Thursday, November 20, 2008

Assertion Questionnaire

This Assertion Questionnaire was developed by Dr. Peter Lewinsohn along with his colleagues Drs. Munoz, Youngren, and Zeiss as part of their work relating depression to a person’s lack of specific social skills, such as assertiveness. The questions on the scale measure both how assertive you are and how comfortable you are with your assertiveness in certain situations.

Assertion is an area of social skill behavior that often causes people difficulty in dealing with others. Assertiveness involves defending ourselves and expressing what we are thinking and feeling. To some, the idea of assertiveness is very negative. They consider assertiveness the same as being obnoxious and demanding. without regard to the feelings of others. Psychologists, however, see assertiveness in a much broader and more positive way. as a healthy means of open expression. Certainly some of the things that a person may express openly can be seen as negative, but being assertive also means being able to share the positive parts of ourselves, our hopes and fears, our affection and concern for others. In this light, assertiveness becomes a very important part of a close, two-way relationship wherein each person trusts the other to be honest and open.

Psychologist Dr. Peter Lewinsohn also sees assertiveness on a very practical level. Dr. Lewinsohn states in his book Control Your Depression,

It [assertiveness] helps avoid or prevent aversive encounters with others; no
one can take advantage of someone who is properly assertive. Second, those who
are appropriately assertive are likely to get more positive feelings from other
people; they express more positive feelings and they receive them in return. . .
.Finally, those who are more appropriately assertive feel better understood by
others.... People can’t know how you feel and show their caring unless you
take the first step of expressing your own thoughts and feelings.
Go over the list of questions twice. First, rate each item using the Frequency Scale ("F" Column). Rate each on how often it has occurred during the past month. Second, rate how comfortable you were when each situation happened, or how comfortable you would be if it were to happen. For this rating, use the Comfort Scale ("C" Column).

As Dr. Lewinsohn points out, there are no right or wrong answers to the items on this questionnaire — its primary purpose is to provide you with information about yourself.

Frequency Scale
Indicate how often each of these events occurred by marking the Frequency Column,
using the following scale:
1 = This has not happened in the past 30 days
2 = This has happened a few times (1 to 6 times) in the past 30 days
3 = This has happened often (7 times or more) in the past 30 days

Comfort Scale
Indicate how you feel about each of these events by marking the Comfort Column, using the following scale:
1 = I felt very uncomfortable or upset when this happened
2 = I felt somewhat uncomfortable or upset when this happened
3 = I felt neutral when this happened (neither comfortable nor uncomfortable; neither good nor upset)
4 = I felt fairly comfortable or good when this happened
5 = I felt very comfortable or good when this happened

Important: If an event has not happened during the past month, then rate it according to how you think you would fed if it happened. If an event happened more than once in the past month, rate roughly how you felt about it on the average.

1. Turning down a person’s request to borrow my car
F= C=
2. Asking a favor of someone
F= C=
3. Resisting sales pressure
F= C=
4. Admitting fear and requesting consideration
F= C=
5. Telling a person I am intimately involved with that he/she has said or done something that bothers me
F= C=
6. Admitting ignorance in an area being discussed
F= C=
7. Turning down a friend’s request to borrow money
F= C=
8. Turning off a talkative friend
F= C=
9. Asking for constructive criticism
F= C=
10. Asking for clarification when I am confused about what someone has said
F= C=
11. Asking whether I have offended someone
F= C=
12. Telling a person of the opposite sex that I like him/her
F= C=
13. Telling a person of the same sex that I like him/her
F= C=
14. Requesting expected service when it hasn’t been offered (e.g., in a restaurant)
F= C=
15. Discussing openly with a person his/her criticism of my behavior
F= C=
16. Returning defective items (e.g., at a store or restaurant)
F= C=
17. Expressing an opinion that differs from that of a person I am talking with
F= C=
18. Resisting sexual overtures when I am not interested
F= C=
19. Telling someone how I feel if he/she has done something that is unfair to me
F= C=
20. Turning down a social invitation from someone I don’t particularly like
F= C=
21. Resisting pressure to drink alcohol
F= C=
22. Resisting an unfair demand from a person who is important to me
F= C=
23. Requesting the return of borrowed items
F= C=
24. Telling a friend or co-worker when he/she says or does something that bothers me
F= C=
25. Asking a person who is annoying me in a public situation to stop (e.g., smoking on a bus)
F= C=
26. Criticizing a friend
F= C=
27. Criticizing my spouse
F= C=
28. Asking someone for help or advice
F= C=
29. Expressing my love to someone
F= C=
30. Asking to borrow something
F= C=
31. Giving my opinion when a group is discussing an important matter
F= C=
32. Taking a definite stand on a controversial issue
F= C=
33. When two friends are arguing, supporting the one I agree with
F= C=
34. Expressing my opinion to someone I don’t know very well
F= C=
35. Interrupting someone to ask him/her to repeat something I didn’t hear clearly
F= C=
36. Contradicting someone when I think I might hurt him/her by doing so
F= C=
37. Telling someone that he/she has disappointed me or let me down
F= C=
38. Asking someone to leave me alone
F= C=
39. Telling a friend or co-worker that he/she has done a good job
F= C=
40. Telling someone he/she has made a good point in a discussion
F= C=
41. Telling someone I have enjoyed talking with him/her
F= C=
42. Complimenting someone on his/her skill or creativity
F= C=

Scoring the Questionnaire
To find your Assertion Frequency score, add up the numbers you’ve placed in the "frequency" column. Enter your Total Frequency Score here: F = ____

To compute your Assertion Comfort score, add up the numbers you’ve placed in "comfort" column. Enter your Total Comfort Score here: C = ____

Interpreting Your Score
Most people score within the following ranges:

Assertion Frequency: 61-81
Assertion Comfort: 102-137
This means that the typical individual has had most of the listed situations occur at least a few times during the past month. Further, this typical person probably feels at least fairly comfortable with being assertive in several of the situations and neutral to somewhat uncomfortable in some others. If you scored higher than these average scores, you probably know when you’re being appropriately assertive (and would very likely write us a letter telling us that we’re wrong if we said anything different about you).

If you scored near the bottom of the average ranges, it may just have been an unusually nonassertive month for you. Next month may find you acting (and scoring) more assertively, particularly now that you’re thinking about it.

If you scored way below the average ranges, however, lack of assertiveness and discomfort with being assertive may be a real problem and major concern for you. No doubt you spend a lot of time wishing you could tell people how you feel; in fact, you may feel at times like the guy who gets sand kicked into his face at the beach and just lies there and takes it. Unfortunately, no comic-book strength gimmick is going to help you become more assertive. One step, only a first one of several, is taking this test, reading this discussion, and thinking about whether lack of assertiveness is a problem for you. The next step is to move a little closer to doing something about the problem if it indeed does exist for you. A trusted friend may be able to serve as a good listener and help direct you toward more assertive behavior. Some counseling programs dealing with assertiveness training may now be worth the emotional risk. It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to have to be more assertlve m order to work on becoming more assertive. Such a bind is a major reason why professional help in assertiveness training is most often the best way to go.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Men and Grief

Do men grieve differently than women? Are they "emotionally unavailable" as some women charge?

In a book by Dr. William Worden, he believes that when we experience extreme loss, we tend to go through three stages in the healing process. In phase 1, people often retreat from the world that is familiar to them. This may include friends, family, and work. Phase 2 occurs when the person begins to grapple with the realities of the loss and begin dealing with the pain of the loss. Phase 3 is the process of putting one's life back together as the pain gradually begins to subside.

Is it possible that men and women experience these phases of grief differently? Some professionals seem to think so. It seems that both men and women are similar during the first phase. Both genders experience a numbness that blocks out everyday activities. This is often accompanied by anxiety, shock, denial or confusion.

Psychologists think this reaction is the brain's attempt to struggle with the reality of what has happened. We are social creatures and often define ourselves by those who are in our lives. When these connections are broken, we feel a vacuum and an emptiness in our lives that is disorienting.
The last phase tends to favor men because it is the time for "getting on with life." Men are born to reorganize and restructure things. This is what they tend to do best. This is usually the end point of intensive grieving where personal adjustments are made to a new life. A person in this phase may set new goals, explore new areas of life and maybe even take on a new identify.

