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I have written articles for websites, magazines and newsletters. Many of them are posted below. Click or tap the “plus” icon to expand each item.

Disclaimer: Tips and advice in these articles are for informational purposes only. They are not intended to address individuals’ specific circumstances, nor as a substitute for mental health treatment.

From my column, “On Your Mind” in Body & Mind Magazine (2007-2013)

Invisible
Motivation and behavior
How to escape the worrying cycle

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?

Occasional worrying about potential problems is normal. Our brains are wired to think about the future and plan accordingly. But too much worrying is counterproductive. You’re less able to concentrate and focus. You’re less efficient in your work. And you are more prone to accidents.

What’s more, you may suffer from health problems as a result of all that worrying. Worrying is a form of anxiety, which has been linked with high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive disorders, sleep difficulties, chronic headaches and weight problems.

Family members and friends tell you that you worry too much — which you already know. They urge to you to “just relax.” If it were only that easy!

Worrying gives an illusion of control

As much as worrying is a burden, it does serve a purpose of sorts. It gives you an illusion of control for situations in which you have no actual control. Worrying feels more productive than doing nothing. You may also believe that worrying is the same as caring about someone or something.

For example, suppose your teenager has just driven off (with your permission) to pick up a friend on the way to the movies. As you picture him driving, you think to yourself, “I hope he buckled his seatbelt. … He’d better not be texting. … What if his friend distracts him? … What if a drunken driver plows into him?” and so on. Within a minute or two you imagine one gruesome scenario after another.

Isn’t that normal thinking for a mother who cares about her child? No, it’s not. The average parent might briefly consider possible calamities, but quickly realize that these are rare, that more than 99 percent of teenagers return home safely.

On the other hand, a parent who’s a chronic worrier will not only think about calamities, but also will visualize them over and over again in dramatic detail — thus making them seem very real and very likely to happen, regardless of actual risk.

The worrying cycle

When everything turns out fine, worrying stops temporarily. But it resumes again very soon, because your unconscious mind infers a causal relationship between worry and relief. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say your son has been out all evening with the car. Of course, you’ve been on edge, contemplating everything bad that might happen. He arrives home a few minutes late, but safe. You heave a sigh of relief as he walks through the door.

According to the science of human behavior, whatever you were doing prior to feeling relief, you’re more likely to repeat in the future. In this case, you were actively worrying — which means that you’ll be more likely to worry the next time your son takes the car.

Worrying can also function as a superstition. Similar to objects that people carry for luck, some view worrying as a way to stave off real catastrophe. As “proof” they might state: “Everything I worry about never happens,” or “Whenever I don’t worry, that’s when bad things happen.”

While these statements might seem true on the surface, they reflect faulty logic and selective memory. Just because nothing happened while you worried, it doesn’t mean that nothing happened because you worried. And although you might remember some unfortunate circumstances that occurred when you weren’t paying attention, it doesn’t prove that they occurred because you didn’t worry. Countless other situations turned out OK when you were not alert to possible catastrophes.

How to escape the worrying cycle

You can’t control all circumstances in your life. But you can control how you think about them. Here are some tips to reduce your worrying by changing your thoughts and perceptions, based on principles of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy:

  • Don’t rely on your gut feelings. They are not a reliable indicator of the likelihood of catastrophe. A lot of people worry about flying. That doesn’t mean planes are unsafe. In fact, air travel has a better safety record than driving.
  • Examine the facts. Consider all possible scenarios for a given situation, not just the scary ones. You’ll see that there are more positive or neutral potential outcomes than negative ones, and that these are far more likely to occur than the negative ones.
  • Practice deep breathing and muscle relaxation. When you relax your body, your mind also relaxes, such that you are calmer and more objective in your thinking. Meditation and yoga are excellent ways to learn these skills.
  • Relinquish control. Most anxiety is about factors that you cannot control. By accepting that you don’t have control over a given situation, you actually end up feeling more in control.
  • Turn worrying into problem solving. What will you do, and when? Be as specific and concrete as possible. For example, if you don’t get the job you interviewed for, or if your child doesn’t make the team, what’s the next step? For every “what if…” question in your mind, write down an action plan – even if the plan is to wait or do nothing.
  • Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and decide what you will do, as described above. Ideally, you’ll see that even the worst that can happen is manageable; but even if it turns out to be very difficult, you’ll feel more in control.
  • Do something that distracts you from your worry. Talk to a friend, pay bills, run errands, dig in the garden. It helps pass the time, and provides an outlet for your nervous energy.

Don’t expect to see results right away. Chronic worrying is a habit. Like any habit, it takes practice to change it. In fact, it’s not unusual to feel more anxious at the beginning, as you let go of your constant vigilance and start replacing your catastrophic thoughts with more realistic ones. But this will subside as you get used to being more relaxed.

If, after several weeks, you can’t stop worrying, you might have a more serious underlying problem. A psychologist or psychiatrist can help.

Forgiveness: A Healing Choice

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Have you ever been deeply hurt or betrayed? Of course you have. And you know how hard it is to forgive – especially when the other person does not seem truly sorry.

So what are your options?

  1. You can stay angry. You may even plot your revenge. At least you’re doing something rather than caving in as a “victim.” And anger can make you feel strong for the moment.

 But there’s a big downside to staying angry. It is much harder on you – physically as well as emotionally – than on the person who wronged you. Chronic or recurring anger causes stress, which can raise your blood pressure, wear down your immune system and make you depressed and anxious. Meanwhile, the person who hurt you may or may not be feeling much stress at all.

  1. You could say, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget.” But what does that mean, really? The desire for revenge may be gone. But each time you “remember” the incident you re-live the hurt and anger over and over again. In other words, you haven’t really let go of it. The bitterness and resentment will continue to eat away at you, with risk for compromising your health as described above.
  2. You decide to forgive. Yes, decide. Forgiveness is an active decision.

While the simple passage of time does lessen your anger toward some people’s actions, it won’t help much in getting over hurt and betrayal by those with whom you have a deep emotional attachment – spouse, family members, close friends.

Forgiveness does not generally materialize on its own. You need to make a conscious decision and a commitment to forgive.

Nor does forgiveness happen in a flash or in a moment of insight. It’s a gradual process that takes time.  

Why forgive?

Forgiveness is good for you. As long as you hold on to a grudge you keep yourself attached, in an unhealthy way, to the person who hurt you. Forgiveness can help you let go of that unhealthy attachment.

Forgiveness is better for your physical health as well. It de-stresses you. Recent research has shown physiological changes in the brain when you adopt an attitude of forgiveness. Studies have also found that forgiveness can help lower blood pressure, reduce depression and anxiety, increase self-esteem, and even save marriages.

When you decide to forgive and start taking active steps, you may notice a bit of relief within a couple of days. Of course, the whole process will take time and effort, but at this early stage you won’t feel like so much like a prisoner of your own resentment.

 

Isn’t forgiveness just condoning the other person’s despicable actions?

Forgiving someone does not imply that what they did was acceptable, nor that you should work toward reconciling the relationship. And if they continue with their hurtful behavior, forgiveness is not even appropriate.

But if the incident was in the past, you can choose to work on letting go of the bitterness that drains you of energy and robs you of present-day joy.

 

What does it mean to forgive?

Forgiveness involves rising above your anger and your desire for revenge. It requires some feeling of compassion toward your wrong-doer, however small. You accomplish this partly through shifting your perspective in how you deal with the pain.

Forgiveness is a very unselfish act, because much of the time the wrong-doer does not “deserve” it. But it is just as much a gift to yourself as to the other person.

 

How can I forgive when the person isn’t even sorry?

Forgiveness is not about the other person. It’s about you and how you deal with your own feelings.

It is easier to forgive someone who apologizes and begs for mercy, but it’s not absolutely necessary. The Amish families whose children were killed in a school massacre in Nickel Mines, PA never got an apology from the shooter who committed suicide at the scene. But they did find some peace within themselves through their faith and through their decision to forgive the perpetrator.

You don’t have control over the wrong-doer’s motivations. You may never like or trust the person again. But you do have the capacity to detach yourself from the burden of your own anger.

 

How to forgive

Forgiveness takes time. Think of the process as tearing down a huge wall, brick by brick. As you remove the bricks, the scenery will gradually change. You’ll see things in a different perspective.

The bad memories won’t be erased, but with forgiveness they will blend into the total sum of your life experiences.

Here are some tips to help you begin the process:

  • Make a conscious decision to forgive, and write it down. You won’t feel it yet. But your commitment will give you strength to start removing those bricks.
  • Think about times when you behaved in an insensitive or cruel manner. Research has shown that people who engage in this exercise (particularly men) end up having more empathy for the person who hurt them, and have an easier time forgiving.
  • Write a letter to the transgressor. Explain specifically and factually what the person said or did, and how it made you feel. Avoid sarcasm and name-calling. After you write the letter, don’t send it. The benefit comes from the fresh perspective you gain from having laid out the facts in an objective way.
  • Try to find a “silver lining.” How has this situation strengthened you? What did you learn from it? Was there something good that eventually came out of it? If you can’t think of anything, complete the following sentence to yourself:
    “At least . . .”
  • Focus on what’s going right in your life, despite what happened in the past. Notice little things that you are grateful for. If you do this on a regular basis, your general attitude will improve, and negative memories will have less impact.
  • If you are stuck in anger, bitterness and a sense of futility, it may help to talk with a spiritual advisor or a therapist, depending on whether you prefer to approach the issue from a spiritual or secular viewpoint.

 

Further reading:

Books:

Robert Enright, Ph.D. (2001) Forgiveness is a Choice: A Step-By-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington: American Psychological Association

Fred Luskin (2003) Forgive For Good New York: Harper One

Eileen Borris-Dunchunstang (2006) Finding Forgiveness. New York: McGraw Hill

 

Websites:

Forgiveness web www.forgivenessweb.com

Campaign for forgiveness research www.forgiving.org

The Forgiveness Project www.theforgivenessproject.com

 

 

Gratitude has far reaching implications

Many years ago, I was working with a man I’ll call Mike (not his real name) who had reached a low point in his life. By the fourth psychotherapy session, he had made minor progress, but his improvement was not as great as we had hoped. It was time to consider antidepressant medication. For various reasons, Mike did not want to go that route.

“OK,” I agreed. “Let’s try something else first: Every night before you go to sleep, write down three things that went well that day — three things that you’re grateful for. It sounds corny, but I read about some research that suggests it might help.”

I didn’t think this exercise would lift his depression, and it was hard for me to hide my skepticism. However, at his next appointment, Mike thanked me enthusiastically for introducing him to this exercise. “The effect was amazing!” he exclaimed.

I was just as surprised as he was that simply writing down grateful thoughts could have such a profound impact on one’s mood. But I’m no longer surprised. During the past decade, study after study has shown that it works (although not for everyone, nor to the same extent among those for whom it does work).

Gratitude is not a new concept. For centuries it has been a focus of religion and philosophy. More recently, gratitude has captured the interest of researchers in the field of positive psychology. Social scientists, including Drs. Michael E. McCullough, Robert Emmons, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Todd Kashdan, have conducted controlled studies on the beneficial effects of gratitude, as well as the specific circumstances and personality traits that foster gratefulness.

How gratitude works

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.

An attitude of gratitude can be contagious (in a good way). Expressing appreciation to someone not only makes that person feel valued, but also serves as a role model for benevolence. In turn, the other person is more inclined to pay it forward by being considerate and appreciative toward others. Thus, showing gratitude encourages the spread of good karma.

Gratitude and your goals

It might seem that those who are grateful for what they have are somehow settling for mediocrity or worse. But there is no evidence for this. To the contrary, research demonstrates that adults and adolescents who train themselves to keep a journal of what they are grateful for end up achieving more than those who focus on troubles.

Incorporating gratitude
  • Keep a gratitude journal
  • What about those days where it’s hard to identify anything to be grateful for?
  • Thank people frequently
  • Write a letter of gratitude to someone who made a positive difference in your life
Teach children to be grateful

Lecturing kids on how they should appreciate what they have rather than keep asking for more is not an effective approach, especially if you are frustrated with their demands at the moment. Instead, teach by example.

  • As you say goodnight
  • When your family sits down to eat
  • Involve your kids in helping less fortunate children
  • When you are with your child
Gratitude and emotional problems

Adopting a gratitude mindset will not necessarily “cure” emotional problems. However, it’s an important first step. My client Mike did notice an immediate boost by simply writing down what he was grateful for. However, he still had to work on other aspects of his life. Gratitude helped to give him the hope he needed to get started, and the focus he needed to work on making positive changes in his life.

Changing a bad habit: Simple, but not easy

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

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. But for the most part, that’s a good thing.

Habits have survival value. They make your life more efficient. They put routine tasks on autopilot, so that you can focus on more important things.  Habits allow you to multi-task – for example, wash dishes while talking on the phone. They also add predictability to your life, and help keep you in your comfort zone. 

Once you develop a habit, you do it without thinking – which is great for adaptive behaviors. Imagine if you had to think through all the steps of tying your shoelaces or finding your way to work each day, as if it were your first time. That would be a lot of work! 

It’s much easier to repeat behaviors that you’ve done over and over again, than to learn new ones. That’s where bad habits can become your downfall. If you’ve smoked for several years; or if you’re used to eating food that’s unhealthy, it doesn’t take much energy to continue these patterns. In fact, your brain prefers it that way. 

Changing a habit is simple, but not easy. The simple part is training yourself to follow new behavioral patterns, and to repeat those patterns until they become automatic. Behave like a non-smoker for several weeks, and you will become a non-smoker. Eat and exercise like a physically fit person, and your body will become more fit. 

However, maintaining consistency in your new behavior patterns can be challenging, for the following reasons:

  • New behaviors require attention and concentration. It’s uncomfortable to do things a different way. To demonstrate this for yourself, try working your remote control with your non-preferred hand. Notice that it feels awkward. You need to work harder to find and push the buttons. In the same way, it will feel awkward and will take more effort to NOT reach for a cigarette or a snack, or to get up and exercise when you’re not used to it.
  • Situational cues are powerful triggers of habits. Habits are specific to certain contexts. For example, you are more likely to overeat when there is food in sight. You are more likely to bite your nails when they are ragged. You are less apt to feel like exercising when you are horizontal on the couch. Changing a habit requires reprogramming how you react to these types of situations.
  • Reward value. Instant gratification is more tantalizing than long-term benefit. That’s why it’s hard to pass up that brownie or that drink or that cigarette now, and hold out for the bigger reward in several weeks.
  • Your “inner brat.” This is the little voice in the back of your mind that wants what it wants, and it wants it now. It will rationalize and justify why it’s OK to go for instant gratification “just this once.” The inner brat is your mental resistance to change, and is quite powerful.
  • Stress and fatigue. Changing a habit takes sustained effort and mental energy. When you are tired or stressed, you have less energy to maintain control over your behavior, and are thus at greater risk for reverting back to old patterns.
  • Old habits die hard. Even after replacing an old habit with a new one, the old habit is never completely erased. You may have quite smoking or lost weight years ago. But given the right circumstances, studies show that you could easily slide back.

 Is there any hope of changing a bad habit?

Habits are simply learned behavioral patterns, ingrained through repetition. The more you practice them, the more ingrained they become. As long as you are aware of the obstacles and prepare for them, you have a very good chance of replacing bad habits with better ones.

Here are some tips: 

  • Expect to feel some discomfort with your new behavior in the first few weeks. It will take concentration and effort as you build your new habit. But the more you practice it, and the more consistent you are, the quicker your new behavior will feel like a habit – something that you do automatically.
  • Build your new habit slowly, through small, incremental changes. Incremental change is how your bad habit probably developed in the first place. To replace the bad habit, use a similar strategy. It will cause less discomfort and be easier to stick with in the long run.
  • Avoid situations that trigger your old habit. If you want to lose weight and eat more healthfully, you will have more success if you don’t even “visit” the donuts at work and if you stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets.
  • Challenge yourself to live “as if” you have already established your new habit. Each hour and each day that you do this, brings you closer to actually owning your new habit.
  • Make time for rest. You’ll not only have more energy to practice your new habit; you’ll also feel better overall.
Mind tricks to help you reach your goals

Mind Tricks to Help You Reach Your Goals

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Have you ever set a major goal, started off with enthusiasm, but soon lost your motivation? Yeah, me too.

Most people don’t have a problem setting big goals. It’s easy to say you want to lose 20 lb., or save up for a down payment on a house, or clean out your basement. Experts recommend making your goals realistic, putting them in writing, and keeping track of your progress.

There’s one catch, however. The early stage of working toward a goal takes a lot of effort, and progress is never as fast as you’d like. After a couple of weeks, when you’ve lost only two pounds toward your goal of 20; or you’ve managed to save just $200 toward your house down payment, you start to wonder whether it’s worth the struggle. At this point you’re likely to stop tracking your progress and to gradually revert to your old habits.

Hang in there

There’s an old Chinese adage that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So if you’ve taken that initial step on your journey, you already have something to celebrate. Still, it’s going to take a long time to cover those proverbial thousand miles.

The first thing to keep in mind is that whenever you start something new, it requires extra concentration and energy at the beginning. But it does get easier. Think back to how exhausting it was when you were learning to ride a bike or drive a car. However, it soon became second nature.

Thus, if you’re at the point where you feel like giving up on your important goal, remind yourself that it won’t feel like a struggle forever. You’ll settle into the rhythm of your new behavior patterns in the near future. 

How to stay motivated

Goal-directed behavior is rarely a straight trajectory. Along the way there are distractions, temptations and stressors. Sometimes it’s hard to stay on track. Here are some tips:

Define your goal as internally motivated (e.g., that you want to feel vibrant and healthy) rather than as externally motivated (e.g., that you want to get praise for how great you look at your upcoming high school reunion).

Research has shown that externally motivated goals deplete your energy, while internally motivated goals boost your energy – and even drive you to accomplish more. Thus, when your goal is to improve your health rather than to be admired for your looks, you will be naturally inclined to continue.

Watch how you talk to yourself. Any behavior change involves some discomfort or inconvenience. How you view this can make a big difference in your attitude. For example, if you lament, “I can’t go on a vacation this year because I need to save money for the down payment,” you’ll feel discouraged and resentful.

On the other hand, if you say to yourself, “I look forward to some interesting day trips this summer,” you’ll frame the situation in a positive way, which minimizes feeling deprived.

When measuring your relative progess, pay attention to the smaller number. Recent research shows that early in your progress you should pay attention to how far you’ve come. For example, suppose you set out to run five miles. After the first mile you’ll be more motivated to continue if you say to yourself, “I’ve already covered one mile,” than if you say, “Four miles to go.”

As you get close to your goal, you’ll feel less exhausted if you say to yourself, “Just one mile to go,” rather than “I’ve gone four miles.”

This little mind trick is called “the small area effect.” Our motivation to continue working toward a goal is partly influenced by how much impact we perceive making through our next action. Focusing on the smaller number – whether it’s how far you’ve come or how much you have left to go – makes the next step feel like it has a greater impact.

Thus, if you’ve run one mile, the next mile will double your progress toward your five-mile goal. That feels like a greater accomplishment than if you think about that second mile as completing only 40% of your total goal. Hence, you’re more motivated to continue.

After you’ve covered four miles, you’ll feel more tired if you focus on the 80% you’ve already done, than if you tell yourself, “Just 20% (or just one mile) left.”

Focusing on the smaller number works with just about any goal-directed behavior:

  • Weight loss: Trying to decide whether to grab a cookie? If you’ve lost three pounds with a goal of 20, tell yourself, “I’ve already lost three pounds. Tomorrow it may be four (not just another 1/20th of your ultimate goal, but a 33% improvement).” If you’ve lost 17 pounds, you might be tempted to use that as an excuse to justify eating the cookie. But if you say, “Just three pounds to go,” you’re more likely to stick to your diet – because three pounds at this point is well within your reach.
  • Saving money: Saving up for a car or a house requires long-term commitment. When you need tens of thousands of dollars, saving a few bucks here and there seems hardly significant. The mind trick here is to set intermediate goals – say, $400 per month, at $100 per week. After setting aside your first $100 you’re already a quarter of the way toward your goal. One more $100 deposit will double your progress. Toward the end of the month, when you have $300 saved and you’re tempted to blow your budget on an electronic gadget that you don’t need, remind yourself of how close you are to clinching your savings goal for the month.
  • Cleaning out clutter: If the job is too big to accomplish in one day, set a goal of how many trash bags you’ll fill. If you decide to fill five trash bags, using the same strategy as with the above example of running five miles, you’ll be able to stay motivated longer, even though the total volume of remaining clutter doesn’t look much different.
What's wrong with perfect?

“Practice makes perfect.” Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? That is, if perfect is your goal.

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?

Take mowing the lawn, for instance. If you’re one of those people who feels compelled to have every blade of grass at a uniform height and the edge of the lawn perfectly manicured, you’ll be spending a lot more time on the job than your neighbor would, leaving you less time for other activities.

Or let’s say you take pride in your craft projects, paying attention to every detail. Not a single flaw in the knitted hat and booties you made for the new baby in the family. Of course you had to rip out a few rows of stitches more than once, which put you in a bad mood each time.

You might be thinking, “What’s the harm in spending a little extra time to get it exactly right?” If you are persnickety about only a few things, then there’s probably no adverse effect on your life.

However, if you find yourself striving for perfection in several areas of your life, I don’t have to tell you that it’s stressful. Trying to be perfect requires a lot of extra focus, concentration and effort, which is emotionally taxing. Multiplied over several areas of your life, perfectionism can wear you down.

