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Columns by Dr. Pauline Wallin at My Body & Mind Magazine:

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Gratitude has far-reaching benefits: On Your Mind with Dr. Pauline Wallin

Nov 13 2013
The precise mechanism of how gratitude works in the brain is not understood. But psychologically speaking, gratitude naturally draws your attention to the positive. When you focus on the positive, the negative drops into the background.

How to deal with intrusive strangers: On Your Mind with Dr. Pauline Wallin

Sep 4 2013
The stares. The whispers. The gawking. It's natural to want to puff up and protect your children, especially if they're different. But a positive response can go a long way.

What's wrong with perfect?: On Your Mind with Dr. Pauline Wallin

Jun 6 2013
Perfection comes at a price. Yes, it's gratifying to know that what you do or produce is flawless, but is the time and effort worthwhile?

Senior Week: A survival guide for parents

Jun 4 2013
If your recent graduate convinced you to let them go to Senior Week, don't fret.

On Your Mind: Coping with the unexpected

Feb 19 2013
Resilience helps us adapt to challenging circumstances. The adjustment process takes time, and there are difficult spots. But chances are you'll end up stronger and even more resilient at the other end.

On your mind: Getting better at small talk

Nov 14 2012
Chatting at a cocktail party or other social gathering with people you hardly know can be quite a challenge. But there are things you can do to minimize the stress.

On Your Mind: Breast cancer...again? How to cope with recurrence

Oct 10 2012
Most things get easier the second time around. But not breast cancer. A new occurrence can be just as distressing as the first time — or even more so.

On Your Mind: What to do when grandparents become 'too helpful'

Sep 6 2012
Grandparents who want to be actively involved in their grandkids' lives can be a mixed blessing.

On Your Mind: The mental side of athletic performance

Jun 7 2012
When it comes to professional athletic competition, mental skill is just as important as physical ability.

On Your Mind: How to escape the worrying cycle

May 8 2012
Are you a chronic worrier? Do thoughts continually run through your mind about everything that could go wrong, even though you know they're not likely to happen?

On Your Mind: How to stay in love with your spouse for decades

Feb 14 2012
Is it possible to stay "in love" with your spouse over years or even decades? Absolutely.

On Your Mind: Why adult siblings fight at family get-togethers and what you can do about it

Nov 16 2011
How would you like to feel 12 years old again, with no effort required? Visit your family of origin over the holidays. Situational cues have a powerful influence. You might not even be aware that these physical surroundings trigger emotional memories as well.

On Your Mind: Just diagnosed with breast cancer? How to tell family and friends

Oct 6 2011
You've just received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Even before it all sinks in, you're worrying about how to break the news to family and friends.

On Your Mind: Dealing with disappointment in your baby's gender

Sep 6 2011
It's normal to prefer one gender over another. In fact a Gallup Poll published in June showed that two out of three people expressed a preference for a boy or a girl, with a bias toward boys. Nine previous surveys on this issue, dating to 1941, produced similar results. Thus, parents have been grappling with this issue for generations.

Grieving Your Pet -- It's Normal

Jun 9 2011
Losing a pet to death is a lonely experience. It's a painful time, for sure --- often as painful as when a human friend or family member dies.

On your mind: Think through relationships before ending them

May 4 2011
Studies show that in order for a relationship to thrive, there must be a sense of equity. Both people must feel as if they are getting as much as they are giving. Not that they keep score, but over the long run things even out.

On Your Mind: Dropping a bad habit? Make the hurdle easier to clear

Feb 22 2011
Have you ever tried to change a habit and failed? Not surprising. Once you acquire a habit, it tends to stick around with the habit memory etched in your brain. For the most part, that's a good thing.

Child Violence: Are video games to blame?

Nov 10 2010
Are video games good or bad for kids? As with TV and other media, there is no simple answer.

On Your Mind: Strategy of 'doing' and 'thinking' shakes feelings of helplessness

Oct 6 2010
As a cancer survivor, you know that life never returns completely to the way it was before your diagnosis. During and after treatment, you must gradually adjust to a "new normal."

On Your Mind: Happiness in our appearance

Sep 7 2010
Pauline Wallin talks about the importance of being happy with your appearance.

Dr. Wallin’s Articles at APA’s YourMindYourBody.org:

drwallin – Your Mind Your Body

What the ads don’t tell you about holiday gifts

Dec 11 2013

Gift buying season is in full swing. If you pay careful attention to ads and TV commercials, you’ll notice how little focus is on the product itself. Instead you are drawn to images of people and their warm interactions with one another–all designed to appeal to your emotions.

Whether the advertiser is selling fruitcake or diamonds, the message is the same: The recipient of your gift will be delighted, and you will be the hero of the moment. On TV and online, background music is engineered to deepen your emotional involvement in the ad, further increasing your desire to buy the advertised product.

