Five Secrets of Effective Communication


Five Secrets of Effective Communication

In his book, “Therapist’s Toolkit”, David D. Burns, MD., talks about five secrets of effective communication.  He believes that if you use these tools you will have better interactions with those around you.  Here are the five tips that Dr. Burns suggests.


Listening Skills

1.  The Disarming Technique:  Find some element of truth in what another person is saying, even if it seems totally unfair, unreasonable, or unrealistic to you.

2.  Empathy:  Try to put yourself in the other person’s position and “see the world through their eyes”.

Dr. Burns indicates that there are two types of empathy:

a.  Feeling empathy:  Acknowledge how the other person might be feeling.  For example, (partner is speaking), “So then the clerk told me to go to the end of the line and that was about all I could take.”  (other partner) “It sounds like that must have made you really angry.”

b.  Thought empathy:  Paraphrase or summarize the other person’s words so that they feel heard.  For example, (partner is speaking), “I have ten things that need to be done by noon today, so I would love to have some help!”  (other partner) “You have a lot of things to do today, and you could use my help.  Is that right?”

3.  Inquiry:  Ask inquisitive questions in a gentle way to learn more about what the other person is thinking and feeling.


Self-Expression Skills

4.  “I Feel” Statements:  Use statements such as “I feel upset,” rather than “you” statements.  “I feel” statements simply describe your experience.  Statements like “you are wrong” or “you’re making me furious!” add a connotation of blame.

5.  Stroking:  Find something genuinely positive to say to the other person, even in the heat of battle.  Doing this transmits an attitude of respect.  You can disagree, but still appreciate and value the other person.

If used in a thoughtful way, Dr. Burns five secrets of effective communication could definitely enhance people’s ability to interact  more positively with each other.

Thinking Errors

Thinking Errors

In the book by David Burns, M.D., Feeling Good:  The New Mood Therapyhe talks about cognitive distortions.  Cognitive distortions are defined as inaccurate or distorted thinking errors.  Most individuals struggle with thinking errors.  It is difficult to always perceive the world in a clear and accurate way.  When we identify and recognize this problem, we are able to challenge our inaccurate thoughts in a constructive way and make observations that are more accurate.

The following is a list of 10 thinking errors identified by Dr. Burns:

All or nothing thinking:  You look at things in absolute, back and white categories.

Over generalization:  You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

Mental filter:  You dwell on the negatives.

Discounting the positives:  You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities don’t count.

Jumping to conclusions:

A.  Mind-reading:  you assume that people are reacting negatively to you when there’s no definite evidence;

B.  Fortune-telling:  you arbitrarily predict that things will turn out badly.

Magnification or minimization:  You blow things way out of proportion or you shrink their importance.

Emotional reasoning:  You reason from how you feel:  “I feel like an idiot, so I really must be one.”

“Should statements”:  You criticize yourself ( or other people) with “shoulds,” “oughts,” “musts” and “have tos.”

Labeling:  Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you tell yourself, “I’m a jerk,” or “a fool,” or “a loser.”

Personalization and blame:  You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and deny your role in the problem.

Dr. Burns identifies 10 of the most common cognitive distortions or thinking errors; however, there are many other distortions that people struggle with.  Please look through the website to identify other thinking errors.

Hope you find this information useful and informative.


Dr. Steven Chen

Basic Alcohol Screening

As a psychologist working in the field of addiction, I am often asked about basic alcohol assessment tools.  People want a simple way to identify possible alcohol and substance abuse problems.  There are many screening tools available.  The CAGE is one of these tools. says it is a questionnaire that professionals use to check for possible signs of alcohol dependency.  The questionnaire has four unobtrusive questions asking someone about their alcohol use.



CAGE is an acronym that make the four questions easy to remember.

Cut:               Have your ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?

Annoyed:     Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

Guilty:          Have  you ever felt guilty about your drinking?

Eye-opener:  Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning (eye-opener) to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

The person gives a yes or no answer to each question.  Each yes answer increases the possibility that the person may have alcohol dependency.  As a rule, 2 or 3 “yes” answers indicate possible alcohol problems.  Physicians sometimes attach more significance to question four, because it is a sign that someone might have withdrawal symptoms.

There is a variation of the CAGE questionnaire called the CAGE-AID.  This questionnaire adds AID for – adapted to include drugs.  It uses the same questions as the CAGE.  However, it adds drug use along with drinking.

