Archive for the ‘Mental Health’ Category

Has Thinking Gone Out of Style?

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Words have become tricky these days! During the election the situation reached nearly intolerable levels, but, let’s face it, it’s a general epidemic. For example, in the months leading up to the election, if I looked at how bad things are and said I wanted to see a “change”, it was no longer considered a simple statement of fact. It became an excuse for others to attack. And I never even had to mention my political leanings! 

Why do so many words have a hidden agenda today? Why do people talk about a word as being a “code” for a whole set of ideas? 

Words have been usurped. Euphemisms have become coded messages that take on implications that were never intended. “Pro-life” is a classic example. Originally meaning “in favor of the value of human life” it has become a term that carries the hidden message that a woman, whether poor, raped, or otherwise traumatized, has no right to the value of her life or the life of her other children. In fact, it sometimes appears to carry the meaning that sex-education and knowledge about preventing unwanted pregnancies should be banned. I’m confused. 



Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

It’s certainly become more difficult to keep treading water when it’s rising everywhere. Financial worries, too few jobs, constant fear – these days it’s a flood of epic proportions! But while I’ve talked about stress before, this time I think we need to deal with discouragement and despair. It’s seems that just plain “giving up” in frustration is one of the biggest problems facing us.

You see, any flood is worse if it’s sludge that rising around you. Not simple survival problems, but a toxic brew of greed and power-hunger that leads to corruption and ethical violations by the very officials in whom we trust to preserve our security. Mix that with apathy and feelings of helplessness, and you’ve got an overwhelming mess indeed.


Sometimes There is No Silver Lining

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

Clouds With a Silver LiningI once asked a pessimist friend of mine why he persisted in expecting the worst of every situation. He responded with a variation of an old proverb: “They told me to cheer up; things could get worse! So I cheered up. And they were right, things got worse!”

I have to admit he touched upon the roots of despair: the repetition of disaster. Oh sure, we can all deal with the occasional crisis, the one-time emergency. Even an out and out disaster can bring out the hero or heroine in us, the chance to show we have the right stuff. But give any of us a series of even minor failures, and the staunchest optimist begins to have trouble finding the silver lining.

People cope with these times in various ways. Some talk about “a run of bad luck.” Others blame it on “bad karma” and try to figure out what they did to deserve such trials. But eventually, faced with a long enough series of unexpected blows, most of us end up like Job wailing out a despairing “Why Me?”

There isn’t any good answer, of course. Well-meaning friends who spout off lines like “Into every life a little rain must fall,” are asking for a black eye! Let’s face it: everybody has times of despair when nothing will cheer them up. Climbing out of this kind of hopelessness doesn’t happen overnight. But there are steps you can take to nurture the seeds of hope, and to slow down the sense of impending doom.

The best kind of hope is based on reality. Trying to cheer up by pretending that a miracle will occur will only make things worse in the long run. Building your hopes on illusion will only set you up for a bigger fall. If you’re $20,000 in debt and your spouse has filed for divorce, don’t count on winning the Lottery this week, or on your spouse’s having a change of heart.

Above all, don’t fall prey to the Scarlett O’Hara Syndrome of “I won’t think about it now. I’ll think about it tomorrow.” If you’re sliding downhill into despair, complete denial of your problems will only rob you of a chance to minimize their destructive effects. Imagine what a different ending “Gone With The Wind” would have had if Scarlett had only thought about the effects of her actions!

Start by getting your problems into some manageable framework. Write down a list of the crises facing you. Such a list has limits: you’ll find it is not endless, and that itself can bring a sense of relief. Now list the worst possible effects or outcome of each problem. Find out exactly what it is you are dreading. Vague fears are often more unsettling than knowing exactly what it is you fear.

Now go over your list to see what you might do to deal with each situation, or at least to avoid its worst consequences Write down each idea that occurs to you. Remember that chances are that you could handle each situation on its own. It’s only their combined effect that has you feeling overwhelmed. Break them into small manageable pieces, and promise yourself to do at least one thing daily to improve the situation.