The Paradoxes of Perfectionism

Underlying perfectionism is the psychological need for control. When you do something perfectly you feel more in control. However, it turns out that the more control you try to exert, the less control you actually feel, because you’re acutely aware that things could get out of control.

As much as perfectionists strive for excellence, they can end up being underachievers. When you set the bar so high that nothing short of perfect is acceptable, you’re apt to procrastinate getting started. Or, if there’s a deadline, you procrastinate so long that you end up rushing at the last minute, producing a mediocre product.

For most people, doing something well brings pleasure and increases self-confidence. Not if you’re an extreme perfectionist. No matter how well something turns out, you focus on how it could have been better. Thus, you can’t even enjoy the fruits of your labors.

Perfectionism can also have unintended consequences in your relationships. The more you try to be perfect for your family and friends, the more difficult you will be to live with. Being constantly preoccupied with your own shortcomings can make you tense, impatient and difficult to communicate with. Thus, your efforts to be perfect end up being a burden to those around you and might interfere with the closeness you crave.

Is it any wonder that perfectionists, who try hard all the time, are less happy than average? They are more apt to suffer from chronic dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders and other psychological problems.

What are the signs of extreme perfectionism?

Perfectionism is not in itself a psychiatric diagnosis. It is marked by a variety of feelings and behaviors, not all of which need be present. The more of these that you identify with, the more likely that perfectionism is a major problem for you. Typical signs include:

Is perfectionism unhealthy?

No. In fact for tasks requiring precision, careful attention to detail is crucial.

Some experts talk about “healthy perfectionism,” which is striving for excellence without being overly self-critical. Healthy perfectionists are aware of their limitations, but focus more on their strengths. They limit their perfectionistic expectations to at most one or two areas of their life, and they approach tasks with an attitude of relaxed anticipation rather than with anxiety. Healthy perfectionists are generally happy with their achievements.

How to let go of unhealthy perfectionism

Start small. Think of one non-critical task that you spend way too much time on, for which the outcome is not worth your effort. Set a time limit on that task and decide in advance that it will have to be “good enough.” It may feel uncomfortable to stop at the time limit, but stick to your plan. Do this a few times, and you may soon get used to letting go of the need for control.

Limit your perfectionism. After you’ve demonstrated to yourself that “good enough” does not lead to catastrophe, wean yourself off perfectionism in other non-critical tasks. Decide on one or two areas where you will practice healthy perfectionism, where you strive for excellence but not beat yourself up if you don’t get perfect results.

Stop comparing. You can always find someone who is better looking, more skilled or more fortunate than you in some measure. To focus on such differences only makes you feel worse and gives you a distorted negative self-perception. Instead of comparing yourself with others, appreciate the combination of traits and strengths that make up your individual personality. There is no one else who can be you.

Practice tolerance. Consciously decide to be more forgiving of your own mistakes and of other people’s. Most errors have little impact on your life. For more serious errors, humans have built-in capacity to ultimately adapt.

Pay attention to the positive. It’s not easy to let go of negative thinking. But paying attention to positive experiences helps balance your perceptions so that you have a more realistic view of yourself and of the world.

If you have trouble applying the above tips, your perfectionism may be a sign of underlying psychological problems that you’re not aware of. In this case, you will have a better chance of making progress by working with a psychologist or other mental health professional.

Further Reading

Antony, M. and Swinson, R. (2009) When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism. New Harbinger Publications

 Somov, P. (2010) Present Perfect: A Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Need for Control. New Harbinger Publications

PsychologyToday.com – a series of articles on perfectionism http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/perfectionism

Real men DO get depressed

Real Men DO Get Depressed

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Can you be depressed and not know it? Absolutely – especially if you’re a man.

That’s because you don’t typically get sad or weepy – which is what most people associate with a depressed mood.

Instead, your depression feels more like fatigue, irritability, lack of motivation, and difficulty concentrating and making decisions. You may also experience a change in your sleeping and eating habits – either too much or too little.

You probably don’t talk much about how you feel either. In fact, you may immerse yourself in work, or even turn to alcohol or drugs in order to numb your feelings – so that no one – not even you – realizes that you’re depressed.

Why men experience depression differently than women

The brains of men and women work differently. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that men tend to be wired for fight-or-flight in response to stress, while women are wired for tend-and-befriend. In other words, men are focused on action, while women seek the nurturance and company of others.

Cultural factors are also important. Despite attempts to raise boys who are sensitive and expressive, parents still convey to their sons that it’s important to be tough and independent.

Studies show that parents treat sons and daughters differently, even when they try not to.

While they call their daughters “honey” and “sweetie,” they address their sons as “buddy.” A buddy is more of a pal – someone you hang out with, rather than communicate with on a deep emotional level.

Parents tend to be more nurturing and protective of daughters. They are more likely to discourage their sons from crying or showing weakness.

Gender distinctions extend into the world outside the family as well. Teachers, sports coaches and others have different expectations for girls and for boys. A perfect example is Tom Hanks’ reaction to his female charges in the movie, A League Of Their Own: “There’s no crying in baseball!”

By the time a boy reaches adulthood, he has been bombarded with messages that he must be strong and independent, and that feelings are largely irrelevant.

So what’s the big deal? If I don’t feel sad, it shouldn’t bother me, right?

Depression robs you of energy. It affects your relationships with your wife and kids. It can interfere with your work. When you’re depressed, life seems like a constant, uphill struggle.

Depression can also affect your physical health. In a recent study at the Washington School of Medicine, researchers followed 1200 pairs of male identical twins over a period of 12 years.

After adjusting for risk factors including obesity, smoking and diabetes, they found that those twins who had been diagnosed as depressed in 1992 were twice as likely to develop heart disease by 2003.

Dr. Jeffrey Sherer, the lead researcher, explains the significance of these results: “If one twin has depression, but his twin brother does not, both twins will share genetic vulnerability for depression, but it turns out the twin who was not depressed has less risk for heart disease.”

Once diagnosed with heart disease, depressed men are at greater risk for death than non-depressed men.

But the most serious consequence of depression in men is suicide. Although more women attempt suicide, men are four times more likely to succeed, because they use more lethal means such as a gun rather than pills. 

What should I do if I think I may be depressed?

  • First, realize that depression is a mood disorder, not a sign of weakness. Some of the most successful men in history and contemporary life have lived with depression. (See sidebar.)  Depression is quite common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about six million American men are diagnosed with depression every year.
  • If you have any of the symptoms described at the beginning of this column, see your medical doctor to rule out physical disease – because these same symptoms (fatigue, sleep problems, etc.) may indicate medical conditions other than depression.
  • Your physician may give you a brief screening test for depression. If not, you can take one at depressionscreening.org. This is not a substitute for professional diagnosis, but will give you some initial feedback on the severity of your symptoms.
  • Consult a psychologist or other mental health professional. Depending what else is going on in your life, you may or may not have clinical depression. Regardless, psychological treatment can help you get back on track.
  • Your condition may require anti-depressant medication, but in many cases talk therapy alone will be effective.
  • Refrain from using alcohol or drugs. They will only mask your condition and will interfere with treatment.

For further reading:

Books:

Hart, Archibald (2001) Unmasking Male Depression. Nashville: Thomas Nelson

Wexler, David (2006) Is He Depressed or What?: What to Do When the Man You Love Is Irritable, Moody, And Withdrawn. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications

Websites:

National Institute of Mental Health: snipurl.com/nimh-depression

PsychCentral: psychcentral.com/disorders/depression

Depression Screening: depressionscreening.org

Sidebar: Famous men who have been depressed:

Abraham Lincoln – His dark moods have been documented by several historians. He once told a fellow legislator that he became so depressed that he was afraid to carry a knife in his pocket.

Winston Churchill – Throughout his life he was haunted by a mental state that he called his “black dog.”

Billy Joel – He wrote the song, “You’re only human” (also called “Second wind”) after his own suicide attempt, to help prevent teen suicide.

Hugh Laurie – The star of the TV show, House, publicly acknowledged that he had sought therapy for depression.

Buzz Aldrin – After walking on the moon in 1969, this astronaut became deeply depressed. He later wrote about his experience in his book, Return to Earth.

Terry Bradshaw – The Steelers quarterback has been treated for depression and panic attacks.

William Styron – Author of Sophie’s Choice and other novels, he also wrote a personal memoir, Darkness Visible, in which he described depression as “despair beyond despair.”

Brian Wilson – Founding member of The Beach Boys told a reporter: “I went through times that were so scary that I wasn’t sure I’d make it through.”

Peter Mark Roget – Creating lists of words – which eventually became a best-selling thesaurus – was his way of coping with dark moods.

 

Obsessive compulsive disorder: When good habits turn bad

Washing your hands . . . checking to make sure you turned the stove off . . . having a morning routine . . . arranging things in order . . .

These are all good habits, right?

For most people, yes. After all, it’s important to be clean and safe. And life runs more smoothly with routines and organization.

But if you are one of 5 million Americans with obsessive-compulsive disorder, your habits and routines make life harder, not easier. Your rituals take up so much of your time that you don’t get the really important things done. Disturbing thoughts pop into your mind at random moments, making it difficult to work or carry on normal conversations. 

And all the while you work hard to hide your condition from friends and coworkers. If they only knew . . . 

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, exactly? 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, also known as OCD, is based in anxiety.  There are two components – thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions): 

Obsessions – Persistent, disturbing thoughts or images that seem uncontrollable. You know they don’t make sense, but that doesn’t stop them from occurring. Examples:

  • You worry excessively about germs and contamination
  • You’re preoccupied with self-doubt – “Did I lock the doors?” “Did I turn off the iron? I already checked but maybe I should check again.”
  • Words and phrases unpredictably repeat themselves over and over again in your mind.
  • You have mental images of hurting people that you love
  • You have “bad” thoughts that have to be neutralized with “good” thoughts in a specific manner

Compulsions – Irresistible urges to perform certain behaviors over and over again. Examples:

  • Washing your hands several times per hour, or taking several showers per day when there is no logical reason to do so.
  • Constantly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and items that do not pose immediate health risks
  • Counting things for no particular reason
  • Turning lights on and off a certain number of times; doing a series of things in an exact order; touching objects in a certain way
  • Checking and rechecking your work, even when you know you got it right
  • Spending hours meticulously organizing or arranging items

What causes OCD?

No one really knows. There is no specific gene or biological marker for OCD. Some studies have found different brain activity and brain chemistry among people with OCD, but it has not been established whether this is a cause or result of the disorder. 

Learning does play a role in the development of OCD. Obsessions have roots in anxiety.

When you have disturbing thoughts, it’s natural to try to do something to reduce your distress. And if that works, you’ll repeat the same action next time the disturbing thoughts return.

The problem with OCD is that anxiety-reducing behaviors work only temporarily, and have to be repeated over and over again. Thus, what started as a simple habit becomes the focus of your life.

As an example, let’s take the hypothetical case of man we’ll call Jack:

Jack was overly concerned about picking up germs from doorknobs and other objects, as well as from people. Whenever he came in contact with an assumed germ source, he found that scrubbing his hands with disinfectant helped calm him down.

But his relief lasted only until he touched the next doorknob or shook hands with the next person. At that point his anxiety about contamination returned, and he’d have to wash his hands again. 

Soon this got out of control. Not only would Jack wash his hands after touching something or someone; he would feel compelled to wash after merely thinking about doing so. 

Eventually Jack was washing his hands every 20 minutes – which not only made his skin cracked and raw; it also severely restricted his life.  

I think I might have OCD. What can I do about it?

Here is a link to a website where you can take a quiz to see if you meet the criteria for OCD: www.psychcentral.com/ocdquiz.htm

But don’t diagnose yourself on the basis of this quiz. Some symptoms of OCD also occur in other psychological and medical conditions.

If you’re concerned that you might have OCD, consult a psychologist, psychiatrist or other mental health professional. 

There are two basic treatment approaches:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (a type of counseling) has been shown to be quite effective for OCD. It helps you overcome your irrational beliefs and the anxiety that accompanies them. With less anxiety, you rely less and less on the behavioral rituals.
  • Some people will need medication – typically an antidepressant – in addition to counseling.

I think my spouse may have OCD. What can I do to help? 

Living with an obsessive-compulsive person can be quite a challenge. Their habits and rituals interfere with your life almost as much as their own.

It’s understandable that you get impatient or angry when they take so long to do simple things; or when they disrupt a vacation by constantly worrying that they left your house unlocked, even though you checked it twice before you left.

You’ve probably figured out by now that yelling at the person doesn’t help. Neither does reasoning, because the anxiety of OCD does not respond to logic. 

Here’s what you can do:

  • Understand that your spouse cannot just snap out of it. The obsessions and compulsions are just as strong as addictions. If you’ve ever had trouble giving up nicotine, drugs, alcohol or sugar, you know the feeling – it takes hold of you and drives you to do things that you know are bad for you.
  • Find ways to avoid getting drawn into your spouse’s behavioral rituals or their consequences. For example, if your spouse is chronically late for social engagements, drive in separate cars. If your spouse is constantly cleaning or re-organizing, find activities that you can enjoy on your own.
  • Talk to your spouse about getting evaluated by a professional. When you do so, focus not on how annoying or disruptive their behavior is, but rather on how their life has become severely restricted as a result of their anxiety. 

Further reading

Books: 

Bruce Hyman and Cherry Pedrick, The OCD Workbook: Your Guide to Breaking Free from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder New Harbinger Publications, 2005

Edna Foa and Reid Wilson, Stop Obsessing!: How to Overcome Your Obsessions and Compulsions Bantam, 2001

Websites:

 Obsessive Compulsive Foundation www.ocfoundation.org

 Anxiety Disorders Association of America www.adaa.org

Take that vacation and get more done!

So you don’t think you have time or money for a vacation? You’re not alone. Last year, according to a survey by Harris Interactive, 51 million Americans did not take all the vacation days they had earned.

Compared with other countries, Americans get much less paid vacation time — an average of 14 days — versus France (36 days), Germany (26 days), and Great Britain (24 days). Even so, a third of us still leave about three vacation days unused per year.

What’s worse, when we do go on vacation, we’re apt to work on our laptops, or at least stay constantly in touch with the office via e-mail or cell phone.

Why do people take their jobs so seriously? Studies have uncovered several reasons — including guilt about taking time off, wanting to trade vacation days for extra wages, and fear of being replaced or of not getting promoted.

The rationale is that spending more time at work makes you a better, more productive employee. But research shows otherwise.

A study funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that women who rarely took vacations were more likely to suffer from stress and depression, and had more doctor visits, than those who vacationed annually. Translated into dollars, stress-related health problems cost companies more than $300 billion per year in lost productivity — much more than the cost of vacation time.

Vacations are good for you!

There is a lot of research on the positive effects of taking a vacation. After a week off work, people tend to sleep better, feel more energetic and optimistic, and have fewer physical complaints than they did before the break.

Such positive effects generally don’t last more than a few weeks, but they may contribute to overall health and longevity. Among 12,000 middle-aged men at risk for heart disease, those who did not take regular vacations were more likely to die over a nine-year period.

For most people, vacations are not a matter of life or death. But they do benefit you in many ways:

Stress relief: A change of pace and a change of scenery can do wonders for your emotional well-being. Planning and taking time off work can help you feel relaxed and unburdened, as long as you don’t over-schedule or over-spend.

Better problem-solving skills: Under stress, or when you labor at a task for a long period of time, your focus becomes narrow and rigid. You may miss important details, make repeated mistakes, and have trouble arriving at solutions. But with rest, your mind unwinds, becoming more flexible and more creative in problem-solving. Returning from vacation relaxed and refreshed, you’re apt to get more work done in less time, with greater accuracy.

Reconnecting with others: Having close relationships is a major cornerstone of happiness. What better time to nurture and strengthen those relationships than during a vacation! You will never regret it.

Enjoying the moment: While work is all about accomplishing something in the future, leisure focuses more on being in the moment. Watch kids or dogs at play, and you’ll immediately see the value of enjoying the here and now.

Great memories: The best vacation souvenirs are not T-shirts, but memories. And even a bad vacation can leave you with fun memories, especially when you can later laugh about everything that went wrong.

Tips for making the most of your vacation

• Don’t wait for a break in your schedule. Book your vacation and adjust your work schedule around it.

• Vacations need not be expensive. The important thing is to get out of your routine — and that’s a lot easier when you can get away from home. If money is tight and you must stay at home, make certain tasks off-limits (e.g., no chores).

• In the days leading up to your holiday break, resolve not to take work with you. Tie up loose ends before you go. Meet your deadlines by cutting out unnecessary activities and focusing only on what must absolutely get done.

• In addition to taking long weekends here and there during the year, take at least one whole week off. A couple of days is just not enough time to fully decompress and recharge your batteries.

• Go easy on the vacation schedule. The goal is not to see how many museums you can visit, nor how many rounds of golf you can play. Build in breaks between activities. Remember: It’s more about being than doing.

• Don’t sweat the small stuff. Delays, crowds and bad weather are temporary inconveniences. For situations beyond your control, be patient and flexible, and try to find some humor in the situation — and you’ll enjoy yourself much more. If you’re going to laugh about it later, you might as well laugh about it now.

• It’s best not to check your work-related e-mail or voicemail while on vacation. But if you must, wait at least 24 hours after you reach your destination. During your holiday break, never check your e-mail in the morning — enjoy your day first. Remember, this is your time, not your company’s time.

• Arrive home from vacation early on the day before you return to work. That will give you some time to get settled back into your routine, and arrive at work the next day, refreshed, recharged and ready to go.

Anger management: Myths and facts

Anger gets people into more trouble than all the other emotions combined.  

In itself, anger is not a bad emotion. In primitive times it even had survival value. The adrenal rush and narrowing focus that accompany anger gave you the strength and mental concentration to fight an attacking enemy.

These days, however, the “enemy” is rarely someone who threatens your life. For most people it’s just a person or situation that is frustrating or annoying – hardly justification for the full-blown aggressive survival response. 

There’s no shortage of advice on how to handle anger. But much of this advice stems from misinformation about what causes anger and what relieves it.  Here are some common myths and facts: 

Myth: You should never hold your anger in. If you do, it will build up like steam, and you’ll explode.

Fact: Despite the common expression, “getting all steamed up,” anger does not work like steam in a teakettle. It’s not necessary to release it in order to avoid explosion. In fact, yelling and screaming can magnify your anger and make you more prone to hurting someone.

Building up of anger is a problem, but it’s not caused by keeping silent. It’s the result of how you think about the person or situation that made you angry. The more you dwell on it, the angrier you feel.

Myth: All anger is unhealthy and destructive

Fact: Anger is a natural survival response to threat, injustice, and betrayal. There are certainly situations where anger is justified and the wrongdoer needs to be confronted. 

But it’s also common to get angry over minor irritants. At such times, if you don’t manage your anger well, it can affect not only your relationships, but also your health. Dozens of studies show that poor anger management is linked with heart disease, stroke, ulcers and early death.

Myth: Anger is inevitable if you have to associate with certain people.

Fact: Some people are deliberately hurtful. But if you know this, and if you can predict their behavior, there are ways to prevent yourself from being affected by them. It all hinges on how you talk to yourself about the situation. Negative, self-victimizing talk increases anger. Realistic, solution-oriented self-talk diminishes anger.

 

Myth: You can’t expect hot-headed people to control their temper. They’re just made that way.

Fact: Some people are biologically more reactive than others. They get angry more easily and more often. But having a short fuse doesn’t mean that you lack control over your emotions. You just need to work a little harder to contain them. Ultimately, you’re responsible for your words and actions, hot-headed or not.

 Myth: When you’re angry, a couple of drinks can calm you down.

Fact: Alcohol weakens your inhibitions, as well as your ability to process social cues and other information. Thus, when drinking, you are more apt to misinterpret someone’s words or actions as an attack, and to overreact aggressively.

Myth: The best way to handle anger is to let it out and be done with it.

Fact: Some people boast, “When I get angry I just yell or throw something, and then I’m over it.”  But what about those in your line of fire? Will they get over it as quickly as you did? Maybe one angry outburst can be forgiven; but repeated explosions can permanently damage trust and closeness in your relationships.

 

Myth: Staying angry at someone who hurt you helps protect you from getting hurt again.

Fact: Anger does help keep you alert and ready to strike back. However, staying angry for a long time is bad for your body and your mind. Research shows that among all the risk factors for heart disease, chronic anger is the most significant predictor — more than smoking, obesity and high blood pressure. Moreover, chronic anger blocks your ability to enjoy life.

Myth: The only way that kids learn right from wrong is being yelled at.

Fact: Yelling does stop kids in their tracks. But it doesn’t teach them anything – except perhaps to avoid getting caught. Children learn best when you show them the right way to do something, and praise them when they comply.

Myth: Anger management means keeping your mouth shut.

Fact: Staying silent while fuming inside is not managing anger; it’s suppressing anger.

It’s no more healthy than yelling.  The health risks are similar to people who do yell and scream.

 

So what is the best way to manage anger?

Effective anger management has 3 components:

  1. Calm yourself – take a few deep breaths.
  2. Make a cool-headed assessment of the situation – Is it a temporary annoyance or a grievous injustice?
  3. Resist the urge to react impulsively. Don’t allow your “inner brat” to say or do something you might later regret. Take your time to think about what will produce the best results for the long run. It may help to think about someone you know
Visibly pregnant? How to deal with intrusive questions and comments

Visibly Pregnant? How To Deal With Intrusive Questions And Comments

Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

When you’re pregnant your body is no longer your own – and I’m not just talking about that growing baby (or babies) sharing your internal space.

