New Year’s resolutions have come and gone: getting ‘unstuck’ in 2015

30 Jan
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

The end of January has arrived, and for many, the enthusiasm for New Year’s resolutions has waned. How does the song go? ‘Back to life, Back to Reality‘. This can be a discouraging time, especially if you’re still feeling as ‘stuck’ as you did in 2014. A few weeks ago, just back from a European trip I came down with the flu. Stuck in bed, I decided to start watching the seriesDownton Abbey after enjoying London while abroad. I proceeded to watch 4 full seasons in 2 week’s time. That’s about 32 hours of Amazon instant stream binging. I’m actually not sharing this with you here to impress you with my television watching abilities (though they are now well honed) I want to pass on some wisdom from the character Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey. A razor tongued, hilarious matriarch with brilliant one liners, she said something that struck me as impressively simple, yet an invaluable outlook to adopt in life. She said “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. The first one and the next and the next, until at last we die.” This message was directed towards her discouraged granddaughter, who was feeling overwhelmed by the ongoing string of unfortunate events of her life. While some may take her advice as grimly pessimistic, it struck me as both calming and reassuring. We must try to take a step back from our current circumstances and keep in mind, we’re always going to be facing a “thing” to overcome or achieve, big or small. No need to harbor shame in the process, or adopt a sense of personal defectiveness, it’s the nature of life. Resolution will come and/or ‘that thing’ will pass, because change is inevitable. In the meantime, try to find a bit of joy. Reach out to friends, find humor in the process, remind yourself that you are not the only one.

One of the many things I love about helping people when they feel ‘stuck’ in a bad place, is hearing from them down the road, long after we’ve worked through those darkest hours. Nothing brings me more joy than finding out they are now flourishing and past that difficult phase when they came to me for professional support and skill building. It’s concrete evidence that even when things completely fall apart in someone’s life, things will turn around in time. Resolution has a way of happening, one way or another. I am reminded that life goes on, and my confidence is renewed in helping others find their way too. The hardest moments pass, we find a way to work through those dark hours, and there are surely joyful times to come. Life is a series of highs and lows. We can’t change that inevitably and in knowing that we can find some peace and comfort as we get though it.

Dr. Villarreal debuts on The Oxygen Channel’s Snapped! Killer Couples: Dawn Godman and Justin Helzer

26 Jan

Dr. Christina Villarreal was enlisted as a psychological expert and consultant for the production and filming of the Oxygen Television Series: Snapped! Killer CouplesDawn Godman and Justin Helzer.  This is an American television series currently airing on the Oxygen Network. The program details couples who commit crimes together. The program is a spin-off of the Oxygen series Snapped and has a similar format to the Investigation Discovery program Wicked Attraction.

The episode Snapped! Killer Couples: Dawn Godman and Justin Helzer is the story of two brothers who were once upstanding members of the Mormon faith, whose lives spin out of control along with girlfriend Dawn Godman, resulting in the disturbing and gruesome murders of five innocent people.

In August 2000, a man on a Jet-ski spotted a duffle bag that washed up on the bank of a Bay Area, CA river. Curious, he rode over, unzipped it, and found a human torso inside. A few hours later, a marina employee found another duffel bag floating under a dock a half mile away. This one contained a human head. A marine biologist discovered a third during a survey of an island in the river. Nine bags were eventually recovered, some by dive teams.  They contained the co-mingled body parts of three people- an elderly couple, and an unrelated young woman. It took the Sacramento County coroner more than a week to sort through the body parts and piece the victims back together.

Coroner with duffel bags
Coroner with duffel bags

The grisly discovery was the culmination of a murderous rampage by a trio of former Mormons who killed five people as part of a twisted scheme to start a group that would spread “joy, peace and love” and to bring about the second coming of Christ, according to statements made in court during their trials. Glenn Helzer, 30, his brother Justin, 28, and Justin’s girlfriend, Dawn Godman, 26, were arrested the same day the first of the bags were discovered. It would take four more years for juries to sort through the tangled details of the case and sentence the last of the trio for crimes they’d committed.  Their victims were Selina Bishop, 22, the daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop – best known for his 1976 hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”, Bishop’s mother, Jennifer Villarin; her companion James Gamble, and Ivan and Annette Stineman, who’d been married 55 years.  The Stinemans were killed first, after the trio extorted $100,000 from them to fund their self-help group. The other three victims were killed because they knew details of the extortion plan.

The trio called themselves the “Children of Thunder” and they believed their homicidal plan had God’s stamp of approval.  No one who knew the Helzer boys as children suspected they’d grow up to be such callous killers. Raised by devout Mormon parents in Martinez, a cozy town 50 minutes’ drive northeast of San Francisco, the Helzers had a relatively normal childhood, according to family, friends and co-workers interviewed by the Contra Costa Times.