You don’t have to believe that things will get better overnight to build hope. Be realistic about accepting how bad they are, and start improving the situation one step at a time. You don’t have to pretend a cheeriness you don’t feel. Cry if you need to. Then start taking steps to make sure you have a little less to cry about tomorrow.

Who knows? One day soon, you may wake up and find that things are no longer getting worse. You may even realize that they seem to be getting better. And that day is worth working for!

Every Action Produces a Reaction

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

Newton's CradleMost people accept that there is room for improvement in their lives and their behavior. Nobody’s life is perfect, and every unpleasant feeling or uncomfortable situation is a motivation for change. Why then do we often find it difficult to change?

Everybody who has tried to break a habit like smoking or chewing their fingernails knows this paradox. Every therapist who has watched clients resisting the very changes they said they wanted can attest to the strength of this dilemma.

We can often see clearly what we want to change, and yet have a devil of a time actually making those changes. Why?

There is an explanation. The process only seems mysterious because most people fail to realize how interconnected the parts of their life are. We tend to see things in separate pieces, as if they were in categories that existed in a vacuum. We don’t always make allowances for the way we have fitted all those pieces together. Changing one piece can disturb a subtle balance we have achieved. And that disturbance can be enough to derail our attempts to change.

Many people who complain of man unhappy marriage, for example, fail to realize how many adaptations they have made in order to keep that marriage going. People who have developed apparently self-destructive behaviors in order to cope with an abusive or severely disturbed spouse may find their marriage deteriorating as their personal health improves.

People with severe work or stress problems may find that the situation in their workplace is working against their attempts to build a satisfying life. People in families with unhealthy behavior patterns may find the rest of their family complaining as the so-called patient gets better.

We all live in a complex set of relationships. Trying to improve the parts of our lives that cause us pain requires that we also make adjustments in the parts of our lives that give us satisfaction. This doesn’t mean that we can’t change. And it doesn’t mean that we have to choose between old relationships and new ones.

Many people panic and stop making changes because they are afraid of suddenly having to choose between their old life and a new one.

Any program for change, whether done by yourself or with the aid of therapy, requires a careful evaluation of both the good and the bad parts of your life. Don’t expect the people around you to wholeheartedly accept your ‘improvements.’ They may see these changes as threatening to the status quo that they have come to depend on. You yourself may sometimes feel threatened by the changes you thought you wanted.

One reason that long-lasting change occurs slowly is that going slowly gives you time to make adjustments everywhere in your life. You can bring the best of the past with you, even as you build new ways of behaving. Let the other people in your life share in the process. Find out what adjustments they need to feel safer with your changes.

Evaluate your own priorities, and don’t be upset when you can’t change unwanted habits overnight. Working slowly to adapt your whole emotional and social environment can make changing easier and smoother. You don’t have to be a different person to improve your life. Subtle changes can be more rewarding than overnight makeovers!

Humor Is a Funny Thing

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

Picture of a Stilted ClownWriting regularly gives me a chance to explore many different thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I’m very serious, but other times I can’t help laughing as I write. Erma Bombeck I’m not, but I enjoy sharing my light-hearted moods with you, the reader.

Without humor, life would be unbearably flat, and our conversations exceedingly dull. Our lack or perspective and balance would make our world seem too grim to bear.

I’m always amazed when people complain about my humor. I accept that my jokes aren’t always terrific. But I’m really shocked when the reason turns out to be because some people don’t feel it’s ever appropriate for a professional to ever be funny. Some people think that adults, especially doctors, should take life seriously. No laughter, no frivolity, just the facts, ma’am. (By the way, if you’re too young to recognize the reference, check out any version of Dragnet. Those detectives are so serious they’re funny.)

