As expected and common, the phenomenon posed by the threat of disease in recent months is still astonishing and intriguing, at least for the youngest who have not yet undergone major and sudden changes. The crisis staggered by this virus is not only occupying much of our thinking, but it seems to be more like […]
Simple tools and techniques from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy
The Corona pandemic is putting us all in front of new challenges. There are economic challenges, because entire businesses can no longer operate, putting millions of people out of work. And there are health challenges – not only due to Corona itself, but because the pandemic strains the resources of our healthcare system, leading to the illness and death of people who otherwise would have received proper treatment.
And as if this wasn’t enough, we also face mental health challenges. Because of Corona, going outside is no longer “just going outside”. Instead, every trip to the supermarket is now a calculated risk, where we try to avoid contact with other people as much as possible. Meanwhile, we also need to make sure we do not accidentally touch our own face. Leaving the house thus means having to be constantly alert.
We not only fear getting infected ourselves, but that our loved ones get infected, and that we end up losing someone close to us. In fact, it is very realistic that we will experience some form of loss due to Corona, and it is important that we prepare ourselves for loss. The constant stress paired with the uncertainty of the future creates a harmful context, where psychological ailments thrive. For this reason, now more than before, we need to be attentive to our mental health. In the following, I’ve compiled six psychological steps you can do to effectively deal with the challenge of Corona. Let’s begin.
Step #1 Connect With Feelings
When we are entangled in difficult emotions like fear, sadness, or even panic, life becomes hard. Every little step becomes a chore, and our entire focus then revolves around stopping “bad” feelings. Meanwhile, we also stop doing things that would actually help us (e.g. like proper eating and exercise), and put our lives on hold.
In the middle of this pandemic, it’s important to not let our emotions run the show. This does not mean pushing bad emotions away – this has never worked well in my experience – but allowing ourselves to feel emotions, without having to act on them. Do not attempt to force “good” feelings, but try staying with your emotions in an open and compassionate manner. Hold them, like you would hold a small, anxious child. Be kind. Listen to your body. Then see if they actually contain information you can use in the next steps. For example, fear or sadness might be a good way to support connecting with others or taking steps to protect their safety.
#2 Connect With Focus
When the future is uncertain (as it is right now – more than before), our minds like to run wild. We imagine the wildest scenarios of what will happen, and how the pandemic is going to affect us. For instance, many people worry about supermarkets closing, and thus resorted to panic-buying products in bulk, like toilet paper, wine, and even condoms (yes, really). Incidentally, many of those same people are now realizing that this didn’t happen and some are even trying to get their purchases refunded (condoms, anyone?).
When your mind runs wild about all the ways of how things can go wrong, slow down and plant your feet in the now. Literally! Stand up, take a breath, and then notice your feet and how they hold you. Now that you are “grounded,” focus your attention here it matters. This is not about pushing unhelpful thoughts away. The thoughts are here, and that is alright. But instead of letting them take over, let unhelpful mental chatter pass, and focus on what is there to be done, here and now. There are many additional techniques for this, and they are worth checking out.
#3 Connect With Others
Social distancing is no fun. Due to Corona, we can no longer see our friends and families in the same way that we used to, which creates a big challenge. We are social animals after all, and the importance of physical touch for our well-being has been well documented. For the time being, we need to give up (or at least limit) touching others.
However, just because we limit contact, does not mean we need to give up connection. The New Zealand Minister of Health, Dr. David Clark, made an important distinction in a public address, where he emphasized the need for physical distancing, not social distancing. We need to maintain physical distance, while staying connected socially. Through the internet and telephones, we can do this more easily than ever before. Call your loved ones, make time to attend to them, while maintaining six feet of distance.
#4 Connect With Presence
It is astounding how much the world has changed over the past weeks and months. Just two months ago, everything still seemed like it has always been. And you might even find yourself longing for the days when you could mindlessly scratch your nose, and carelessly shake hands. Naturally this is no longer possible. And it is unclear how long this last, and how much longer we will need to continue to adapt to Corona.
