Friday, February 27, 2009

Sleep Deprivation: Part 2


Sleep Deprivation and Women
For some reason women are more prone to sleep deprivation than men. Twice as females than males say they struggle with insomnia. Furthermore, it appears that seventy-five percent of women do not get the recommended eight hours of sleep each night.

Most modern women would not be surprised by these findings. After all, a woman’s brain and body are much more complicated than a man’s. It seems as if women’s bodies never stop making complex biological changes — changes that can keep a good night’s sleep elusive. These changes include menstrual periods, pregnancy and menopause. Women have had to deal with this since the dawn of time. Now modern women can add contemporary life that might include single motherhood and demanding, stressful jobs.

When we look at the life cycle of a woman’s life we tend to see a pattern. During the early years, the 20s and 30s, pregnancy, childbirth and just being a mom can make sleep deprivation a constant companion. Later on, during the 40s and 50s women are beginning to struggle with hormonal changes. This is also the time when family concerns can become problematical: children leaving home – or coming back, possible separation or divorce, an awakening that life has to be more than it is, the search for one’s self. After 60 it is easy to decrease daily activity. In addition to making the body more lethargic, some scientists think that a change in outdoor activity for older people may decrease exposure to sunlight. This, in turn, can mess up a person’s internal clock

What can we do to overcome sleep deprivation?
I suppose the easy answer would be, "Well, just get more sleep." As is often the case, such simplistic responses are useless. Perhaps one of the most common responses to sleeplessness is medication. Over fifty million prescriptions are being written for sleeping pills every year.

This sounds like a simple and effective solution but it really isn’t. Most experts agree that taking medication to overcome continuing sleep problems should always be a last resort. As a temporary fix, it is probably benign. The problem with such an approach is the side effects issue. Consumer Reports found out that "Sixty-three percent of those who took sleep medications experienced side effects; 24 percent said they became dependent on the medication they used; and 21 percent said that repeated use reduced the drug's effectiveness."

Many drugs have a dramatic effect on different stages of sleep. One of the side-effects is somnambulism mentioned above. One woman found out she had eaten an entire box of chocolates during the night with no memory of having done so. Dommon effects of sleep medication are trouble waking up, headaches or nausea, feeling tired or dizzy. Some people say they feel as if their head is full of cotton in the morning and they can’t really think clearly. Even newer drugs like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants can significantly reduce REM sleep for months or years. Most sleep specialists believe that long term use of sleeping medication can mask the real causes of sleep deprivation which, aside from real medical causes, are almost always life style issues.

If personal issues are serious, the best results occur when a person sees a psychologist skilled in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). This approach offers the most effective remedy for sleep problems. At the beginning of such treatment, temporary use of medications can help to kick-start CBT.

How much sleep do we really need. It depends on age and here is the consensus:
  • Newborns and infants may need as much as 16-18 hours of sleep (including naps) each day.

  • Toddlers between the ages of 3-6 should have 10 to 12 hours every 24 hours.

  • Children who are between the ages of 6 and 9 are at their best with about 10 hours of sleep.

  • Beginning at age nine and continuing through adolescence kids need a minimum of about 9 nighttime hours.

  • Adult sleep is generally supposed to run between eight and nine hours. A few adults are wired to live on four to five hours sleep with no detrimental effects.

  • Some experts think seniors may find they need as much sleep as children, including naps.
Now that you know how much sleep you are supposed have, let’s look at how to get it. At the top of most lists is the need for regular exercise. A study at Stanford University corroborated this — especially for senior citizens. When they would exercise consistently, they "fell asleep more quickly, slept longer and felt more rested when they awoke than did their sedentary counterparts."

A comfortable environment can contribute much to a good night’s sleep. Although often difficult to do, going to bed at the same time every night, including weekends, can help your brain find a helpful sleep rhythm. One often overlooked issue is the pillow and/or mattress. If your mattress is more than ten years old, you may want to consider checking out a new one. Many sleep problems go away with a better mattress.

Many people find that predictable and soothing rituals about thirty minutes prior to bedtime can help make the transition to a sound sleep. Each person needs to find their own pattern but here are some suggestions that have helped others: a hot bath can lower your body temperature helping you to enter the first sleep stage more easily; using relaxation/meditation techniques; drinking a cup of hot tea or a glass of milk; reading something interesting that takes concentration and effort. Read until your eyes begin to close or until you find yourself reading the same sentence over and over. Some people set a clock radio to soothing music that will turn itself off in about a half hour. If you try this and are still awake when the music shuts off, look at the suggestions in the next paragraph. Whatever works for you, do the same thing every night.

In addition to what to do, you need to also avoid certain behaviors. Alcohol, caffeine and even food will stimulate your brain and make it harder to get to sleep if taken less than two hours before bedtime. It is helpful to get rid of anything that can stimulate your brain including sounds, light, lively music and pets. Avoid bringing anything work-related to bed. Computers and televisions can also offer too much brain stimulation.