While there are some topics I never make light of, I have to admit that generally I find life pretty funny. Laughter is one way of admitting we don’t know all the answers, and that we often get our priorities mixed up. The ability to laugh at ourselves is very special. Without it, we take ourselves much too seriously.

If you can laugh at yourself, you can admit there’s room for improvement. When you laugh at life’s ups and downs, you are acknowledging that it isn’t perfect. I like the older satirists like Tom Lehrer and Mark Russell who made us realize how funny politics can be. Or Erma Bombeck and Peg Bracken who made us smile at home life. (I found them especially useful in those years when I was raising three sons!) While world politics and family life are serious areas, laughing at them can keep us from despair.

Despair makes us apathetic, but laughter doesn’t. Hopefulness keeps us moving towards change. Laughter is hope. It makes us realize that we are smart enough to see through the problem, and strong enough to do something about it. Even in situations that seem overwhelming, laughing at something silly can do more to create energy for a change than crying over the inevitable. And nothing defuses a fight faster than when both parties suddenly start laughing over the silliness of it all. Laughter can help reduce pain, improve your immune system, and increase your overall health.

People who are anxious and depressed have often lost the ability to laugh, especially at themselves. Everything seems serious and dreary. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna, always looking for the good side of bad things. Nor should you plaster on a fake smile and pretend things aren’t as bad as they seem. We’re not talking about that old advice to count your blessings, although that can certainly be helpful. No, we’re talking about the fact that we can all look pretty funny when we’re climbing out of the pits.

The best kind of humor can help us feel closer to other people, not farther away. It can give us hope by refreshing our perspective. It can keep us from being pompous or self-righteous. Laughter makes us part of the human race, and that’s a pretty funny race to be running!

Need Help?

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

A photo of someone reaching for helpOne of the ironies of life is that when we most need help, it’s often hard to know where to go to get it! As a psychologist, I am often faced with clients who are afraid to tell anyone that they are getting professional help. It’s a variation of the belief that ‘anyone who goes to a shrink is nuts.’

I personally feel that the opposite is usually the case. Someone who enters therapy is often healthier than average because they recognize their problems and are trying to work on them. Furthermore, they are smart enough to seek the help of an objective and experienced professional. But the old stigma attached to ‘emotional problems’ continues to haunt all of us.

Many people feel that they ought to be able to solve their problems all by themselves. They bottle up their anxieties until they are like a pressure cooker without a safety valve. They develop signs of stress, such as irritability, depression, or even physical complaints like headaches or ulcers. They may turn to alcohol or drug abuse to further mask the pain of their unshared problems. No one is an island, and none of us is so perfect that we can solve all out problems alone. It just doesn’t work!

Other people believe that it is a sign of weakness to consult an ‘outsider’ about their problems. They unburden themselves to family or friends. Unfortunately, those close to us are usually too close to be of much help. Our friends may not have the objectivity to help us choose between alternatives. They may not have the knowledge to know how to help us, even when their intentions are good.

No one can ‘tell’ you the answer to your problem. A good therapist will help you explore and understand your difficulties. He or she may even suggest things to try, and help you experiment with new behaviors and evaluate the results. But competent professionals know that you cannot wave a magic wand and solve problems instantly.

All too often our friends, precisely because they don’t like to see us in pain, offer advice or suggest simple solutions without really encouraging us to figure out exactly what is happening. This can be very dangerous. We may become more frustrated trying out ‘answers’ that don’t fit our specific situations. We may begin to resent friends who try to simplify problems we have been suffering with for weeks or months.

The next time you find yourself struggling with pent-up feelings and continuing unhappiness, ask yourself the following questions:

If your car had engine trouble, would you take it to an experienced mechanic or ask all your friends to offer their opinions on what is wrong?

If you broke your leg, would you insist on handling it by yourself?

The way to save time, money, and hassles is to invest in the services of a professional who has worked with these kinds of problems before. Are your health and happiness worth less than your body or your car? Think about it!