Martinez locator on California map
Martinez locator on California map

Glenn Helzer, who went by his middle name, Taylor was the charming and gregarious older brother. Justin was more introverted, but he was a member of his high school wrestling team and youth group leader at his church.

On August 4, 2004, four years to the day that their victims were killed, Justin Helzer was sentenced to death for three of the murders he committed and life in prison for his role in the other two.  On December 15, 2004, another jury handed down five death sentences for Taylor Helzer.  Dawn Godman was considered to be an accomplice in the murders, and testified against the brothers in exchange for a prison sentence that didn’t include the death penalty. She is now serving a 37-year sentence.

In 2013, Justin Alan Helzer committed suicide by hanging himself in his San Quentin death row cell.  Helzer at the age of 41, used a sheet attached to his single-cell’s bars to hang himself.  Helzer had  tried to kill himself three years ago by jabbing pencils and pens into his eye sockets. He had been under more intensive watch since then, but showed no recent signs to indicate he was at risk of another suicide attempt, Robinson said.  Helzer’s brother, Glenn remains under intensive screening on death row to make sure he also is not at risk of killing himself.

Prescription medicines: asking the right questions to keep you informed

26 Jan

pillsThis week is National Drug Facts Week (January 26th-February 1st), and in partnership with The American Recall Center, I’d like to highlight some key tips for better understanding the prescription medicine you’ve been prescribed.  It’s not uncommon for people to leave their medical appointment without genuinely understanding why they’ve been given a prescription, and/or how it will work or feel if taken regularly.  As a mental health provider I may help people explore the possibility of taking a medicine to help them better manage their mood, ability to sleep, etc. in conjunction with psychotherapy, coaching, and/or other health modifications like exercise, changes in work-life balance, or diet.  I support them in taking an active role in managing their health, and understanding the risks and gains of the various decisions they may choose.

Over the past 15 years in my work in healthcare, some of the most common concerns people have expressed to me about taking an antidepressant is the impact it may have on their sexual functioning, weight gain/loss, ability to experience ‘normal’ emotions, or fear of becoming ‘dependent’ on it over time.  Others are concerned it could interfere with their active lifestyle or prevent them from enjoying alcohol or other recreational choices.  It’s normal to have reservations about starting any new medication.  If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your concerns with your prescribing provider you may miss out on the significant benefits it could provide you, by opting not to take it out of misunderstanding or fear.

The following list is a helpful guideline to have with you during your health appointment, and/or when you pick up your prescription from the pharmacy.  It can help to bring it to your appointment, and write down your provider’s responses as a way to make the most informed decision possible.

Be proactive:  gather as much information as you can before you leave your appointment

What is the name of the medicine, and for what specific reasons should I take it?

What is the name of the condition this medicine will treat?

How long will it take to work?

How should I store the medicine? Does it need to be refrigerated?

Can the pharmacist substitute a cheaper, generic form of the medicine?

Will the medicine create conflicts with other medicines, herbs or supplements or recreational substances I use?

Find out how you are supposed to take it for optimal effect:

When and how often should I take this medicine? As needed, or on a specific schedule?

Do I take the medicine before, with, or between meals?

How long will I have to take it?

Know what to expect while taking this new medicine:

How will I feel once I start taking this medicine?

How will I know if this medicine is working in the way that it should?

What side effects might I expect to experience? Will they go away?  How long might it take for any side effects to subside, if at all?

Ask how this new medicine fits in with any other other medicines or substances you take:

Are there other medicines or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?

Will this medicine change how my other medicines work? (Ask about both prescription AND over-the-counter substances you take, even if it’s only occasionally or rarely)

Will this medicine change how any of my herbal or dietary supplements work?

Ask if your new medicine interferes with eating or drinking.

Are there any foods or liquids that I shouldn’t drink or eat?

Can I drink alcohol or other use recreational substances like marijuana while taking this medicine? How much is generally safe/unsafe?

Is it OK to eat or drink food before or after I take the medicine?
Other important questions to ask:

If I forget to take it, what should I do?

What should I do if I feel I want to stop taking this medicine? Is it safe to just stop or do I need to gradually stop taking it?

Always call and check in with your doctor or pharmacist if:

You have questions or you are confused/uncertain about the directions for taking your medicine.
You are having side effects from the medicine. Do not stop taking the medicine without telling your doctor. You may need a different dose or a different medicine.
Your medicine looks different than you expected.
Your refill medicine is different than what you usually get.