The images in the ads imply that purchasing the product will make you a better parent, a more thoughtful spouse, or a more special friend–and who doesn’t want that? It’s a very strong emotional message that appeals to one’s insecurities. People fall for this ploy every day, buying things for others in order to feel better about themselves.

 

Holiday gifts are overrated

One thing that advertisers don’t want you to know is that the impact of receiving material gifts is highly overrated. The happiness doesn’t last, and neither does disappointment. In fact, after a few weeks or a few months (with occasional exceptions) most people don’t even remember what they got.

Your kids will not love you less if you don’t buy them what they had hoped for. Yes, they might be disappointed, but they won’t hold a grudge for long. In my 35 years of psychological practice I have heard thousands of complaints from people about their parents. Never has anyone complained about being disappointed over the gifts they did or did not receive as a child.

As for other recipients, such as a friend or significant other, amazing them with an expensive gift may be more important to you than to them. They might be just as satisfied with a more modest present that lets them know they matter to you.

When shopping for gifts this year, ignore the ads and commercials. Think about the people you’re buying for and what they might enjoy or appreciate, not what might impress them.

For example, one summer, while visiting my mother-in-law, I noticed a magnetic knife holder mounted on the wall above her kitchen counter. I’d never seen such a gadget before, and commented that it was a handy way to store knives. The following Christmas she sent me a magnetic knife holder similar to hers–not an expensive gift, but one that I appreciated and remembered, because it reflected her thoughtful kindness.

 

“Gifts” to give all year round

Holiday gifts are nice to give and receive. But what really counts in the long run is the accumulation of moments all year round that communicate how much you value the people in your life.

The following “gifts” cost nothing. But they will be treasured:

  • Show your appreciation with a thank you, a smile or a hug (or all three).  It takes just a moment, but it can make a person’s day.
  • Practice a random act of kindness every day. Hold a door open for someone. Let someone in front of you in line. Smile and greet people you pass at work.  These acts take only a few seconds, yet they create a mood that can last for hours.
  • Call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, just to catch up on how they are. You’ve probably been meaning to do this for a long time. Now is a good time.
  • If you have children, give one child at a time your full attention for an afternoon: Go for a walk; go to the library; or just sit and read or draw together. The activity itself isn’t as important as sharing time together.
  • Write a note of appreciation to someone. Don’t be surprised if that person keeps the note for years to come.

Image by Taliesin via morguefile.com

Making the first day of Kindergarten easy and fun

Aug 12 2013

On Her WayFor most kids the first day of kindergarten is an exciting time. But the transition can also be worrisome. It’s a big step for children and their parents.

Even kids who have been through pre-school know that kindergarten is an entirely different experience. They see references to kindergarten on TV and listen to other family members talk about it. Because young children don’t process information in the same way adults do, they may misinterpret what they see and hear, and start worrying about the first day of school.

Fortunately, there are simple things that parents can do to help make the first day of kindergarten easy and fun. The key ingredients are managing your own anxiety, and communicating in a way that fits with your child’s level of intellectual and emotional development.

Manage your own anxiety.

Focus on your child’s opportunities for learning and for making new friends. If you’re one of those parents who constantly worries about safety, consider that accidents at school are far fewer than those at home.

Also, keep in mind that it’s common for young children to miss their parents, and most will quickly adapt. Being calm yourself can go a long way in easing any anxiety that your child might have about going to school.

Help your child mentally prepare.

  • Kids at this age think in very concrete terms. Therefore, when you talk to them about kindergarten be factual. Discuss where they will be, what they’ll see, and what they’ll do.
  • Take your child to the school prior to the first official day. If possible, arrange to visit the kindergarten classroom and to meet the teacher. Point out the location of the bathroom.
  • Mention familiar things your child may find at school, such as picture books and brand new markers and crayons. Describe typical situations, such as how everyone lines up to go outside.
  • If your child will be riding on the school bus, talk about what it looks like inside and what to do when it arrives at the school. You can even play “school bus” together by arranging a few chairs in rows.
  • To help your child feel socially connected, arrange play dates with peers who will be starting kindergarten at the same school.
  • Avoid saying anything that might arouse anxiety in your child, such as “I’ll miss you when you go to school.”
  • Don’t give reassurances unless your child asks for it. Unsolicited advice like, “If the big kids start fighting with you, tell the teacher right away,” can make kids more apprehensive, especially if the possibility of such events never occurred to them.

Above all, relax.

The first day of kindergarten does not predict future school experience. Even if it doesn’t go that well, most kids recover quite quickly.