The CAGE asks direct questions.  It helps the person consider their alcohol use without judgement.  It is not a foolproof test.  It is a simple screening tool that can be used quickly to identify potential problems.  It was designed to be used by physicians as a way get helpful alcohol consumption information.  The questions are worth considering for anyone who thinks they might be developing or have a drinking problem.   I hope you find this information helpful when considering alcohol consumption for yourself or people you care about.


Steven J. Chen, Ph.D.



Helpful Marital Tips

Helpful Marital Tips













Every marriage has ups and downs.  In the Focus on the Family article, 10 Secrets to a Successful Marriage, Mitch Temple gives helpful marital tips.  Couples who consider these tips can learn to navigate challenges in a successful manner.  Here is a summary of the 10 principles or tips.

  1.  Focus on bringing happiness into the marriage.  People want to be happy, but happiness isn’t the most important thing.  Successful couples learn to intentionally do things to bring happiness into the marriage when life has challenges.
  2. There is value in simply showing up for each other.  When things are tough and people don’t know what to do, they need to simply be there for each other.  Over time, people will have the opportunity to work together, reduce stress, and work things out.
  3. If you do things the same way, you will get the same result.  Wise people learn that you have to do things differently to get a different outcome.  Small changes in attitude, actions, or approach can make big differences.
  4. Your attitude matters.  Changing behavior is important, but so is changing your attitude.  A negative attitude often creates bad feelings and actions.
  5. Change your mind, change your marriage.  What people believe about their spouse affects how they treat each other.
  6. Successful couples don’t believe the myth that grass is greener somewhere else.  They have learned to put energy into making themselves and their relationship better.  They have learned to “water their own grass.”
  7. You can change your marriage by changing yourself.  Experienced couples have learned that it is very difficult to change your partner.  The only person we can really change is ourselves.
  8. Love is a verb, not just a feeling.  Feelings go up and down, but real love is based on commitment.
  9. Marriage is often about fighting the battle in your own mind.  Successful couples have learned to resist holding grudges and bringing up the past.  They remember that they married an imperfect person and that they are imperfect as well.
  10. A crisis does not mean the marriage is over.  Crises can be very stressful and upsetting.  However, couples can make it through and be stronger in the long run.

Choosing Goals

Choosing Goals

At the beginning of the year, many people set new goals to enhance their lives.  However, choosing goals can be a frustrating process.

Taking time to focus on what is important and brainstorming many ideas can be helpful.  In the article, 102: Choosing Goals (How to Figure Out What You Want), Chris Sparks tells us that it is better to pursue intrinsically challenging and worthwhile goals rather than things that we believe will make us or others happy.  He indicates that happiness is fleeting and that pursuing things that have intrinsic meaning is more powerful.

Another helpful idea is to consider various areas in your life that you may want to work on.  The website, Mindtools gives a broad list of life categories to consider when making goals.  The following is a summary of the areas they include.

Goal Categories –

  • Career– What position do you want to obtain?  What do you want to accomplish in your career?
  • Financial– What are your financial goals?  How much do you need to earn or save to achieve them?
  • Education– Is there any degree or knowledge you want to acquire?  What type of sacrifice will this require?
  • Family– What type of family life or interaction do you want? Do you want to have a partner or be a parent?  How do you want to be perceived by immediate or extended family members?
  • Artistic– Do you have any artistic goals?  What would it require to pursue them?
  • Attitude– Could you improve your attitude or behavior?  Set a goal to improve your mindset or approach to problems.
  • Physical– What steps are you taking for current and long-term physical health?  Set up daily goals to achieve physical health.
  • Pleasure– Are you making positive plans, scheduling pleasant activities and events into your life?
  • Public Service– Are you interested in public service?  How will you incorporate interests into your daily routine?

After brainstorming about these different categories, select the goals that seem most important to you. When choosing goals, you will have more success when focusing on a few specific and purposeful goals.

Holiday Stress

Holiday Stress

Stress is a very common problem during the holidays.  Unfortunately, alleviating stress is not easy to do.  During this time of year, there are many demands on our time such as shopping, cooking, baking, cleaning, work, and entertaining.  The Covid-19 pandemic may also be adding stress due to worry about you and your families’ health.  Your holiday plans may also be different due to the pandemic.

Health Line provides a list of tips that can decrease stress over the holidays.  Here is a summary of their recommendations.