Right now it’s easy to wander off with your mind – to romanticize the past, or to paint grim pictures of the future. And when you caught yourself wandering like this, make sure to gently guide yourself back. You are needed right here and right now. Life is happening right in front of you, and the better you can attend to your life right now, the better off you – and everyone you come in contact with – will be. Ground yourself in the presence, and gently guide yourself back whenever your mind has wandered off.
#5 Connect With Values
The Corona situation has forced us all to restructure our days. The morning coffee at McDonalds? No longer possible. The daily commute to work? Not a good idea with public transportation. In short, a big chunk of our lives is out of order, and many of our habits that once filled us with pleasure and meaning are suddenly no longer an option.
This creates a problem. Many people can no longer do what is truly important to them, and for some, it is like taking their purpose, their lifeblood. In this stressful time, it is crucial that we reconnect with our goals and values, and with whatever lies closest to our hearts. Again, there are many techniques to do this, my favorite you can find here.
#6 Connect With Action
Many people have now more free time than ever before, because they are working less, and spend less time visiting their friends and family. Naturally, this opens a big window to finally do the things we always wanted to do, but never quite found the time for. And yet, most people do not tackle their goals.
Instead, they resort to just functioning, going through the motions, and continue putting things off. There is no strict schedule that they would need to stick to, and no colleague or friend to hold them accountable. And so a day in pyjamas on the couch it is.
I get it. It’s hard. And this is exactly why we need to create accountability by choice and start taking action. Move towards your goals in tiny, small steps – bit by bit. This is not just about achieving a specific outcome, but merely taking steps with purpose can do wonders for our sense of competence and self-efficacy. Corona is posing a challenge to us all, and we can come out stronger than ever if we are willing to show up as whole human beings, connected to our feelings and to others, focused on the now and the possibilities it contains for values-based action, and then moving forward in a way that reflects who and how we want to be.
The fear of intimacy happens for many reasons: low self-esteem, trust issues, episodes of anger, avoidance of physical contact or trouble forming a close relationship.
Pressure is the feeling of discomfort, worry and even fear. Many of us feel pressure on a daily basis: bills to pay, relationships to live up to, jobs to hold onto, material to study up on, expectations to maintain, etc. Pressure is a natural feeling that accompanies our everyday lives: it’s part of motivation and drive but can also be associated with anxiety and panic.
It’s hard to scroll through your social media feeds without being bombarded with motivational quotes. Bonus points if they are spelled out on a letter board.
Good vibes only. Choose happiness. Find the rainbow in the rain.
As a psychologist (and as a human), these quotes kind of irk me. They make us think that life should be all roses and rainbows; we just need to choose the right state of mind. And, by extension, if you are struggling, you aren’t trying hard enough. You just need to change your mindset.
The problem is, life isn’t all roses and rainbows. We don’t get to experience the good without the bad. As mindfulness instructor Jon Kabat Zinn says, life is about “full catastrophe living.” We must embrace what life brings us and learn how to experience the full range of human emotions, even when it’s not so pretty.
A 2016 study found that expressing negative emotions is adaptive and is associated with improved psychological health and adjustment. Conversely, avoiding negative feelings can make you feel even worse. Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College, calls this “the tyranny of the positive attitude.” In a 2016 Newsweek article, she explains that our culture has little tolerance for those who aren’t all smiles and sunshine all the time.
There is an expectation that people should always look on the bright side of adversity and be grateful for the positives in a difficult situation. This attitude is a double hitter for people going through a difficulty; first, you feel bad about whatever the thing is that is making you feel bad, and then you feel guilty or defective for not focusing on the positives and keeping an upbeat attitude. In other words, we feel bad for feeling bad.
As a therapist and an eating disorder specialist, I spend a lot of time helping clients identify and welcome in the full range of emotional experiences. In this “good vibes only” culture, so many of us have become disconnected from our emotions. We try to keep away feelings of anger, sadness, fear, jealousy, and disappointment. Rather than feeling happy all the time, this leaves us feeling numb. We live our lives in fast-forward, keeping ourselves busy every waking moment, so we never have to actually be with our thoughts or feel our feelings.