The middle phase is where men and women differ the most. It deals with the expression of grief: talking, crying, confronting. It is that lonely place where the person must feel the pain while beginning to detach from the lost love. Culturally and physically, women are more suited to do this phase more effectively.

In another book, Carol Staudacher suggests that men have developed four separate ways of dealing with phase two grief. These coping styles are seen by peers as helpful and natural. They make the way through phase two more tolerable.

One coping style is to remain silent. Men tend to keep their pain to themselves and seem, on the surface, to not have a need for talking about their emotional pain. The advantage of this technique is that it keeps men from being more vulnerable than they already are in phase two. This form of self-protection allows men to find a place to heal without further wounding.

Another copying style for phase two is called "Engaging in Secret Grief." The pain stays inside and seldom is shared with others. Men may engage in insignificant behaviors such as pulling weeds or driving aimlessly for long periods of time. This time of solitude buys time to feel pain without outside interference.

Unsurprisingly, men also in some type of activity for making sense out of their lives. They may get more involved in sports or other physical exertions as an attempt to bring some semblance of control to a life that feels out of control. Men are generally reinforced for using this phase two technique because others see them as confident and brave in a difficult time.

Finally, a fourth option many men choose is to become obsessed with filling their time. From waking to sleep, each minute is filled with as few gaps as possible. This burst of energy is often troubling to women because it appears men are denying their feelings and trying to avoid dealing with the grief.

What is important is that each gender must deal with their own grief by using their individual strengths. This means that neither gender has a monopoly on what is right or wrong about how to grieve. One type is not necessarily more effective than another. We need to respect these differences in how each of us handles the pain and suffering that accompanies loss.

We also know that another difference between men and women is that women often take longer to resolve their grief. Generally, they take about two years while men take about six months to finalize the grief process.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Anticipation of Pain

A study done in 1999 by researchers in England and Canada shows how the brain reacts to pain by showing that the fear of pain is worse than the pain itself. Many of us have learned that anticipating physical or emotional pain can actually make the pain worse. People who worry about having panic attacks are almost certain to have them and the more they worry the worse the attacks are. Similarly, waiting in the dentist’s chair for the drilling to begin can be excruciating for some people. Then, the sound of the highspeed drill can send them over the edge.

The researchers built a "pain machine" that could deliver pain to a person without actually causing harm. It might be noted that the head researcher tried the machine on himself before using it with the research subjects.

When a participant was hooked up to the pain machine, a light came on before the pain was delivered. The light-pain combination was delivered randomly so that the person didn’t know when the light would come on. However, the subject did know that when the light came on, the pain was soon to follow.

The scientists monitored brain activity as the light-pain combination was delivered. What they found was that one part of the brain was activated when the light came on and another part when the pain was actually felt. These two brain areas were very close to each other.

The anticipation of pain caused the brain to respond and may prove that the anticipation of pain is worse than the pain itself. This anticipation is often accompanied by automatic physical reactions such as rapid heart beat, muscle tension, rapid breathing and a racing mind. These reactions often makes the pain worse. Studies have shown that if a person relaxes as a response to pain anticipation, the pain is actually less intense.

What makes this even more interesting is that previous research has shown us that we often become aware of something unconsciously before the awareness hits our consciousness. That means there may be times we will "feel" the anticipation of the pain before it happens but do so at a low level of awareness — the "gut level feeling."

The reason certain medications such as narcotics, alcohol and antidepressants seem to reduce pain is not that they act directly on the pain. By reducing awareness of it and damping the sympathetic nervous system, we just don’t feel the pain as badly.

So what can you do if you have a dental appointment coming up? Or maybe you experience anxiety in closed places. You can check out our blogs on stress management.

These skills are excellent tools for managing pain and stress. You may want to begin with the introduction to stress management. The skills you will need to learn are Natural Breathing, Muscle Relaxation and Mind Calming. As with all skills, how well you can do them will depend on well they work. Some people try to use these skills only when they are in a stressful situation. This is too late — sort of like trying to learn how to swim after falling out of the boat.

Practice these skill now, so that when you need them, you can manage your pain more effectively. Doing so will also increase your self-confidence and well-being.

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Using 10% of Your Brain

Have you ever heard that you only use 10% of your brain? Do you think smarter people use more of their brain? We are all familiar with geniuses like Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Child prodigies also amaze us. Mozart could read and write music, play the keyboard and violin when he was only five years old. Savants are people whose brains can do seemingly impossible mathematical calculations at breakneck speeds — like figuring out cube roots faster than the rest of us can do on a calculator. If science could only figure out how the rest of us can use that unused portion of our brain, then maybe all of us could have superhuman mental powers.

Some people even think that mental telepathy and other psychic powers come from the other 90% of the brain. Because of this, these folks believe that we all have potential psychic powers. Bookstore shelves are crowded with books purporting to show people how they can use their latent psychic powers by developed the idling part of their brains.

The truth is this notion of using only a small fraction of our brain is a myth. Nevertheless, it is a strong myth because, to most people, the brain is quite mysterious. We all struggle with the stubbornness of our brains to work like we want them to. We forget simple things like someone's name, where we laid our keys, important meetings and multitude of other things we expect our brains to accomplish.

What scientists have discovered is that we use every part of our brain. In other words, all parts are working most of the time. This does not mean all parts of the brain are working all the time. It is true that when we are sleeping or resting, our brain may only be using ten percent of its capacity. That is like a car engine idling at a red light. There is still plenty of unused power that can be called upon when needed.

Moreever, within a twenty-four period, you will probably use all of your brain at some time. The brain is what drives the rest of our body. It has been determined that the brain consumes more energy per weight than any other part of our body. It only accounts for three percent of our body's weight (it weighs about three pounds). Even so, it consumes twenty percent of our body's energy.

Even when we sleep and are unconscious our brain is highly active. Those parts of our brain that control complex thinking and self-awareness are still on and functioning. Even such a simple act as getting a cup of coffee in the morning creates a tremendous outburst of activity within our entire brain in only a few seconds.

With all of our knowledge and continuing research of our brains, scientists are still puzzled about consciousness. No one area of the brain can be found to be responsible for this amazing feat called consciousness. There are also many other mysteries yet to be solved about how our brain works. As someone has said, it's not that we use ten percent of our brain, the real truth is that we only understand about ten percent of how it all works.

For more information on this topic you can go to the University of Washington website

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Emotional Intelligence

The concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI) was originally proposed by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer in 1990. Over the years the original definition has moved through so many changes that it has lost almost all its meaning. It currently means different things to different people.

What did it originally mean? EI was created to describe someone’s ability to be aware of their own (and others) emotions accurately and then use this information to control their individual actions and thoughts. What this means is that someone with high EI can fully understand emotions by paying attention to them, understanding them and effectively managing them. This ability can then make the person more effective in many areas of life.

Since so much of this deals with a person’s mental ability, the originators of EI believed it was definitely another form of intelligence.

EI consists of four different but related parts that vary from the simple to the complex. The first level includes a person’s ability to accurately perceive emotions in others as well as in him or herself. The next level adds the ability to use this new information to pave the way for more effective thought processes.

The third level would include the ability to understand emotional states in other people. This is often done by being able to deduce how others feel, by listening to clues through their language, and noticing specific body language. Additionally, the person would also understand how they were conveying emotions to others through the signals of speech and body language.

Finally, the highest level of EI occurs when someone can manage their emotions in ways to help them achieve personal goals. People with the highest level of EI are sharply in tune to their own inner states. For example, they tend to be more accurate in detecting variations in their own heartbeat. They can also understand the reasons for what may happen because of their specific emotions. They can often accurately estimate how they feel about any future event that might trigger and emotional response in them.

Research in EI has shown that high levels of EI are often found in people who are more socially competent. They also have better quality relationships. Other people see them as being more sensitive than those with lower EI. People with lower EI scores experience more interpersonal conflicts and often have more behavior problems such as drug and alcohol abuse.
Emotional Intelligence can also affect one’s work relationships. As you can probably guess, managers get more work from employees if they, themselves, possess high EI. They were also rated as better performers by their own supervisors.