  1. Plan Ahead

Finding time for all the holiday activities can be difficult.  Creating a plan of action can help.  Writing down the things you need to accomplish and then prioritizing them can be helpful.  Also, you are less likely to forget things if you have a list.

  1. Put Yourself First

During the holidays, people focus on giving.  It is easy to forget to look out for yourself.  Taking care of yourself will improve your mood and help you take care of others.

  1. Keep Your Finances in Check

Be realistic about what you can afford to spend over the holidays.  Create a budget and stick to it.  If you are not in the position to spend money, then bake a treat, share talents, or spend time with family and friends.  The sentiment behind the gift is more important than the monetary value.

  1. Honor Love Ones

The holidays can be difficult if you have lost someone or cannot be with friends and family.  If you have lost someone, spending time reflecting on happy memories can brighten your mood.  You are unable to be near loved ones, you might give them a call, plan a zoom party, or send them a note.

  1. Indulge in Moderation

It is fun to have treats or try new foods over the holidays, but don’t forget to eat healthy and take care of yourself.  Remember to pace yourself, overeating can leave you feeling sick and lethargic.

  1. Do Not Be Afraid to Say No

It is okay to say “no”.

Only say “yes” to events and plans that will bring you happiness and joy.


Hopefully, this list should help you reduce your stress and worry over the holidays!

Keeping A Gratitude Journal


Why Keep A Gratitude Journal?

Why keep a gratitude journal?  In 2020, many people have suffered emotional, physical, and financial hardships.  When experiencing challenges, it is easy to focus on the negative and lose sight of positive things.   Keeping a gratitude journal is a good way to train our minds to focus on the positive.  In 2003 a study conducted by Emmons and McCullough, found that keeping a daily gratitude journal lead to better sleep, reduction of pain, a greater sense of well-being and more resilience dealing with change.  When we focus on good things, we are healthier and happier.

Experts recommend different ways to keep a gratitude journal.  One approach is to take 5 minutes each day and write down a few things you are thankful for.  A second option is to set aside 15 minutes once a week for two weeks to establish a pattern.  A third approach is to write journal entries 3 times per week to make a positive change.  Whatever approach you take, the key seems to be consistency.  Training your mind to consistently focus on the positive.

The article by, Greater Good in Action, provides people with ideas on how to keep a gratitude journal.  I have summarized their suggestions in the following list.

  1. Write down 3-5 things for which you feel grateful.
  2. Be as specific as possible.
  3. If you describe people in specific detail it has more impact than making a superficial list.
  4. Focus on people rather than things. We are more impacted by relationships.
  5. Be aware of subtraction, not just addition. Don’t just make a list of good things.  Consider what life would be like without specific people or be grateful for negative outcomes you avoided.
  6. Enjoy surprises. Record events that are unexpected.
  7. Do not just write about the same things, consider different aspects of a person or situation.
  8. Honor your commitment to write regularly.

Most importantly, you don’t have to keep a perfect gratitude journal.  Just get started!


More Healthy Sleep Information

More Healthy Sleep Information

Today, there is much more healthy sleep information available.  According to researchers, how sleepy you are depends on how well you have been sleeping and how much sleep you are getting.  We each have a “biological clock” – a tiny bundle of cells in your brain that responds to light signals through your eyes and promotes wakefulness.  Due to the timing of the biological clock and other bodily processes, you naturally feel drowsy between midnight and 7 a.m. and again in the afternoon between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Night shift workers often find themselves drowsy at work.  They also have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep during the day, when their schedules require them to sleep.  Being sleepy puts them at risk for injuries on the road and at work.  Night shift workers are also more likely to have conditions such as heart disease, digestive disorder, and infertility, as well as emotional problems.  All of these problems may be related, at least in part, to their chronic lack of sleep.

Adapting to new sleep and wake times can also be hard for travelers crossing time zones, resulting in what’s known as jet lag.  Jet lag can lead to daytime sleepiness, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, poor concentration, and irritability.

The good news is that by using appropriately timed cues, most people can change their biological clock, but only by 1-2 hours per day at best.  Therefore, it can take several days to adjust to a new time zone (or different work schedule).  If you’ll be moving across time zones, you might want to begin adapting to the new time zone a few days before leaving.  Or, if you are traveling for just a few days, you might want to stick with your original sleep schedule and not try to adjust to the new time zone.