What would it be like to feel your feelings? To be OK not being OK? To experience discomfort and trust that you have the resilience to withstand it and come through the other side. This way of approaching life may not have the same letterboard appeal as “good vibes only,” but I think there is real power to bringing authenticity into our heavily filtered lives.
Coifman, K.G., Flynn, J.J. & Pinto, L.A. Motiv Emot (2016) 40: 602. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-016-9553-y
The Costume of Health in Chronic Illness
Many of us who live with chronic illness engage all year round with a costume that we take on and off: the costume of wellness. This post addresses what that costume looks like, the social pressure we may feel to wear it, and ways to be mindful of when and how we don it.
The Costume of Wellness
The visual accoutrements of the costume of wellness include makeup and clothing that mask the effects of illness. Behavioral manifestations can include denying the impact of illness in words (“I’m fine!”), in silence (pretending we are not in pain), and in actions (not slowing down or limiting activity, even when we endanger our health).
Sometimes we wear the costume of wellness because it helps us feel better about ourselves. Sometimes we wear it because we prefer our privacy. And sometimes we wear it because social pressure dictates that we must, and we feel we have no choice but to comply.
The Pressure to Appear Well
Many of my chronically ill clients fear exasperating family and friends when they have to limit activities due to illness. Some also are fearful of complaining too much and “being a downer” by bringing up their illnesses. They’ve internalized the message that they will lose relationships if they dare show up without the costume of wellness.
Psychoanalyst Judith Alpert theorizes that our culture is terrified of death, illness, and vulnerability. Thus, “[t]hose who have contact with the chronically ill . . . do not want to be reminded of vulnerability and ultimate demise. In turn, the demand placed on the chronically ill is to control, hide, and overcome the chronic illness.” (Alpert, 2012).
We who live with chronic illness feel this fear in our interactions with family, friends, and the larger public. We may see friends drift away, unable to manage their own uncomfortable feelings in the face of our suffering. We may have disappointing experiences when we reveal our illness selves, receiving the message that this is something that cannot be spoken about. And so we learn, experientially, that we’d better not remove the costume of wellness.
The Pressure to Manage Well
Inevitably, there are the times when we can’t pass as well — when we’re hospitalized or incapacitated in ways that we can’t hide. We may not be expected to wear the costume of wellness during these situations, but we likely are expected to wear the costume of “the heroic sick person.” The heroic sick person never complains, is able to joke through her pain, and comforts the well with her positive attitude. There’s a lot of social approval for this type of heroism. As Alpert (2012) notes, “The person who smiles and jokes while in obvious physical misery is honored by all.”
Little Women’s sickly Beth is the prototype of the heroic sick person. Angelic in looks and character, she meets her illness and ultimately death with acceptance, bravery, and good humor. There’s no room in this sanitized depiction of illness for terror, bitterness, ugliness, and bodily fluids. There’s no room for being human. There’s no room for truly being sick. (Machado, 2019).
Wearing Wellness Mindfully
There are times that we make the decision to appear healthier than we feel. We may have discovered that it’s good for our mental state to act as if we are more robust than we feel. We may be discerning in determining not to share the vulnerable details of our illness experience with people who would not hold that information safely. The choices of how to define ourselves—both internally and relationally—are ours.
It’s important to be mindful, though, of how much our decisions to mask our illness identity are driven by our perceptions of social pressure. Do we fear abandonment if we appear ill? Do we fear disapproval and distance from those we love if we fail to live up an ideal of wellness? If so, putting on our wellness costume can have negative effects on our mood. Research shows that when people perceive that others think they should feel happy, and not sad, it leads them to feel sad more frequently and intensely (Bastian, et al., 2012). Putting on a smile may NOT be in our best interest, especially if we do so because we fear relational ramifications for being authentic.
How to Wear Our Costumes
Each year, I look forward to interacting with the trick-or-treaters who come to my door. They are delighted with themselves. The five-year-old Superman half-believes he can fly. The seven-year-old movie star feels beautiful enough to walk the red carpet. I conspire with them in their put-on identities, admiring the strength of the pint-sized Hulk and shrinking with fear from the ghost wrapped in an old sheet. We revel together in the playfulness of the holiday and in the thrill of power we feel when we mindfully choose how to present our identity.