Drs. Salovey and Mayer give an example of what we might see and hear from a person with high Emotional Intelligence who uses all four levels of EI. They pretend someone is visiting a friend in the hospital who was brought in because of a car accident.

The first level is the awareness of emotions of self and others. Upon visiting his friend, this imaginary person "surveys the hospital room, the visiting relatives, and his unconscious friend. As he does so, he may wonder, ‘What is each family member feeling?’ Perhaps he perceives the worry and anxiety in their faces." Then he might wonder about his own emotions, Is he feeling guilty because he could have kept his friend from driving away from the party. He might also feel relief because he was not in the car with his friend.

The second level of EI would prompt him to use this information to think clearly and take appropriate action with others in the room. He might inquire about the health of his friend from the hospital staff and talk with family members to see how they are doing. This would be an example of how he would use emotional understanding to expedite his own thoughts.

As he begins to relate to the other people he might begin to engage the third level of EI by trying to understand their unspoken emotions and those he also felt. He might ask himself questions such as, "What sorts of feelings are common in such a situation?" and "How can these feelings be expected to change over time?" He would understand the shock the family is experiencing because he is aware that this is typical for something so severe and unexpected. He can expect that the family might have to begin dealing with more negative emotions in the near future.

Finally, he can use all this new information to help himself manage his own emotional state — as we teach in The Worry Free Life. If he has one or more of the unhealthy emotions, he can use his five-step procedure for minimizing them. If his painful emotions are healthy, he can use mindfulness to accept them and become stronger. When he has taken care of his own emotional state, he can then comfort the family and act as a compassionate and empathic listener.

You can see that if you are currently at a lower level of Emotional Intelligence, you can learn to gain greater skills for increasing your EI. We have an entire chapter on learning the skills of levels one and two. Other chapters will help you develop your Emotional Intelligence over time so that you can be more capable in your personal and interpersonal life.

This blog was adapted from an article in the journal, American Psychologist (September 2008, Vol. 63, No. 6, 503–517)

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Anger Management

Everyone has heard of anger management. You may have seen all the wacky interaction between Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler in the movie by the same name. Hollywood tends to make movies that people can identify with and the subject of anger is a common one. Anger problems are widespread. Check these examples:
  • 45% of us regularly lose our temper at work.

  • 64% of people working in an office have had office rage.

  • 27% of nurses have been attacked at work.

  • 33% of people are not on speaking terms with their neighbors.

  • 1 in 20 of us has had a fight with the person living next door.

  • Airlines reported 1,486 significant or serious acts of air rage in a year, a 59% increase over the previous year.

  • More than 80% of drivers say they have been involved in road rage incidents; 25% have committed an act of road rage themselves.

  • 71% of Internet users admit to having suffered net rage.

  • 50% of us have reacted to computer problems by hitting our PC, hurling parts of it around, screaming or abusing our colleagues.

The phrase, "anger management" is so common that it is generally accepted as an effective form of therapy for teaching people how to deal with their anger. Unfortunately, this assumption has never been tested scientifically. Anger management classes have been around since the 1980s and are instructional in nature. Some of the techniques use handouts, slogans, advice and sometimes role-playing. The big question here is whether anger management classes really help people.

Part of the problem in gauging effectiveness is that many people who attend anger management classes are ordered by courts to do so. Obviously, the motivation for change is externally imposed which does not bode well for lasting change.

Besides being forced to attend anger management classes, what are some of the other objections to current approaches to anger management? Some instructors tend to downplay the significance of inappropriate displays of anger rather than insisting that anger outbursts are seldom justified. Some of the skills taught don’t have any scientific validation that they are effective over the long run. An example of one such skill is redirecting anger to an inanimate object.

Perhaps one of the major shortcomings in anger management is not dealing with the issue of "behavior generalization." In other words, a person may do very well with his or her anger management skills during the classes. Unfortunately, this does not mean these skills will be effective in the real world as opposed to the virtual world of the classroom.

Some people in the legal system also have difficulty with anger management as a treatment. The National Institute of Justice has serious doubts about the effectiveness of anger management classes for men who batter their spouses. Their report claims that, in the case of spousal battering, anger management rarely addresses all the issues that underly the violent behavior. The legal system often sees how ineffective anger management can be.

One of the major problems facing the traditional anger management approach is the inability of the instructors to distinguish between anger and resentment. Both of these emotions are triggered from something outside of us that violates our sense of right and wrong. However, these emotions are very different from each other. Anger is healthy, resentment is not.

Problems occur when anger gets converted to or overtaken by resentment. Anger is healthy because it propels us to reasonably confront the source of any personal violation. On the other hand, resentment gets us to retaliate towards others. We think that revenge will correct or balance out what someone has done to us.

Anger and confrontation will allow the anger to eventually dissipate. Resentment and retaliation will most likely engage the other person’s resentment and retaliation so that the situation becomes an ongoing, never-ending feud. What most anger management programs don’t recognize is they are often not dealing with anger but rather with resentment. The most effective approach to managing resentment is to use the powerful tools of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).

As we point in chapter three of The Worry Free Life, this distinction between anger and resentment is crucial for dealing with painful emotions. Knowing which emotion we are feeling can help us chose the correct tool for dealing with it.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What We Don’t Know Can Kill Us

Research on our immune system is continuing to help us better understand ourselves. Recently, researchers have discovered that when stress negatively affects our immune system, it can have disastrous results on the actual cells in our body. These problems are not to be taken lightly. Allergies, arthritis, some types of cancer, diabetes and heart attacks are on this daunting list.

One researcher discovered that all these dire results are the result of one body event. Stress causes chronic inflamation. If this inflammation continues, the body’s alarm bells keep us on Red Alert. Although the inflammation is meant to help our body fight garden variety substances in nature that can kick off allergies, there is a high price to pay. While our body is fighting off allergies, it is also less able to deal with more serious problems such as actively dealing with infections and wounds.

This problem is not hidden or rare in our population. Studies have found that about forty percent of children and thirty percent of adults suffer from allergies. The scary part is that this can be worsened by only a one-time social situation that is stressful. Many people in our society must cope with an anxiety disorder on a daily basis. Unfortunately, they are more likely to have asthma and any additional stress can make it worse.

As stress continues over long periods of time, the immune system can age faster than normal. That’s why the list at the beginning of this article is so frightening. The more you stress yourself, the more sooner you may have to deal with serious illness.

Some studies found that ongoing stress – such as being a long-term caregiver for a loved one – can make a 55-year old have the immune system of a 90-year old. As we get older it is harder to heal from wounds and other daily ailments. We may also be less likely to be helped by vaccinations. Chronic stress can make these problems appear early than usual.

Sometimes, stress need not be chronic to affect our body’s immune systems respond. A study in 2008 found that even a small fight between married couples affected the immune system. The more the couples continued the argument by being nasty to one another, the more slowly there body healed from wounds. It seems the inner wounds affect the outer wounds.

Reducing your stress on a daily basis is not only a good idea but one that contributes to your physical health. You can do this by being aware of your breathing during the day and if necessary practice your Natural Breathing. To deal with bigger stressors, allow yourself time to release muscle tension and calm your mind. You can find instructions for these two skills at the blog article entitled Muscle Relaxation.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

The Marshmallow Test

Many years ago a psychologist did a study with a group of 4-year-olds by giving each of them a marshmallow. He told them that they could eat it right now or wait for a few minutes and get two more. As you can probably guess, some of the kids ate theirs right away and some kids waited. So far, nothing earth-shaking about this.

The interesting part came fourteen years later. He tracked down all of the children in the study and found amazing differences between the two groups. Most of kids who had gobbled their marshmallow immediately grow to be adolescents who were likely to be impulsive and stubborn. These kids also scored 250 points lower on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test - a common test used for college admissions) than the children who waited for the extra treats.

Stanford psychologist, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, believes this points up a significant difference in how people are affected by what he calls their "time perspective." Each of us tends to have a time perspective on life that is oriented toward the past, the present or the future. Our lives are more enjoyable when we have a healthy balance of all three of these.