Tips to Help With Sleep

Just like eating well and being physically active are important for good health, getting a good night’s sleep is vital to your well-being.  Here are 13 tips to help with sleep:

Stick to a sleep schedule.  Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day – even on the weekends.

Exercise is great, but not too late in the day.  Avoid exercising closer than 5 or 6 hours  before bedtime.

Avoid caffeine and nicotine.  The stimulating effects of caffeine in coffee, colas, teas, and chocolate can take as long as 8 hours to wear off fully.  Nicotine is also a stimulant.

Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed.  A “nightcap” might help you get to sleep, but alcohol keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep.  You also tend to wake up in the middle of the night when the sedating effects have worn off.

Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.  A large meal and cause indigestion and interferes with sleep.  Drinking too many fluids at night can cause you to awaken frequently to urinate.

Avoid medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep, if possible.  Some commonly prescribed heart, blood pressure, or asthma medications, as well as some over-the-counter and herbal remedies for coughs, colds, or allergies, can disrupt sleep patterns.

Don’t take naps after 3 p.m.  Naps can boost your brain power, but late afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night.  Also, keep naps to under one hour.

Relax before bedtime.  Take time to unwind.  A relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music, should be part of your bedtime ritual.

Take a hot bath before bed.  The drop in body temperature after the bath may help you feel sleepy, and the bath can help relax you.

Have a good sleep environment.  Get rid of anything that might distract you from sleep, such as noises, bright lights, an uncomfortable bed, or a TV or computer in the bedroom.  Also keeping the temperature in your bedroom on the cool side can help you sleep better.

Have the right sunlight exposure.  Daylight is key to regulating daily sleep patterns.  Try to get outside in normal sunlight for at least 30 minutes each day.

Don’t lie in bed awake.  If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed for more than 20 minutes, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy.  The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.

See a doctor if you continue to have trouble sleeping.  If you consistently find yourself feeling tired or not well rested during the day despite spending enough time in bed at night, you may have a sleep disorder.  Your family doctor or a sleep specialist should be able to help you.  Another good source of information is the National Sleep Foundation Website which can help you find resources in your area.

The information in this article is adapted and updated under license from Claire Communications.

Healthy Sleep

                                                      Healthy Sleep

We all need to develop healthy sleep patterns.  When you are overwhelmed with work, school, family, or household responsibilities, do you cut back on your sleep?  Many people, believe that sleep is merely a “down time” when the brain shuts off and the body rests.  However, people need to re-think this view of sleep.

What Is Sleep?

In the past, sleep was considered just a block of time when you are not awake.  Thanks to sleep studies done over the past several decades, it is now known that sleep has distinctive stages that cycle throughout the night.  Your brain stays active throughout sleep, but different things happen during each stage.  For instance, certain stages of sleep are needed for us to feel well rested and energetic the next day, and other stages help us learn or make memories.

There are a number of vital tasks that are carried out during sleep which help maintain good health and enable people to function at their best.  Not getting enough sleep can be dangerous.  For example, you are more likely to be in a car crash if you drive when you are drowsy.

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

Sleep needs vary and they change throughout the life cycle.  Infants sleep between 16-18 hours a day.  Children in preschool sleep between 9-12 hours a day.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children ages 6-12 require 9- 12 hours of sleep and teens ages 13-18 need 8-10 hours of sleep per 24 hour period.  Most adults need approximately 7 – 8 hours of sleep.

Some people believe that adults need less sleep as they get older.  But there is no evidence to show that older people can get by with less sleep than younger people.

As people age; however, they often get less sleep or they tend to spend less time in the deep, restful stages of sleep.  Older people are also more easily awakened.

Why Sleep Is Good For You – And Skimping On It Isn’t

Does it really matter if you get enough sleep?  Absolutely!  Not only does the quantity of your sleep matter, but the quality of your sleep is important as well.  People whose sleep is interrupted a lot or is cut short might not get enough of certain stages of sleep.  In  other words, how well rested you are and how well your function the next day depend on your total sleep time and how much of the various stages of sleep you get each night.


We need sleep to think clearly, react quickly, and create memories.  In the article, Sleep Learning, and Memory, Dr. Robert Stickgold talks about how sleeps impacts memory before and after learning a new skill.  In fact, the pathways in the brain that help us learn and remember are very active when we sleep.  Studies show that people who are taught mentally challenging tasks do better after a good night’s sleep.  Other research suggests that sleep is needed for creative problem solving.