Your medicine: Be smart. Be safe. Patient Guide. AHRQ Publication No. 11-0049-A, April 2011. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD, and the National Council on Patient Information and Education, Rockville, MD. Accessed May 10, 2014.

NIH Senior Health. Taking medicines safely. January 2011. Accessed May 10, 2014.

Update Date: 5/11/2014
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

Dr. Villarreal is now offering personal and executive coaching

16 Jan

Dr. Christina Villarreal offers professional support to help you reach your life goals at any stage.  She provides personal and executive coaching and consultation for adults, with specialties in: emotional intelligence, time management/organization, wellness/health management, relationship management and dating, organizational diversity/cultural awareness, professional business development, peak performance/leadership, creativity/ innovation, and network growth/leverage. Specialization in working with the Bay Area’s tech community, including start-up founders and their employees, executives in finance, design marketing, attorneys and engineers, and wide range of creative professionals.  LGBTQ populations welcome.

How is participating in coaching different than participating in psychotherapy?
Coaching provides a distinct service that helps clients work on their goals for the future, and create a new life path.  The International Coach Federation (ICF), which claims to be the largest coaching credentialing and support organization in the world, defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Professional coaches provide an ongoing partnership designed to help clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives. Coaches help people improve their performances and enhance the quality of their lives. Coaches are trained to listen, to observe and to customize their approach to individual client needs. They seek to elicit solutions and strategies from the client; they believe the client is naturally creative and resourceful. The coach’s job is to provide support to enhance the skills, resources and creativity that the client already has.”
Coaching focuses on the present and the future, with an emphasis on four areas:
  • Defines goals with client
  • Formulates a plan that will use the client’s skills and resources
  • Holds the client accountable for progress with structure, and measures progress
  • Provides hands-on structure, encouragement and support
Psychotherapy focuses on examining the past, seeking solutions to emotional dysfunction, and often includes a clinical diagnosis according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is required by insurance companies for treatment purposes.  While psychotherapy is not without treatment goals or supportive professional care, the need for psychotherapy arises from a serious problem needing clinical attention and intervention, focusing on moving people from a state of dysfunction to one of being functional.
• Deals with identifiable dysfunctions in a person
• Focuses on a person’s past and trauma, and seeks
emotional healing
• Helps patients resolve old pain
• Doctor-patient relationship (therapist is the expert)
• Aims to help regulate client’s dysfunctional emotions
• Therapist diagnoses, then provides professional expertise
to provide a path to healing.
• Progress can be slow and emotionally challenging.
• Deals with a healthy client desiring an improved situation
• Focuses primarily with a person’s present life, and seeks to help
them design a more desirable future
• Helps clients learn new skills and tools to build a more
satisfying successful future
• Co-creative equal partnership (coach helps the client
discover own answers)
• Client’s emotional skills are already within the functional range
• The Coach works with the client and helps him or her
identify the challenges, then partners to turn challenges into
successes, holding client accountable to reach desired goals.
• Growth and progress are often immediately measurable.

Psychological thriller “Alarmed” a full feature film set for release Q1 of 2014

4 Nov

I had the privilege of contributing my psychological expertise in the production of the full feature film ‘Alarmed’, a psychological thriller produced and directed by Matt Lofgren of TwoCan Films, LLC, a film production company located in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Over the course of several meetings we discussed his vision for the film’s storyline and character development.  The film was shot in the Hitchcock style of filmmaking, utilizing a yacht owned by Mr. Lofgren in many of the scenes.  The film contains the depiction of a psychotherapist who treats the central character, and I helped him to create realistic dialogue for several scenes.  The now completed film will debut at the American Film Market (AFM) in Santa Monica on the 9th through the 11th of November, 2014.

Fear of flying? Tips to overcoming anxiety & panic attacks this holiday season

26 Sep


Does the thought of getting on an airplane cause your heart to race and suddenly you can’t get enough air? You are not alone. More than 25 million Americans suffer from some form of flight-related anxiety, making aerophobia (fear of flying) the second largest fear in the U.S., after public speaking. Every year as the holiday season approaches, patients in my psychotherapy practice want to address their fear of flying, since many of them have travel plans requiring a plane trip to visit family and friends. The holiday season can be especially difficult, since flights are typically full, airports are more crowded, and inclement weather can cause flight delays, in-flight turbulence, harder runway landings, and mechanical difficulties. While many people opt out of flying during the holiday season for these reasons and more, sometimes the need to fly is unavoidable.

This following travel tips can help you overcome anxiety and panic attacks so you can finally conquer your fear of flying. Based on real concerns expressed by people seeking treatment for aerophobia, this list acts as a set of effective cognitive behavioral tools to combat even the worst symptoms of anxiety and panic.

