disappears, but can be recovered with time and direct stimulation. Ejaculation is reduced, and seeps rather than spurts.

In women little may change apart from an overall reduction in desire and possible reduction in lubrication. This is easily helped by a number of specifically designed lubricants available from high street stores. Orgasms in women tend to remain OK.

The reduced urgency for orgasm in both men and women allows partners to take time to appreciate the pleasures of arousal for longer periods. Taking time without the drive for orgasm allows appreciation of the physical sensations of arousal. This is important, because the bonding effects of the physical intimacy, whilst emphasised in orgasm, are flowing nicely during arousal, giving feelings of closeness, intimacy and relaxation, which I often call “Rosy Glow”

Many people in this age group realise they have the opportunity and the confidence to experiment with new sexual practises. “Fifty Shades of Grey”, depicting an abusive and rather odd heterosexual relationship, has introduced people to the possibilities of varying their practice, and given them some ideas to try out. If you feel like experimenting, now is the time.

Men and women in later life may prefer no sex at all. They may have physical disability or illness making it difficult, sex may never have been very satisfying and they are happy to give it up, why go on trying to do something that doesn’t work.? They prefer to stop it, and are happy that way.