Worry will have the same effect. After you have turned out the light and you find yourself tossing but not sleeping thirty minutes later, it is best to get out of bed and stop trying to sleep. If worry has kept you awake, then make a healthy contribution to your worry diary (Voice Diary). Some people find it helpful to find a room that has soft lighting. While there, do something soothing that is repetitive but not challenging — like knitting or reading. When you feel sleepy, head off to bed. If you’re not worrying but you are physically uncomfortable, you may want to try moving about. Walking or even mild exercise may be able to calm your body.

I hope this information has been helpful and you can soon get a better night’s rest.

Feel free to send me any suggestions of strategies you have successfully used to help get more sleep. You can contact me at this link.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sleep Deprivation: Part 1

Not getting enough sleep is common to all of us. This happens when our body’s natural rhythm gets out of sync for a variety of reasons. This is most dramatic when we cross time zones while traveling by jet. Some nights we have a lot on our minds and will worry for a few hours before falling asleep at our regular time. Inactivity can also contribute to occasional sleeplessness. Studies show that over half of us occasionally experience loss of sleep.

Sleep deprivation refers to a condition that is much more chronic. When loss of sleep interferes with our normal activities it is called sleep deprivation. As you can guess, parts of our brain need to rest during sleep. When your brain sense it needs to rest, it will begin to shut down for very short periods of time which is called microsleep. Microsleep only lasts a few seconds Maybe you have experienced this as your head droops during a boring lecture or when driving late at night. The microsleep is sending you a signal that says "if you don’t give me more sleep soon, I’m going to shut down completely." Many traffic accidents are caused by ignoring this brain message.

Ironically, some people have the mistaken belief they can train themselves to live on less sleep than they normally get. This is different than a few individuals who are somehow born needing less sleep. One disturbing study found that people who consistently get less than four hours of sleep are prone to dying within six years at a rate three times greater than people who get more sleep.

What is Normal Sleep
Before we look further at sleep deprivation, let’s try to understand more thoroughly what sleep really is. Over fifty years ago, sleep researchers discovered that we all go through five different phases when we sleep. The first phase occurs before we actually go to sleep and is called the Waking Stage. It sounds strange that being awake is actually a sleep phase. This occurs when you begin to feel sleepy because your body is preparing itself for falling asleep. Several things happen here. As your body begins to prepare itself, your muscles begin to relax and your eye movement begins to slow down.

Next, your body enters what is called Stage One sleep. This begins when drowsiness sets in and your eyes finally close. This usually lasts about five to ten minutes. Even though this is a sleep stage, if you are awakened you may not feel as if you have really slept. Those of you who practice a muscle relaxation exercise or meditate will recognize this as the stage you experience when you are fully relaxed. Some people in this stage may have a sense of falling followed by sudden muscle contraction.

When your muscles begin to tense and relax (and you are not aware of this) you have entered sleep Stage Two. Now your heart rate slows down and your body temperature drops. This stage gets your body ready for deep sleep.

Stages three and four are similar except stage four is more intense. You may have heard of these stages referred to as delta sleep or slow-wave sleep. It is called slow-wave sleep because your brain patterns on an electromyogram show brain waves that are very slow.

These four stages generally run about ninety to a hundred and twenty minutes. Up to this point you have not yet been dreaming. Interestingly, you don’t immediately dream after stage four. It appears that after stage four you go back to stage three, then two and finally dream sleep. This complete forward-backward cycle occurs several times per night and can take anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours. When you dream your eyes move very rapidly so it is called REM sleep – REM stands for rapid eye movement. This sleep stage was not discovered until 1953.

As the night wears on, most of your sleep stays in the first two stages with some REM sleep thrown in. Some scientists think the brain does this in order "to create the healthiest possible balance to prevent fatigue and irritability during waking hours."

When you begin to dream a lot of changes take place in your brain and body. Even though your brain patterns look like stage one sleep, you will now display the telltale sign of dreaming: rapid eye movement (REM). Prior to this, much of your body functions have slowed down. Now your breathing and heart rate speed up and become irregular. If someone was watching, they might see twitching in your legs, face, or fingers. For most people, REM sleep is experienced about three to five times each night.

Here is the interesting piece about REM sleep: your major voluntary muscle groups become paralyzed. Why is this? Most scientists believe this is a safety factor built into the brain. When your muscles and brain are activated, the likelihood that you will act out your dream increases. As you can imagine people acted out their dreams while asleep (like driving a car) would have less chance of passing on their genes. They would probably take themselves out of the gene pool.

In this sleep stage a couple of interesting things can take place. If your brain doesn’t shut down your muscles, you may begin to sleepwalk (technically called somnambulism). People have done some amazing, silly, and dangerous things while in this state. While sleepwalking takes place when you are fully asleep with fully operating muscles. The opposite can also occur when you become awake while your body is still paralyzed. This experience is called hypnopompic sleep. This paralyzed-awake experience can also occur before fully falling asleep and is called a hypnogogic experience. Both are referred to as an HHE (hypnopompic-hypnogogic experience).