Dr. Zimbardo notes that each of these time perspectives, by themselves, have both positive and negative influences on us. People who are mostly present oriented tend to have several disadvantages in their lives: gambling, being broke, engaging in risky sex, problems with alcohol. On the other hand they are fun to be around. They are often the life of the party, more spontaneous, friendly, creative and energetic. They love to find new ways of doing things such as being an improvisor of jazz music.

People who have a past time orientation often find fault with something in the past that accounts for their current failures. They see the past as the golden era of life and are quite pessimistic about ever having the good life again. Nevertheless, these people also have wonderful personality traits such as high self-esteem and see themselves as quite patriotic. They are generous in showing their gratitude and have the interesting trait of finding value in wisdom.

People with a time orientation towards the future are often those who achieve much in life by making good choices. For example, Dr. Zimbardo found that most women who had regular breast cancer screens were future oriented. If a person does not balance this view with the other two he or she may be more isolated socially and use work to compensate for relationships and sleep. He has found that Americans are increasingly finding themselves in this trap.

We all need to live life so that we can move easily between all three time perspectives when necessary. The past viewpoint is helpful for learning from our mistakes while the future orientation can motivate us to make reasonable plans for successfully managing the ever-changing challenges of life. To care for ourselves we need to be able to live in the present: taking time out to enjoy life, slowing down, spending time with loved ones. Living in the present when life overwhelms us can help fill that vacuum within.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Muscle Relaxation

I been helping people manage stress for over 30 years. In addition to Natural Breathing, these two skills in this blog will complete the three skills you need for activating your parasympathetic nervous system. The first part will teach you to release muscle tension and the last part (mind calming) will begin to show you how to slow your mind down and focus on the present.

There are many ways to release muscle tension, all of which can work quite well. If you already have a favorite method and it is currently working for you, you may want to continue using it. But for beginners, this method is probably the easiest of all available methods:

  • the muscle feedback you receive while you are using this method helps you to quickly identify the contrast between muscle tension and muscle relaxation.
  • it relies on no external devices (biofeedback instruments) to tell you when you are relaxed;
  • it is capable of being streamlined so that its inherent clumsiness is eventually eliminated.

There are two ways of learning Muscle Relaxation. You can either have a friend read the instructions for you the first time, or you can record the instructions yourself on a recording device of your choosing. The first time you try Muscle Relaxation, you can listen to the recording and follow the instructions. But after this first time you need you to practice your muscle relaxation without listening to the recording. Although you will find it more difficult to relax without listening to a recording, it will work better for you in the long run. It is too easy to get hooked on the recording for relaxation—it becomes a electronic Valium. You want the recording inside your head, not inside an external device.

Either way you choose, make sure the instructions are read slowly, in a fairly monotonous but clear voice. You need to be in a room with as few distractions as possible (or you can be outside if this works best for you). Be sure that the television and radio are off, the telephone is unplugged, and all pets do not have access to you. Although many people think that relaxation is done best lying down, I have found this hinders you in the long run. When you are starting out, always practice your Muscle Relaxation sitting up. Preferably you want a high-backed chair or some other type of arrangement that can support your head.

You will notice that the muscle relaxation instructions are immediately followed by a set of simple instructions for calming your mind down. Do not be concerned if you find your mind wandering. It will take months of practice before you can correct this natural tendency.

Use the following instructions word for word unless you have a compelling reason for changing them. These words and phrases have been revised over the years due to client feedback. They work quite well for almost everyone. When you see a series of dots within the instructions (. . . .), each dot stands for a one-second pause. You should read these instructions slowly. They should take about fifteen to twenty minutes to complete.

Muscle Relaxation Instructions
You're going to go through an exercise that many people in our speeded up and tense society could profit from doing on a regular basis. This exercise is basically simple, and in its simplicity lies its importance. One might say you knew more about relaxing as an infant than you do as an adult. This ability to relax like an infant is what you can achieve through practicing this exercise. I want you to experience, now, for a brief period, that blissful, carefree relaxation of infancy. But first, to realize the experience of relaxation, it is important for you to feel the full effect of its opposite, namely tension, throughout your body. To do this I would like you to focus your complete attention on each part of your body as I mention it.

First, concentrate all of your attention on your RIGHT FOOT and the toes of this foot. With your right foot flat on the floor, lift your toes upward and fan them outward. This will create tension in your ankle and the calf of your right leg. . . . Now relax it quickly, just let go completely. . . .

Next, focus on your LEFT FOOT and toes. Extend your left toes upward and fan them out as far as they will go. Once again there will be a feeling of tension in your ankle and calf. . . . Now, relax your left foot completely. When I ask you to release the tension, try to let go as much as possible. The secret in relaxing is in the letting go.

Now tense the muscles in your RIGHT THIGH by pressing down with your right heel. Press down really hard on the heel of your right foot . . . feel the tension. . . . Now relax your heel and thigh—let go and notice the difference. In fact, each time you let go try to identify the difference in feeling between tension and relaxation. Notice how pleasant it feels just to have your muscles relaxing and letting go.

Let's do the same thing with your LEFT THIGH. Tense it as tightly as you can by pressing down with your left heel. Press down hard with your left heel and feel the tension as much as possible. . . . Let go and relax all over. . . . You may have noticed by now a pleasant sensation arising as you relax a group of muscles.

Next, focus on your STOMACH muscles, your abdomen. Tighten your stomach muscles into a hard knot. Keep your stomach as hard as you can for just a little while and notice that tension. . . . Now relax, just let go, let all your body muscles loosen completely, and notice the difference once again. . . . You may notice an inner feeling of well-being coming over you as you are able to relax more and more of your muscles. But you need to remember that relaxing is not something that you do, but something you allow to happen. You cannot force it, because it is a perfectly natural response to letting go. You were born knowing how to relax. All you need to do now is to allow it to happen. Just let go.

Next, direct your attention to your LOWER BACK—arch up your back. Arch your back way up and make your back taut and hollow and feel the tension up and down your spine. . . . Now, relax and sit back comfortably again. As you let go, try to remember that there is no limit to the amount of relaxation you can personally experience. Theoretically, you can relax to the point of infinity. Go ahead and relax your back—relax your body as much as possible. . . . Just relax further and further, letting the relaxation go deeper and deeper into your muscles.

While you keep the rest of your body relaxed, I want you to clench your RIGHT FIST. Clench your fist tighter and tighter . . . study the tension in your hand and arm as you do this. . . . Now relax and let the fingers of your hand become loose, completely loose. Notice how different your arm and your hand feel.

Next, clench your LEFT FIST, really tight. Clench it really tight and notice the tension in that arm. . . . Now, let go. Relax your left fingers. Let them straighten out and become limp. . . . Notice the difference once again.

Next, bend your RIGHT ELBOW and bring the fingers of your right hand up to your right shoulder. With your fingers touching your shoulder, tense the muscles of your right arm hard. . . . Study that tension in your bicep. . . . All right, straighten out your arm and let go. . . . Just relax all your muscles and feel the warm, pleasant heaviness that comes with relaxing completely.

Let's do the same thing with your LEFT ARM. Touch your shoulder and tense your left bicep tightly. . . . Hold that tension really tightly and observe it carefully. . . . Let go, let out your left arm. Let it, too, drop limp—relax it as much as you can. . . . Try to let yourself actually feel the relaxation. Continue to let go. Let your whole body relax further and further into deeper and still deeper levels of relaxation.

Now, let's focus on your NECK muscles. Press your head back as far as you can. Press it back hard, really hard. . . . Feel the tension in your neck. Hold that tension briefly. . . . Let go. Let your neck relax as much as possible. Let the muscles loosen so completely that your head is as heavy as a bowling ball. Allow the back of the chair to completely support your head so that your neck muscles can relax totally and completely.

Next, hunch up both of your SHOULDERS. Bring your shoulders right up to your ears. Feel the tension. . . . Now drop your shoulders, let them go completely limp and feel the relaxation. . . . Let that relaxation go deeper and deeper into your shoulders—then let it filter right down into the rest of your body.