Suddenly, perfect strangers feel free to comment on your shape: “When are you expecting? You don’t look that big for 6 months.” or “Are you having twins?” or worse: “I wouldn’t eat those French fries.  Don’t you realize how much salt they have?”

People whom you do know go even further.  They say things they’d never mention if you weren’t pregnant: “How much weight have you gained?” “Do you have hemorrhoids?” “Are you getting stretch marks?”

Some women don’t mind such questions and advice.  They’ve learned to take them in stride.  A few may even enjoy the attention.

But if you’re not one of those women, if you get so irritated that you feel like screaming, “This is none of your business!” or cringe when someone reaches out to pat your belly, there are things you can do to ease your tension.

You’re probably not going to prevent people from asking you intrusive questions or giving you unsolicited advice. However, you do have control over whether it bothers you.

Let’s first look at why people ask intrusive questions:

  1. Our culture is much less formal than it used to be.  This is the age of reality TV, openly shared experiences, and a sense of entitlement to information as we want it.  Gossip magazines follow celebrity pregnancies as closely as the weather service follows a hurricane.  There are sightings, alerts, and all sorts of speculations about the advancing pregnancy of various pop stars.  The message is: pregnancy is everyone’s business.
  2. It’s a way of making conversation.  When talking with people we don’t know very well, we usually pick a topic of common interest.  Pregnancy is something that many women have in common. Thus, other women who are or have been pregnant may mention your pregnancy because they feel a sense of connection with you.
  3. They’re curious.  People are always comparing themselves to others.  When asking about your pregnancy, they may be thinking about how it compares to their own experience – in the past, or anticipated in the future.  In this case, it’s not really about you; it’s about themselves.
  4. They’re downright nosy. With certain people, whatever you tell them, they’ll gossip to others – and sometimes embellish it to make themselves look more important.
  5. They intentionally want to make you uncomfortable – because it makes them feel more powerful for the moment.  This is rarely the motive of strangers, who have no personal ax to grind with you.  More likely, it’s someone you do know who is motivated by needing to feel powerful.

These are just some of the reasons why people ask nosy questions.  If you always assume that it’s number 4 or 5 above, you will feel personally attacked every time.  And you’ll feel angry, resentful, or stressed.

To save yourself aggravation, take a moment to consider whether the other person’s intentions are to upset you in some way.  If so, follow some of the recommendations below.  If not, remind yourself that it’s just chit-chat, and that in a few weeks your body will become your own again.

In the meantime, here are some tips for dealing with intrusive questions and advice:

  • Take a few seconds to calm yourself with a couple of slow, deep breaths.  No need to rush with an answer.  In fact, you don’t OWE anyone an answer.  But if you don’t want to appear rude, you’ll have to respond in some way. Your response will have more clout when you’re calm.
  • Answer questions briefly, with no embellishment or explanation. The more you say, the more you invite additional questions and comments.  Fewer words will end this topic of conversation more quickly.
  • No matter how tempted you are to overreact, don’t do it.  The idea is to stay in control of the situation.  As soon as you start getting defensive or going on the attack, you are no longer in charge.
  • Smile.  Be vague.  Answer “why?” questions with “I don’t know.”  For example: “Why aren’t you showing yet?  “I don’t know…” or “Why did you keep your pregnancy a secret for so long?” “Beats me…”  When you answer “why” questions in this way, you won’t feel backed into a corner.
  • Use humor. For example: “How much weight have you gained?”  “I’m not sure. I can’t see the scale.  or, “About two tons.” Humor helps deflect the conversation. It’s a gentle way of giving an answer without revealing information. 
  • If rude people push you to answer their questions, you can reply simply: “Sorry but I really don’t want to go into it right now.” If they ask why, see above for instructions on “I don’t know.”
  • When getting unsolicited advice, say “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.”  This doesn’t commit you to agreeing with or following the advice. Plus, since you don’t argue back, you’ll stay calmer.
  • Resolve to save your energy for something really important – like getting up those stairs!
Invisible
Relationships and family
You CAN be more creative

You CAN Be More Creative

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Are you creative?  If you’re like most people you’ll say, “Not particularly.”

Maybe that’s because you don’t see yourself as an artist or musician or inventor.  But you don’t have to be a Mozart or a DaVinci to be creative.

It’s true that some people are more creative than others  – just as some are taller or smarter than others.  But creativity is not some rare talent, nor the exclusive domain of geniuses.

Everyone is creative to some extent – it’s hard-wired into our brains.  Even animals can be creative  (as you already know if you have pets.)  Every time you solve a problem, or combine pieces of clothing into an outfit, or even tell an elaborate lie, you’re being creative.

 

What is creativity? and what’s it good for?

Creativity is the ability to make something that didn’t exist before – it can be a work of art, an idea, or the connection of two or more unrelated ideas. 

The popular notion that creativity comes from the right side of the brain has been dispelled by more recent research. We now know that creative potential resides throughout the brain and its interconnection of neurons.

Another myth is that creative ideas just pop into our heads.  The truth is that by the time you get that creative idea, related thoughts have been incubating for a while.  Creativity relies on preparation and experience.

The creative process itself arises from flexibility in thinking – being open to viewing things from fresh perspectives, to consider even silly possibilities.  Eventually this playful exploration can settle into creative insight – although not necessarily at the moment that you want it.

Tapping into your creativity helps you in many ways:

  • It energizes you.  When you hit upon a creative idea, no matter how tired you’ve felt up to that point, you’re suddenly infused with new energy.  You want to pursue this energy.  You feel unstoppable.
  • It improves your problem-solving skills, such that you’re less apt to feel frustrated or overwhelmed under stress.
  • It promotes confidence and resilience.  Knowing that you’ve found solutions in the past gives you confidence that you will be able to face whatever comes your way.
  • It helps you enjoy life more, even in unstimulating circumstances.  Tapping into creative thoughts or solutions can rescue you from boredom.  It can even make a humdrum job more tolerable.
  • It gives you a greater sense of authenticity and self-esteem.  Creative activity is something that no one can do for you.  It stems from your own unique experiences and perspectives.   When being creative, you rely much less on approval and affirmation from others.

 

How to boost your creativity

Have you ever watched kids draw pictures or play dress-up or adventure games?  They’re not concerned with getting every detail exactly right.  They simply enjoy expressing themselves as their ideas flow from one to the next.

As you grow into adulthood you pay more attention to routine, efficiency, and the “right” way of doing things.  In many adults’ minds, creativity is something best left to people with time on their hands.

But as described above, creativity contributes to overall well-being.  Don’t leave it behind with your childhood.

Here are some tips for boosting your creative abilities:

  • Be curious.  Asking questions and exploring possibilities opens your mind to new connections between ideas.
  • Do solitary exercise – walking, swimming, biking.  Research has found that when you get into the rhythm of exercise, new ideas start to flow. 
  • When trying to figure something out and you feel stuck, take a break.  If possible, leave the project overnight.  If it can’t wait, do something else for at least 20 minutes.  When you return to your project, you will likely view it from a fresh perspective and see new possibilities.
  • Pay attention to, and capture new ideas. You never know when a good idea might pop up.  (I get some of my best ones in the shower.) It’s important to capture them immediately, because if you don’t, they are easily forgotten. Therefore, keep pen and paper or a voice recorder handy. 
  • File your ideas.  You have more ideas than you can mentally keep track of.  Set up a filing system to drop your ideas into – even if it’s just a single folder or an envelope.  Next time you feel stuck, look through that file.  The solution may jump out at you.
  • Train yourself to be flexible.  Do your routine chores in a different way. Take a different route to work. Try new foods; listen to new music; try a new activity.
  • Take time to play.  By definition, play is a way to explore possibilities.  It exercises and relaxes your mind, such that your creative ideas will be more retrievable when you need them.
  • Brainstorm with others.  Sharing your ideas with others helps generate even more ideas.  But be selective in whom you brainstorm with.  Steer clear of people who keep telling you why your ideas won’t work – they’ll stifle, not generate creative solutions.
  • Be prepared to make mistakes.  Only some of your ideas will be brilliant.  Most will not.  Creative people know this, and are not bothered by silly or non-useful thoughts. They also know that just as in baseball, the most home runs are often achieved by the players with the most strikeouts.
Winter blues: More than Just the blahs

Winter Blues: More than just the blahs

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Do you feel kind of blah during the winter?  Or do you suffer from the more serious winter blues?

Not sure which is which?  Here are some general guidelines:

Blahs: You feel bored or lazy.  You become a couch potato, slacking off exercise and gaining a few pounds. But overall you still enjoy life and get your work done without much extra effort. When you have bad moods, they don’t last long. 

Blues: You’re chronically tired and lethargic, no matter how much sleep you get (and it seems that all you want to do is sleep.)  You crave sugary or starchy foods more than normal.  You may have mood swings, trouble concentrating, low tolerance for stress, and a generally sad or hopeless mood, which persists for weeks or months.  Just getting through the day takes great effort. Come spring, you start to feel like your old self again.

If this describes you, you may be one of the 40 million Americans who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (acronym: SAD), a form of clinical depression.  This depression can be quite severe, in some cases requiring hospitalization. 

 

What causes SAD?

Certain groups of people are more vulnerable to becoming depressed during the dark winter months. SAD tends to run in families, although the exact genetic mechanism is unknown.  Women are more likely to suffer than men, especially women in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

Sunlight deprivation plays a major role in SAD.  The rate of SAD in New Hampshire, where winter daylight hours are very short, is twice that of Florida.  In general, communities closer to the equator have less incidence of SAD than those farther from the equator (although there are some exceptions.)

No one knows for sure how daylight interacts with body processes to trigger SAD, but some research suggests that the pineal gland, a small structure in the brain, may be involved. This gland produces the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate daily body rhythms in response to light transmitted through the eyes.  Other research suggests that the brain chemical serotonin may also be implicated in SAD.

 

What can you do about it?

One of the most effective ways to counteract SAD is to increase your exposure to as much natural light as possible:

  • Spend time outdoors in daylight every day.  This is especially important if you work in a windowless environment.  Take a brisk walk outside during your break or lunch hour.  If you dress for it, you won’t feel cold after the first minute or two.
  • At home, take a walk or do a little yard work.  Keep the blinds open during the day and sit near a window whenever possible.

 It’s also important to maintain a regular schedule:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day
  • If you have trouble getting up in the morning, set your bedroom light on a timer to turn on lights 15-20 minutes before your alarm goes off.
  • Eat meals at the same time every day.
  • Eat food that is nutritious.  The more healthful food you eat you eat, the less you’ll crave junk, and the better you’ll feel.
  • Make exercise a part of your daily routine.

Avoid hiding from the world:

  • Schedule time with friends.
  • Play with your kids (or your neighbor’s kids.)
  • Get season tickets to concerts, theater performances or sports events.
  • Make a phone call to someone you haven’t talked to in a while.
  • Help someone who is worse off than you.

 

Tried the above and still depressed?

  • Consult a health professional to make sure that your symptoms are not the result of other problems.  Many medical conditions are accompanied by fatigue, depression and trouble concentrating.
  • If you need professional treatment, there are three options. You may need to experiment to see which of these therapies work best for you:
    1. Light therapy: 20 – 30 minutes of exposure to very bright light (10,000 lumens) early in the morning has been shown to alleviate depression in some people diagnosed with SAD.  Specially designed light boxes, available without a prescription, cost about $150 to $300.
    2. Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you learn to think in a more positive way, and to change your self-defeating behaviors.
    3. Medication: Certain antidepressants have been approved for the treatment of SAD.  They are most effective when combined with light therapy and/or psychotherapy. 
  • In extreme cases, none of the above interventions will help.  That’s when it’s time to consider moving south.

This article is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to offer diagnosis or treatment of any medical or psychological condition.  All treatment decisions should be made in partnership with your health professional.

 

For more information:

Books:

Rosenthal, N: Winter Blues, Revised Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder Guilford Press, 2006.  Written by the doctor who coined the term “seasonal affective disorder” this book is a useful guide to understanding and managing SAD.

Smith, L. and Elliott, C.: Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, For Dummies Publishers, 2007.  Tons of tips, presented in simple, direct format.

 

Websites:

MedlinePlus: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/seasonalaffectivedisorder.html

This is a government-sponsored portal to overviews, research articles, news items, coping advice, and more.

SAD Association: http://www.sada.org.uk/

This is the world first and largest organization specifically focused on SAD. 

Online support group: http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/S-A-D/

 

 

Coping with the unexpected

Coping  With the Unexpected

By Pauline Wallin, PhD

Just 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.

To facilitate coping during the adjustment period, make some simple observations and tweaks in your feelings, your thoughts and your actions. Here are some tips:

Feelings

  • When unexpected events occur, you might feel angry, sad or shocked at first. This is normal. 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. The best way to deal with this anxiety is to try to tolerate the unknown for now, and to understand that as you learn more facts and explore options, your anxiety 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, try to 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 For example, if you just lost your job, figure out ways to immediately cut unnecessary expenses.
  • As your emotions settle down, you will have greater access to your ability to view your situation objectively and explore options. Organize a plan, but remain flexible. For example, after you get 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” http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx

Bullying: What's the big deal?

Bullies have always been with us. Back in the day, my generation was told to either walk away or hit them back.  No one really took bullies very seriously. 

That changed after the 1999 Columbine massacre and subsequent shootings at other schools. An FBI study of 39 school shooters found no “typical” shooter profile – except that three quarters of the killers had been victims of bullying. 

Of course, these kids were deeply troubled to begin with.  Most victims of bullying do not kill others.  But research shows that 40% of victims become bullies themselves. 

Over the past two decades, bullying has been on the rise, creating an atmosphere of intimidation and anxiety wherever it proliferates. Thanks to several recent research studies, we now know more about the nature of bullying and what to do about it. 

Here are some common questions that parents ask about bullying: 

Isn’t bullying a normal phase of growing up? Isn’t most bullying harmless? 

It’s true that bullying is quite common: One out of every four kids will eventually be the victim of a bully, and one of every five will bully others. 

But bullying is far from harmless.  Every day 160,000 children miss school for fear of being bullied.  Victims of bullies do not become “toughened up” by their experience.  To the contrary, they are more likely to have problems with depression and anxiety for many years afterward. 

As for the bullies themselves: Research shows that a bully identified at age eight is five times more likely to have a criminal record by age 30.  

 

How is bullying different from teasing or fighting?

Bullying is more severe than teasing or fighting.  Bullies are mean. They set out to deliberately hurt others, either physically or psychologically. While most kids who get into simple fights are about equal in strength, bullies always pick on someone whom they perceive as weaker, smaller or in some way inferior.  And they continue to pick on their victims, over and over again.  

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying includes harassment, gossip and rumors using electronic means – cell phones, text messages, instant messaging, websites.  This type of bullying is more common among girls than among boys. 

Once a rumor takes hold in cyberspace, it has the potential to spread around the globe in minutes.  It is almost impossible to undo the resulting damage to the victim’s reputation.

 

What makes bullies tick? Underneath their intimidating behavior do they suffer from low self-esteem?

Experts used to believe that bullies were social outcasts with underlying feelings of inadequacy.  But research shows that they are more apt to have an over-inflated view of themselves.  Bullies are arrogant and self-centered, with a strong sense of entitlement.  And they are quite often popular with their peers.  There is little evidence that they feel insecure, even unconsciously. 

Bullies intimidate others in order to affirm their own power.  They delight in seeing others suffer as a result.

 

What causes bullying – is it heredity or upbringing?

Heredity determines certain personality characteristics, but environment influences how these are expressed.

There is no gene or other biological marker for bullying.  Some people are naturally more aggressive than others, but this trait alone does not lead to bullying.

Bullying is learned from one’s environment.  Kids who live in homes where physical punishment is frequent and unpredictable, are more likely to become bullies themselves.  

Violence on TV, in movies, in song lyrics, and in videogames encourages the idea that hurting others is acceptable. 

Bullying is also learned from peers.  Kids who hang around with bullies will adopt bullying behaviors.

 

How is it that some children seem to get picked on more than others? 

Bullies always go after those who appear weak.  That’s why kids who are smaller, timid, or in some way different, tend to be victimized by bullies.  The good news is that if a child of any size or status learns to act confident, bullies will stay away.  “Don’t let ‘em see you sweat” is a good rule to follow around bullies.

 

What’s the best way to help children deal with a bully? 

  • Take all complaints seriously, and listen supportively.  By the time your child tells you about being bullied, the problem has likely been going on for some time.
  • While some squabbles are best left for children to work out themselves, bullying requires adult intervention.  If the bullying is occurring at school, report it to the principal, giving as much specific detail as you can.  Urge your child to report future incidences of bullying, regardless of any threats that the bully might make.
  • Contact the parents of a youngster whom your child identifies as a bully.  Don’t assume that the parents will dismiss your call.  Most parents are unaware that their child is bullying others, and, upon hearing the news, do want the bullying to stop.
  • Don’t encourage your child to “hit him back.” That will make things much worse, especially if the bully intimidates others into ganging up on your child. 
  • Nor should you advise your child to avoid making the bully mad.  That will only increase your child’s anxiety, and not prevent the bullying.  Most bullying attacks are unprovoked, such that the bully will invent an excuse if necessary.
  • Teach your child to address the bully in a self-assured, controlled manner.   Role-play with your child assertiveness skills such as walking with confidence, looking someone in the eye, and saying authoritatively, “Stop that right now.”
  • Many schools now have bully-prevention and intervention programs.  The Pennsylvania legislature is working on a law that would require all schools to implement student bullying prevention policies and to educate students and staff about the importance of preventing this type of behavior.

 

Signs that your child might be a victim of bullying 

It’s not unusual for children to avoid reporting a bully.  They may feel ashamed that they have been unable to deal with the bully; or they may have been threatened by the bully not to tell anyone. 

Many of the following behaviors are typical of kids who are bullied.  They are not definitive indicators of bullying, but rather signs that something may be wrong – especially if they are of recent onset:

  • Reluctance to go to school for no valid reason
  • Complaints of feeling sick; frequent visits to the nurse’s office
  • Sudden drop in grades
  • Coming home hungry (because bullies have taken lunch money or harassed child in the lunchroom)
  • Frequently arriving home with clothing or possessions destroyed or missing
  • Nightmares, bedwetting, difficulty sleeping
  • Sudden fear of meeting new people, trying new things or exploring new places
  • Refusing to leave home
  • Waiting to get home to use the bathroom
  • Acting nervous when another child approaches
  • Increased anger or resentment with no obvious cause
  • Making remarks about feeling lonely
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Reluctance to defend oneself when teased or criticized
  • Dramatic change in style of dressing
  • Physical marks – bruises, cuts, etc.

If your child exhibits any of these signs, consider them clues for further inquiry.  The problem may be bullying, or it may be something else.  If you see several of these signs, you are urged to seek professional evaluation for your child.

 

Online resources for information about bullying:

http://stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov: From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Take A Stand. Lend A Hand. Stop Bullying Now!” campaign.

www.safeyouth.org: The Resource Center, established as a central source of information on prevention and intervention programs, publications, research, and statistics on violence committed by and against children and teens, is a partnership of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other Federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services; the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, and Justice; the Health Resources and Services Administration; the National Institutes of Health; and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 

www.nea.org/schoolsafety/bullying.html:  NEA’s National Bullying Awareness Campaign is designed to assist communities in developing solutions that will eradicate bullying from America’s public schools. 

www.bullying.org: Bullying.org has a huge collection of links to articles, books, lesson plans, surveys, and more. 

www.bullyonline.org/schoolbully/index.htm: A U.K.-based website that contains FAQs, myths and facts, and case law related to school bullying.

www.bullying.co.uk: Information and advice for parents, kids and administrators

www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/bullying.html: Links to articles, tips, laws.  From the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health

Relationship too difficult? Try this before ending it.

Having problems with a spouse, friend or coworker? 

Relationships take effort. Of course, you already know that, and it’s confirmed by research. 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. 

But what happens when the effort isn’t mutual – when you feel as if you’re the one doing all the work? Or when you feel continually smothered or attacked by the other person? Should you cut loose?

Physical safety comes first. If you are at risk for being injured or worse, you need to take measures to protect yourself. Speak to authorities or get yourself to a shelter.

That said, most decisions about ending relationships are not about safety. They’re about frustration, disillusionment, rejection or anger. The more you feel that the relationship is out of balance, the more you’re inclined to call it quits. However, it’s not always practical or convenient to simply drop a friend, leave a romantic partner, or avoid a coworker. 

So how do you decide? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s the downside of ending the relationship? Will it affect your financial security? Your status among family or friends? Your job?
  • Who else might be affected, and to what extent – Your kids? Other important people in your life?
  • In what ways will you be better off without this relationship?

Answering the above questions won’t yield a yes-or-no conclusion. But it will help you view the relationship in a larger context. 

Next, consider what you might be contributing to the relationship difficulties.

  • Might the other person describe you as too demanding or critical? Then perhaps they may be reacting out of self-defense.
  • Do you have trouble expressing your needs and wishes? If so, don’t assume that the other person knows what you want…or don’t want.
  • Are you allowing your old hurts and grudges to continue? Until you can let them go, your relationship will always feel strained.
  • Would you describe yourself as having high standards? Might some of those high standards be better described as stubborn insistence that things be done your way?
  • Do you clam up whenever the other person tries to talk things out? If so, you may be unwittingly prolonging a conflict that could easily be resolved.