Have You Been Less Than Perfect Today?

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

Rock GardenHave You Been Less Than Perfect Today?

A lot of readers found a chord touched by the book excerpt on Self-Fulfilling Prophecies (SFP). But I wrote that book from the perspective of a manager working with other people. Being a business manual, it was focused on the Other rather than the Self. It’s important to look at what we expect of ourselves, and how we fulfill that prophecy. In this article, we’ll explore the effect of high expectations; next time, we’ll explore the effect of ones that are too low.

But what about the expectations we have of ourselves, the SFP’s that affect every day of our own lives? Let’s talk today about tending your own garden. (With apologies to Voltaire.) I don’t mean literally, of course, but figuratively. Nor am I referring to those people who should be told to ‘Mind your own onions,’ as the French would say. (Of course, they say it en francais, naturalement.) No, I’m talking about setting limits to what you can expect from yourself.

Sometimes people forget the value of their own gardens. Instead of focusing on the joys and achievements of just getting through an ordinary day, they feel guilty because they haven’t been awarded the Nobel Prize or made the front cover of Time Magazine. They measure their self-worth by a mythical ideal of fame and fortune. (No, 10 seconds on YouTube doesn’t count!) The unreality of this boggles the mind. (I can say it this harshly because I often fall into this trap, and I’m the pot calling the kettle black.)

You can’t judge yourself by how many people are cheering for you. Hitler got millions to cheer for him, which doesn’t say much for the value of public opinion.

You can’t judge yourself by how much you’ve accumulated. Do I even have to mention Howard Hughes or Ferdinand Marcos?

You can’t judge yourself by age comparisons either. As the musical satirist Tom Lehrer once exclaimed in mock dismay, ‘When Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for ten years!’

Do you have to be perfect to matter in this world? If so, then no one matters, because famous people are not more perfect than the rest of us! (As recent news stories confirm!)

Making a positive impact on your small corner of the world may do more for world peace and happiness than a thousand famous efforts. Why make yourself a martyr to unrealistic expectations? If you compare your achievements to impossibly high standards, you are setting yourself up for low self-esteem and chronic disappointment.

I have found that reading honest accounts of famous people’s lives to be a good corrective for this kind of self-abuse. Measure for yourself decades of struggle against a few moments in the limelight. Can you really say that isolating a specific chemical is more valuable than raising a couple of happy, healthy children? What about heroes who neglected their families while they pursued a single goal? And then there are heroes who pursued lofty goals because they had lost someone special.

It can be an easy way out to ignore mundane responsibilities while pursuing lofty goals. If you do both, then you’re a rare person. As a veteran of the sixties, I have to admit that I feel I’ve accomplished more in raising three sons and helping my clients understand themselves than I ever did at marching and protesting. In the long run, my actions in my sphere of influence, my garden, have had more impact on the world than all my protesting over other people’s actions

Protest what’s wrong with public actions if you don’t approve of them. But don’t neglect your own impact while you do. Be fair to yourself. Give yourself credit for tending your own garden. You don’t need blue ribbons to prove it’s a beautiful place to be.

Climbing Out of That Barrel

Friday, June 1st, 2007

Unless you’re exceptionally lucky, you know what it’s like when the proverbial bottom falls out of things. It’s such an epidemic that we have lots of words to describe it: the pits, the dumps, so far down it feels like up, on our knees, flat on our back. Okay, okay, you get the picture, and it isn’t pretty. Some days it seems like we have more expressions for being down than being up. (Hmm, maybe we should take a count.)

This article isn’t about ‘Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,’ that’s already been done. Nope. I’m thinking more about why overwhelming things happen to ordinary people. And when you get to the bottom of that barrel, the worst thing may be finding those ugly clawed crabs — the kind that keep grabbing at your legs and dragging you back down again every time you try to pull yourself up.