Prepare yourself physically. Give yourself a fighting chance to conquer anxiety by prepping in advance: get a good night’s rest, avoid caffeine (which can trigger physiological symptoms of anxiety), as well as alcohol and recreational drugs 24 hours before you fly, dress in comfortable layers, and consume only foods you know won’t disrupt your digestive system. Now is not the time to get the holiday party started early by drinking alcohol or splurging on rich foods before or during a flight. Any time you’re facing an anxiety-provoking situation, it’s best to prepare your body to be in it’s best, most functional state. While alcohol and marijuana can work as a fleeting quick-fix to numb the senses, they are chemical depressants that have been proven to increase physical and mental anxiety triggers as your body recovers from them.Alcohol use can also cause the body to use oxygen less efficiently. So be sure to hydrate as much as possible before and during your flight, and bring substantial snacks to keep your blood sugar levels even (low blood sugar can also cause the body to use oxygen less efficiently.) These tactics will prepare you to be in your best physiological state, decreasing your susceptibility to anxious sensations.

Practice and master a few behavioral relaxation strategies before you go. Panic and other physical symptoms of stress are caused by the body’s automatic reaction to perceived fear. “The Stress Response” occurs when chemicals flood your body that prepare you for “fight or flight.” While the stress response is helpful in true emergency situations where you must be alert and ready to act, as a passenger on a plane your aim is to remain physically and mentally calm until you reach your final destination. Relaxation strategies like diaphragmatic breathing work to elicit “The Relaxation Response”, which rebalances your body’s physiological system by: deepening your breathing, reducing stress hormones, slowing down your heart rate and blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles. Train your brain to re-enter a familiar state of calm by pairing your breathing practice with relaxing music you’ve already learned to associate with a tranquil place.

Arm yourself with factual, evidence-based answers to your most worrisome thoughts. If you can successfully identify the specific triggers (thoughts, images, sensations, and memories to which you have become sensitized) that produce your anxiety, you’ve taken the first step towards dispelling them. These are some common anxious thoughts that may be (and have been) racing through your mind as you prepare for a flight. Bring along a copy of the following reality checks/factual evidence to help combat these triggers and read them as they crop up during your flight.

Worried thought:The oxygen on the plane is limited, filtered and stale, that’s why I feel like I can’t breathe. The air is fresher outside. I need to get out of this plane so I can breathe fresh air. I am trapped and I cannot get out. I feel like I might suffocate if I don’t get out.”

Many people have strong fears about diminished air quantity and quality on an airplane; it’s often at the core of claustrophobia. The perception of decreased oxygen on an airplane is typically the result of hyperventilation (when people to breath in too much air, too quickly) one of the core symptoms of a panic attack. In fact, one form of treatment for hyperventilation is to breathe in and out of a paper bag, so that you briefly “rebreathe’ your own carbon dioxide as a way to re-balance your oxygen intake. Here are key facts to keep in mind: healthy lungs do NOT know the difference or function less efficiently when breathing filtered, stale air on an airplane, versus if you were standing on a grassy hilltop with fresh, cool ocean air blowing onto your face. You may enjoy the latter scenario much more, but barring you have no medical reasons impacting your breathing, you lungs will function efficiently in either scenario. (I recommend getting regular medical check-ups to ensure your health is adequate for travel.) That said, the oxygen content on an airplane is maintained to mimic oxygen levels in the earth’s natural atmosphere. So fan yourself if that makes yourself feel better, or hold a damp cloth to your face or neck to cool your skin as it dries.

Worried thought: “What if I get overwhelmed with anxiety while I’m stuck on this plane? I could have a full blown panic attack and pass out. What will happen to me?”

You may in fact, experience an increase in anxious thoughts and feelings preceding and/or during a flight. Remind yourself: ‘I can feel uncomfortable, and experience physical and emotional symptoms of discomfort, but that does NOT mean I am going to have a panic attack.’ For a vast number of people, it’s the earliest signs of anxiety that lead them to believe that a panic attack is coming, and there is no way to stop it from happening. That is not true. By identifying and managing your thoughts and practicing relaxation strategies you CAN ward off an escalation of anxiety. But also keep in mind, even if worse case scenario, you do have a panic attack, you will survive it. Physically healthy people don’t die from panic attacks. Flight attendants are trained in how to handle medical emergencies and should you need their assistance, their experience and knowledge will suffice until your panic symptoms pass. If it will make you feel better, let your flight attendant know upon boarding you may need his/her assistance and where you’ll be seated.

Worried thought: “Every time I feel/hear/see something suspicious on this flight it’s a sign that something very bad is going to happen. I have no control of the plane or what happens on the plane. The plane could go down. A crazy, dangerous person could be on board.”