Making changes in your own behavior may help ease some of the relationship problems. But for significant improvement, you will need to talk it out with the other person. If you’ve determined that your relationship is worth repairing, here’s how to get the conversation started: 

Can we talk? Ask the other person to sit down and talk with you – preferably in person, but the phone is OK too. Talking via text or email, or exchanging messages on Facebook walls is not OK.

Make it casual. Be low-key in your approach. Coming across in an angry or confrontive manner will only increase tension between you. This is not about whose fault it is, but rather about looking for a workable solution. 

Focus on the facts. Start by describing a recent conversation or event that illustrates your concern – e.g., “Last night at dinner you didn’t speak to me unless I asked you a question, and afterwards you got up from the table and went to watch TV.” Note here that you are just stating facts, not speculating on the other person’s motivation. Thus, at this point you would not say, “You ignored me.” (That’s an interpretation, not a fact) 

State how you interpreted these facts, and ask for clarification. Now it would be appropriate to say, “I felt like you were trying to ignore me. Is something wrong?” If this is something that occurs on a regular basis, say so. But avoid using the words “always” and “never” – as in, “You always ignore me.” Or “You never want to talk.”

Listen. Try to focus on what the other person is saying. This may be hard, particularly if they respond with criticism or defensiveness. To stay calm, remind yourself that this overreaction reveals more about them than about you.

Ask if there is a way that you two can find a solution. Again, you may not get a welcoming response. But just in case, be prepared to propose a solution or compromise. Ask for something specific and concrete. For example, instead of saying, “I’m tired of doing all the work,” say, “I would like you to ask me, at least once a week, ‘Is there something I can do for you?’”

Lather, rinse, repeat. It would be nice if a single conversation would fix everything. But more likely, you’ll need several such conversations – and they may not go smoothly, especially if there is a long history of tension or resentment.

What if talking doesn’t work? 

Some situations are beyond repair. If there is little to be lost by ending a bad relationship, you are probably better off directing your energy to people whose company you enjoy. 

However, when there are serious ripple effects, such as parents breaking up a family, it’s worth consulting a psychologist, either as a couple or by yourself. That way, even if you do decide to leave, you’ll be more confident that it was the better option.

7 ways to help build your kids' self-confidence

7 Ways to Help Build Your Kids’ Self-confidence

By: Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

I think I can . . . I think I can . . . I think I can . . .

This familiar mantra from the children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, has inspired generations of kids (and many adults) for almost 70 years. The little blue engine, smallest of all in the yard, was the least likely candidate to pull the train over the mountain. But she managed to do it, thanks to her self-confidence – “I think I can.”

Of course, in real life merely thinking that you can does not guarantee success. However, thinking that you can’t almost certainly guarantees failure.

Kids don’t start off lacking self- confidence. Otherwise babies would never learn to walk.  Imagine a one-year-old taking a couple of steps, then falling down, and trying again. After a couple of falls, is the baby thinking, “Well that didn’t work. I’ll guess I’ll never learn to walk.”?

No. He just picks himself up and keeps trying until he gets it. In the face of one failed attempt after another, that baby is confident that he WILL eventually walk.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happens to stifle kids’ self-confidence as they get older, and why some are more willing to venture out and try new things.

But we do know that merely feeling good about oneself (which is called “self-esteem”) does not necessarily translate into the confidence needed to face challenges and pursue success. In fact, some studies show that kids with very high self-esteem can be underachievers at school.

Self-confidence is strengthened not by thinking, but by doing. Watch your kids’ faces and body language as they figure out a problem, master riding a bike, or get to the next level of a videogame. You’ll see more than a smile. You’ll see the same self-confidence as when they were learning to walk.

Self-confidence is self-propelling. Children who feel confident about something want to do more of it. And they even prefer that it’s not too easy. They welcome a challenge, even though they know they may not succeed right away. For self-confident kids, failure does not damage their self-esteem.

It’s no surprise that self-confident people are happier, more energetic and optimistic, have better relationships, and enjoy better health. Isn’t that what everyone wants for their children?

How to help your children build self-confidence

You can’t give your kids self-confidence – they must earn it through their own actions. But you can establish an environment in which self-confidence can flourish.  Here are the ingredients:

  1. Physical Safety and security – Kids need to feel that they will be taken care of and protected in a basic sense. Don’t talk about money problems in front of your kids. They could easily misinterpret what they hear, and get scared that you’ll be homeless.
  2. Harmonious home life – The more harmonious and consistent your home life, the more secure your kids will feel.  If you don’t get along with your spouse, make an effort when the kids are around.  If you’re divorced, never belittle or badmouth the other parent.  If you yell or if you have a habit of putting yourself down, stop.
  3. Social Skills – Children who learn respect at home will apply the same respect to others outside the home, and will be more popular and confident among their peers.  Teach your kids to take turns, to show kindness and to ask politely for what they want.  Don’t tolerate their speaking to you in contemptuous or demanding tones.
  4. Opportunities for curiosity and exploration – Children have a natural curiosity.  As long as they are physically safe not bothering other people, allow them to look, explore and experiment.  Don’t over-schedule them with lessons and other structured activities. While books, museum visits and movies are valuable, they do not build confidence in the way that active engagement and exploration can. Your kids will feel more confident through self-directed discovery than through any scripted experience.
  5. Appropriate risk-taking – Challenge your kids to stretch just a bit beyond their comfort zone.  For example: Trying new foods – even if it’s just one bite; saying hi to another child that they’ve never spoken to; sleeping in their own bed for the whole night; asking a girl to the dance. To help kids view these things with an open mind, suggest them as experiments (“just to see how it feels”) rather than as major hurdles.
  6. Strategies for managing anxiety and self-doubt – It is possible to be scared and self-confident at the same time. For proof, just observe the people waiting in line for the roller coasters at Hersheypark. Their nervous anticipation does not deter them from getting on the rides. When your child hesitates to try something, don’t lecture her or tell her she’s being silly. Instead, acknowledge her fears and remind her of a time when she had successfully pushed through fear in the past. If necessary, change the goal to something more manageable. For example, if she’s afraid to put her face in the water at the pool, have her agree to splash water on her face.
  7. Strategies for managing failure – Resist the urge to protect your kids from failure. Failure is not necessarily bad. In fact, children need small setbacks in order to prove to themselves that they can recover, and move on.

Be mindful of your own behavior when your kids don’t succeed. Avoid making excuses for them, such as blaming the weather, the teacher or the equipment. Set a good example of a can-do attitude by casually taking the failure in stride and looking forward to the next opportunity.

The above guidelines will work for most children. However, some may remain timid and fearful despite your best efforts. If your child is one of these, you are advised to consult a psychologist or other mental health professional who is trained to help kids with problems.

Breaking up is hard to do - especially for men

Breakups and divorces are harder on men than on women. 

If you’re female, this might be surprising news. Divorce almost always leaves women worse off financially than their former husbands.  In addition they are stressed out from juggling work, kids, and loneliness. 

After a breakup women are more likely to grieve openly; to talk to their friends and family about it; to read self-help books; and even to seek professional help in getting through the aftermath of the breakup. 

To the casual observer, it is the woman who suffers and struggles, while the man goes on with life, barely skipping a beat. 

It’s clear that breakups are very difficult for most people.  Both men and women get depressed. But research shows that women, in general, bounce back more successfully after a breakup.

Men are more than twice as likely to feel severely depressed for a longer time, and are twice as likely to commit suicide after a divorce.  Divorced men are also at greater risk for premature death from cardiovascular disease and pneumonia.

Because men are good at hiding their feelings, and because they typically get busy rather than talk about how they feel, their suffering is not readily apparent to others.

Why are breakups harder on men?  Researchers have identified several factors:

 

Control over the breakup

Two thirds of divorces are filed by women.  By the time women file, they have already started preparing themselves for the future.  To some extent, they have control over the process.  Since men are more often on the receiving end of breakups and divorces, they must deal with the surprise factor that throws them off balance.

On top of this, if children are involved, they usually stay with their moms. Men typically lose ready access to their kids – and the sense of comfort that they had derived from them.

Thus, within the same week, a man can experience shock, the loss of his role as a husband, and the loss of his role as a father. 

Social bonds 

Women are more apt to have deep social bonds – family and friends with whom they’ve shared feelings and experiences in the past. After a breakup these relationships provide strong emotional support.

On the other hand men tend to simply “hang out” with the guys. Their discussions center on sports and other light topics, rather than on personal feelings. After a relationship breakup, men do get support from their buddies, but it is more like, “Forget about her. Let’s have fun,” rather than addressing the pain and grief of splitting up.

Disruption of routines and social connections 

Despite men’s increased participation in parenting and household chores, it is still women who bear the primary responsibility for running the home.  They are usually the ones who coordinate meals, cleaning, laundry, and kids’ activities.  When a couple breaks up, the man is suddenly removed from familiar routines.

Women are also the glue that connects the family and the community.  Couples’ social networks usually revolve around the woman’s family and friends. Thus, when a couple breaks up, it’s the man who gets cut out of the social loop, leaving him isolated and lonely.

 

Biology and cultural conditioning

Recent research shows that men’s brains are biologically different from women’s. They do not process feelings and intuition as easily as women do.  On top of that, men in our culture are raised to be tough and invulnerable.

Men feel grief and depression as acutely as women do, but they often label it as something else, such as anger or disgust.  It’s easier for them to talk about “what she did to me” than about feeling lonely or rejected.

 

Addressing problems

After a breakup women seek to understand what happened.  They talk it out with others.  They read books and articles, and watch TV shows on the subject.

Men, on the other hand, are more apt to try to avoid feeling anything. They often self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, which can lead to other problems such as DUIs, malnutrition, and excessive sick days off work.

Some buy themselves cars or other toys in an attempt to feel better.  From the outside, the ex-wife might think: “Well, he’s having a good time, going out to bars, driving his nice little sports car . . .”  Don’t let that fool you.  He’s just trying to numb his misery.

 

Tips for Coping After a Breakup

 The male/female differences in reacting to breakups pertain to men in general and women in general.  There are plenty of exceptions.  Nevertheless, advice for coping with breakups applies to anyone going through this highly stressful experience:

  • Take care of yourself physically.  Don’t skip meals.  Get adequate (but not too much) sleep.  Make sure you exercise regularly.  Nutrition, sleep and exercise provide a solid foundation for dealing with stress.
  • Avoid isolating yourself.  Even though it feels like too much of an effort, force yourself to get out among people (aside from work) at least once or twice a week.  Talk to someone on the phone every day.
  • When thoughts of your ex pop into your mind, turn them off. Distract yourself with an activity that requires your full attention.  The worst thing you can do is to mentally replay old memories over and over again.
  • Expect to feel intense emotions – anger, rage, fear, depression, and more.  However, give yourself a cooling off period before acting on your feelings.  That way you won’t do something you’ll later regret, like smashing your ex’s car window.
  • Don’t try to be friends with your ex.  It rarely works.  More often it prolongs the agony of the breakup.
  • Do something kind for someone else.  It’s one of the best ways to get your mind off your own troubles, and it also helps build connections with other people.
  • Treat yourself with respect.  Avoid self-destructive activities like drinking, using illegal drugs, overeating or buying things you don’t need.  Cut down on self-critical thoughts as well. Speak to yourself encouragingly, as you would a young child who is unsure of himself.

NOTE: There is hope.  Studies show that most people do eventually recover from breakups. If you were basically a happy person in the past, you have a good chance of being happy again.  If you have a history of depression, it is especially important that you follow some of the tips above.  If you can’t shake your despair, not even for a few hours, it’s time to consult a mental health professional.

Divorced dad? Make the most of your time with your kids

If you’re a divorced father, no one needs to tell you that time with your kids is precious.

 

But it can also be stressful, especially if your relationship with your ex is full of tension.

 

“It’s not me who’s unreasonable,” you might say.  “It’s my ex.  She’s the one who causes all the problems between me and the kids.”

 

That may be your perspective.  However, in my 30+ years of practicing psychology I have never met a couple where only one person was at fault.  If you look deep within yourself, you’ll probably realize that even when you don’t start an argument, you may be prolonging it or magnifying it.

 

Anger and other negative emotions toward your ex can spill over into visits with your kids.  You end up making snide remarks about their mother; or you roll your eyes when the kids tell you something she said or did . . . and before you know it, everyone ends up in a bad mood, and the visit is ruined.

 

If this scenario repeats itself over and over, in the long run it could undermine your kids’ emotional development.

 

Thus, it’s very important to manage your emotions around your kids.  Your visits will be more pleasant and relaxed, and your kids will be spared the turmoil of being drawn into conflicts between their parents.

 

Here are some tips for staying cool at certain critical times:

 

Picking up and dropping off – Start and end the visit on a positive note:

 

  • Arrive punctually.  Not only are you setting a good example; you’re also showing your kids that they can count on you to be there when you promised.
  • If their mother says something to provoke you, keep your voice low, and simply announce that this will have to wait until she can discuss it in private with you.  Also, watch your body language – no sighing, sneering or rude hand gestures.
  • When it’s time for the kids to return to their mother, act positive.  Mention something that they can look forward to the next time they’re with you.
  • Transition from one parent to the other is stressful for some children.  If your kids are fussy or moody at the beginning of their visits or toward the end, give them time to settle in and make the mental transition.

 

During the visit

 

  • Have a routine.  Routine means fewer decisions, which makes it easier on everyone.
  • As curious as you might be about what goes on in their mom’s home, don’t quiz your kids about it.
  • If you are remarried and have a blended family, your biological children must “share” you with your stepchildren.  This can be hard on them, particularly if they only see you a few days per month.  Therefore, carve out some time for them alone, preferably when the stepkids are scheduled for something else. It need not be a lot of time, nor a major outing – just a designated hour or afternoon when they have you to themselves.

 

Discipline – Be a dad, not a friend

 

  • It can be a challenge to balance the need for discipline with letting things go.  On the one hand, you don’t want your children being grounded for the whole visit. On the other hand, you do want them to learn self-control and to respect limits and boundaries.
  • Have rules and consequences in place, so that when the kids step out of bounds, you don’t have to yell – just carry out the consequences as planned.  As a result, you’ll stay calm, and the situation will be resolved immediately instead of dragging on.
  • If your rules are fair and age-appropriate, your kids may not like them, but they will ultimately feel more secure.  Don’t be tempted to be overly lenient just to avoid conflict at the moment.
  • Ideally the general rules at your house will match those at Mom’s house.  If you can’t agree on all of them, at least try to establish consistent expectations on the top 3 important issues. Research shows that children of divorced parents have better outcomes when the parents are civil with one another and agree on discipline and child rearing.

 

 

More tips

 

  • Understand that children love both their parents, and that they get very uncomfortable when one parent criticizes the other.  Therefore, regardless of how you feel about their mom, avoid making derogatory comments to your kids about her.  In fact, go out of your way to communicate that you support their relationship with her.  For example, when praising them for something they accomplished, add, “I bet your mom is going to be really proud, too.”
  • Don’t ask your kids to relay messages to their mother.  Call her or email her yourself.  This ensures that the message is delivered as you intend, and also helps bridge communication problems.
  • When your children are with their mother, stay in touch on a daily basis, even if it’s just a quick phone call to say hi. Or visit via webcam, which allows you to see each other as well.
  • If you occasionally end up “losing” visitation time because of special activities at mom’s (e.g. a birthday party, family reunion) and she refuses to allow make-up time, think twice before asserting your legal visitation rights.  If your child will not be harmed by the temporary schedule change, then let it go.

 

 Disclaimer: The tips in this column are for informational purposes only. They are not intended to address individuals’ specific circumstances.

 

 For further reading:

 

 

Ricci, Isolina (1997) Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child, New York: Simon & Shuster

 

 

Warshak. Richard (2003) Divorce Poison New York: Regan Books – strategies to preserve and rebuild loving relationships with their children

 

Fathers.com http://fathers.com – a collection of dozens of links to resources on parenting, support groups, child development information, family activity sites, and more

 

 

When strangers ask intrusive questions about your child

If your child is different from other kids in appearance or behavior, you know what it feels like to get glances and stares from strangers.

Most people can’t help but notice. It’s normal to pay attention to the unusual. In fact, for survival reasons, our brains are wired to detect differences. Back in primitive times, a small rustling in the bushes might have indicated a deer or other animal — potential dinner for a hungry tribe. Or it might have signified a lion hunting for prey. Either way, it would be biologically useful to notice these subtle changes.

Thus, if your son has little or no hair, has facial scars or is hearing-impaired and talks via sign language, people will reflexively notice. If your daughter walks with a limp, looks racially different from you or behaves in an atypical manner, it will draw attention.

In addition to being wired for noticing what’s unusual, people are constantly interpreting what’s happening around them, with the goal of making sense of it all. And interpretations typically vary from one person to the next, which can trigger misunderstandings.

Thus, when a stranger glances at your son who is wearing an eye patch, you might interpret that glance as a cruel stare, while the stranger might be thinking emphatically, “I needed an eye patch when I was young and remember how kids used to tease me.”

If your autistic daughter is having an emotional meltdown in a restaurant, other people’s stares might feel like critical judgment about your parenting. On the other hand, some of them might wish they could do something to help.

Most folks will notice your child, make a private interpretation (which might or might not be accurate) and move on with their day. Others will take it a bold step further. They’ll walk up to you and make a comment or ask a question. Regardless of whether these strangers mean well or whether they’re just curious, the fact is that they are intruding.

How to respond to intrusive questions

As a parent, it’s natural to want to protect your kids from discomfort and embarrassment. But you have no control over other people’s decision to approach you. Out of the blue, someone might stop and ask, “Has your son been getting chemotherapy?” or “What’s that big red mark on your little boy’s cheek?” or “Did you adopt your daughter from China?”

Such rudeness is enough to make you scream, “Why don’t you just mind your own business!”

But that won’t accomplish much. Calling them out on their intrusiveness might help you feel superior for the moment, but it’s not going to teach them any lesson or change their behavior for the future.

Moreover, yelling will make you more angry, not less, and the anger will linger long after you’ve left the situation.

If, instead, you respond in a calm, deliberate manner, you will take control of the conversation and will end up feeling much less drained. Here are tips:

  • Regardless of how you think people should behave, many will be intrusive and rude. To protect yourself from feeling attacked, consider that their comments reveal more about them than about you or your child.
  • You can respond in a casual, matter-of-fact way, even tossing in a bit of education. For example, “The red mark? It’s a port wine stain – just a large birthmark, and not at all painful.”
  • When a stranger asks a nosy question you need not say anything at all. We have been culturally conditioned to reply when someone talks to us. But if you simply smile back, it’s unlikely that strangers will demand a response. They’ll probably just walk away feeling uncomfortable.
  • Keep in mind that a young child might not feel as self-conscious, nor get as upset as you do by intrusive comments from strangers. A strong negative reaction by you can be confusing or alarming to your toddler. Thus, if a stranger’s question doesn’t seem bother your child, you can probably relax about it too.
  • School-age children whose appearance or behavior stands out are acutely aware that they’re different. A direct stare or a rude comment from a stranger can be quite hurtful. However, it need not be permanently damaging if you and your child are prepared for such encounters. Also, if you respond to the stranger in a calm manner, your child may take it in stride as well.
  • Rehearse a few answers to comments and questions that you hear most often. For example:

What’s wrong with your son? “Nothing’s wrong with him. He just needs a little extra oxygen.”

Why did you adopt a child of a different race? “Isn’t she beautiful? We feel so lucky to have her.”

My nephew had chemo and lost all his hair, just like your little boy, and it took two years to grow back.  “Well, we’ll see. Everyone’s different. Anyway, hair or no hair, we still love him, and he’s still expected to do his homework.”

How can I prepare my child to deal with intrusive questions?

It’s not the questioning itself that bothers most kids. They are used to questions from adults on a daily basis — at home, at school, and in extracurricular activities. What they generally find upsetting is the attention that is drawn to what’s different about them.

Children need to feel that they fit in. When a stranger walks up and starts talking about the one characteristic that sets them apart, it can trigger feelings of self-consciousness and self-doubt.

Helping your son or daughter cope with strangers’ gazes, questions and comments is an ongoing process. It’s best to address the issue head-on. Don’t minimize the fact that they are different in a noticeable way.

At the same time, remind them that they are more similar to other kids than different: They like to have fun; they like to help others; they sometimes get mad; they have certain food preferences, etc.

Explain that strangers who ask questions about them don’t really understand. Besides, it doesn’t matter, because the important people in your child’s life — family and friends — already know and like your child.

One of the best ways to help kids cope is to be a positive role model. By watching how you deal with strangers’ intrusions, your child will learn to do the same.

Pets are good for you in many ways

Pets are cute and cuddly, and fun to have around – which explains why over 70% of American households have at least one. Despite the tough economy, we will collectively spend over $45 billion on our pets this year – an increase of $2.1 billion over last year.

For most Americans, pets are not just animals; they are full-fledged family members. They pose in family photos. They receive gifts at holidays. They go on vacation with their owners. Some pets are even named as heirs in their owners’ wills. And when couples break up, pets are increasingly becoming the focus of custody battles in divorce court.

Why do we get so attached to our pets? 

According to John Archer, author of Evolution and Human Behavior, pets evoke responses of caring and love, similar to what parents feel for their children.