Now, raise your eyebrows so that it makes your FOREHEAD and the top of your SCALP all tight and wrinkly. . . . Feel the tension. . . . Relax your forehead, smooth it out. Try to picture, as in a mirror, your forehead becoming smoother and smoother as the relaxation increases.

Next, squeeze your EYES tightly shut . . . tighter and tighter. Feel the tension in your eyelids. . . . Relax them and keep your eyes closed gently and comfortably. Notice how relaxed they feel.

Finally, let's tense the muscles around your MOUTH. Clench your jaws and lips. Clench them tightly together and study the tension around your mouth. . . . Relax those muscles, let your cheeks and lips hang loose, limp. Relax your jaw and keep your teeth slightly apart as you continue to relax all the muscles around your mouth.

Try to notice the contrast throughout your entire body between tension and relaxation. If any tension has crept back into your body, release it and let it go. . . . In your mind's eye, picture your face as though looking in a mirror and actually see the relaxation all over your face. Observe the relaxation around your mouth . . . notice it around your eyes . . . see it all over your forehead. . . . Actually feel the relaxation progress further and further. Just allow yourself to feel the relaxation take over and go deeper and deeper, and still deeper into the muscles and very fiber of your body.

As you become more and more deeply relaxed, your body may feel very heavy. It is also possible that parts of your body may feel very small or maybe even quite large. You may also feel warm all over, or perhaps parts of your body have no feeling—for instance, maybe a hand or foot even feels like it is disconnected from the rest of your body. Whatever you feel as you sit there completely relaxed, just go along with it and enjoy it. Let it happen without bothering to control or question it. The reason is that these things are perfectly natural in a deeply relaxed state. They are normal, for instance, when you are drifting off to sleep; but the difference here is that you can let your mind go blank or let your thoughts drift around without going to sleep. Let yourself feel calm and peaceful . . . warm and relaxed.

The final part of training in relaxation is the most important part, because it is concerned with mentally letting go as well as physically relaxing, of getting rid of cares and frustrations and mentally relaxing without going to sleep. To begin, I want you to picture in your mind's eye a scene representing pure, unconditional pleasure to you. Just give yourself the mental set to picture what you're thinking as you sit there, completely relaxed with your eyes closed.

You may want to concentrate on something you have experienced recently, or perhaps you remember something wonderful about a vacation you've taken, or you may recall something you've seen in a movie or read in a book. It is even possible to think of some happy event that may have occurred while you were in the middle of some hectic activity. Of course, you may want to recall something serene or pleasurable from your childhood.

Whatever comes to you, let it be your private experience to feel fully again for just a little while. Let your mind drift peacefully and relaxed wherever it wants to go. If your mind begins to wander, don't be concerned or fight it. Rather, gently bring your mind back to the scene you have chosen. I am going to remain silent for a few moments while you allow yourself to follow anything pleasant . . . happy . . . or peaceful that appears to you. Let it take you wherever you want to go, just drifting and enjoying. After a few moments of silence I am going to count forward from one to five while you then bring yourself back to the present, at which time you will arouse yourself, refreshed and calm.


Please keep your eyes closed until you are asked to open them. It is now time to come back to the present. But you may have been relaxed for so long in this session that it may take a minute or two for you to become fully alert again. This is to be expected at first, but with regular practice you will find that you can become relaxed very quickly, and that when you have refreshed yourself in this way you will always be able to arouse yourself effectively by counting from one to five. This counting will always bring you back from your deep relaxation fully alert and refreshed with all physical exertion and emotional strain gone.

I'll count for you this time. You may wish to count silently to yourself along with me.
One. You are more aware of the present and finding yourself more refreshed and more invigorated than you have ever been in your whole life.

Two. It's time to stir about by moving your feet and legs. Remember, when you open your eyes, you will be refreshed as though you were awakening from a long nap.

Three. You might want to stretch your arms out. From head to foot you are feeling perfect: mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Four. Now you should move your head around a bit. You are now completely refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to open your eyes.

Five. Open your eyes!

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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Worry Cycle

Your dominoes don't actually go in a straight line. The consequence domino repeatedly seems to move from the end of the line and convert itself to the life domino which once more topples your thinking domino. When this happens your life becomes controlled by a circle of dominoes. Being stuck in this cycle is like being stuck in a sticky spider web from which it is impossible to struggle free.

The Worry Cycle Diagram shows what it is like to constantly run around and around in circles. This diagram is entitled the Worry Cycle because when the circle is well established, you feel like you are being controlled by outside forces.

Some improvement programs, including some professional therapies, merely focus on changing only one of these elements of the cycle. More current approaches have shown that this is often not sufficient. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, has perceived that merely getting a drunk to be sober is not enough. This is only the first step in recovery. The second is to learn how to live. Cognitive therapy has currently become the best follow-up procedure for getting people to break the underlying causes of their addictions.

Willpower is also not enough. Just the plain fact of your reading this material means that you probably have enough will power. What you lack are the skills to change each of the four pieces holding the Worry Cycle together: Thought, Emotions. Stress, Behavior.

You will notice from the Worry Cycle diagram that worry is the balance point from external events to internal events. It is also the second domino in the series and the first one you really have any control over.

Worry is Universal
Worry is another global human experience in addition to the quest for Happiness. Worry is a very democratic process because it affects all groups of people in all walks of life. Worry is one of the most common human tendencies; every person has at one time or another worried about something.

Most of the problems you have struggled with in your life may be related to the amount of time you have spent worrying. It is likely that worry has been with us since people have been able to think and yet it is probably one of the most common human activities while at the same time one of the most useless.

What is Worry?
Worry is distorted thinking. Cognitive therapists point out four levels of thinking: perceptions, interpretations, predictions, and beliefs. Distortions can occur at any of these levels. The first level deals with how you perceive the raw data of your existence. It concerns itself with your impressions of specific situations, events, and all the things around you.

These perceptions are derived from your five senses. Since your brain is not a perfect machine, these perceptions can be distorted. These misrepresentations can be influenced by memories of past experiences. It feels as if your mind is playing tricks on you.

The second level of worry can occur when your brain is dealing with interpretations of these perceived events. Psychologists often call this level of thinking by a variety of names: automatic thinking, silent assumptions, or conditional beliefs. These assumptions tend to be tentative in nature. It is often difficult to be completely aware of the interpretations you make. With a little bit of effort your interpretations will become more apparent to you.

Predictions, the third level, often take the form of "if ..., then ..." One of my clients would constantly make predictions about his anxiety by saying, "If my anxiety becomes too strong, then I will die from a heart attack." When he was eventually able to test out this prediction he found it to be completely groundless.

When perceptions, interpretations, and predictions become repetitive over an extended period of time, they often get converted to belief systems. Distorted beliefs are the most basic of all types of worry, the most pervasive, the most powerful and the most difficult to change. These distorted beliefs tend to be experienced as absolute convictions about life: about yourself, about others or about the relationship between the two. These beliefs can then double back on you and further affect the accuracy of your perceptions, interpretations, and predictions.

For you to adequately learn the four skills – cognitive restructuring, emotional supervision, stress management, behavior control -- you will need to set aside time each day for reading and learning, you may have to cut back on other activities which are currently in your life but are not as important as learning skills for breaking the Worry Cycle. You will need to commit yourself to working on these techniques even though they may appear difficult and tedious.

The major tool you have at your disposal is repetition. You need to keep repeating your new skills until you have it mastered them. How long this takes is really unimportant. If you need to spend more time learning these skills than some other person, that is okay. Please don't compare your rate of progress with anyone else — either real or imagined.

Self help may seem impossible for you if your experience in learning has been a negative one. You need not fear learning, even though in the past you may have had a bad experience with it. All people are capable of learning. Scientists have shown over and over again that even severely developmentally disabled individuals are capable of learning very complicated tasks. It is just that we all learn at different rates of speed and in different ways. The quickness with which you learn has nothing to do with your final success in this program.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Guilt: An Introduction

What do you feel guilty about? Most people feel guilty about something they have done or have failed to do. It is one of the six toxic emotions that act to destroy our quality of life. Like the other destructive emotions, you can actually do something about it.