It would be crushing to these children to fail to believe them, to say, “You’re not a princess; you’re only the child next door.” But it also would be frightening to insist that the presentation is reality, that the skeleton has negated the little boy inside the costume. Indeed, sometimes children will pull up their masks as if to reassure themselves and say, “I’m not really a monster; I’m just me!”
Can we wear our costumes of wellness as children wear their Halloween costumes? Donning them can be powerful, playful, and resilient. But we don’t want to wear them so rigidly that others can no longer identify us — or so rigidly that we can no longer identify ourselves.
Alpert, J.L. (2012). Loss of humanness: The ultimate trauma. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 72, 118-138.
Bastian B., Kuppens P., Hornsey M. J., Park J., Koval P., Uchida Y. (2012). Feeling bad about being sad: the role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion, 12, 69–80.
Machado, C.M. (2019). The real tragedy of Beth March. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/08/29/the-real-tragedy-of-beth-march/
Anxiety is a normal, if unpleasant, part of life, and it can affect us all at different times and in different ways. It can persist whether or not the cause is clear to the sufferer. Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. It’s natural to […]
People with anxiety are fighters — we have to ward off negative thinking, irrational thoughts, intense fears, and obsessions on the reg.
Microaggressions that should not go unchecked.
Overtly aggressive people may be hard to stay clear off, but they are not hard to miss. Passive-aggressive people, by contrast, use much more subtle tactics to aggress against you. But passive aggression can be just as insidious and hurtful as its overt sibling.
Passive aggression can be extremely upsetting because we are very good at picking up on even the most subtle forms of hostile behavior, even though we are not always consciously aware of what it is we are picking up on.
Your unconscious brain can detect barely noticeable changes in facial expression, body language, body posture and direction, and changes in behavioral patterns. Once your unconscious brain detects hostility in another person, it activates the amygdala—an area of the brain that processes fear—or other brain regions associated with a fight-or-flight response. This physiological change can make you feel anxious, fearful, worried, stressed out, or just ill at ease.
The special problem that passive aggression poses is that you often cannot put your finger on what is wrong. Your unconscious brain is telling you that the other person has negative feelings toward you. Yet because of the subtly of how the aggression is manifested, it’s easy to write it off as normal behavior, especially if the other person insists that nothing is wrong. For example, you feel that your partner is acting more distant toward you than they normally would. When you ask them, they say nothing is wrong. But the feeling that something is off doesn’t go away.
If you are continually exposed to passive-aggressive behavior from the same person, and they keep denying that anything is wrong, you may start to question your own judgment and ultimately your own sanity. However, the truth is that if you repeatedly feel that something is wrong, probably something is wrong. Although we are unusually adept at detecting passive aggression unconsciously, it takes more careful attention to consciously spot it. The following are a few examples of fairly common but exceptionally subtle forms of passive aggression.
Diminished Eye Contact
If a person you know fairly well isn’t making as much eye contact with you as they usually do over an extended period of time, then that’s a signal that something is wrong but that they are unwilling to tell you for whatever reason. Instead of talking to you, they choose to deal with their negative feelings by distancing themselves from you, which can manifest itself in subtle ways, such as diminished eye contact.
Diminished eye contact isn’t necessarily deliberate. Nor does it always imply that the other person is angry with you. They could be feeling guilty about something they have done to you. Or they could be dealing with problems that have nothing to do with you. But if it’s your business to know what’s going on, and they deliberately don’t tell you, then it’s passive aggression.
Continually forgetting to do something is another sign of passive aggression to watch out for. Some people are generally forgetful, disorganized, or easily distracted, but there are limits to how much forgetting you should put up with if people are otherwise mentally healthy.
The reason people deliberately forget, or deliberately do something that they know will make them forget, is that they really don’t want to do what they have promised you or what is expected of them. Yet they also don’t want to tell you that they don’t want to do what they promised or what’s expected. For example, if you have a standing agreement with your live-in partner that you put dirty dishes in the dishwasher immediately after using them instead of letting them pile up on the counter, but your partner frequently leaves dirty dishes behind, then it’s probably a sign of deliberate forgetting—or at least that’s a reasonable conclusion if you have confronted them, and it keeps happening.