They make us feel valued and important. They offer unconditional affection. It doesn’t matter whether you won the lottery, or were fired from your job –they love you just the same. They provide rhythm to our lives and give us vicarious pleasure in watching them play.

It’s common to view pets as extensions of ourselves. Some people go a little overboard, buying their pets designer clothes, jewelry and spa treatments. More frugal enthusiasts express their passions by setting up online accounts for their pets on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

If you never had a pet, you might think that pet owners are nuts. But consider that companion animals provide many benefits. Here are a few research findings: 

Emotional benefits

  • Pets provide companionship and reduce loneliness. In fact, some folks prefer the company of animals over people. A study of nursing home residents in St. Louis found that those who spent time alone with a dog over a period of six weeks, reported feeling less lonely than those who spent time with two other residents and the dog. A study of college students found that pets played an important role in helping the students through difficult times.
  • The presence of pets helps us cope with stress. In a study measuring physiological reactions (heart rate and blood pressure) to both mental and physical stress, pet owners with their dog or cat in the room fared better than non-pet owners with a friend in the room. They had lower baseline indicators of stress, smaller spikes in their stress reactions, and returned to baseline more quickly than the non-pet owners.
  • Pets promote social skills development in children. Robert Poresky’s studies of preschoolers in Kansas showed that the greater their involvement with their pets, the higher their scores on measures of empathy and social skills. This is not surprising, since in order to have a successful interaction with animals, kids need to be more aware of nonverbal communication signals. 

Physical benefits 

  • Caring for pets requires physical activity, which is good for our health. Rebecca Johnson of the University of Missouri found that when overweight people and their overweight dogs walked for 20 minutes, five times per week, both the dogs and the owners lost weight.
  • Several studies have shown that pet owners enjoy better health. They have shorter hospital stays, fewer doctor visits, and take less medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol. If they do have heart attacks, pet owners are more likely than non-pet owners to survive more than a year.
  • Pets can induce healthy physiological reactions. According to researcher Johannes Odendaal, just 10 minutes of interaction with your pet can lower your blood pressure by 5 – 10%, and increase the levels of hormones associated with well-being.
  • Pets may protect kids from allergies. Researchers in Detroit followed more than 700 children from birth through age 6 or 7. Those who lived all their lives with a dog or a cat in the home, were significantly less likely to develop allergies to animals. 

Therapeutic benefits

  • The benefits of trained animals for people with disabilities go beyond the physical aid that they provide. Service dogs allow their owners to get out more and be more involved in the community. Companionship and bonding with the animal give emotional support as well.
  • Pet visits have helped psychiatric patients reduce anxiety, and have helped hospitalized children cope with pain.
  • Pet owners with AIDS are less likely to suffer from depression. Researcher Judith Siegel found that the most benefit was among those patients who had close relationships with their pets.
  • Dogs are often used in psychotherapy, helping clients understand themselves better through interaction with the animal. 

Note: Not all the research shows a positive relationship between pet ownership and human health. A few studies found that pet owners were more depressed, more socially maladjusted and less physically healthy. It turns out that the important factor is not just pet ownership, but the quality of the relationship with one’s pet.

Also, much of the research is correlational – that is, people who own pets tend to be physically and emotionally healthier. But it’s possible that healthier people choose to own pets. 

More recent research has taken this into account. For example, in her study on pets and hypertension, Karen Allen recruited stressed-out stockbrokers who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure. None of them owned a pet. All subjects started taking medication, but half of them were randomly assigned a dog or cat in addition. Six months later, under lab-induced stress, the pet owners’ blood pressure rose less than half that of their counterparts without pets.

Further reading: 

Books:

Anderson, P.E. (2008): The Powerful Bond Between People and Pets: Our Boundless Connections to Companion Animals, Praeger Publishing. 

Becker, M. (2002): The Healing Power of Pets: Harnessing the Amazing Ability of Pets to Make and Keep People Happy and Healthy, Hyperion.  

Websites: 

Delta Society – deltasociety.org – information on how positive interaction with animals can improve people’s lives 

Dr. Ken Pope’s website – kenpope.com/servani – Collection of dozens of links to resources for therapy, guide, hearing and assistance animals

Grieving for a pet is real - and normal

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. But you’re pretty much left to grieve on your own. There are no established comforting rituals and customs when your pet dies. 

Most likely there won’t be a funeral. Your loved ones probably won’t fly in from out of town to be with you. If you’re lucky you may get one or two sympathy cards. And don’t expect your boss (even if she has a pet herself) to give you a week’s leave of absence to pull yourself together. 

After your pet dies you’re pretty much expected to move on and “get over it.” But the truth is you may never completely get over it, just as you never forget a close friend or family member. As I noted in a previous column (Nov 17, 2009 ) we are emotionally bonded to our pets, partly because they evoke the same type of feelings that parents have for their children.

What’s normal for mourning the loss of a pet?

The first few days can be quite distressing as you try to go through your daily activities, particularly those times when your pet was involved – morning routine, walks, litter box changes, etc. Just seeing pet food commercials or walking down the pet supplies aisle of the supermarket might trigger sharp pangs of intense sadness. 

During the first few weeks you may feel as if you’re in a fog. While not every moment is filled with sadness, you may find it hard to read or to focus on conversations and TV shows. You may also have headaches, digestive problems and have trouble sleeping. Thoughts about your pet might pop into your head at random moments, mixed with guilt about what you could have or should have done to prevent your pet’s death.

But these symptoms and thoughts generally subside – usually within a few months, depending on your individual personality, how central your pet was in your life, and the nature of your relationships with other people. There is no set time for how long it takes to feel “normal” again.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no fixed stages that you must progress through, although everyone experiences a process of emotional adjustment. During this process you may be hit by waves of sadness and even despair. But in between these waves, you’re able to experience pleasure – even laugh and look forward to things. With time, the waves occur less often and become less intense. Eventually you will be able to remember your pet with fondness rather than pain.

What can I do when the waves of sadness hit? 

Sadness is not necessarily something to be avoided. It’s a normal part of grieving. However, if you feel distressed for an extended period of time, do something that focuses on others. For example, call a friend, cook a meal for someone, shop for a gift, etc. Doing favors for other people is one of the quickest ways to feel better yourself. 

Try to stay in contact with others on a regular basis, so that even when there is no one physically present, you know that you are not alone.

Write about some of the fun times with your pet, being as specific as you can. Make a scrapbook or collage. These positive memories will stay with you forever, and can help mitigate your emotional pain. 

Is it OK to talk about my pet? My friends don’t seem to want to listen. 

After losing a loved one (person or animal) it’s normal to want to talk about them. But well-meaning friends and family may try to change the subject in order to discourage you from dwelling on your loss. 

Sometimes it’s more helpful to talk with others who are going through a similar experience. There are several free online forums and support groups, as well as live hotlines dedicated to grieving pet owners. See the Resources section below for links. 

One friend recommends getting a new pet right away. Another tells me to wait at least a year. Which is right?

There is no specific waiting period. Nor is it necessary to get another pet at all. You need to feel ready to accept another animal companion into your heart. Only you will know when that time comes, if ever. No reason to rush into it.

On the other hand, if you long for the company of a furry friend, you won’t dishonor your departed pet’s memory by adopting a new one. No animal can replace another, of course. But it will be easier on you if your next pet is a different breed or color. That way, there’s less tendency to compare it with the one you lost, and you can more readily appreciate your new pet’s unique qualities and personality.

What if I feel worse rather than better over time?

If, after six months, you feel as bad or worse than you did during the first week after your loss, this is not normal bereavement. There may be something else going on. Don’t rule out physical problems. If you feel physically ill or if your energy has not returned, do see a medical professional. 

If things check out medically, it’s possible that you are depressed – which is a different condition than normal grief. A psychologist can help you get to the bottom of what is standing in the way of your healing, as well as help you find ways to cope. 

Resources

Animal Love and Loss Network www.alln.org

Pet Loss Message Board www.petlossmessageboard.com 

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Pet Loss Support Hotline www.vet.cornell.edu/Org/PetLoss/ 607-253-3932

ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline www.aspca.org/pet-care/pet-loss 877- 474-3310

Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine http://bit.ly/michstatepetloss

…More links at Dr. Ken Pope’s website: www.catanddoghelp.com  

Books

M.K. Anderson (1996) Coping With Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet, Alpine Publications

Kowalski (2006) Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet, New World Library

 

Gender Disappointment – What if you don’t get the boy (or girl) you hoped for?

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

 

So you’re expecting a baby, and just found out whether it’s going to be a girl or a boy.

And you’re disappointed….

What’s up with that? Aren’t you supposed to be thrilled to be a mom regardless? And isn’t the most important thing to just hope for a healthy baby?

Deep down you know that’s true. And you may even feel guilty about agonizing over the baby’s gender. But that doesn’t erase your disappointment.

 You’re not alone….

It’s normal to prefer one gender over another. In fact a Gallup Poll published last June showed that 2 out of 3 people expressed a preference for a boy or a girl, with a bias toward boys. Nine previous surveys on this issue, dating back to 1941, produced similar results. Thus, parents have been grappling with this issue for generations.

 Will I ever get over my disappointment?

 The good news is yes, you probably will. According to research, most people do adapt to circumstances, and even embrace those circumstances in a positive way. Some look back and say, “It happened for a reason.” But this reason may simply reflect the fact that we naturally create a life story for ourselves based on events that did happen (rather than what might have happened) and our minds work the story so that it all makes logical sense.

Thus, boy or girl, your child will be part of your life story. As your story unfolds, it will likely feel quite natural.

 How long will it take to get over my disappointment?

 That depends on a number of factors, and varies from one person to the next. Most important is to accept your feelings now, realizing that you cannot predict how you’ll feel a year from now.

Psychologist Dr. Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, demonstrated that we are terrible at “emotional forecasting.” That is, when we anticipate the future we grossly overestimate both how awful something’s going to be, as well as how wonderful something’s going to be.

You can verify this for yourself. Think back to disappointments and setbacks that you thought you’d never get over; or to positive events that you thought would be life-changing. Chances are, your experiences were less intense than you expected.

What can I do to try to accept my child as he/she is?

First, don’t be too hard on yourself. The more you “try” to not feel a certain way, the worse you will actually feel.

Instead, focus on positive things about being a parent. And be open to the possibility that your feelings for your baby will change for the better over time.

Your current disappointment is based partly on a mental image your have of your child. All you know for sure at this point is the gender. Although males and females do differ in certain behavioral and personality tendencies, there is such wide variation that it is impossible to predict how a specific individual will turn out.

Because your relationship with your future child is something you have not yet fully experienced, it’s normal to fill in the gaps with how you imagine it will be – reflected from your past experiences, or from stories that you have heard about parenting boys vs girls.

Watch some online videos of babies of the gender you’re expecting. These videos almost always portray kids at their cutest moments, which can counteract the negative thoughts in your mind.  Start picking out names for your baby. This will help initiate your emotional investment in its life.

Once the child is born your relationship will start to develop, and you’ll get to know the actual person. Eventually gender will be far less important than other characteristics.

You probably already know this. Think about all the important relationships in your life. To what degree does gender determine whether you like or dislike someone?

Will my disappointment affect bonding with the baby after it’s born?

Your disappointment in the baby’s gender may trigger mixed feelings. However, this won’t necessarily have a long-term damaging effect on your child. Contrary to popular belief, instant bonding with one’s newborn child is not universal. Some mothers feel it right away; others require time to get to know the baby. 

If, after several weeks your resentment has not subsided, there may be deeper issues than the child’s gender. In that case you are advised to seek help from a psychologist or other mental health professional.

 

References:

Gallup Poll 6/23/11 http://www.gallup.com/poll/148187/Americans-Prefer-Boys-Girls-1941.aspx

 Gilbert, D. (2007) Stumbling on Happiness, Vintage Books

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

How’d you like to feel 12 years old again, with no effort required? Visit your family of origin over the holidays. Walking through the door of your parents’ or grandparents’ home is almost like stepping into a time machine.

 

Everyone is older, of course. And your former bedroom may now be used for other purposes. But some things are the same – for example, that creak on the fourth step, the old photos on the mantel, the smell of the basement, etc. You’re so familiar with the place, that even though you may not have visited for months or years, you know exactly where to find a rubber band. 

Situational cues have a powerful influence. You may not even be aware that these physical surroundings trigger emotional memories as well. But you can certainly see them in action. Perhaps you can relate to one of the following scenarios: 

  • Your brother (now a father himself) grabs the TV remote and won’t give it back. You get into a heated argument, to the point that your mom has to intervene.
  • Sis forgot to bring the folding chairs. Your dad shrugs it off, saying that they’ll find some old lawn chairs in the garage. “Why does she always get a pass?” you mutter to yourself. “If that were me, everyone would be jumping down my throat.”
  • At dinner your mother asks you why you haven’t called your grandmother in Florida.  “Why are you always picking on me?!” you snap back. “Why don’t you ever ask my brother why he doesn’t call Grandma?”

This is not how you behave in your day-to-day world. In fact, most people would probably describe you as kind, considerate and accommodating. It’s only here, with your family, that you regress into a petulant child, bickering and arguing with your siblings over stupid stuff.

But it’s not really about stupid stuff. It only seems that way. The surface bickering is triggered by old fears, insecurities and resentments that you acquired in childhood and never resolved.

Thus, for example, fighting over the TV remote is not really about the remote. It’s about something deeper – maybe old feelings of competition with your brother. Similarly, your sister’s “getting a pass” on forgetting the folding chairs may anger you because as a child you may have felt overshadowed by her.

There’s no formula for determining which behavior is attached to which childhood emotion. It’s different for everyone, based on your unique experiences and perceptions as you were growing up. But one thing is for sure – you feel very little control over these emotions. They just seem to pop out of nowhere.

When old wounds from your childhood are re-activated, you experience a surge of emotion so intense that you can feel it throughout your body. And the familiar childhood surroundings intensify everything. Suddenly you’re 12 again… or 7… or 4…, and acting like it. Your rational self has been taken over by your inner brat – that primitive part of your mind that makes you say and do things that you later regret.

Unless you recognize what’s happening, the situation can rapidly get worse. When you and your siblings start squabbling it’s not just your inner brat that’s involved. It’s theirs too. In a matter of seconds your inner brats are reacting to one another, escalating the conflict to an irrational fury.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Emotional conflicts that have a long history are not easily erased. However, you can minimize their effect on you when you get together with your family. Here are some tips:

Don’t rehearse your resentments and anxieties. That is, don’t start dwelling weeks in advance on how bad things are going to be at your family event. This only gives your inner brat a head start. Instead, remind yourself that you are choosing to go, and that it’s time-limited. You’ve spent a few hours in difficult circumstances before, and you can do so again.

Practice simple relaxation skills such as slow, deep breathing or pleasant visualization.  If you find yourself getting tense at the event, take a short time-out to relax and get yourself centered again. Relaxing your body automatically relaxes your mind, and you’ll be better able to withstand others’ bothersome behavior

Mentally detach yourself from conflict. When your siblings act idiotic, mean or critical toward you, notice that such behavior reveals more about them than about you. Observe them, and see what happens when you don’t engage.

Decide how you want to feel when you leave the family event. Do you want to leave calm and in control? Then conduct yourself in a composed manner throughout the event. Think of it as an acting job, staying in your best Academy-award role. It will take effort, and you won’t get paid big Hollywood bucks. But instead of ending up feeling frustrated and angry, you’ll leave more confident…which is a lot more satisfying than winning an argument.

How to stay in love with your spouse for decades

How To Stay In Love With Your Spouse For Decades

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Is it possible to stay “in love” with your spouse over years, or even decades? Absolutely. It’s even more common than you might think.

In a survey of 5,200 people by Match.com, 18% of the respondents reported feelings of romantic love lasting over 10 years. In a separate smaller study, relationship scientist Dr. Bianca Acevedo at Stony Brook University found that 40% of people married 10 years reported being “very intensely in love.”

It’s difficult to define precisely what “very intensely in love” means, but brain-imaging research can provide some clues. Dr. Acevedo and her colleagues studied brain activity of both newly-in-love individuals, and those who had reported feeling very much in love after 20 years of marriage. Attached to an fMRI machine, each person looked at photos of friends and of their lover. Looking at images of lovers (but not friends) lit up the same key reward centers of the brain (associated with euphoria) for both the newly in love and the long-term married.

Chances are you don’t have an fMRI machine in your basement. But you probably don’t need one to know if you feel in love with your spouse. If you’ve lost that spark, or if you want to keep it burning, here are some suggestions, based on studies of happy couples:

  1. TV commercials have it wrong. You don’t need diamond rings, luxury vacations, or anything else advertised on TV to keep romance alive. In fact, it’s the little things that make the difference. Over time, daily gestures of caring, understanding and generosity have a cumulative positive effect, building an emotional bank account that strengthens your relationship.
  2. Know your spouse. You may be able to predict what your spouse will do or say. But do you know what he or she is thinking about, worrying about or wondering about? Do you know what your spouse wants and needs from you? These are critical to emotional intimacy.
  3. Invest your energy. Emotional and physical intimacy don’t just happen. Passion results from intentional involvement – whether it’s a relationship, a hobby or a social cause. Investing of yourself creates enthusiasm, not the other way around. Therefore, don’t expect your spouse to make you feel romantic. Behave like a romantic person yourself, and the feelings may follow.
  4. Engage – Converse, acknowledge, participate. Chat with your spouse. Listen with undivided attention to what your spouse is saying. Share your thoughts and ideas. Do things together that you both enjoy. Active engagement in both conversation and behavior helps bring you closer together.
  5. Be playful. Playfulness, humor and novel activities can be stimulating and even a turn-on. Think of little ways to delight your spouse. Leave love notes in unpredictable places. For best results avoid teasing and physical gestures that can be taken the wrong way.
  6. 5:1 ratio – Disagreements and conflicts are inevitable in any long-term relationship. You don’t have to be constantly cheerful and rosy. However, according to research by marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, you need at least five positive interactions for every negative one in order for a relationship to thrive. It doesn’t take much to create a positive interaction. A simple act of kindness, a small favor, a hug, or a compliment – they all count.
  7. Recognize destructive negative communications: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Dr. Gottman calls these the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” because they can be lethal to a marriage if not corrected. Working through conflict is a learned skill for most people. Finding ways to negotiate and compromise in a constructive way can keep the four horsemen out of your relationship.
  8. Show appreciation. It not only lets your spouse know that you recognize the value of his or her efforts. It also helps put you in a positive frame of mind.
  9. Schedule time together, and stick to it. Otherwise, with everything else going on in your life, it will never happen. A weekly “date night” is one way, but even better is to set aside time with your spouse on a daily basis. Going for a walk together is ideal for relaxed conversation, not to mention the secondary benefit of physical exercise.
  10. Create shared meaning in life. It’s not enough to share chores and responsibilities. You also need to share values, a sense of purpose, and a life story that you build together. Shared meaning is what makes you and your spouse true soul mates.

 None of the above tips are groundbreaking insights. In fact, you probably did most of those things early in your relationship, when you invested a lot of energy into thinking about and interacting with your spouse. However, over the years it’s easy to forget that relationships require constant nurturing.

Getting back in the groove may take some effort, but the potential benefit makes it worthwhile.

It works best when both partners are willing to work on getting closer. Even then, if there have been some serious breaches of trust, or if one partner has some emotional issues that stand in the way of rebuilding intimacy, you may need the help of a professional marriage counselor.

Further reading:

Gottman, J. and Silver, N. (1999), The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press

Parker-Pope, T. (2010), For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. New York: Dutton Adult

Sandwich generation - Tips for managing stress

Sandwich Generation – Tips for Managing Stress

By: Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Do you take care of a parent or other older relative while raising your own children? “If so, you¹re one of millions of American baby boomers dubbed the “Sandwich Generation.”

As a family caregiver, your physical and mental health may be at risk. Surveys show that family caregivers have a higher rate of heart disease, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety and even early death.

It’s due mainly to stress.

Raising kids is hard enough, with so many demands on your time and energy, not to mention the financial cost. If you’re also working outside the home and assuming responsibility for an additional person (or people) with special needs, the stress can put you over the edge if you’re not careful.

You can end up feeling:

  • continually pressured, with no letup in sight
  • exhausted and run down, but have trouble sleeping
  • physically sick – headaches, stomach problems, muscle aches
  • tense, unable to relax
  • irritable, taking it out on your kids, spouse or others
  • resentful and guilty at the same time
  • depressed
  • anxious and worried

These are all signs of stress – but not always exclusively stress. If you experience any of the physical symptoms described above, see your medical doctor to rule out underlying medical conditions.

“So what?” you might be thinking right now. “I already figured out I was stressed. You aren’t telling me anything new. Besides there’s nothing I can do about it, anyway.”

Ah, but there is. Let’s first consider the different sources of your stress.

External sources of stress:

These are situational demands that require your attention and action – normal scheduled activities, to-do lists, unexpected urgencies and crises.

Other external sources of stress include acute medical illness (yours as well as those of family members,) time constraints, job demands, financial limitations, weather-related problems and other inconveniences, noise level, conflict with family or coworkers . . . anything that can be observed or recorded.

Internal sources of stress:

These are the ways in which you experience the stress.  People react to external sources of stress differently. For example, the sound of a baby crying can be extremely stressful to one person, but only a mild distraction to someone else.

The degree to which you experience stress depends on the following:

1. Expectations – When things don’t turn out as you expect, it’s normal to become frustrated. Frustration leads to anger at yourself or someone else. Anger can energize you, but it disrupts your focus and puts you on edge.