If the plane’s functionality worries you, it may help to obtain detailed information about how a plane flies, facts about turbulence, and the meaning of the various sounds and movements during flights. Virtual reality programs, during which fearful fliers are exposed to computer simulations of flight triggers, are also helpful. There are flight simulators that are ordinarily used to teach private pilots how to fly small planes and are often located near airports. If you feel a general ominous sense of doom because of where you’re seated, or whom you’re seated by, remind yourself of this: you somehow manage to live the rest of your life without controlling a wide range of potentially dangerous scenarios without being hyper-vigilant about them. You very likely aren’t constantly preoccupied with who happens to be driving on the freeway at the exact same time/location as you (for fear of a pending car crash), where you’re walking on the sidewalk (where you might be struck by a reckless driver, hit by a falling tree or meteor, or get mugged) or where you shop or work (because a bomb could go off, the building could collapse, or a fire could break out.) While all of these scenarios are possible, the likelihood of them happening is extremely rare. You already successfully put these possibilities out of your mind and function without being preoccupied with fears that keep you from living out your life. Flying is no different. The point is, if you already manage to get through daily life ignoring all the endless possible things that could threaten your safety, you can also learn to ignore the potential safety risks associated with flying.

Worried thought: “I won’t be able to manage my anxiety for the duration of the flight. As soon as I hear the cabin doors shut and we take off, I feel like I can’t cope. I won’t be able to make it through a longer flight.”

Bring as many distractions as you can and plan strategically when and how you will engage in them throughout your flight. Pack a wide range of activities that you can employ as cognitive distractions while you’re in flight. The fewer opportunities you have to experience anxious thoughts, the less opportunity your mind and body will have to react to them. Some people even write out a mini activity itinerary based on the length of their flight. {10 min. deep breathing with music, 20 minutes reading newspaper/magazine, 30 minutes watch an in-flight sitcom, 10 min. walking through cabin/bathroom break, 30 minutes play games on electronic device, etc etc}. When you feel your anxiety begin to rise, switch activities, rotating through them in intervals. If it helps, plan to get up and walk about the plane cabin, drink water, visit the bathroom when feasible. Avoid focusing on specific triggers like keeping track of how many times the ‘stay seated’ lights come on.

With practice and hard work, you can learn to achieve a sense of mastery and benefit from the freedom of flying without disabling fears that have kept you grounded in the past. Each time you fly it will get easier and easier. You may never feel totally at ease but you CAN accomplish engaging in tactics that significantly reduce and even eliminate old patterns of anxiety.

Dr. Villarreal serves as Social Relationships Expert for

15 Sep

Dr. Villarreal will be serving as a Social Relationships Expert for, a social community website focusing on love, sex and relationships. is a platform leveraging the curiosity of an ever expanding social community, in which women and men of varied backgrounds discuss a wide array of lifestyle issues ranging from dating & relationships to fashion & health, by sharing their experiences & opinions to help each other.

The website offers both anonymous users, as well as its members tools to ask questions, share opinions and experiences to help the opposite sex. The website hosts questions asked by males as well. Launched in June 2007 the website has been funded privately; in September 2013 the company raised $1 Million in its first funding round. The website reaches10 million visitors/members every month, with a sizable social media following.  The site has gained widespread international popularity, with meeting the demand of Latin America’s Spanish speaking population. Furthermore, is one of the most popular social media sites in Turkey, ranked in the Top 5.  Membership to GirlsAskGuys is free. Upon subscription and through site participation members earn points, which later can be redeemed for gift certificates or other exclusive features. Points also allow members to advance levels, which is an indicator of member activity.

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Stop texting and start talking: 5 tips to millennial modern dating

25 Aug

This article was written by (in creative collaboration with) David Zimmerman, who leads business development for Yeti. He’s from Portland, OR, has lived in Denver, Vail, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Spain. David loves to surf, snowboard, hike, golf, cook, and rap. He’s currently residing in LA, but loves getting back to the northwest to spend time with his family.

Hey, what’s up?

The infamous text message sent millions of times daily from couples, friends, and parents around the globe. But what does this message really mean? You might want to know what someone else is doing at that particular moment. You also may have an interest in what’s literally up (the sky), but that’s not likely. The latter, and most complex of the three ideas, is that you’re asking for attention through this message in order to feel loved… but who’s going to admit that?

You may be thinking, “I would never do that, I’m not lonely.” Think again. Have you ever sent a message to your ex saying “hey,” or reach out to a friend through a text saying something like, “what are you doing tonight?” I’m guilty of doing these things, but have come to realization why I do it.  I’m chasing that feeling of connection and closeness with someone that values my attention. By actually saying that you love or miss someone, you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position, and that meaning is so much deeper than a text. We are afraid to be vulnerable, so we reach out our feelers by messaging as many of our contacts as possible when we feel lonely and disconnected… but who’s going to admit that?