Thanks to research in cognitive psychology, we know that it is possible to actually modify our emotions by learning how to change our thinking. Doing this is more than thinking positively. If this were all it took to change our emotions, we would all be doing it. Generally speaking, positive thinking only works well for those who don’t need it – because they already are positive thinkers.

Guilt is triggered by making a mistake, either real or imagined. Not all mistakes lead to guilt, however. How you feel depends on how your interpret the mistake. If you believe that a mistake is something humans do and can be taken as an opportunity to grow from it, you will feel remorse instead of guilt. There is a vast difference between the two.

Again, it is best to understand guilt by putting it in the context of the Domino effect. Although the mistake is the life event that sets stage for guilt, it is the second domino that determines whether you feel guilty or remorseful. The guilt path is taken when your mental to response is, "I should (should not) have done that." The word "should" is all about rules.

We all grow up with rules, whether from our parents, our peers, or institutions such as school and church. These rules are important for learning how to become a civilized adult. However, they can be deadly once you are an adult. If you are a person who makes decisions based on rules then guilt will be a common companion. As humans we are always making mistakes. If you mistakes are tied into the breaking of rules then guilt is the inevitable result.

The major difference between guilt and remorse is the behaviors that follow. Your guilt will get you to punish yourself. We humans tend to be quite creative in self-punishment. Not only is this bad enough, but when you punish yourself that is another mistake. Now you are back at the beginning to be set up for even more guilt.

Like depression guilt is circular in nature because it keeps you running in a circle of guilt. Once you learn to change from guilt to remorse (how to do this will be in an upcoming blog) you will no longer punish yourself for making mistakes. Instead you will be able to forgive yourself for being human.

Living a guilt free life does not mean you will not experience painful emotions. The difference is that the painful emotions will be healthy and short-lived. In this case, the painful emotion will be remorse. Like all healthy, painful emotions, it will drive you forward to begin to be all you can be.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Are You Worried Yet?

"Worry is like a rocking chair--it gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere."

Worry is big news. The most pressing worry is the current state of the economy. People are cutting back on things they normally do that costs money. My hometown newspaper and TV news channels are constantly bombarding us with dire information on the worst economic downturn in eighty years. Talking heads are all over the media.

People are mulling over financial questions. How are we going to pay for our health insurance? Will I lose my job? And if so, will I be able to find another one? How can I afford to send my kids to college? Will the banks lose my savings? Why am I making less money and the oil companies are making more money? What's going to happen with my mortgage?

These questions are not from the few but the many. Try reading the front page of the newspaper or watch the evening news and not find something to worry about. Worry seems to have become a way of life. Google the word "worry" and be prepared to look at 177 million articles. Here are just a few of the things people worry about:

  • Tourists are worried about traveling to dangerous parts of the world.
  • Families are worried about the safety of their loved ones serving in the military.
  • A few Christians are worried about stem cell research and gay marriage.
  • Some people worry the Switzerland particle accelerator will produce microscopic black holes that will destroy the earth.
  • Nearly everyone is worried about politics.
  • Parents in Chattanooga are worried about a Christian commune set up near the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
  • Baby boomers are worried about getting older.
  • Scientists are worried about global warming.
  • Parents are worried about school violence.

The problem with worrying is that it generates highly destructive and unhealthy emotions. As you may know, modern psychology has taught us that our thoughts lead to specific emotions. What we think determines what we feel. Worry can make us go through such gut-wrenching emotions as anxiety, guilt and depression, to name a few.

We know that women worry more than men. There are several reasons for this. The culture encourages women to worry and tells them that worry is an indication that women are kind and caring. Science has recently discovered that another reason women worry more is that, more than men, they believe that past experiences accurately forecast the future.

Yet, we have been told that worry is bad for us and that we should not worry so much. The problem is to find an alternative. What does "not worry" look like? The human race uses many ways to cope with worry. Some people use worry beads. Inspirational books and magazines are designed to help people with their worries. Guatemalan children tell their worries to dolls and place them under their pillows. Advice such as, "Don't worry, be happy" is everywhere. Religious people pray. Distracting ourselves by finding something to "cheer us up" is also a common method for combating worry.

The best way to cope with worry is to replace it with concern. You may want to browse through the archives on this blog to see how destructive worry can be in your life and what you can do about it. Especially check out our previous article on Worry. If you are interested in what to do about worry and how to change it to a more healthy concern, you can check out The Worry Free Life book and The Worry Free Life website.

You may want to learn how to change from worry to concern. There is nothing to worry about; there is plenty to be concerned about.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Depression: An Introduction

The common thinking today is that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance. This is true as far as it goes. The often unasked question is, "What causes the chemical imbalance." Research for the last several decades has shown convincingly that depression is caused by our thought processes.

Since the brain operates on electrical and chemical changes, it makes sense that our thinking can have an effect on our emotions. Since so much of our brain is connected to so many other parts of the brain, it not surprising that thinking (which takes place in the neocortex) can effect our emotions (which originates in our limbic system).

Before we look at how thinking produces depression, let’s remember the chain of events of which depression is a part. The chain looks something like this:

  • An environmental event causes a personal loss
  • The loss is processed by a thinking style called worry
  • The result is depression
  • The behavior associated with depression is lifelessness
  • The consequences of this behavior is that the depressed person experiences more loss

You can see that this sequence of events becomes circular in nature which explains why people can be depressed for so many years. Let’s unpack each of these links in the chain.

Life is full of disappointments, most of which we cannot control. The size of a personal loss does not determine whether we get depressed or not. A small loss may result in minor depression (called dysthymia) while a large loss may result in major depression. This is not always the case because it is not the loss, per se, that causes the depression. It is our perception and interpretation of the loss that triggers the depression. Losses can be major ones like health, money, or a loved one. Small losses could include a minor memory loss, misplaced car keys, etc.

There is a concept in psychology called "cognitive specificity" that supposes there is a close relationship between a specific thought and a specific emotion. In this chain, the specific worry that causes depression is some variation of, "I’m a worthless human being." There are many ways that people can believe this falsehood. This specific belief is what is called a "core belief" because it a belief so deep and ingrained that changing it is extremely difficult. I’ve heard people say they are really negative about themselves when they get depressed. This is backwards. They are depressed because they believe the negative thoughts.

The opposite of depression is not jubilation or feeling good. If we reinterpret our losses in a healthy and realistic way, we will feel sadness instead of depression. Depression and sadness are opposites of each other. As with all emotions, depression and sadness exist along a continuum. A person can have a little depression or a lot of depression; they can have a little sadness or a lot of sadness. Regrettably, our society thinks that grief (a lot of sadness) is the same as depression. This is not so. Unfortunately, many people who are in a state of bereavement are given medication to help them feel better. A healthier approach is to let the grief or bereavement run its course.

Depressed people exhibit helpless behavior. This does not necessarily mean they crawl into bed and pull the covers over their heads for a week. Legitimate behaviors can be done in way that is a form of helplessness because it has no benefit for the depressed person except to keep them depressed. Common behaviors that can be engaged in excessively include gambling, shopping, eating, to name a few. These can be helpless behaviors to a depressed person. On the other hand the overly wrought person who is sad naturally cries (unless it is accompanied by strong depression). Sadness tears release an endorphin-like chemical in the brain to make the sad person "feel better." Crying is the healing process for sadness. Everyone should be allowed to cry as much as he or she needs to. Some people are uncomfortable around someone who is crying heavily and often try to get the sad person to stop. This is unfortunate because the crying helps people to move forward in their journey instead of going in circles because of depression.

The consequence of depression is to run in circles; the consequence of sadness is movement in a straight line. However, life is not always so black and white. Often, people can have sadness and depression at the same time. In this case, the sadness will cause crying, but the depression, because it swings back on itself, will continue the crying. This is why so many people assume that if a person cries too long, they must be depressed. People do not cry because they are depressed. They cry because they are sad over a personal loss.

Understanding the depression chain is the first step to finding ways out of the depression. The tools one needs for changing thoughts are collectively called "cognitive restructuring" which is just a fancy name for "changing the way you think." The major problem with changing thoughts is that doing so means changing a mental habit and habits can be very difficult to change. One of the reasons for this is that habits are often something you do, that while you are doing it, you may not know you are doing it.