2. Self-talk – Whether you realize it or not, you have ongoing commentary in your head, silently talking to yourself about what is happening around you. Your stress level is partly determined by how you describe things to yourself. For example which of the following pairs of words and phrases make you tense up more:

A. Oh no!
B. Oops…

A. Not again!
B. Here we go again…

A. When will I find peace!
B. How can I find a few minutes to myself?

3. Perception of control – Feeling stressed and overwhelmed comes from a sense that things are getting out of control, and that nothing you do will help. Of course, you don’t have control over everything. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have control over anything. You do have control over certain options and decisions. You do have control over your expectations. And you do have control over how you talk to yourself. Making changes in any of these areas will reduce your stress level – even though your basic situation remains the same.

Tips for caregivers on how to manage stress:

  • Be realistic in your expectations of what you can get done. Prioritize – differentiate between what is essential (e.g., preparing mom’s medications) and what would be desirable (e.g. attending your child’s soccer practice.)  Go for the desirables only if there are no competing essentials.
  • As a multigeneration caregiver, you are probably already organized with lists, calendars and files. Only add things to your list that you expect (not wish) to accomplish. Cluttering it with tasks that won’t get done will only make you feel more overwhelmed. Making decisions about what you won’t do can feel quite liberating.
  • Acknowledge your feelings. It’s normal to sometimes feel angry and resentful toward the family members who depend on you. That doesn’t mean that you love them any less. But it is a sign that you need to carve out time for yourself, even if only for an hour. Schedule it, or it won’t happen.
  • Watch your self-talk. When words such as awful, terrible, can’t stand it, always, never, and other negatively extreme words enter your thoughts, replace them with more neutral ones: e.g., challenging, not my favorite thing to do, frequently, etc. How you talk to yourself has a strong influence on how stressed you feel. I advise my clients to talk to themselves in soft encouraging tones, much as they would to a frightened puppy or child.
  • Ask for help. Older kids can be assigned specific chores to help with their grandparents’ care. They may have to miss some after-school activities. But which do you think will leave a greater memory imprint in 20 years – the spring softball team, or helping feed grandpa several times per week? As long as kids aren’t expected to forego their entire social life, helping care for their elders does not rob them of their childhood – it enriches it (although they may not realize it now.)
  • Remember all those people who said, “If there’s anything I can do…”? Take them up on their offer. Ask them to babysit while you go for a walk or meet friends for lunch. Allow them to drive your kids to and from activities. Request that they cook an occasional meal for the family. Don’t be shy about accepting help. People generally feel good when they can do something specific for a friend.
  • Take mini-vacations during the day.  Find a quiet spot and take a few minutes to breathe slowly and stretch – preferably outside, where you can get the added benefit of sunlight and fresh air. You can do this during waiting time at doctor appointments or kids’ activities, and at other times when your full attention is not required.
  • Take care of yourself physically – eat healthy food and exercise regularly. One of the reasons that caregivers are more prone to illness and early death is neglecting their own health. In order to have the stamina to care for your family, you need to keep yourself healthy and strong.
  • Take care of yourself emotionally. Keep in touch with friends by phone and in person. Back off from those who are “high maintenance.” If there is room in your budget to hire outside help, it will be money well spent – even if you can afford only half a day per week. Consider joining support groups (see Resources section.)

Resources:

Family Caregiver Alliance www.caregiver.org

US Govt Medicare Information www.medicare.gov

Directory of online support groups www.mentalhelp.net/selfhelp

Local caregiver support www.tinyurl.com/caregiversupport

Patriot-News “Our Parents Ourselves” columnist Linda Rhodes www.lindarhodes.com

Shyness: What it is and what you can do about it

Shyness: What It Is and What You Can Do About It

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Are you shy?  You have plenty of company.  It’s estimated that 48% of adults in the U.S. consider themselves shy – hard to believe for a country that is viewed as not only outspoken, but sometimes even rude and exhibitionistic.

It’s the extroverts who get most of the attention.  But not everyone wants to be on American Idol.  Not everyone loves a party.  While half of us are seeking our 15 minutes of fame, the rest are figuring out ways to avoid getting noticed.

If you’re one of those people who dreads meeting new people and making small talk, don’t blame yourself.  You haven’t done anything to “cause” your shyness. 

According to research begun in the 1970s by Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, about 15 – 20% of infants are born with a reactive temperament.  They startle more easily, and are more apt to show distress in unfamiliar situations.  In Dr. Kagan’s research, these same infants grew up to be quite shy.

While some people are born shy, others develop shyness at various points in their lives. Drs. Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues at Stanford University have studied shyness for several decades.  They found that when teachers or parents label a child as shy, the label tends to stick.  Thus, when you tell a child he is shy (or when he hears you tell others) he believes that he’s not capable of being outgoing – so why bother trying?

Shyness often develops during one’s teens.  Dating presents all sorts of risks, not the least of which is rejection.  Teens who have been rejected are reluctant to try again.  Moreover, they may take the rejection so personally that they truly believe themselves to be socially inadequate.

Even if you made it through your teens, you’re still not guaranteed a shyness-free life.  Major setbacks such as being fired, getting divorced and serious medical diagnoses can shake your confidence and make you question your self-worth.  After such a blow, it’s quite common to fear taking risks in relationships, even avoiding people altogether.

Besides temperament and life experiences, culture also affects shyness.  For example, Asian cultures tend to be more modest and shy than American and Israeli cultures.   

Regardless of how you became shy, its effects can be damaging, both psychologically and financially.

  • Shy children and adults are prime targets of bullies
  • Shy people, on average, get fewer job promotions
  • Shy people may not be recognized for their intelligence and talents, especially when they are asked to talk about them
  • Shy people may be rejected by others because they appear arrogant or snobbish.
  • Shy people are more likely to feel lonely
  • Shy people – especially adolescents and young adults – often abuse alcohol and drugs to boost their confidence in social situations

What is shyness, exactly?

Shyness is defined as anxiety in social situations.  It’s possible to be quite confident in most areas of your life, but when it comes to being around people, you feel very awkward and uncomfortable, looking for the first opportunity to escape.

Shyness has 3 components:

  1. Lack of social skills: not knowing what to say or how to act

If you’re shy, you probably avoid social situations whenever possible. Therefore you don’t get much practice in conversational skills.  Not surprisingly, when you must interact with people, you don’t know where to begin.  Fortunately, social skills can be learned.

  1. Anxiety: fear, physical symptoms such as sweating and racing heartbeat

Even if you know how to carry on a conversation, you might still feel anxious and uncomfortable in social situations. Most people would never guess that you’re anxious, because you hide it. Your anxiety stems not from lack of skills, but from being too worried about how you come across to people.  You are so self-conscious that you may not even remember what the other person just said.

  1. Negative self-talk: dwelling on what’s wrong with you

When anxious, you pay attention to what’s wrong.  In a social situation, your anxiety will draw your attention to your own flaws and shortcomings.  You will magnify them in your mind to the point that you believe everyone else is just as harsh a critic of yourself as you are. 

Is shyness a mental disorder?

Shyness is not a mental disorder, at least not for most people.  The degree of shyness varies along a continuum.  At one end are people who are mildly shy, but do not avoid social situations because of it.  We call these people “reserved.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are emotionally paralyzed by shyness, such that they develop psychiatric problems including social phobia and anxiety disorder.

What’s the difference between shyness and introversion?

Although shy people are mainly introverts, not all introverts are shy.  Introverts prefer solicitude, but they don’t necessarily have a problem interacting with others. 

Some shy people are extroverts. They do crave the company of other people, but don’t know quite how to go about it without feeling awkward and rejected. 

Tips for overcoming shyness

To become more comfortable around people, work on these three major components:

  1. Social Skills
  • Practice small talk in situations that are not too threatening.  Say hello to the cashier at the supermarket.  Pay a compliment to a coworker (e.g., “I that color on you.”)  Ask for directions to the nearest post office or other building.
  • Make eye contact when you talk to people.
  • Smile when someone approaches you.
  • Speak in a voice that you would use with your dog or your children – clear and confident.
  • Memorize a few social phrases and practice them out loud in the mirror.  You don’t need to prepare a speech, just a few comments and questions.  For example, “How do you happen to know the hostess of this party?” or “That was some storm last night, wasn’t it?”  Weather and current events are usually safe topics.
  • Prepare a few exit strategies for conversations.  Wait until the other person finishes a sentence and pauses. Depending on the situation, you might say, for example: “It’s been great talking with you.  Excuse me, I have to get rid of this napkin.” Or “Excuse me, I promised the baby sitter that I would be calling about now.”

 

  1. Anxiety
  • Practice the simple, anxiety-reducing skill of slow, deep breathing.  Practice it daily when you are NOT particularly anxious. Later, when you really need it, you’ll be able to do it automatically.
  • While you’re practicing the deep breathing, visualize yourself smiling at other people, listening to them and really being interested in what they have to say.  This mental association between social contact and relaxation counteracts your old tendency to link conversation with threat.
  • In social situations get your mind off yourself.  Remember, people are too busy thinking about themselves to be focused on you.  The less you think about how you appear to others, the less self-conscious and the less anxious you will feel.  If you’re not ready to talk to anyone, pay attention to the color of the room, the music, or the food.  And breathe . . .

 

  1. Self-talk
  • Ditch the “shy” label.  Don’t let it be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It’s OK to tell yourself that you’re uncomfortable, but also decide that you can handle a bit of discomfort.
  • Watch your internal language.  If you tend to think about how “awful” it’s going to be to talk to your boss, or about how much you “hate” parties, you are actually rehearsing fear.  Instead, tell yourself, “It’s not my favorite thing, but I’ve been through worse.”
  • Recognize the enormous value that you bring to the conversation as a good listener.  People welcome the opportunity to have someone listen to them and not interrupt.

 

 

 

 

 

Getting better at small talk: It's more than what you say

Getting Better At Small Talk – It’s More Than What You Say

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Some people seem to be natural conversationalists. They can make small talk with almost anyone, and look perfectly relaxed doing so. If that’s not you, you’re not alone. 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.

Learning a few conversational skills will help. (More about this later.) But the main obstacle is learning to manage your own anxiety, self-consciousness and self-talk.

Managing your anxiety in social situations

If you’ve had previous experiences of feeling tongue-tied or embarrassed in social gatherings, it’s normal to tense up when just thinking about an upcoming event. By the time you get there, you may be so anxious that you can’t think straight. That’s not a good state of mind for carrying on a conversation.

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. 

How to feel less self-conscious

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. When you are focused on yourself and your minor flaws, it’s easy to assume that other people are as well. Actually, many of those other people are overly focused on themselves, even though they don’t show it!

Easing your self-conscious 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.

How you talk to yourself makes a big difference

Your level of comfort 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 images and feelings of previous unpleasant experiences, you are essentially rehearsing having a bad time. When you actually get there, your rehearsed thoughts and feelings are set in motion automatically.

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 shows that how we feel at a future time is never as bad as we anticipate. (It’s never as good either, but that’s a topic for another column.)

After you arrive at the social gathering, notice how you talk to yourself about it. If you start thinking about how much you hate being there, look for something or someone else to focus on.

The key to feeling comfortable in conversation

Contemporary poet Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

You probably already know that from your own experience. Therefore, don’t sweat the details. Being charming or clever is not nearly as important as is helping others others feel valued. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Approach others rather than waiting to be approached. Start by greeting someone you know. If you don’t know anyone at the event, walk up to a person who is not otherwise engaged in conversation and introduce yourself. That other person may appreciate that you took the initiative.
  • Make eye contact while talking. This is easier if you stand at least 18 inches away (so that neither of you feels that your personal space is being invaded).
  • Give a simple compliment, such as “That color looks great on you,” or, “That’s an interesting point you just made. I never thought of it that way.”
  • Be a good listener. Listening with curiosity is one of the most underrated conversational skills. Showing interest in what other people are saying helps you as well as them. While you’re paying attention to someone else you feel less awkward yourself.

Prepare a few questions and statements

If you don’t have much experience talking with people you don’t know very well, prepare and rehearse a few questions and phrases. For example: “How do you know the hostess?” or “I can’t believe the year has gone by so fast!”

Talking about the weather is OK too. It’s something everyone can relate to, and is a safe, non-controversial topic to help people get comfortable with one another.

At some point you’ll want to leave a conversation. If you’re in a group you can slip away quietly. But if you’re with one or two people you’ll need to signal your departure. Wait for a break in the conversation. First say something complimentary like, “Nice talking with you.” Then give a brief reason for your departure. e.g., “I’m going to get a refill on my drink,” or “I need to check on the babysitter” or “Time for a visit to the restroom.” 

If you do all the above, will you learn to love parties? Perhaps not, especially if you’re an introvert or if you think of yourself as shy.

But you may find that socializing is less of a strain, leaving you with more positive energy to enjoy the holidays.

NOTE: If you feel extremely stressed around others to the point where you dread leaving home, you may need more in-depth help than the general tips above. You are advised to consult a psychologist or other mental health professional.

Further Reading

Fine, Debra (2005) The Fine Art of Small Talk: How To Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills — and Leave a Positive Impression! Hyperion Books

Garner, A. (1997) Conversationally Speaking: Tested New Ways to Increase Your Personal and Social Effectiveness, McGraw-Hill

Windingland, D. (2010) Small Talk, Big Results: Chit Chat Your Way to Success!  Small Talk Big Results Publisher

Sending your child off to camp: How to manage your worries

Sending Your Child Off to Camp – How to Manage Your Worries

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Sending kids off to summer camp is emotionally tough on parents, even if it’s not your first time. On the one hand you know that camp is a good experience for your child. On the other hand you worry. Will Johnny get homesick? Will Susie find friends? What if Billy gets lost? What if there’s an accident?

If your child has special needs, there’s another layer of worry for you. Will he take his medicine every day? What if she loses her glasses? Will the staff be around if he happens to have a seizure?

Of course, it’s normal to be concerned about your family’s physical and emotional well being. But excessive worrying is unproductive and stressful.

Not that you should ignore possible difficulties. However, dwelling on them only makes you feel more helpless. In addition your child may sense your anxiety and start worrying as well.

So how do I stop dwelling? you might be thinking.

Worrying stems from uncertainty. Thus, anything you do to reduce uncertainty will help decrease your anxiety. It’s a two-step process:

  1. Know the facts
  2. Have a plan

In other words, know as much as possible about what you’re dealing with, and decide specifically what you will do if it happens.

For example, consider the problem of homesickness. The fact is that it’s very common. You probably even experienced it yourself. In a recent study of 329 boys at summer camp (ages 8 to 17) psychologist Dr. Christopher Thurber found that 83 percent of the kids reported homesickness on at least one day of camp.

Knowing how common homesickness is can put your mind at ease. Camps have been dealing with it for generations. And despite periods of homesickness, kids often look forward to returning next year.

Nevertheless it’s still distressing to get a letter or phone call from your child begging to come home.

That’s where a plan comes in. Decide in advance what you will do. Since most homesickness subsides within a day or two, your initial plan may be simply to talk to the camp director and to encourage your child to stay at camp.

A small percentage of kids develop more serious symptoms such as incessant crying, and problems with eating and sleeping for several days in a row. If that should happen to your child, make a backup plan as to how you will handle it. 

What about unforeseen circumstances?

You can’t prepare for every possible situation at camp or otherwise. Despite taking precautions, accidents do happen; some kids get seriously ill; and weather-related disasters are possible.

But knowing the facts can help put your worries in perspective. Just because something is possible, doesn’t mean that it’s probable.

For example, last summer two boys were attacked by a bear while in a state forest camp site. (Thanks to the quick actions of the camp counselor the boys were not seriously injured.) Is this likely to happen again? According to experts, no. Overall the number of bear sightings has actually decreased, with no other attacks.

There’s no guarantee that this won’t happen again. But given that it was an isolated incident, it’s not worth actively worrying about nor preparing for. You may not want your child sleeping in a tent in the woods, but an afternoon hike close to camp headquarters most likely won’t attract bears.

Worrying can distort reality. The more you fret about low-probability disasters, the more real they seem, and the more anxious you become. Therefore, make sure you get the facts about whatever you are worried about. Instead of anticipating the least probable, make plans for the most probable. 

Helping your child through pre-camp anxiety

Especially if this is your child’s first time at camp, he or she may have some specific concerns. Here are some tips on how to address these concerns.

What NOT to do:

  • Don’t ask your child directly, “Are you worried about being homesick?” “Are you worried about kids making fun of you?” “Are you afraid to sleep without a night light?” etc. Perhaps your child wasn’t thinking about these things until you brought them up.
  • Similarly, avoid spontaneously reassuring your child, “Don’t worry about camp. Everything will be fine.” If your child wasn’t worried in the first place, your words will not be at all reassuring. They’ll have the opposite effect of communicating that there’s something to worry about.
  • Unless your child asks, don’t raise issues of safety precautions for unlikely events. e.g., “Now I want you to wear this whistle at all times in case you see a bear coming at you.” Instead of feeling more secure, you child will imagine being attacked by a bear, and become more afraid.

What you can do

  • The same anxiety-reducing principles of knowing the facts and having a plan apply to kids as well. If your child has never attended this camp, get photos, visit the website and share what you know about the area and the people there. Encourage her to visualize herself in that environment, having fun and learning new things.
  • Address worries as your child mentions them. Try to help him come up with a simple plan. For example, if he says, “What if I miss you?” help him figure out a couple things that he can do if that happens. It’s better if the idea comes from your child, so resist the urge to hand him the solution right away.
  • Give your child some opportunities for behavioral rehearsals. For example, if she has never spent a night away from you, arrange for some sleepovers with friends. The first couple of times you might call or text one another. But work toward being away from each other without contact, because that’s how it’s going to be at camp.

Plan for YOUR first few days without your child

The house is going to feel very empty when your child leaves. Knowing this in advance and making plans will help you weather your own child-away-from-home sickness.

 

Day care doesn't damage kids

Day Care Doesn’t Damage Kids

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Today more than 70% of mothers work outside the home.  If you’re one of them, and if your children are in day care, you need not feel guilty.

Despite the common belief that the best option for a mother is to stay home with her children, and that day care is to be avoided, research shows otherwise.  The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NCHID has been following the development of over 1300 children from diverse backgrounds since 1991. The kids are now in elementary school.

The latest findings of this and other studies show that children who attend good quality day care, where the caregivers are sensitive, supportive and available, are no worse off than those who stay at home with their mothers. In fact, many of them enter kindergarten with an edge in intellectual development and better social skills than their stay-at-home counterparts.

Research also shows that certain parental characteristics (education, income, emotional adjustment) and home environment have a far greater influence on children’s development, than whether or not they attend day care.

But you might argue, “Little Johnny down the street stayed with babysitters since he was three weeks old.  Now he’s a troublemaker.”  Johnny may well be a troublemaker, but there are lots of possible reasons for that.  You cannot assume that day care caused his misbehavior.

Nor can you assume that every stay-at-home mom is great at her job.  Some mothers who deal with their own problems of depression, anxiety or situational stress, are often unable to be as supportive and consistent in their parenting as they would like to be.

Kids don’t need constant parental attention

Kids don’t need parents’ undivided attention all day.  In fact, up until the 1950s, kids were generally left on their own to play outside and to keep themselves busy.  Even though most mothers were at home, they were busy scrubbing, cleaning, shopping for food (for there was little refrigeration), sewing, washing clothes by hand and doing other labor jobs around the house. They didn’t have much time to spend on craft projects or play dates with their children.

Yet these kids turned out OK.  They are now the senior members of our society, and have, for the most part, lived hard-working productive lives.  As a group they have suffered less depression than people born after 1950.

How to work through your guilt

Decades of research around the world shows that good day care is not inherently damaging to kids.  In fact, it can provide intellectual and social benefits.

Putting your children in day care is not equivalent to having them “raised by strangers.” Parent bonds are not broken by outside caregivers. 

If you still feel guilty about not being in your children’s presence 24/7, here are some tips to help you cope:

  • Use the best day care you can. (See side bar for criteria.) Be upbeat and cheerful when you drop of the kids and pick them up.
  • Relax your standards on household chores.  Decide what must absolutely be done.  A clean kitchen is important for health reasons. But do you really need to iron or dust every day? Is it absolutely necessary to keep all the Legos, markers and crayons organized? Use that time to make popcorn or to read with your kids.
  • When doing chores engage the help of your children, even if they’re very young.  A two-year-old can put toys away.  A four-year-old can set the table.  A six-year-old can fold laundry.  You could probably do these tasks more quickly yourself, but involving the children in household maintenance strengthens their identity as family members . . . and eventually will mean less work for you.
  • Sit down to eat together every day, for at least one meal.  If sports practice does not allow for family dinner, then make it breakfast.  The important thing is not what you eat (no need to do any elaborate cooking) but the fact that you are together as a family. Keep conversation pleasant during the meal.
  • Designate one evening per week as family night. Watch a movie together (no multitasking!), play board games or go out to eat.
  • Carve out some time for yourself.  If there is someone to watch the kids for 20 minutes, do some relaxing activity.  Take a bath, go for a walk, read a magazine, etc.  If you are alone with your children in the evenings, get them into a bedtime routine so that you can enjoy some time to yourself to unwind from your long day.
  • Take care of yourself emotionally. As much as possible, minimize sources of stress in your life. The better you feel about yourself, the better parent you’ll be.