Ignoring You During a Group Conversation
If a person is ignoring you when you pass them on the street or in the hallway, this could just be a sign that they are not very perceptive or that they need a new eyeglass prescription. But when there doesn’t seem to be any other rational explanation for why another person would ignore you, then they are most likely acting passive-aggressively.
This form of passive aggression may happen during a group conversation. Suppose you and your friend Sid from college are talking to the speaker after his or her talk, yet the speaker immediately direct their attention to Sid and begins asking him questions about his research interests, mostly ignoring you, that’s a very good sign that they probably think less of you or don’t like you for whatever reason. Their subtle behavior gives it away.
When people ignore you in a conversation, it can be somewhat less deliberate. For example, the speaker in the above scenario might have an implicit bias against you. Let’s suppose you are a woman and that the speaker implicitly thinks that Sid is smarter than you by virtue of being a man. In this case, the speaker’s subtly rude behavior is a form of bias-driven microaggression. But this does not rule out that the aggressor should be held accountable, because not all implicit biases are created equal.
If an outsider—call them Pat— had observed your group conversation and had noticed the speaker’s subtly hostile behavior toward you, Pat could have asked the speaker: “What were you just doing?” The speaker might answer: “I was asking Sid questions about his research interests.” But if questioned a bit further, perhaps they will eventually admit: “Yes, it’s true that I didn’t ask Sally about her work but I didn’t mean to act biased against her.” But in terms of the quality of the excuse, this is on a par with a murderer saying: “Yes, I stabbed her with a knife but I didn’t mean to harm her.”
We all were probably taught to never lie but there would be rarely anyone who can truthfully claim that he or she doesn’t lie or hasn’t lied in life, ever. Depending upon the demands of the situation, we might tell a lie for harmless reasons like to avoid awkward situations, protect others, or avoid hurting others’ feelings, or, for some other reasons that are much serious and can potentially wreak havoc on our lives. However, there are some people who lie out of habit. And, the more they lie, the easier and more frequent this behaviour becomes. Scientists have now discovered why liars lie.
Psychologists believe that children start lying at the age of two. Since lying involves paying attention to the environment, complex planning, and the ability to manipulate a situation, it is actually considered a crucial milestone in children’s development. While growing up, they keep on learning how to use this skill for their own benefit, and by the time they reach adulthood, their lies become much more clever, harder to catch, and easier to get away with.
Cognitive neuroscientist Joshua Greene from Harvard University investigated the physical process of lying during an experiment. Participants were given the opportunity to win money by lying. While some of them still stuck to being honest and told the truth, others resorted to deception. The MRI of the participants was performed to examine their brain activity during the study. The MRI reports revealed that there was an increased activity in the frontal parietal control network of the group of liars because deciding between honesty and lying requires hard and intricate thinking. Since the neural reward centers of the participants who won money by telling lies were more active, it can be assumed that lying may be a result of the inability to resist temptation.
However, there is still no scientific explanation as to why people tend to avoid lying and whether it is a result of conflict in their brains or an understanding of morality and self-control, or simply following the social norm. According to Dan Ariely, a behavioral psychologist at Duke, “We are our own judge about our own honesty. And that internal judge is what differentiates psychopaths and non-psychopaths.”
Apparently, despite that the urge to lie comes from within, external factors can influence the frequency too. Research has shown that people tend to be dishonest when they are suffering from stress or lack of sleep, or when they see others lying. “We as a society need to understand that when we don’t punish lying, we increase the probability it will happen again,” Ariely added.
Ariely and his colleagues conducted a study to show the change in participants’ brain while they are being dishonest. The study revealed that there was an increased activity in their amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for producing fear, anxiety and emotions. This change made lying or being dishonest easier for those participants. The signals from the amygdala reduced when they expected no consequences for being dishonest, such as when playing a game. Cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, Tali Sharot, who led the research said, “If you give people multiple opportunities to lie for their own benefit, they start with little lies and get bigger and bigger over time.”