Photo courtesy of Lance Nishihira (via Flickr)

 

 

Bouncing Back: Coping With The Unexpected

Mar 5 2013

GrassGrowingThroughPavementJust when life seems to be going smoothly, something happens to throw us for a loop – an accident, chronic illness, financial setback or a relationship breakup, to name a few.

These are the types of events that we cannot fully prepare for. But fortunately most of us have what it takes to deal with them.

It’s called resilience–the ability to bounce back from adversity. And while the rebound is typically neither quick nor smooth, coping with the unexpected is the norm, not the exception. We are built for the task, with a mind that is resourceful and creative, and emotional flexibility to cushion the impact.

Resilience helps us adapt to challenging circumstances. The adjustment process takes time, and there are difficult spots. But chances are you’ll end up stronger and even more resilient at the other end.

Here are some tips for drawing on your resilience:

 

Feelings

  • When unexpected events occur, it’s normal to feel angry, sad or shocked at first. Allow yourself to experience these emotions. But don’t overlook the positive ones. Notice that there are times when you feel calm or even amused. Allow yourself to fully experience these feelings as well.
  • It’s normal to worry about the future. Try to tolerate the unknown for now. As you learn more facts and explore options, your worries will diminish.
  • Expect emotional ups and downs. There will be stretches when you’re fine and other periods when you feel overwhelmed. With time the overwhelming episodes will subside in frequency and intensity.

Thoughts

  • Be optimistic. How you talk to yourself about the event can be critical in how well and how soon you adjust to it. Avoid using catastrophic words like “horrible,” “never,” or “always” in your thoughts. As much as you can, try to view the situation as a challenge. You may not know exactly how you’re going to deal with it, but assume that you have the psychological tools to adapt.
  • Recall previous times when you had to deal with adversity. Think of what you did that helped you get through it. This will reveal to you some of your best coping strategies. How can you apply these strategies to your current situation?
  • Find something to be grateful for, and think of it in terms of “At least…” People tend to do this naturally in devastating circumstances, e.g., “We lost everything in the fire, but at least we got out alive.” This same type of thinking also works in less dire situations: “What a shock to be diagnosed with diabetes. But at least there are workable treatment options.” It’s a simple shift in perspective that can go a long way in giving you hope.

Actions

  • To regain a sense of control when you feel as if your life is in an upheaval, keep a routine as much as possible. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day. Eat at mealtimes. Stay active, as you are able. Do small tasks to pass the time and to help you feel productive.
  • At the beginning don’t make any long-term plans. Focus on what you can do now. For example, if you just lost your job, figure out ways to immediately cut unnecessary expenses.
  • As your emotions settle down, you will be able to think more clearly and to explore options. Organize a plan, but remain flexible. For example, after getting past the initial shock of your relationship breakup, structure your life to meet new people – join a gym, take a class, volunteer, etc. It may take some trial and error to settle into a schedule of activities that you enjoy.
  • Don’t go it alone. Spend time with family or friends. Talk things out with those whom you respect and trust. Get together with people who are, or who have been in similar circumstances – you might get some ideas that you hadn’t previously thought of to help you cope.

Like any psychological journey, your mileage may vary on the above suggestions. There is no set timetable, no one-size-fits-all solution. But the fact that you have made it this far in life is evidence that you have built up resilience to adapt to a wide variety of situations.

That’s a good thing, because when you think about it, life is a series of one adaptation after another.

Note: Some circumstances challenge your resilience beyond its capability, to the point where you feel you can barely function. If this persists beyond a few days, you are advised to seek the guidance of a psychologist or other mental health professional.

Helpful resource:

The American Psychological Association Help Center’s “Road to Resilience

Photo Credit: 2. via Compfight cc

A Simple But Powerful Tip For Sticking To Your New Year’s Resolution

Dec 28 2012

Have you ever started on a self-improvement program, but given up out of discouragement at your slow progress?

A recent study on consumer behavior may have the answer. Researchers Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach studied people’s motivation to return to a coffee shop when they were given a loyalty card (one that is stamped or hole-punched with each purchase; e.g., buy 10 hot drinks, get one free).

They created loyalty cards that drew customers’ attention either to how many purchases they had already made, or how many they still needed to make to get the free item.

For example, in the images below, imagine that each set of stars represents your drink purchases. In the first image, assume that the three blue stars represent stamps. In the second image, the three blank stars represent hole-punches. Your attention is probably drawn more to the blue, rather than to the blank stars.

What the researchers found

When there were few purchases (e.g. 3 out of 10) people were more motivated to return to the coffee shop when their attention was drawn to the three completed purchases, as in the first image above, than to the seven remaining ones.

However, when the cards were almost full (e.g., 7 out of 10 purchases) people were more motivated to buy more drinks if their attention was drawn NOT to the purchases they had already made, but to the three remaining ones (the second image below) to reach their goal of a free drink.