Suddenly we want an ‘Easy Button’ — a minister, a therapist, a book — any magic potion that will take away the pain and make all the bad things less overwhelming. But nothing is easy at that point! And don’t let your friends fool you. Someone says ‘ But it will end,’ as though that makes the current pain go away. But it doesn’t!

One of the phrases I personally hate most is ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.’ I find that highly debatable, especially since I can’t read Creator’s mind and right this minute may be totally unable to figure out what He/She was thinking when She/He decided to dump all this stuff on me at once!

It’s always fun to find like-minded people, and recently I read some great thoughts on the subject, so I’ll quote from Ellen Degeneres’ book ‘The Funny Thing Is.’ On page 126 she says:
‘1) What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (Translation: what doesn’t kill you puts you in a whole lot of pain and makes you cry a lot and want to crawl into a hole forever and live with rodents.)
2) Adversity builds character. (Translation: you become bitter and angry and people hate you even more.)
3) God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle. (unless God’s in on it and doesn’t like you either.)’

Besides, most of your friends are going to get tired and cranky themselves because you don’t just cheer up at the sound of platitudes. Nobody likes to feel powerless to help. Well, sometimes we just have to grieve! Like it or not, we will have to cry it out, and nobody can say how long that will take.

And part of what makes the grieving so tangled and agonizing is that your feelings aren’t simple. They are all mixed up with sadness and grief, and even actual physical pain. You know, like ‘kick in the stomach’ or ’stabbed in the back’? Then add in the anger, the fury, the rage over how unfair this all is. Why me?! Multiply by the agony of wondering whether it’s happened to you because you did something wrong, you didn’t see the danger signals, or worst of all, the nagging fear that you are just so bad and worthless that you deserve all the rotten torture the universe can throw at you! Did I mention the feeling of powerlessness that compounds the problem?

These complicated feelings are what makes it so difficult to somehow swim past the hurricane around you. Your fear itself may add to the pain, agony, and guilt to make your feelings overwhelming. And let’s face it, it’s really your feelings that are overwhelming, not the outside events.

While there is no ‘Easy Button, ‘ there are things that can help. The most important to remember is that if you can make a 10% improvement in several areas, the cumulative effect may get closer to a 100% improvement!

Summoning every resource available to you is the beginning step, as long as you don’t assume that any one of them is the only solution. Talking to a psychologist or counselor helps. Choose a professional with a great deal of experience. Since they are not emotionally involved in your situation, they can use that objective view of options to help you plan your strategy for climbing out of the barrel. Their compassion and understanding of the ranges of human behavior can also be a comfort to you. You are neither alone nor unique. Human beings get upset when they are overwhelmed.

If you have a spiritual advisor or group that you respect and trust, you may also find some comfort in speaking to them about finding a broader meaning to the catastrophe that is happening to you. Talking to someone or reading books may help you remember that there is a greater meaning in all our lives. You may not figure out what lesson you are supposed to learn, but just considering the possibility that there is a greater lesson may bring about a small measure of reassurance and stability.

When I’m knocked on my butt by some terrible events, I personally find comfort in remembering the Chinese proverb: ‘Those whom the gods love, they teach with a heavy stick.’ I may wish the blows to get my attention weren’t so heavy, but it comforts me to believe that someday I will understand the lessons that seem so invisible right now!

As we’ve discussed before, this is a good time to make a plan. Break the overwhelming into small pieces and pick one small thing that will improve just that one piece. Setting priorities is important, but don’t be afraid to start with the lesser problems first. Getting back some sense of control will help you get your footing again.

And don’t listen to the ‘crabs’ who try to pull you down with discouraging words. Or to well-meaning friends who say ‘you’ve cried enough. Get over it.’ If you hide your pain and anger, and force yourself to move on before you’re ready, you may lose the chance to learn the lessons and find the meaning inherent in your current catastrophes.