While technology has given us the ability to grab the attention of our friends more efficiently than ever, it’s also diluting our message when we do reach out.  We receive texts, chat messages, emails and pings on our social media websites of choice all day every day, but it’s become so easy to ignore them because we feel busy and overwhelmed by the volume of attempts to get our attention.  Facebook invites go unopened, Evites go unseen, and yet we still feel disconnected.  We are losing the ability to enjoy the moment, because we are focused on finding our best options for feeling loved.  

So how do we hit the brakes, and check ourselves before we wreck ourselves?  Stop complaining about the inundation of technology, and choose to do things a little differently. By opting out of ‘the easy way’ we’re actually improving our chances of a real connection.

Try doing things ‘Old School’

I remember standing by my locker in high school, backpack strapped to my right shoulder. The thought of asking a girl out was scary and nerve-racking, but so exciting at the same time. The potential risk of getting shut down made me anxious, but it was worth the risk for the potential reward — putting myself out there and going on a date with an awesome girl I was into. There’s nothing wrong with having those feelings, it’s natural, and it felt real. The culture of texting, social media, and online activity is so commonplace, we’re becoming numb and indifferent about engaging with people in the moment.  Our reluctance to invest in others emotionally is leading us lose touch with the pleasure of building face-to-face relationships based on spontaneous interactions.

How do people date now?

In college, finding a date was pretty easy. You consistently run into the same people on campus, and over a four year period get to know a lot of those people very well. Living in the dorms made this even more simple, because you’re surrounded by peers who are all excited to be living on their own with little to no rules. There’s no one to tell you who you could or couldn’t see, the only thing holding you back was making sure that your roommate wasn’t around when you brought a date back to your room. This scenario was great because you are forced to step outside of your comfort zone, and approach someone that you’re interested in. Even at a bar, restaurant, or class, asking someone on a date was pretty simple.

Now things are a little different. I call this “post-college life.” Many of us are working hard to pursue a career that both pays well and is something we’re passionate it about. One of my best friends from college used to say “you should always work for a company you love, or in a location that you love- if you find both, then you are officially living the dream.”  The older I get, the more true this seems.

Sometimes a job leads us to a new location, or an uncomfortable situation where we feel overwhelmed or out of our element.  With work taking up the majority of our lives, it can be hard to find time to meet new people. The reality is, you have to work at building relationships, and even then, these new relationships take time to turn into gratifying social support.

This may be why the millennial generation enjoys the passive dating/social media scene, using apps like Tinder, Grindr, Hinge, and Grouper to find people who can potentially fill the void of real human connection and belonging. These platforms generally only serve as a short term solution to avoiding the sting of social isolation, rejection and feelings of awkwardness that come with taking social risks. Chivalry doesn’t have to die, gentlemen.  According to Dr. Christina Villarreal, a clinical psychologist who works with a wide range of generation Y folks in the dating scene, women still love to receive sincere compliments, be surprised with thoughtful cards or other personalized gestures, and genuinely feel like they are special to someone.  Men still want to know their attention is being well-received, and that their investment of time and effort will pay off in a relationship that feels rewarding.  That being said, here are five ways to slow things down and make dating more interesting again.

Here are 5 ways to help

  1. No Texting – Try to avoid texting when you first meet someone that you’re interested in. It’s amazing how much a conversation can be misconstrued through a message (even with emojis). By avoiding texting someone every 3 minutes the week after you meet them, you will actually be surprised by things they say, and excited to see them for another date!
  2. Spontaneity – I’ve learned a lot from my mother and sister about how to treat women, and I know they love the serendipity of living in the moment (then again, who doesn’t?). I’m not saying you have to launch elaborate plans every time you see someone you’re interested in, but simply pay attention to their subtle cues to make a positive, meaningful impact. For example, if a girl you like mentions in passing that she loves sorbet (the raspberry, gluten free, Talenti brand), then next time you see her, bring over the freakin’ sorbet. Mind blown.
  3. Forget the phones – Take someone out on a date where you don’t need a phone. Go for a hike, explore new terrain, or drive to a part of town you’ve never been before. Getting lost together can help the two of you bond on a deeper level, by working together to solve a problem. Don’t worry, if you don’t document the entire trip on social media, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.
  4. Pay attention to the non-verbal cues around you – Glances in your direction are happening all around you!  Better yet, try noticing when someone is deliberating over making a selection in a store, this could be an opportunity to share your experience with something, or ask what theirs has been. The goal is engaging for the sake of connection and the potential reward is huge.
  5. Make a habit out of chatting with strangers – Try exchanging a few casual comments with interesting people around you throughout your day.  It only takes a few words to start the ball rolling, but the effect is instant. Suddenly you’ll notice how fostering connections with others in real life feels so much better than another fleeting ‘like’ of your pic, status update, tweet.

