Noe Valley Couples Therapist - Counselor

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Negativity Bias and Appreciations

Listening to a lecture by Rick Hansen, Ph.D., author of the book “Buddha’s Brain,” reminded me of an important aspect of how couples get stuck in negative cycles. In significant ways our brains are evolutionarily designed to prioritize learning about and responding to threats over rewards. The way Rick expressed it, survival-wise you can go a few days without a carrot, but if you miss the stick that kills you it’s all over. So our brains (specifically there’s lots of focus on the amygdala these days) have gotten very good at detecting and remembering threats and threatening situations. This is sometimes referred to as a “negativity bias,” or tendency to focus on the negative (especially in each other!). In couples this can translate to all kinds of things since language as well as non-verbal cues can convey so many different kinds of threat, from emotional (“I’ve had it with this relationship”) to physical (e.g., threatening hand gestures). When relationships are in trouble, and things are stressful, these cues and our sensitivity to them can both skyrocket, leading to a heightening of negative interactions and cycles.

One way to offset this is to push yourself focus on small positives about your relationship and your partner. I often give couples John Gottman’s “Seven Week Course in Fondness and Admiration” that promotes this through daily prompts to think about the positive things in your relationship and about your partner. You can also just work on noticing and expressing appreciation to your partner for the good things they do every day and the good things in your relationship, even if it’s hard to think about them under the circumstances.  But it definitely takes effort, since especially under stress our brains tend to go the other way.

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Top 10 psychologists in San Francisco, CA 2015

Congratulations to Robert Solley PhD for winning the 2015 Patients' Choice Awards in San Francisco Psychologist