We will be posting more material on how one goes about changing the thought and belief system that generates depression. Please feel free to leave a comment below or contact us via email at

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Blog Index

25 Random Facts About Psychology
Anger Management
Anonymity and Faith
Anticipation of Pain
Are You Worried Yet?
Art of Napping
Chill of Loneliness
Cosmology and the Bible
Depression: An Introduction
Domino Effect
Emotional Intelligence
Female Brain: A Book Review
Guilt: An Introduction
Healthy Painful Emotions
Inauguration Day
Learned Helplessness
Learned Optimism
Marshmallow Test
Panic Attacks, Part 1
Panic Attacks, Part 2
Predicting the Future
Psychology - What Is It? Really?
Psychology and the Brain
Q&A #1
Q&A #2
Science Doesn't Know Everything
Six Unhealthy Emotions
Sleep Deprivation, Part 1
Sleep Deprivation, Part 2
Start of a New Year
Stress Management: Overview
Stress Management: Natural Breathing
Temper Tantrums, Part 1: Understanding
Temper Tantrums, Part 2: Prevention
Temper Tantrums, part 3: Management
Using 10% of Your Brain
Weight Loss
What's Good About Good Friday
What We Don't Know Can Kill Us
Worry Cycle, the
Your Comfort Zone

Feel free to suggest any topic to us you would like to see.

The Chill of Loneliness

I enjoy reading journal articles not only because they teach me so much, but also because I admire the cleverness of the researchers in how they design their research. One such article that hit me recently was published in the journal Psychological Science. Authors Drs. Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli from the University of Toronto studied the relationship between emotions and body temperature.

They wondered if there was a relationship between body temperature and such painful emotions as loneliness, despair and sadness. Their interest was aroused by the phrase often used by people when they are describing their loneliness, the "chill of loneliness." People are not merely exaggerating when they speak of being cold when they are lonely or sad. Drs. Zhong and Leonardelli conducted two experiments to see if there was a relationship between emotions and physical sensations.

The first experiment asked one group of people to ponder a time in their lives when they experienced a sense of loneliness. The other group was supposed to think about a past experience when they felt accepted. Then both groups were later asked to estimate the temperature of the room they were in. The group that had thought about acceptance estimated the room to be, on average, 76 degrees. Those who remembered and thought about a time when they were feeling lonely estimated the room temperature to be 71 degrees.

Another, different experiment was done to see if similar results would occur. About 50 people engaged in a computer-based, ball-tossing exercise. Each person would catch a ball and then throw it to anyone they wanted. Over the course of time, most people would expect that everyone would get a ball tossed to them about the same number of times as everyone else.

What the participants didn't know was that the game was designed so that some people would get the ball tossed to them much less often than other members of the group. When the exercise was finished, the participants were then asked to rate the desirability of certain foods: hot coffee, crackers, an ice-cold Coke, an apple, and hot soup.

As you might guess from the results of the first experiment, those who were "ostracized" from the game had more of a desire for the hot coffee or soup. The researchers understood this to mean that a preference for hot liquids was the result of feeling colder because they had been excluded from full participation in a group effort.

So, the next time you feel chilly in a crowd of people, it is probably not your imagination. You may actually be feeling isolated or rejected. If this is the case, you would be wise to think about the cause of the loneliness to see if there is anything you can do. Loneliness is a "healthy" human emotion in that it can move you forward by possibly telling you it is time to learn some new coping skills for loneliness.
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Monday, October 6, 2008

Stress Management: Natural Breathing

Natural Breathing is an effective, quick technique that can be used literally anywhere and any time. If you have ever hyperventilated, Natural Breathing will keep you from ever doing this again for the rest of your life. This is because hyperventilation and Natural Breathing are incompatible—they cannot happen at the same time. You cannot sit and stand at the same time because they, too, are incompatible. When you master Natural Breathing, you won't ever have to carry a paper bag with you again! Natural Breathing has three components: deep breathing, slow breathing, and discontinuous breathing.

Deep breathing. To learn to breathe deeply, you first need to check how you currently take a deep breath. Do this now by standing in front of a mirror. As you take a really deep breath, watch what happens to your upper body and your stomach. You may notice that your upper body will move—if you took a really big breath, you may have raised your shoulders—and your stomach will be drawn in. Although the vast majority of the human race takes a deep breath in this way, it is wrong. It is wrong because it is backwards.

For a truly deep breath to occur, there must be little or no movement in your upper body—and at the same time your stomach must be pushed out. (This "belly breathing" is used by professional musicians.) To learn how to breathe deeply properly, put your hands on your stomach, directly on top of your navel. Now push in. While you are pushing in, push your hands away from your body with your stomach muscles. Then, as you relax your stomach muscles, let your hands push your stomach back in again. This in-and-out movement of your stomach muscles is the same movement that should occur when you breathe deeply.

Now that you have experienced this movement in your stomach muscles, you know which muscles to use for deep breathing. To learn the complete technique of natural deep breathing, follow this simple four- step procedure. (This procedure should always be done by inhaling and exhaling through your mouth.)

  1. Push your stomach in again with your hands.
  2. Let the air out of your lungs (be sure to keep your stomach pushed in).
  3. Now "breathe in, push out" and then
  4. "breathe out push in."

When you do this for the first time, it should feel different from any other kind of breathing you have experienced before. It may feel either labored or easy depending on how quickly you can adjust to the new coordination of your stomach muscles with your breathing patterns.

Do this several more times so that you can get the feel of what is happening to you. Don't despair if it doesn't come easy. If you are a woman, you have two strikes against you in learning this procedure. First, you must counteract years of physical conditioning. You have been breathing incorrectly for many years, and it may take some time for you to coordinate your muscles.

Second, social conditioning has taught you that, as a woman, "you must never push your stomach out." Let me reassure you that the first problem will take care of itself very quickly. The second is really nonexistent. When you learn to do this naturally, you can deep breathe and nobody will notice it.

Breathing slowly. Now that you have learned to breathe deeply, you must also learn how to breathe more slowly. If you breathe quickly and deeply, you will not get the full benefit of Natural Breathing. You can learn to breathe slowly by simply spelling the word "R-E-L-A-X" to yourself as you breathe in and again as you breathe out. Spell the word silently at the rate of about one letter per second. In this way it will take you about five to six seconds to inhale and the same amount of time to exhale. A total breathe cycle will last about ten to twelve seconds (which means about five or six breaths a minute).

This will probably feel a lot slower than the breathing you are used to. Try this now (using the four-part procedure for deep breathing you just learned) and see how slowly you can breathe. It would be unusual for you to get past the "L" in relax," because most people take in a quick breath and then try to slow it down for the remaining four seconds.

Musicians know that the secret to slow breathing is something called "breath control." When you begin to inhale, do it very gently and gradually, moving your stomach very slowly. You will probably find that controlling the speed of exhaling will be easier than controlling the speed of inhaling.

Breathing discontinuously. Finally, you need to learn how to breathe discontinuously. Listen to your breathing for a few seconds as you normally do it. You will notice that your exhaling and inhaling flow from one to the other. To breathe naturally, you must learn to pause after you exhale and before you take in another breath. How long this pause takes is insignificant. The important factor is that you put a discrete, specific pause between the exhale and the inhale. This pause will help you to further slow down your breathing.

Remember, the pause is the opposite of holding your breath. When you hold your breath, you stop breathing while your lungs are full of air; when you pause, you stop breathing when your lungs empty.

I have named this type of breathing "Natural Breathing" for a good reason: this is the way you naturally breathed when you were born. If you watch a baby on its back, you will notice the little tummy going slowly up and down as it breathes. When the stomach comes down on the exhale, there is a long pause before another breath is taken. So, you see, you are not learning anything new. Rather, you are relearning how to do something that your body considers natural and that which you have been taught not to do.

Now that you know how to breathe naturally, it is imperative that you also learn how to do it automatically. When you are stressed, it can be extremely difficult to remember a half-learned skill. To make Natural Breathing a regular part of your life, you need to practice this skill on a consistent basis.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Domino Effect

As we mentioned in our previous article on happiness, everybody wants to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is a right guaranteed in the constitution. But most people don't realize that there are two kinds of happiness: Happiness (with a capital H) and happiness (with a small h).