 

In other words, motivation to take action was increased when people paid attention to the smaller number. The researchers call this the “small-area hypothesis.”

 

What does this have to do with New Year’s resolutions?

The small-area hypothesis makes sense when you are tracking your progress toward a goal, as is often the case with New Year’s resolutions. The lesson from this study is:

  • If you are still a long way from reaching your goal, focus on how much progress you’ve made so far.
  • If you are close to reaching your goal, focus on how much you have left.

In other words, focus on the smaller number.

Example #1: Suppose you’re on the treadmill, with a goal of covering three miles. You’re feeling kind of sluggish. You glance at the display and notice that you’ve reached the one-mile mark.

How you talk to yourself about this information can make a big difference. Which of the following self-statement do you think would give you more motivation to continue: 

A. I’m already a third of the way there.

B. Still two thirds of the way to go.

Example #2: You’ve lost 8 lb, with the goal of 10 total. There’s a birthday cake in the break room at the office. You’ve managed to avoid unnecessary sugar for several weeks. Which of the following self-statements would better help you stick to your eating plan:

A. I’ve already lost 8 lb.

B. Just 2 more lb. to go.

Chances are that for both the above examples, focusing on the smaller number is more likely to keep you motivated.

 

Why this works:

We stay motivated not just by progress toward a goal, but by how much impact the next step will have. The greater the impact, the more motivated we are to continue.

Using the smaller number as a reference point gives you a mental boost of self-encouragement. If you’ve already run one mile, the next half mile is a 50% increase. But if you focus on the two miles left to go, a half mile is only 25% of that. Thus you’ll feel as if you are making more of a “dent” in your progress by focussing on the smaller number.

Whatever your resolution this year, if you can measure it and track it, pay more attention to how far you’ve come in the beginning of your journey. But as you cross the half-way point, keep your focus on what’s left to do.

If your journey is a long one – let’s say you intend to lose a lot of weight, or train for a marathon, or save a big chunk of money – break down your goal into intermediate steps. For each step, apply the small-area hypothesis, focusing on the smaller number during your progress.

… And please leave a comment to let us know if this helped.

 

 

Holiday Parties Need Not Be Stressful

Dec 4 2012

Holiday parties are a mixed bag. On the one hand, there’s usually lots of good food and drinks. On the other hand there’s the chit-chat, which can be uncomfortable, especially if you’re not used to talking with people you don’t know very well.

It’s not that you lack conversational skills. After all, you can probably talk with close friends for hours with no trouble.

But when you enter a cocktail party, you may encounter psychological obstacles that prevent you from enjoying yourself:

1. Anxiety – If you’ve had previous experiences of feeling tongue-tied or embarrassed at social gatherings, it’s normal to tense up, worrying that it will happen again. You may become so anxious that you can’t think straight – which is not a good state of mind for carrying on a conversation.

Solution: Some people have a few drinks to calm down. But that approach has its own drawbacks. The quickest non-alcoholic way to reduce your anxiety is to take a few deep breaths while visualizing a peaceful scene. If you practice this a couple of times a day when you’re not anxious, you’ll be skilled enough to make it work for you in situations where you do feel anxious.

2. Self-consciousness – When you walk into a room full of people, do you feel that all eyes are on you, critically judging you? You know they’re not, of course. But it still feels that way. Actually, many of those other people are overly focused on themselves, even though they don’t show it!

Solution: Easing your self-consciousness is as simple as directing your attention away from yourself. Look around. Notice features of the room – the colors, the arrangement of furniture, the lighting. Observe a conversation across the room and try to imagine what the people are talking about.

When talking with other people, listen to what they are saying. The more you listen, the less self-conscious you will feel.

3. How you talk to yourself – Your comfort level at a social gathering is determined long before you set foot in the door. It starts with how you talk to yourself in the days or weeks leading up to the event. If your thoughts run to variations of “I really don’t want to go” while dredging up memories of previous unpleasant experiences, you are essentially rehearsing having a bad time. When you finally get there, your rehearsed thoughts and feelings are set in motion automatically.

Solution: It doesn’t have to be this way. If you find yourself dwelling on how difficult it’s going to be or on how much you don’t want to go, counteract those thoughts with different ones. But they have to be credible. Saying to yourself, “It’s going to be wonderful” probably won’t sound convincing. But phrases like, “I’ve endured a lot worse” or “I’m up to the challenge” will at least put things into a more manageable perspective.

Instead of waffling about whether you feel like going to the party, consciously make a decision to go, and to how long you’ll stay. With that commitment in place, treat it like any other obligation. You don’t have to look forward to it. But neither do you have to dread it.

ONE THING TO KEEP IN MIND: Research by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert and his colleagues show that how we feel at a future time is never as bad as we anticipate!

Photo from PhotoExpress