It’s your life and your pain, and little by little, you’ll find yourself reducing some of your suffering to a manageable level while you learn just how powerful you can be in the case of disaster. Take it one step at a time, cry when you need to, and take the time to look at the things that have happened. Just don’t listen too much to those who tell you what you should do. Consider your options and choose for yourself.


Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

A headache can be a nightmare for the sufferer. Those prone to headaches may find them occurring frequently, disrupting their life and making both work and play difficult if not impossible.

Medication may be of little use in some cases. Just lying down and doing nothing is often the only treatment that brings any relief. Some people have resigned themselves to just suffering through the attacks, waiting until the agony has passed before they can resume their activities.

It has been estimated that one person in five suffers from chronic and disabling headaches. Some of these headaches are symptoms of other problems, and may indicate brain, eye, or sinus disease. A medical doctor should always be consulted to rule out these serious conditions. But the causes of most headaches are often unclear, and treatment may progress in a trial-and-error fashion.

Almost half of chronic headaches are called migraine, or vascular headaches. Migraine headaches can last for several hours or several days. They may be preceded by dizziness or sensitivity to light. They can be accompanied by nausea, excruciating pain, and vomiting. This type of headache is three times more likely to occur in women than men.

Some headaches are thought to be caused by muscle contractions in the face, neck, or head. These are often called tension headaches. They may be accompanied by pain in the back of the neck, or by muscle spasms. Bruxism, or grinding your teeth, may also cause headaches and tension in surrounding muscles.

The exact causes of many headaches are disputed by many doctors. Heredity, stress, and hormones are among the factors that have been linked to migraines. But hereditary predisposition, hormonal swings accompanying menstruation, and stress are probably factors in all headaches. Nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol can also trigger severe headaches.

Because there are so many possible causes of headaches, it is essential to have a medical checkup to determine if there is a severe underlying cause that will respond quickly to medical techniques such as medication or surgery. But if you are not suffering from an organic illness, and your headaches are frequent and severe, there are a number of things you can consider.

Try to keep track of when your headaches occur, and your emotional state at the time. If stress seems to be a factor, there are relaxation techniques that you can learn that can prevent or minimize future attacks. Learning to relax as soon as you notice physical tension, coupled with a real effort to reduce the level of tension in your life, can give you some control over your problem.

Biofeedback, which uses visual and audial cues to help you recognize tension you’re your body, is another effective treatment. Biofeedback training has been helpful for many people suffering from either migraine or tension headaches. With practice, sufferers can often learn to change patterns of circulation, or relax contracting muscles to forestall an oncoming headache.

The important thing to remember is that your body has the ability to forestall a headache, as well as to create one. In addition to lifestyle changes in diet and exercise, reducing stress and emotional turmoil can minimize the occurrence of headaches. Becoming aware of your headache patterns, and learning some simple techniques form an experienced professional can make a major difference in improving the quality of your day. You don’t have to just sit and suffer!

Sometimes There Is No Easy Button

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

There seems to be a fine line between acknowledging that old age has some inherent characteristics, and assuming that being old is a problem in itself. Lumping all older people together into a category is unfair. Assuming they all have the same problems is also unfair. It’s a form of discrimination.

It’s easy to do this kind of stereotyping but it isn’t realistic when dealing with individuals. Today I spent over an hour at a nursing home encouraging and exhorting a woman just a few years older than I to push her own wheelchair to the dining room. She’s done it many times, and, more important, it’s essential if she is to keep her blood circulation, muscle tone, and cognitive skills from deteriorating. But did she ever get angry at me! She said it was ‘tiring’ to try.

Today I also spent over an hour with an 88 year old friend as we struggled to learn how to do something on the computer. ‘Tired’ is an understatement for how we felt when we were finished, but ‘exhilarated’ is another adjective that would be appropriate. And we won’t stop trying to learn something new next week! And I won’t even complain about all the exercise I, and my friends, do to keep our bodies active. Tired? Yes. Healthier? You bet!