Digital mental health tools: how do they work?

22 Aug

Teaching cognitive behavioral tools for mood management has been a large part of my psychotherapy practice since I began over 10 years ago.  Some of the most effective tools are relaxation techniques that work to help people manage a wide range of common mental and physical health symptoms, including anxiety/worry, self destructive thinking habits, panic attacks, insomnia, depression and chronic pain.  During psychotherapy, patients learn how and why these tools work, followed by demonstrations and practice in session, followed by homework for review in between appointments.  Innovative developments in technology have given people helpful tools to support what they are learning in psychotherapy, including the ability to measure and track their body’s physiological functioning with wearable devices. A variety of mental health focused mobile apps can work as supportive guides for relaxation, cognitive restructuring, and mood management. Some apps are built as digital games, based on research findings that suggest “gamifying” a scientifically-supported mental health intervention offers measurable mental and behavioral benefits for people with relatively high levels of anxiety.  Mental health professionals now have a wide range of supplemental digital tools to choose from to support their patient care, as well as individuals aiming for increased mental wellness.  Discuss with your mental health provider which digital tools best match the work you are doing together; if she/he is not familiar with any, aim for those utilizing evidence-based practices developed by health professionals, and steer clear of those making dubious health claims.  While the latest ‘best mental health apps’ lists are a great place to start, ultimately the ‘best app’ is one that is a scientifically supported one that you feel you can use with ease and consistency.

What makes these tools so effective and how do they work?

Relaxation techniques improve the mind and body’s physiological functioning and health.  Panic and other physical symptoms of stress are caused by the body’s  automatic reaction to perceived fear.  “The Stress Response” occurs when chemicals flood your body that prepare you for “fight or flight.” While the stress response is helpful in true emergency situations where you must be alert and ready to act, overall exhaustion can occur when constantly activated.  Relaxation strategies work to elicit “The Relaxation Response”, which rebalances your body’s physiological system by: deepening your breathing, reducing stress hormones, slowing down your heart rate and blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles. In addition to its calming physical effects, research shows that the relaxation response also increases energy/ability to focus, fight diseases, relieves aches and pains, heightens problem-solving abilities, and boosts motivation and productivity.

Cognitive techniques such as thought records and mood trackers reduce anxious, depressive or self-destructive thinking habits.  Worry, panic and fear are all normal and automatic human responses to real or imagined threats to safety. Self-evaluative thoughts play an important role in motivating us to identify errors and take action for improvement.  All of these types of thoughts work as a natural alert system, compelling us to make necessary changes that can remove us from harm’s way, decrease harmful behaviors or increase healthy behaviors. While sometimes these thoughts work in our best interest, they can also be hazardous to our mental and physical state of health if left poorly managed.  Automatic thoughts of worry or self-criticism can become distorted and irrational when left unchecked, and actually prevent us from being able to function optimally in our daily lives. Learning to refute and manage irrational thoughts is an important step in healthy coping when faced with uncontrollable circumstances.

Professional mental health treatment by trained experts remain an essential part of diagnosing and treating mental illness.  There is no substitute for understanding the myriad composition, history and progress of an individual’s mental health symptoms.  A person’s mental health can erode suddenly and sometimes without warning; dangerous progression of symptoms can be avoided with timely and appropriate professional care. 



Gen-Y’s tech twist on engagement, weddings and parenthood

18 Aug

While Gen-Y is still getting married at much lower rates than previous generations, some millennials are finally beginning to grow up, entering the world of marital engagements, wedding planning, and parenthood. True to form, their choices reflect advancements that set them apart from Gen-Xers, who were the first to utilize technology to chronicle their love stories on websites like, build wedding registries online, gift personalized CDs with digitally remastered music as wedding favors, show spliced video montages of the bride and groom’s childhood at wedding receptions, and research honeymoons on websites like As a card carrying member of generation X, I can proudly say we thought we were so cutting edge! Our kids were the first to be born with smartphones and tablets in their hands, and we posted their baby pictures on our social media pages and texted them to their grandparents. But time nor technology stands still, and Gen-Y has begun to put their own tech twist on engagements, weddings and baby plans. As a mental health treatment provider and consultant who works almost entirely with millennials in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have taken note of the following trends:

Their romantic relationships have an online life of their own. As the saying goes, no one really knows what happens behind closed doors, but in the personal lives of millennials, we can certainly take a look at their online activity to see what they’d like us to believe about their relationship status and history. The internet has become their forum of choice for chronicling romantic highs and lows, functioning as a means to gain public support, air grievances, compete for attention, and display markers of success (not to mention deleting away failures.) From public playlists on Spotify, hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, Pinterest boards and Facebook’s ‘Relationship Status’ updates, Gen-Y leaves little to the imagination when it comes to sharing their stories of romance.