Happiness (big H) is something that runs very deep and is quite profound and long lasting; much more than its cousin, happiness (little h). Real Happiness goes by many names: tranquility, inner peace, serenity. Many other words also come to mind: calm, placidity, quiet, stillness, composure, poise, equanimity, repose, harmony, and peacefulness.

Unfortunately, people keep fooling themselves into thinking that happiness is merely feeling good. Not that feeling good is wrong or bad. It just don't happen to be the same thing as the big H. Little h happiness occurs when we can get rid of pain and suffering. Big H happiness is not the absence of conflict or pain, but rather the ability to cope with both.

Happiness is not a goal in life but is rather a by-product of something else. That something else is self control. Perhaps a good way to understand self control is in the sense of self management. Rather than let your life run you, you need to learn the skills to manage (control) your life so that you can experience it the way you want it. By controlling four specific components of your life, you can find your pathway to Happiness. These four parts are what comprise human nature. The more you can control each of these elements, the closer you are to the big H.

This is different from New Age beliefs that promise you the ability to "feel good" no matter what is happening to you. Happiness (with the big "H") doesn't rule out suffering, pain and emotional distress. What it does give you is the ability to cope during such times. It gives you the self confidence that no matter what happens, you will eventually make it through and be a stronger person for it.

These four keys to Happiness are not independent of one another. They constantly interact with and affect each other. The chain reaction that is seen with dominoes is a good way to understand your life. Imagine a set of 5 dominoes where each one represents an important aspect of control. The diagram to the left shows what this might look like.

The first domino represents everything outside of you that triggers off the second domino. This could include weather, people, health, work and any other event that you encounter in your life.

The second domino stands for your thought life. Feelings (emotions and sensations) are the third domino and the fourth is your behavior domino.

The last domino stands for any consequences that happen in the outside world as the result of your behavior. You need to know that these dominoes never change position.

The Big H type happiness occurs when all the dominoes are standing. This is difficult because the first domino, life, has a tendency to keep falling on you (did you notice the round bottom?). So many things can go wrong in life. Yet, we try to keep the dominoes standing by attempting to control the first domino. This is not possible because you have no control over life events.

No matter how hard you try to keep the life domino from falling, it will eventually fall. Every time you set the first domino up it falls again. Then all the other dominoes fall. The trick is to spend less time trying to straighten out life.

You can have the Big H when you have learned to make the second domino immovable. You want to learn how to mentally superglue the second domino to the tabletop. When you can do this by changing your thought life, then you will have Happiness because the rest of the dominoes will remain standing.

In addition to managing your thought life, you also want to learn how to manage your emotions, sensations and behavior. In The Worry Free Life, we show you, step by step how to learn these new skills and apply them to your life.

Cognitive therapy has been one of the most exciting developments in mental health in this century. By discovering that emotions are produced by thinking, psychologists have given the human race a means of finally doing something about such crippling infirmities as depression and guilt.

If you would like to begin a dialogue on the dominoes feel free to click on the comments link below.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Stress: Overview

Stress is actually a survival mechanism built into your brain. When your brain detects what it perceives as dangerous, it releases stress hormones such as adrenaline. For example, these hormones cause your muscles to tense, your breathing increases and your mind starts to race. When the danger goes away, your muscles relax, your breathing slows down and your mind begins to calm.

If the stress trigger continues over a long period of time you then experience chronic stress. This causes your brain to release a new chemical called cortisol. Studies have shown that increased cortisol appears to be related to depression. Higher cortisol levels also affect many body functions such as higher blood pressure, hyperglycemia, and impaired immune functioning. This is just a sampling of what can go wrong in your body because of increased long-term stress.

Although it is helpful in short-term stress situations, the constant release of cortisol into your blood stream can be a major contributor of disease. In women, too much cortisol can decrease bone density. One study found that 40-year old women with high stress levels had similar bone density to 70-year old women.

Interestingly, when couples have arguments, women release more stress hormones than their partners. When men do experience stress, they tend to return to a more relaxed state quicker.
One of the most physically damaging aspects of stress is how it affects your immune system. The risk of an infectious disease increases the longer the stress hormones remain in your body. Some research shows that chronic stress levels and a diminished immune system can increase the likelihood that you might become infected with viruses linked to cancer. Another study found that when elderly people got flu shots, those with high stress levels received the least benefit from the vaccination.

What this all means is that stress has minimal affect on the bodies of people who practice stress relaxation exercises: Natural Breathing, Muscle Relaxation, and Mind Calming. People who do this are simply stronger in the face of problems! The most recent discovery is that all this takes place at the level of your genes. As you calm yourself, your DNA changes the genetic makeup in your body.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Panic Attacks, Part 2

If you missed Part 1, you can see it here: Panic Attacks, Part 1

If you have been told by your physician that your panic attacks are not the result of a biological condition, then you can concentrate on learning the skills needed to minimize your panic attacks. When psychologists first began working with panic attacks, our goal was to help you totally eliminate panic attacks. We eventually found this goal unworkable and unnecessary. The problem was that too much pressure existed to "never ever again have another panic attack." This level of perfect expectations would often backfire.

If you believed that you could never have another panic attack, the elephant in the room (your mind) was the thought that you just might have one. This germ of an idea would eventually grow into a fatal prediction that you, indeed, would have one. As you now know, this prediction would then bring on the panic attack. Psychologists have a different goal today: we teach people how to get to the place where they don’t care if they have a panic attack or not. This new attitude is more reasonable. It is possible because once you have the tools, then any panic attack will be short lived and under your control. In other words, it will merely be an inconvenience, not a terrifying experience.

So what do you need to do to bring your panic attacks under control? The first is to learn to activate your brain’s parasympathetic nervous system. You can do this by learning, practicing and mastering three simple skills: Natural Breathing, Muscle Relaxation, Mind Calming.

First, learn how to breathe properly (see Monday, October 6, 2008 post). When you are panicking, your breathing is shallow, fast and continuous. Learn to belly breathe by pushing out your stomach as you inhale; pull your stomach back in when you exhale. Then slow your breathing down by continuing to inhale and exhale as you spell the word "relax" at the rate of one letter per second. Finally, pause (stop breathing) momentarily after you exhale and before you take the next breathe. I call this type of breathing, Natural Breathing. This name is appropriate because this is the way that babies breath when they are born.

You also want to get rid of all the muscle tension that accompanies panic attacks. Learn to relax about 15 different muscles in your body by tensing a muscle for about ten seconds and then quickly releasing the tension and observing it for another ten seconds before tensing another muscle. This entire exercise should take between fifteen and twenty minutes. Do this slowly and observe the difference in feeling between a tense muscle and a relaxed muscle. Sometimes, relaxing a group of muscles results in a warm or tingling sensation. This indicates you are relaxing the muscle properly. Traditionally, people start with relaxing their feet, legs, stomach, back, shoulders, neck, and facial areas.

When you are finished relaxing your entire body, you want to practice calming your mind. Think of a pleasant scene (most people pick a peaceful water scene) and try to experience this as much as you can. The trick is to deal effectively with a wondering mind. You can do this by merely coming back to your chosen scene every time your mind wanders. This is often discouraging to beginners because our mind is supposed to "wander." You want to train your mind to focus on one topic for an extended period of time. This may take several weeks or months to become effective. Don’t be disheartened if the learning is slow because you will eventually be proficient. You only need to stay with this scene for a few minutes each time you practice Mind Calming.

The major mistake most people make in learning these three skills is to expect these skills to work with only minimal practice. When I teach these skills to my clients, they must practice Natural Breathing five times every hour while awake until it becomes automatic and easy. This usually takes place within a few days. They are expected to practice Muscle Relaxation four times a day. Mind Calming needs to be practiced about eight times a day.

The other skill you need to develop for your Panic Attack toolbox is to learn how to switch from worry to concern. The skills above are designed to activate your relaxation response in your body. Eliminating worry eliminates the panic attack trigger. You can learn this skill by reading our blogs on worry (there will be more to come) for checking out our book, The Worry Free Life.

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