 

What to look for in a good day care program

The National Childcare Information Center website has dozens of links to many different resources on how to choose good quality, affordable day care: http://nccic.acf.hhs.gov/poptopics/choosecare.html

Here is a partial summary of what to look for:

  • Child-to-staff ratio: There should be at least one adult for every three to four infants, one for each four to six toddlers under age 3, one for every nine to ten preschoolers underage 6, or one for each twelve school-aged children.  Ask how long staff members have worked there.
  • Caregivers’ behavior: They should spend most of their time interacting with the children. They should be responsive to kids who need help or attention. Observe whether they seem to enjoy their job, or whether they seem bored or distracted. Notice how they handle spats and fights between children.
  • Children’s behavior: The children in the program should look happy, busy and interested in what they are doing.
  • Staff training: All should be certified in both childcare and first aid.
  • Safety and health: Check play areas for safety features and cleanliness. Observe whether children are adequately supervised. Look for smoke alarms in the building. Ask if surfaces and toys are cleaned daily with disinfectant. Ask about hand-washing policies for staff and children. Ask whether all children admitted to the program must be vaccinated, and how the program deals with children’s illness.
  • Parent access: Ask if parents are welcome to visit at any time.  Ask for a written copy of the day care provider’s policies.
  • Parent recommendations: Ask the daycare program for references.  Or visit when other parents are picking up or dropping off their children. Observe how the children are greeted and sent off. Talk to the parents about their experience with the program.
The truth about video games

The Truth About Video Games

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

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

Video games can be helpful or detrimental, depending on several factors – including how much your children play, what types of games they play, and how they behave as a result.

One thing is for sure: No electronic game can turn your child into a serial killer.  Although political groups and news media often point to convicted murderers who previously played violent video games, there is no evidence that the games were the determining factor.

With video games in over two thirds of American households, and many of those games rated “M” for violence, sex and strong language, you might expect a spike in violent crime. However, according to government statistics, the rate of violent crime has been steadily decreasing for the past two decades.

Does this mean that video games (including violent ones) are harmless? Not necessarily.

  • Violent video games don’t make children violent, but dozens of studies have shown that they increase hostility and aggressiveness. These kids (girls as well as boys) tend to get into fights and bully others.
  • Many video games contain gender and racial stereotypes. The female characters are of unrealistic proportions and provocatively dressed; the bad guys are typically depicted as middle-eastern or dark-skinned. Such stereotypes tend to stick in children’s minds, and to spill over into negative attitudes about certain groups of people in the community.

Even when kids play non-violent video games, there are still potential downsides:

  • Games can be so engrossing (some people might call them addicting) that it’s hard to pull kids away from them. If video games occupy too much of a child’s time, they cut into studying, family life and other activities. Psychology professor Doug Gentile at Iowa State University found that the more time children played video games, the worse their school performance.
  • Video game play contributes to childhood obesity, mainly because of the long periods of sitting and the tendency to eat junk food and drink soda while playing. This is less of a problem with some of the physically interactive games, such as Wii. Nevertheless, no video game can substitute for running around outdoors.
  • Children who spend hours at the game console in the basement or in their bedroom are isolated from family interaction. As a result, they could end up being ignored and miss out on opportunities for positive communication with parents and siblings.

Video games aren’t all bad. They can have positive influences as well:

  • A sense of mastery: Many kids enjoy the challenge of getting to the next level of a solo game, or the competition of a multiplayer game. Meanwhile they are learning strategy and problem solving. With physically interactive games, such as Wii, children can master physical skills and coordination as well.
  • Alertness, quick reaction time and eye-hand coordination:  Action-type video games give youngsters a fun environment in which to learn useful skills that can later be applied to other areas of life. For example, studies have demonstrated that experience with video games can help military pilots and high-tech surgeons do a better job in their work. At the very least, alertness and quick reaction time can help prevent accidents.
  • Cooperation and collaboration: Multiplayer games that involve teaming up with others, helps kids learn to negotiate rules and boundaries. As they become more experienced, they can take on leadership roles in mentoring newer players.
  • Experience different roles and identities: Fantasy games allow kids to take on roles of hero, warrior, and villain, as well as experiment with special powers and abilities. In so doing, they express their creativity, as well as appreciate different perspectives on situations. Don’t worry if your child assumes the role of a villain – it doesn’t mean that he is evil. More likely, he’s just trying to understand what evil power is about.

Tips for Parents

Limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends up to one hour a day total screen time (including games, TV, and computer) for young children, and up to two hours a day for older children. If you want to avoid power struggles over when it’s time to stop, many game systems can now be set to automatically limit play time.

Choose games where the characters help each other more than hurt each other. Studies show that these kinds of games promote similar behavior in real life, and offset the negative effects of games with violent content.

Keep the videogame in a common area of the home, such as the living room, rather than in a bedroom or basement.  You have a better chance of monitoring the content and enforcing limits on play time. Also, your child is a more visible part of the family.

Know what game you’re buying. Read reviews online (see below) and check the game rating on the package. If you have trouble deciding, rent the game before purchasing it.

Know your child. If your child is emotionally troubled, or is very aggressive or very timid to begin with, do not allow videogames with violent content. Speak to the parents of your child’s friends and ask them to cooperate with your no-violent-games rule when he is in their home.

Play the game with your child. This lets her know that you’re interested in what she’s interested in. Don’t know how to play? Learn from your child. Drs. Larry Kutner and Cheryl Olson, authors of Grand Theft Childhood, note that kids enjoy the role reversal of teaching their parents something. 

Resources:

Video Game reviews:

What They Play: The Family Guide to Video Games www.whattheyplay.com

Game Spot – www.gamespot.com

Video Game ratings: Entertainment Software Rating Board www.esrb.org/ratings

Other useful websites:

www.GrandTheftChildhood.com – A must-read for parents of children who play videogames

www.DrDouglas.org – Website of Dr. Doug Gentile – comprehensive summaries of research on how video games affect children.

 

 

When grandparents are too "helpful"

When Grandparents Are Too “Helpful”

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Grandparents who want to be actively involved in your kids’ lives can be a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, given today’s busy schedules, it’s nice to have the help and support. On the other hand, it’s sometimes hard to know where to draw the line between help and interference. To complicate things, your own definition of help vs interference can shift, depending on how you feel at the moment.

For example, here’s a typical scenario (names and specific circumstances are fictitious, based on a composite of different cases):

After Emma returns home from the hospital with her new baby she is grateful that her mother-in-law, Lorraine, has offered to come over every day for a few hours to help out. At first, it’s a relief to have someone take care of the laundry and pets while Emma and the baby get to know each other. She also appreciates some of Lorraine’s helpful advice, such as, “It’s a good idea to have a towel close by when feeding the baby, just in case he spits up.”

But after a while Emma starts to feel smothered. Every time the baby cries, Lorraine rushes over to assess the situation and offers her opinion on what Emma should do. Lorraine also cooks hearty meals for the family. It’s not that Emma doesn’t enjoy the food, but she’s trying to lose weight after the baby and finds it hard to resist the creamy sauces and desserts.

There’s more, but you get the picture. At first Emma was grateful for the help. However, as her strength and confidence increased, she began to resent the help. Now it feels like interference. Her mother-in-law, who seemed so helpful a few weeks previous, has turned into a control freak.

Not that Lorraine is doing anything different. What has actually changed is how Emma perceives her mother-in-law’s “help.”

You may have had similar experiences where your positive feelings morph into resentment, which can affect your perceptions and other relationships.

Let’s say, for example, that your parents visit frequently and always bring little toys for your children. It’s not long before you start wondering whether your parents are competing for your kids’ affection. You find yourself resenting not only your parents, but also your children for their delight in the little toys.

Or, suppose that your mother-in-law’s constant advice is getting on your nerves. When you complain to your husband about her, he dismisses your feelings: “There’s no reason to be upset. She means well,” Now you feel unsupported, and angry with him as well as his mother.

When these types of issues are not addressed they can fester for years and cause major rifts within families. The best time to deal with them is early on, but if you haven’t done so, it’s never too late.

So what can I do if the grandparents are driving me crazy?

First, examine your own assumptions. When your kids’ grandparents offer advice or step in without consulting you, do you assume that they think you’re incompetent, or that you lack judgment? You’ll need more evidence than your feelings, because feelings are not reliable indicators of another person’s motivations. Just because you feel controlled, doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is trying to take over your life.

Consider other possible reasons for their eagerness to help. Some grandparents have a strong desire to feel appreciated or needed in the lives of their children and grandchildren. Others have personality quirks, such as a strong urge to tidy up whenever anything is out of place. And some grandparents may simply assume that you expect their help, because you’ve never said otherwise.

Accept the help, but on your terms. Make specific requests for what you would like the grandparents to do, rather than telling them what not to do. For example, Emma in the scenario described above, might say to her mother-in-law, “Lorraine, I love your vegetable soup. Would you have time to make some this week?” This is a lot more effective, than saying, “Lorraine, you know I’m trying to lose weight. I wish you wouldn’t make so much lasagna.”

Confront with diplomacy. If the grandparents’ over-zealous helpfulness has been going on for a while, and you want them to back off, you’re going to need to confront them – in a diplomatic way of course. This doesn’t guarantee that their feelings won’t be hurt, but it will help minimize long-term misunderstandings.

Begin by expressing appreciation for all they’ve done. Then explain that it’s about your need to feel in charge rather than something they’ve done wrong.

Never confront the grandparents in front of the children.

Involve your kids’ dad – especially if the overly helpful grandparent is his mother or father. Discuss with him about how you feel, and ask for his support even if he does not feel the same way. Then work out a plan for talking to his parent, preferably together.

Be clear about your expectations and limits. It’s OK to say something like, “I understand that you think the kids should be allowed to stay up later when you babysit, but it throws off their sleep schedule for the rest of the week. So please make sure they’re in bed by 8 pm.” If the grandparents violate this rule, be prepared to find another babysitter. 

“I’ve tried all the above, and it didn’t work.”

If adjusting your perceptions and confronting the situation does not change things, there may be some deeper psychological issues within you or other family members. A mental health professional can help you sort that out.

 

Babies are already smart. But can you make them smarter?

Babies are already smart. But can you make them smarter?

By: Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

There’s no doubt that babies are smart – just ask any grandparent!

Infants are born with a tremendous capacity to learn. Look at what they master in the first year: sitting up, crawling and grasping moving objects; plus the beginnings of mental skills such as reasoning, language comprehension and more.

Modern research shows that infants are more than simply passive observers of their surroundings. They are very active learners, processing information at a much earlier age, and in a much more complex way than was previously thought.

For example:

  • Babies only a few days old can imitate certain facial expressions – for example, sticking out their tongue in response to an adult doing the same.
  • At one month they can recognize their mother’s voice and different speech sounds. And they have a distinct preference to imitate speech sounds rather than other sounds such as dogs barking, machinery, etc.
  • At two months they can differentiate between shapes of objects as well as colors.
  • By four months they can recognize categories, well before they acquire language to describe the categories.
  • Very early on, babies show preferences for certain tastes and smells. They also show preference for others who are similar to them in terms of likes and dislikes. One study even found that babies prefer other babies of the same gender – even when they were dressed in gender-neutral clothing.
  • Babies as young as six to ten months may have a sense of fairness and justice. When given a choice to play with character dolls that in a previous game had been helpful to others, vs dolls that had been mean, the babies picked the helpful dolls.
  • By 10 months they have a sense of numbers, quantities and ratios. They know the difference between two objects and four objects. They also know when two groups of objects are of different proportions.

For a more complete list of developmental milestones, see the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and the March of Dimes. The URLs are listed in the sidebar. [?]

Brain development – maturation plus learning

Your baby is born with most of the brain “wiring” (brain cells) that it will need over the course of its lifetime. But not all the wiring is hooked up – connections between brain cells grow gradually through maturation and through learning.

Some situations, such as disease, poor nutrition, traumatic, stressful or barren conditions, can interfere with normal brain development – especially emotional development. Studies show that kids who were deprived or exposed to abuse in infancy can often catch up with their peers intellectually. But emotional damage is much more difficult to overcome.

Can brain development be boosted with educational videos?

If early deprivation undermines brain development, it may seem logical to assume that very early education might enhance babies’ brains. A lot of parents make this assumption, as evidenced by the enormous popularity of “educational” videos aimed at infants under one year old.

However, while educational TV and videos can be beneficial for kids over 3 years of age, there is no evidence that they boost infants’ learning.

In fact they can be a detriment. A 2007 study reported in the Journal of Pediatrics found that infants who watched Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos, knew fewer vocabulary words than those who didn’t watch such videos. The more time they spent watching the videos, the poorer their vocabularies!

After public media coverage questioning the value of these products, as well as a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission accusing Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby of making false claims of improving babies’ language and math skills, both companies modified the language on their websites.

They stop just short of claiming that their products are linked with later academic achievement. They do post testimonials from satisfied parents. But don’t confuse testimonials with scientific evidence. There is no scientific evidence that so-called educational videos or video games in the first year of life will advance kid’s brain development or improve their grades in school.

For the past 10 years The American Academy of Pediatrics has even suggested that kids under two years of age not be exposed to TV. 

What DOES enhance babies’ learning?

The most important factor in infants’ learning (besides brain maturation) is interaction – with people and with objects. Babies learn by doing and interacting much more than by watching or listening.

Studies comparing live instructions vs the same instructions delivered by the same adult on a TV screen show that babies learn much better from a live person.

Want to teach your baby Spanish? You’ll get better results by speaking Spanish with him than by popping in a video of people speaking Spanish.

Similarly, he will get much more out of being read to while sitting on your lap, than from a recording of the same book. 

Tips to help your baby make those important brain-wiring connections:

Speak to your baby a lot. Exposure to language and sounds is very important for brain development.

Don’t use the TV for background noise. It can be distracting and also interfere with language acquisition. If you like, you can have background music to set a mood. But keep in mind that there is no scientific evidence that listening to Mozart enhances kids’ abilities.

Play with your child. Twenty minutes of playing with a ball or wooden blocks is far more beneficial than a videogame in teaching your baby about eye-hand coordination.

Engage all your baby’s senses – vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch. These are all important for learning about the world.

Encourage creative exploration, within a limited, safe environment, of course. Don’t feel that you need to provide stimulation every moment that your baby is awake.

Nurture emotional development. In the first year it’s much more important for a baby feel secure and loved than to learn math.

In other words, relax! Enjoy your baby and spend lots of time together, talking, singing and playing. You will both benefit.

For further reading:

Websites:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention www.tinyurl.com/cdcmilestones

March of Dimes: www.tinyurl.com/modmilestones

Medline Plus www.tinyurl.com/medlineplus-infants A collection of trusted links to fact sheets, tips, medical questions and the latest news and research on babies.

American Academy of Pediatrics www.aap.org/parents.html – Many resources for parents and kids in the “Parenting Corner” of this website

Zero to Three: www.zerotothree.org  Information on a baby’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. 

Books:

Eliot, Lise (2000) What’s Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, Bantam Books.

Guernsey, Lisa (2007) Into the Minds of Babies: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age Five, Basic Books.

Health and wellbeing
Why dieting makes you crabby (and what to do about it)

WHY DIETING MAKES YOU CRABBY (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT)

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

You know that feeling of irritability during the first few days of a new diet or eating program?  Nutrition experts explain it in terms of body chemistry such as low blood sugar, dehydration, or other physical state.

While these conditions have been proven to affect mood, they don’t tell the whole story.  Consider the fact that you are not always crabby when hungry or thirsty, even though your body may be in a state of nutritional imbalance.

Dieting-related crabbiness stems not just from your body’s physical state. It also comes from mental fatigue.  As you know, it takes concentrated effort to change your eating habits, especially at the beginning.  That effort uses up mental strength, which gets depleted.

According to psychological research by Dr. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues, mental strength is similar to physical strength.  There’s a limit to how much you have available on any given day.

Suppose, for example, you’ve just spent the afternoon at the gym in an intense workout, lifting weights.  Later you may not have the strength to help your spouse move the sofa.

Self-control is the mental equivalent of heavy lifting.  After several hours of resisting food cravings and urgings, you don’t have much strength left for controlling your behavior in other situations.  Thus, you’re more likely to snap back at someone, lose your patience easily, or overreact to minor frustrations.

A day in the life of a dieter?

You start off the day feeling optimistic, determined to stay on your diet.  Instead of having your typical donut or sweet roll for breakfast, you go for the oatmeal.  It’s a little extra work, but you’re up for it.

Midmorning, you walk into the break room at work, where you see the glistening brownies that someone brought in.  My, they look good.  Your “inner brat” at the back of your mind screams that it wants one, and it wants it now.  But it’s still early in the day.  You feel strong.  Your inner brat is not going to get the better of you.  You grab a cup of black coffee and escape from the break room unscathed.

As the day progresses, you successfully face one food challenge after another.  But it’s draining the reserves on your mental strength to deal with other problems.  You find it harder to keep the lid on your frustration or control your temper. Your coworkers might be whispering about how “testy” you’ve been lately.

By evening your mental strength is all but depleted.  Your family gets the brunt of your bad mood.  And to heck with that stupid diet.  Gimme the chips.

Does the above sound familiar to you?  Changing your eating habits is hard work.  You have to pay attention constantly.  You have to make dozens of decisions about what to eat and what not to eat.  You have to monitor your behavior and resist temptations.  At the beginning of a diet, this consumes a huge chunk of your mental strength. 

Meanwhile, you still need to deal with the frustrations of daily life.  Situations that you’d normally take in stride set you off.  You’re tired, irritable, and end up saying or doing things that you later regret.

Is it any wonder that most diets fail? Controlling urges and cravings is heavy lifting.  At some point you run out of strength to control not your eating, but also other destructive behaviors. 

Is there any hope?

Absolutely. With rest, your mental strength will return – just like it does with muscle training.  Also, the more you practice, the easier it will become.  After a while self-control won’t take so much effort, and you’ll have plenty of energy to take on other challenges.

The hardest time is at the beginning of a new eating program, or during periods of stress. That’s when it’s most important to conserve as much mental strength as you can. Here are some tips:

  • Be selective in taking on stressful responsibilities.  Unnecessary stress drains your mental strength reserves.
  • Stick to a routine as much as possible.  This reduces the number of decisions you have to make, and thereby saves mental energy.
  • Set up your environment so that you avoid temptation. The less you come in contact with reminders of your old eating habits, the less you will need to draw on your stored mental strength.  In these kinds of situations, the old saying, “out of sight, out of mind” is truly applicable.  Therefore :
    • Don’t keep junk food at home or in your desk at work.
    • When food-related TV commercials come on, change the channel.
    • At the grocery store avoid the aisles that hold snack foods. 
  • Watch out for negative self-talk.  If you find yourself thinking “This is awful” or “I can’t stand this” you will only magnify your bad mood and make you feel more stressed.  Instead say to yourself, “OK, so I’m not at my best.  Just wait it out for a little while longer.”
  • Take responsibility for your mood.  If you do get irritable, avoid picking arguments.  If necessary, involve yourself in a solitary physical task, away from other people.  Your bad mood will pass, and you’ll emerge on the other side with renewed strength for tomorrow.
Exercise tones your mind, as well as your body

Feeling mentally sluggish and unmotivated? Get up and move.

That’s probably what your mother used to tell you.  And scientists are gradually proving that she was right. Recent studies have shown that exercise benefits your mind as well as your body.

We’re not just talking about the “runner’s high.” The mental perks of exercise extend well beyond the period of activity. Compared with couch potatoes, people who exercise on a regular basis report more positive moods. They also do better on tests of memory and concentration.

You might be thinking: That’s no surprise. People who exercise are more upbeat and energetic to begin with. Of course they’re going to be happier, with or without exercise. To some extent that’s true. If you’re depressed or anxious, it’s hard to get motivated to do anything, let alone work out.

But the good news is that if you’re depressed and you force yourself to exercise for a few weeks, you could end up feeling better. In a randomized controlled study, Duke University psychologist Dr. James Blumenthal found that 16 weeks of exercise (30 minutes per day) helped alleviate the symptoms of major depression just as well as antidepressant medication. That’s impressive enough. But even more notable was that after 10 months, 38% of those taking the medicine had relapsed into depression, while only 8% of those on an exercise regiment relapsed.

This was a small study – only 202 people. However, other research has shown similar results. In some cases exercise helped when medication did not. It also seems to have the greatest benefit for people who start out with the most serious symptoms of depression, anxiety, or anger.

Physical exercise boosts mental skills

Moving your body helps focus your mind. Dr. Catherine Davis of the Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine, found that kids who participated in just 20-40 minutes of vigorous activities per day, improved their math scores and were more organized in their schoolwork. Brain scans of these children showed increased activity in the frontal lobe, which is associated with “executive functions” such as planning and strategizing.

Adults’ minds benefit from exercise as well. Studies of healthy adults suggest that three or four aerobic workouts per week are enough to increase mental sharpness. For those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, exercise may slow the progression of the disease.

 

How exercise helps the mind

No one knows exactly how physical exercise helps improve thinking and moods, but there is some evidence that it stimulates the growth of new brain cells and new connections among cells. These new connections boost the brain’s blood supply and activity, which in turn improves learning, problem solving and coping stressful situations.

Regular exercise has psychological benefits as well. Once you become more active, you have a sense of accomplishment. You start feeling more in control of your life, with increased self-confidence and overall well-being.

 

What’s the best exercise for mind and mood?