They crowd source their decisions when it comes to navigating relationships. Millennials are used to solving problems fast, arriving at optimal solutions with the least resistance possible. Millennials have been groomed to work in competency-based teams, and this concept is frequently used for managing their personal lives too. They prefer to avoid conflict, and are more comfortable than previous generations relying on others to help them make decisions. Jeff Snipes, CEO of Ninth House, a provider of online education, including optimizing team effectiveness, says a hierarchical, leader-oriented team was more appropriate for earlier generations: “Traditionally if you worked up the ranks for twenty years and all the employees were local then you could know all the functions of the workplace. Then you could lead by barking orders. But today everything moves too fast and the breadth of competency necessary to do something is too vast.” When faced with life-changing decisions about relationship commitment or endings, Gen-Y seeks the opinions of their team of friends, family and experts to help them navigate and solve problems. When problems are deemed too private to share, websites like popular sites like Whisper and Secret are put to use by millennials as a way to air their private thoughts, share their hidden behaviors and ask for advice completely anonymously, so there is no threat to their carefully constructed online image.

Their engagement stories, weddings and honeymoons reflect their brilliance and investment in personal branding. While previous generations aimed to establish their worth and reputation through self-improvement, author Dan Schawbel of Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success points out that Gen-Y has discovered that in the dawn of the internet, admiration and success comes from self-packaging through a carefully concocted personal brand. From the days of Myspace to Tumblr, millennials have grown up managing their self image like celebrity publicists. Gen-Y has turned self-portraits into a way of life- ‘selfies’ have become one of the internet’s top forms of self-expression. Their overall online presence has been a way to uniquely distinguish themselves from everyone else, and they are highly invested in making their relationship milestones ideally memorable as part of their personal brand. Whether they capture and share these milestones via Snapchat’s Our Story, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or personal blogs, millennials are sure to control how the world sees their love stories unfold through brand management. One San Francisco Bay area millennial shared with me she got engaged via FaceTime, since her long-distance boyfriend was living in abroad and couldn’t wait to pop the question. To his credit, her (now fiance) also created an iMovie that he shared with her, depicting him staged in funny scenarios accompanied by a personalized musical score that specially captured their romantic history.

They’re comfortable resisting tradition, understanding that ‘following the rules’ doesn’t necessarily bring ‘happily ever after.’ Author Paul Hudson of Elite Daily, The Voice of Generation Y observes that millennials are far less likely than past generations to buy into the notion that marriage is the gateway to a future of stability and happiness. Harry Benson, research director at the Marriage Foundation, describes the strong link between parental divorce and a reluctance to get married. “If your parents split up then most people are more likely to be quite skeptical about the value of marriage,” he explains. “So as there’s rising divorce rates, you can imagine how when the next generation appears, people will be more dubious about marriage.” Bobby Duffy, leading market researcher on generational analysis, says there are also far more financial pressures on millennials than previous generations. They have more educational debt in a less stable economic climate, and face an incredibly buoyant housing market. According to CNNMoney, twenty-somethings are transitioning into adult life at a more gradual pace, opting to cohabitate and co-parent without traditional marriage at a much higher rate than previous generations.

They anticipate their babies’ future in a world where technological identity matters. One website says it, a new online tool that allows parents to choose a name for their child based on website domain availability. Yes people, this is happening. I heard it first a few months ago when a pregnant patient of mine found out she was having a girl, the first thing she and her cohabiting boyfriend/expecting father-to-be did was buy website domains and establish email accounts in her name. Of course, now there’s an app for that! “It’s important to give your children a fighting chance of having good SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in the 21st century,” says Finnbar Taylor, who created this website together with Karen X. Cheng. “We use search engines all day long to answer our questions and find things, including people. Imagine being called John Smith and trying to get a ranking on Google search. It’s important to give your child a unique name so that people, like potential employers, will be able to find them easily in the future.”

Granted, millennials are still in their 20’s, a time when it’s still developmentally common to be preoccupied with self-image, and an idealized future that looks different than previous generations. The question is, as Gen-Y ages, which of these trends, if any, will change?

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. She produces web articles, televised and print/web interviews on current issues in mental health and tech culture. She offers consultation and strategy to start up founders and employees.


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