Skimping On Sleep Has A Price

Cutting back on even 1 hour can make it tough to focus the next day and can slow your response time.  Studies also find that when you lack sleep, your are more likely to make bad decisions and take more risks.  This can result in lower performance on the job or in school.


Sleep also affect mood.  Insufficient sleep can make you irritable and is linked to poor behavior and trouble with relationships, especially among children and teens.  People who chronically lack sleep are also more likely to become depressed.


Sleep is also important for good health.  Studies show that not getting enough sleep or getting poor quality sleep on a regular basis increases the risk of having high blood pressure, heart disease, and other medical conditions.

In addition, during sleep, your body produces valuable hormones.  Deep sleep triggers more release of growth hormone, which fuels growth in children, and helps build muscle mass and repair cells and tissues in children and adults.  Another type of hormone that increases during sleep works to fight various infections.

This might explain why a good night’s sleep helps keep you from getting sick – and helps you recover when you do get sick.  Hormones released during sleep also affect how the body uses energy.  Studies find that the less people sleep, the more likely they are to be overweight or obese, to develop diabetes, and to prefer eating food that are high in calories and carbohydrates.

As you can see, there are numerous performance, mood, and health reasons to focus on sleep.  We all need to develop healthy sleeping patterns.

The information in this article is adapted and updated under license from Claire Communications.


Ways to Avoid Relapse


Struggling With Relapse

Due to current stressors, many people are struggling with relapse.  The National Drug Institute reports that 40 to 60 percent of people who go through addiction treatment relapse at least once and some relapse multiple times.  The website provides an excellent free worksheet with Tips for Avoiding Relapse.  The following is a condensed version of the worksheet:

Tips for Avoiding Relapse

The most important moment before relapse isn’t the final decision to use a substance or act out.  It happens when you decide to expose yourself to triggers.  Examples of triggers are going to a party or walking through the liquor section at the store.  Before encountering triggers, you still have most of the control.  Not your craving.

If you are feeling the urge to use, try to wait it out.  If you distract yourself for even 30 minutes, it’s likely your craving will lessen in intensity.  It might not totally disappear, but it will become easier to resist.

Focus on replacing your past use with new positive activities.  If you used to go home after work and drink, you’ll need to make a new plan.  Going home and staring at a wall will eventually lead to staring at a wall with a drink in your hand.

Do not try to do this alone.  Sharing your goals for sobriety with a friend makes all the difference.  They can hold you accountable when you are making questionable decisions.  They can also offer support when you are struggling.

Remind yourself that cravings will pass.  Have you ever had that experience when you are sick where you can not remember what it feels like to not be sick?  The same thing happens with cravings.  Give it time, and believe it or not, the feelings will go away.

You will have to make sacrifices beyond giving up the drug.  If you previously used drug specific activities (watching a game on TV or going to concerts), you may need to make changes.  This might mean not watching the game or making new friends who are sober.  This can be really hard, but that’s what makes it a sacrifice.

Have a plan for when things get bad, because at some point, they will.  People get fired, hearts get broken, and sometimes people leave us forever.  Develop a plan to get through these major life challenges- without the use of drugs-before they happen.

Do not become complacent with your sobriety.  If you someday consider having “just a glass of wine”, don’t make the decision lightly.  If you have struggled with addiction in the past, you are much more likely to develop an addiction again.

If you do relapse, don’t give up.  A lot of people find it helpful to keep track of how long they’ve been sober, but don’t confuse this count with the true goal of leading a good life.  If you are at day 100 of sobriety, that’s great.  However, if you make a mistake and end up back at day 0, know that you are not starting over (you gained knowledge, experience, and confidence).  In other words:  Slipping is not a license to go on a binge.

Come up with new rituals.  How do you celebrate holidays, special events, or any other happy occasion?  If your answer includes any sort of drug or acting out, you will want to get creative and figure out something new.  Go wild with a hobby for the day, treat yourself to a nice dinner, or take a trip.  Make sure it is something you get excited about.

During this stressful time, many people are struggling with relapse.  When relapse occurs, people may have feelings of shame or regret.  They might feel like giving up.  These are normal reactions to relapse.  The sooner a person recognizes relapse, the easier it will be to get back on track.