In short, the best exercise is one that you’ll do on a consistent basis. Find activities that you enjoy. Walking, running, biking, hiking, dancing, kickboxing, weight training, sports…There’s something for everyone at all ages and at all levels of health and fitness. 

You don’t even have to be physically fit in order to reap the mental and emotional benefits of exercise. Some studies show a correlation between intensity of workouts and level of improvement, while others do not. However, frequency and duration are important. People who exercise 30 minutes, six days per week, get better results than those who do so only two or three days per week. 

For an extra boost, exercise outdoors. Areas with trees or water have a calming effect.

 

How to stay motivated…

  • For the first three weeks schedule your exercise for the same time every day, so that it becomes part of your routine.
  • Keep an exercise journal. You can search for one online or create your own. Besides documenting the duration and intensity of your workout, include space for rating how you feel before and after, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 designating “great.”  Tracking your progress and seeing improvement will remind you why it pays to sweat.
  • Switch activities from day to day. This keeps your brain alert and helps prevent boredom and muscle overuse.
  • Sign up for a class or exercise with a friend. Committing yourself to other people helps keep you accountable.
  • Hire a certified personal trainer – especially useful if you are new to exercise; if you want more challenge in your workouts; or if you can’t stick to an exercise routine on your own.

 

Will exercise replace other treatments for emotional and cognitive problems?

While exercise does contribute to emotional well-being and mental acuity, it’s just one of many factors. Diet, sleep schedules, genes, medical conditions, situational issues and your psychological resilience are also important.

Nonetheless, there’s not much argument against exercise. It’s convenient; it costs little or nothing; and if done correctly for your level of fitness, there are virtually no negative side effects. You hardly ever hear anyone say, “I’m sorry I went for that walk.”

What are you waiting for? Check with your health professional to learn about your physical capabilities and limitations, and start moving today!

 

Resources:

Books:

Johnsgard, Keith (2004) Conquering Depression and Anxiety Through Exercise. Prometheus Books

Hays, Kate (2002) Move Your Body, Tone Your Mood: The Workout Therapy Workbook. New Harbinger Publications

Ratey, John (2008) Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown & Company

 

Websites:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity for Everyone – Tips on measuring your need for activity and the intensity of your workouts, as well as overcoming obstacles to exercise. 

National Center on Physical Activity and Disability – Focus on helping people with disabilities maintain physical fitness.

 

Taking Care of Yourself for the Benefit of Others

Taking Care of Yourself for the Benefit of Others

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. 

At various times in my life I have felt like the plate spinner in the circus – you know, that guy who runs back and forth, keeping several plates spinning atop long poles. The plate spinner must remain constantly vigilant. Every couple of seconds at least one of the plates starts to wobble; if he doesn’t tend to it instantly, it will crash and break.

And that’s how it is for many women these days. We’re constantly alert for what needs to be done next, and how to do it without neglecting something equally important. With family, work and community responsibilities tugging at us from all directions, there always seems to be at least one “wobbly plate” that needs our immediate attention.

But unlike the circus plate spinner, we don’t do it for just10 minutes. It’s more like days or weeks that we can’t seem to find time to rest.

Continuous vigilance is stressful. Our bodies can tolerate short periods of stress, even if they are intense. But prolonged stress, regardless of intensity, takes its toll. Stress robs you of sleep and disrupts healthy eating, which can lead to weight gain. You are also at greater risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcers and diabetes.

You might be thinking right now, “I don’t have a choice. There’s no one else to do all these things. My kids need to get to their lessons and activities. My job requires a lot from me, but in this economy, there’s not much prospect of finding another one. And who’s going to see to it that my aging parents get what they need, not to mention all the other mini-crises that pop up every day?”

Yes, you have a lot of responsibilities. But running yourself ragged does no one any good. When you try to take care of everything and everyone, you end up feeling anxious, unfocused and irritable. You’re also more likely to make errors and to have accidents. In other words, if you don’t also take care of yourself, you’ll be in no shape to take care of your loved ones.

 

How to take care of yourself for the benefit of others

A. First – reduce your responsibilities

  • Cross it off your list. Eliminate three tasks from this week’s list of obligations – an errand, a cleaning chore, or other household job. If all of them seem equally important, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that will happen if ___ doesn’t get done this week?” Even grocery shopping may not be as essential as you think, if you are willing to make do with what you already have in your cupboards.
  • Just say no to non-essential requests. If you’re the kind of person who can be counted on to help out, you probably get lots of requests. It’s very tempting to say yes, especially if it’s a small favor and the other person can’t find anyone else to do it. But keep in mind that for you, it’s not just the time it takes to do the favor; it’s also another responsibility to keep track of – which adds to your stress.
  • Ask for help. Asking for occasional favors improves relationships by equalizing the give-and-take. Arrange carpools with other parents so that you don’t have to drive your kids both ways to every activity. Get your husband and kids involved in household chores. You may need to relax your standards, but letting go of perfectionism can be a pleasant relief.

B. Next – Carve out time for yourself

  • Schedule it. Instead of running from one thing to the next, take10-minute breaks in between. Put these on your written schedule, just as you would an appointment. These breaks are appointments with yourself. 
  • What can you do in 10 minutes?
    • Walk half a mile
    • Walk up and down 12 flights of stairs (taking time for breaks)
    • Read a magazine article
    • Watch 2 funny youtube videos
    • Listen to 3 songs on your personal music player (and dance!)
    • Play with your child
    • Play with your pet
    • Call or text a friend
    • Close your eyes and relax or meditate
  • Make time for your significant other. You need not go out on a date. Half an hour at home, or going for a walk or bike ride is fine. But do schedule it. If you wait for “leftover time” it will never happen.
  • Stay in touch with friends. Studies show that for women, friendships can be stress-busters. Schedule lunch, or at least talk on the phone.
  • Make time for exercise. If you can’t get to a gym, work short periods of exercise into your day, as suggested above.
  • Treat yourself to one self-indulgence per week – manicure, massage, favorite hobby…You decide. Schedule two hours. Where to find two hours? See section A above.

C. Finally – Keep it all in perspective

  • You can’t do it all. Select what is most important and delegate or forget about the rest.  Think of all the “plates” you have spinning. Taking down the non-essential plates will allow you to focus your energy on those that benefit most from your attention.
  • It’s not a competition. Do what you can, and don’t compare yourself to others.
  • Find joy in the moment. Even stressful situations have moments of humor, irony and beauty. Focus on these, and you won’t feel as stressed!
The mental side of physical performance - Not just for athletes

The Mental Side Of Physical Performance – Not Just For Athletes

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

When it comes to professional athletic competition, mental skill is just as important as physical ability. Listen to any post-game interview, and you’ll hear winners and losers talk about focus and attitude.

For example, after defeating Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open last January, tennis player Victoria Azarenka admitted, “I was super nervous.”  She then put herself into a different mindset. “I just got back in the moment,” she said, and won the match.

When Tiger Woods lost the Masters tournament in April, he told the interviewer afterwards: “I didn’t hit the ball very good this week, and what’s frustrating is I know what to do, and I just don’t do it. I get out there and I just don’t trust it at all.” 

So what do these remarks by top athletes have to do with the rest of us, who just hope to get a little more exercise in our lives? Why do we need to work on the mental aspects if all we want is to burn a few calories?

Think about hobbies and other pursuits that you are naturally inclined and motivated to do. No one has to push you to do them. You welcome challenges and enjoy seeing improvement.

The same is true for physical exercise. The better you get, the more fun it is to continue. And continuing exercise is what you intend to do, right? 

The benefits of improving your performance

When learning the basic skills of golf, tennis, running or other physical activity, most people experience initial rapid improvement. After that, progress slows down – which is when you’re most likely to lose your enthusiasm and to give up in boredom or frustration.

That’s where mental training comes in. By engaging with your mind, you can make the activity more interesting and more satisfying. And you’ll feel more naturally motivated to stay with it.

A bonus to all this is that when you see progress in one area of your life, your self-confidence increases for other activities. Thus, getting better at tennis or managing to run that extra mile improves your attitude at work, at home, and in your relationships.

Mental skills that improve physical performance

Self-talk – How you talk to yourself about the activity is central. The more you think about difficult or inconvenient it is, and the more you complain about it to yourself or to others, the more resistant you will feel.

Therefore, think about the activity in positive terms, even when it seems unpleasant. For example, if it starts raining hard while you’re running, think of how well you are meeting the challenge.

Self-talk can also predict your success or failure. Thinking “uh-oh” as you’re hitting a golf ball over a stream is almost guaranteed to land the ball in the water.

Focus – Block out distractions. More golf swings and tennis strokes have been ruined by intruding thoughts than by lack of skill. Professional athletes often talk about how dwelling on their last mistake or worrying about the next one throws off their concentration, costing them the point.

You can’t prevent thoughts from entering your mind. But you can control how much they affect you. Focus on the now, not one the past or the future. Self-defeating thoughts will fade into the background, barely noticeable.

Visualization – Related to how you talk to yourself, visualization is how you picture yourself in the activity. Research shows that visualization can be very powerful in improving performance. In a classic study by Australian psychologist Dr. Alan Richardson, basketball players who only visualized making free throws improved their skill almost as much as another group who actually practiced free throws for 20 minutes per day.

There’s even some evidence that visualization may improve muscle strength. In a study at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Vinoth K. Ranganathan and his colleagues told one group of subjects to imagine flexing the muscle in their small finger. They told a second group of subjects to imagine flexing their biceps muscle. Both these groups were told to think as strongly as they could about moving the muscle without actually moving it.

The researchers measured muscle strength before the experiment and after 12 weeks of visualization practice. Both these groups improved muscle strength in the muscles they were visualizing. A control group, which was not asked to exercise nor imagine exercising these muscles, showed no improvement.

This was a small study (only 30 subjects) and the exact mechanism of how muscle strength improved is not fully known. But the researchers suggest that focused thinking about moving a muscle sends brain signals that activate the muscle cells.

You can easily apply all the above – self-talk, focus and visualization to your exercise routine. With practice, you should start seeing improvement in both your technique and your attitude, and look forward to exercising and staying fit.

 

Just diagnosed with breast cancer? How to tell family and friends

Just diagnosed with breast cancer? How to tell family and friends

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

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. How will they react? Will you appear too vulnerable or needy? Should you tell people all at once, or gradually?

There is no best way to let people know about your diagnosis. But you will feel more in control if you tell people in stages.

First, share the news with whomever you feel closest to. This may be your spouse, a sibling, a best friend, or an adult child. (For teens and younger children, see below.) Ideally you should talk about your cancer diagnosis in person, but if your loved one is not within driving distance, a phone call will suffice. This is not the kind of news to convey via text or email.

Be prepared for questions. However, don’t feel that you need to answer them all. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know” or “I really can’t go into detail right now.” Tell them only as much as you’re comfortable with.

Of course, those closest to you are going to be upset. But at this point your primary focus must be on yourself. Let your loved ones know what you need from them – whether it’s just to listen, to stay with you for a while, or to help you break the news to others. 

How to tell your children (teens and younger)

If you’re like most mothers, your first inclination is to protect your children. How can you tell them about your diagnosis without upsetting them? You can’t.

On the other hand trying to shield your kids can backfire. Even if you avoid mentioning that you have cancer, they will sense that something is wrong, just from your behavior. Or they might overhear snippets of your discussions on the phone. Not knowing exactly what is wrong will magnify their anxiety.

Research shows that children who know the facts have less anxiety than those who don’t. Therefore, it is important to tell your kids about your diagnosis, but wait until you have a specific plan about what treatment you’ll be getting and how it’s likely to affect family life.

The first time you talk about this with your children, do so at home, in person. It’s best to have the conversation earlier in the day rather than at bedtime. Explain your condition in a matter-of-fact way that is appropriate for their age. Older children can handle more detail than younger children. Don’t avoid saying “breast cancer.” It’s an ugly phrase, but the more you say it out loud, the less threatening it will feel to you and to others.

Very young children will be most concerned about what your diagnosis means for them. Will you have to go away to the hospital? Who is going to take care of them? How is their life going to change?

Older children will be concerned about these things as well, but they will also worry that you’ll die. While you can’t promise that you won’t, you can reassure them that the chance of survival is far greater than in the past.

Talking with your kids is not a once-and-done conversation. Just as it took a while for you to process the diagnosis (and you may still be doing so) it will take some time for them to grasp what’s happening. They may ask questions at random times, such as while riding with you in the car, when watching TV, or in the middle of their homework. When such questions come up, they usually reflect worry, even if their tone of voice sounds casual.

To help ease your children’s anxiety, answer questions immediately, if possible, and factually. Even if you’ve stated the same facts several times before, your kids may still need to hear them again.

Telling friends, extended family and co-workers

There is no rush to mention your cancer diagnosis to people outside your immediate circle of family and friends. Share the news on an as-needed basis. For example, if you’re going to take time off work for surgery or other treatment, you’ll need to inform those who would be affected by your absence.

Among your friends and acquaintances, you may want to talk with women whom you know have had breast cancer. Some of them will offer advice on doctors and treatments. If this makes you uncomfortable, say so. e.g., “I know you’re trying to be helpful, but it only confuses me. I’ve decided to first try what my doctor advises. The best thing you can do for me right now is just listen.”

Notifying other people in your life can wait until you’ve started treatment, or after treatment. There may be some whom you won’t tell at all. The more people you talk to about your diagnosis, the more comments and questions you’ll have to deal with. Given what you’re going through, this is the time to be selfish. Tell only those people who you feel can help you.

If you find it stressful to inform the people who need to be told, consider appointing a family spokesperson.

More information on talking about your cancer diagnosis: The American Cancer Society:

http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/UnderstandingYourDiagnosis/TalkingaboutCancer/talking-with-friends-and-relatives-about-your-cancer

 

Breast cancer gone, but still feel stressed?

If you are 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.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, your experience may have inspired you to re-think your priorities and to focus your energy on people and things that really matter. At the same time, however, you are much more aware how fragile life can be.

Aches and pains that you used to ignore can now trigger feelings of panic (“Has the cancer returned?”) especially during your first year of recovery. Even with your doctor’s assurance that all signs of cancer are gone, it’s quite common to have nagging fears that there are undetected cancer cells still lurking.

These fears tend to subside with time but can pop up again on certain occasions, such as the anniversary of your diagnosis or treatment; when it’s time for follow-up medical visits; or when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, you may experience the same sense of dread as when you were diagnosed. This is normal.

But don’t be surprised if your family and friends discourage you from talking about how you feel. With good intentions of trying to help you put the cancer behind you, they may erroneously assume that talking about it will only make you feel worse.
What about the sympathetic professionals who supported you during treatment? They encouraged you to share your feelings. But they have moved on to work with other patients.

Thus, when the waves of anxiety hit you, you’re apt to feel alone, vulnerable and overwhelmed.

But is there something you can do?

Fortunately, you need not remain stuck in that fearful, helpless mindset. Here are some simple and effective coping strategies. They fall into two main categories: “Doing” and “Thinking.”

Doing: Ask yourself, “What can I do right now to feel more in control?” For example:

  • If your last medical report indicated no sign of cancer with favorable prognosis, read it again. Then stick it on your refrigerator or bathroom mirror for future reference.
  • Read about recent developments in breast cancer survival.
  • Talk about how you feel. Ask a family member or friend to simply listen and not give advice. Such simple sharing can help you feel less alone in your anxiety. But keep it brief. Agonizing for hours can make you feel worse.
  • Join a support group of
  • Do something physical that requires your focused attention.
  • Make sure that you eat well, exercise and get enough rest — all of which help maintain physical and mental health.
  • Eliminate unnecessary stressors. What can you “just say no” to? While there’s no evidence that stress causes cancer recurrence, you’ll feel better with less stress in your life.
  • Focus on the quality of your life. Spend more time doing what you like to do and with the people you care about.

Thinking: Use your mind to put things in perspective. For example:

  • Remind yourself that you have control of this moment (which is all anyone has) and decide how you want it to be.
  • When fearful thoughts enter your mind, acknowledge them. But don’t allow them to take hold. Instead, visualize them as a train that is passing by. Then, get busy with something else.
  • Realize that your anxiety level is not necessarily an accurate indicator of how grave the situation actually is. In other words, just because you worry about something doesn’t make it more likely to happen.
  • Instead of dwelling on the worst-case scenario, come up with three reasons why you can be optimistic.
  • Focus on something in your surroundings — a color, a sound, a texture or a scent. This helps you stay in the moment, rather than thinking about the future.
  • Practice relaxation, meditation, spiritual reflection or other thought-calming techniques.

What if these don’t help?

Managing anxiety day to day can be draining. This is compounded if you’ve always been a worrier or if there were unresolved life problems prior to your diagnosis.

If you find that you’re constantly on edge or irritable or if your worries keep you awake night after night, it’s time to consult a psychologist or other mental health professional.

Just a few sessions can teach you more effective coping skills. There’s no magic pill to wipe away the stress, but it is possible to manage it so that you feel in control of your life once again.

Breast cancer again? How to cope

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. 

Everyone who has been treated for cancer hopes that it will never return. But you still fear that it might. And when you hear the bad news again, it’s a double whammy: First is the shock of the diagnosis itself. Then comes the realization of having to go through the emotional roller coaster of tests and treatments all over again, with no guarantee of success. 

In your frightened state, your mind magnifies the negative as you revisit the past and think about the future. For example:

The past – It’s not unusual to regret the treatment decision you made when you were previously diagnosed, or to be angry with the doctors who steered you in that direction. You may wonder whether you did all you could to take care of yourself. If you start second-guessing past decisions, remind yourself that they were based on the knowledge available at the time. 

The future – Our ability to anticipate the future is both an asset and a liability. On the one hand we have the capacity to imagine better days ahead. At the same time we can easily picture worse ones. If your thoughts of the future are overwhelmingly negative, that’s normal considering the circumstances. But it’s also a mental distortion. 

The fact is that bad moments and bad days come and go. If you can recall from last time you went through this, you probably weren’t worried or preoccupied 24/7. There were times when you laughed, when you became engrossed in a project, and when you actually got a good night’s sleep. You can expect these again.

Studies have shown that most people do adapt to even dire circumstances. Thus, it’s almost impossible to predict exactly how you’ll feel in the future.

  

Getting through the next few weeks 

Unfortunately, there’s no magic way to feel “normal” again. But if you focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t, you will feel more in control. Here are some tips: 

Accept uncertainty. One of the hardest things to deal with at this time is all the unknowns. What are your options? How do you decide which to choose? What can you expect in the weeks and months to come? These types of questions cannot all be answered today. However, you can make a plan to start accumulating more information. There’s a good chance that new treatments have become available since your last bout with cancer.

Expect emotional swings. After all, this is a very nerve-racking time. But your mood doesn’t stay down forever; it eventually comes back up. Learn to ride the waves, savoring the good moments and allowing the hard ones to pass.

Decide on your treatment team. It’s important to have confidence in those who will be providing your care – physicians, nurses, mental health professionals and other caregivers. If you were satisfied with these people before, and they are still available to you, consider returning to them, as they know you as a person, not just what’s in your chart. If you were dissatisfied with only one or two caregivers on that team, you may be able to request others. If not, or if you were disappointed in most of your previous medical team, it’s time to go elsewhere. Get recommendations from trusted medical professionals.

Focus on the present. All anyone has is today. Make the most of it. If fears of the future or regrets of the past enter your thoughts, focus on something that you are grateful for right now. This will serve both as a positive experience today and a positive memory tomorrow.

Take care of yourself physically. Stay busy, but do less than you think you can, allowing time for rest and recovery. Aim for getting the sleep you need. Treat yourself to a new pillow.

Take care of yourself emotionally. Every day do something calming – listen to music, do yoga or meditation, pray, read affirming and/or spiritual passages, read a novel, watch a movie – whatever works best for you. Talk with family or friends, either on the phone (not text) or in person. If possible avoid people who bring you down.

Get support. No matter how independent you are, this is not the time to go it alone. Family and friends will want to be supportive, but they may not know how to help. Therefore, tell them directly what they can do, whether it’s running an errand, cooking a meal or just coming over to sit with you.

You can also turn to support groups of women who are being treated for breast cancer. Research shows that cancer support groups help improve the quality of life among participants. Even online support groups can be of benefit. Here are some excerpts from recent comments posted on message boards dedicated to breast cancer patients: 

Just when you start living I have to go through this again. But you know I am learning to deal with it one day at a time… I refuse for cancer to take over my life.

Like others, I am feeling much less positive and quite scared of chemo – will I be able to deal with it, physically and mentally?… I do take comfort from knowing I am not on my own, and especially hearing from those who have survived. 

I often have a good cry then I tell myself ‘OK you needed that, now blow your nose and get on with what life you have left’ and make sure I enjoy it.

Resources 

Books 

Gordon, B; Shaw, H; Kroll, D; and Daniel, B. (2010) Breast Cancer Recurrence and Advanced Disease: Comprehensive Expert Guidance, Duke University Press. 

Love, S. M.  (2010) Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, 5th Edition, Da Capo Lifelong Books. 

Websites 

Videos featuring cancer survivors and how they cope, from the National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/survivorship/beyond-cancer-video 

Coping with advanced cancer, from The National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/advancedcancer 

Guide to finding a support group, from BreastCancer.org: http://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/comp_med/types/group.jsp

 

Professionally led support groups – online, by phone and in person

From Cancer Care:  http://www.cancercare.org/support_groups

From American Cancer Society: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/supportprogramsservices/app/resource-search