Best estimates are that twenty to thirty percent of the population may experience some form of this HHE brain state. Sometimes it is remembered and sometimes not. When experienced it can be frightening if you don’t know what is happening and why. No matter how scared you are, you cannot move or speak. It is usually fairly short-lived, no more than a few moments. Strange things can happen during these few moments when time seems to stand still. It is common for people to report some kind of "presence" that is threatening or even an "evil" presence. This presence is usually felt to be close by and may seem to be standing near or sitting on the bed watching or monitoring you. Some of the many experiences that accompany this is feeling is one of being strangled, attacked and having vivid hallucinations. Some people even report an out-of-body experience (OBE) like floating near the ceiling of the room. Even after the event is over, there can still be a sense of anxiety. From this description you can now understand how the idea of the incubus became popular in medieval Europe. In more modern times, we now know that alien abductees are those who have experienced an HHE.

So what’s the purpose of this back and forth activity in your brain during sleep. The answers are just beginning to appear. Many studies have lead researchers of sleep to think that one of the major functions of sleep is related to memory processing. Some studies have shown that sleep is responsible for allowing you to keep new memories. During sleep the brain can actually make new synapses and connections between brain cells.

Causes of Sleep Deprivation
So, why are so many people sleep deprived when sleep is so terribly important for health and well-being? It seems there are many reasons. Many people tell researchers their lives are so fast paced that they simply don’t have enough time to get everything done, let alone get enough sleep. Many contemporary societies value productivity. This can put sleep at the bottom of one’s personal priority list. Since most people (especially younger adults) are not aware of the detriment of sleep deprivation, they just accept being tired thinking they will catch up on the weekend and all will be well.

There are also a series of medical reasons for sleep deprivation that are called sleep disorders. One of the most common is sleep apnea. Many people who have this condition don’t even know they have it and just feel tired all the time. My co-author of The Worry Free Life had this condition for most of his life. When we went on a book tour, I was awakened one night in our motel room by the sound of a chain saw. I realized it was Pat snoring. As I listened I guessed the noise was more than snoring because there would be long pauses where it seemed he had stopped breathing. We talked about it the next day and he eventually found a physician and had surgery for the condition. After that, Pat reported he had never felt so refreshed. Sleep apnea is not only annoying but it can be dangerous by raising a person’s blood pressure.

One of the major psychological reasons for sleep deprivation is insomnia caused by worry. Most of us have some insomnia now and then. When it becomes more frequent, it is time to do something about it. Those of you who are using the tools in The Worry Free Life already know how to do this. Most of my clients have learned to sleep well by using a combination of the three stress reduction exercises and Voice Fighting.

Suggestions for combating insomnia include issues like depression, being overweight, or eating and drinking too much prior to sleep. The bottom line for all these suggestions is to change your thinking. If you remember the Domino Effect (page 25) you will also remember that behaviors are usually preceded by feelings that are caused by thought patterns. Worry is just another word for destructive thinking (or as we refer to it, the Voice).

Why is sleep deprivation so bad?
Research has shown that a lack of proper sleep translates to problems of poor concentration, increased irritability, and a decrease in school and job performance. Sleeplessness can also increase your vulnerability to certain illnesses because of a less effective immune system.

We mentioned traffic accidents resulting from sleep deprivation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 100,000 crashes each year are a result of drivers falling asleep at the wheel. This is because the brain begins to lose its ability to function at an appropriate level: malfunctioning of your brain neurons that have a drastic effect on perception and reaction time.

Being able to use language effectively more difficult as you get less sleep. Severe sleep deprivation can basically shut down all activity in your brain. What happens to your behavior when this condition sets in? The answer is, lots of nasty things. You can begin to slur your speech just as you would if you were drunk. One study found that if someone drives after being awake more than seventeen hours he or she will drive worse than someone who has a blood alcohol level of .05 percent – the legal limit for drunk driving. In addition to slurred speech, you may stutter, speak slower and in a monotone voice. Even if your speech sounded normal to you, you would still have trouble speaking intelligently. Instead of creatively using a rich vocabulary to express yourself, your brain would choose simple phrases that were clich├ęd and repetitious.

Another study found that reaction time was significantly impaired. When you are sleep deprived, you lose your creative ability for making logical decisions quickly. No wonder accidents and sleep deprivation are related. This is even made worse because your ability to multitask becomes less efficient. One of the most pernicious accidents occurs in hospitals when residents don’t get enough sleep (working to much with too little sleep has typically been one of the rites of passage for new physicians). Several studies have found out that sleep deprivation increases the number of medical errors in medical settings to increase dramatically. This is why I politely grilled my surgeon before my LASIK eye surgery. "Did you get enough sleep last night?" "Any major stresses with your family?" Only after she answered all my questions to my satisfaction did I let the surgery begin.

If you are person who has difficulty with focusing, attention and impulse control, sleep deprivation will only make these conditions worse. Well, what about stress? This, too, can be a problem because lack of sleep can increase your body’s production of stress hormones.

A sleep deprived body will begin to slow down the facility for metabolizing glucose. This can lead to early-stage diabetes type-2. As you can probably imagine, if the body does not metabolize sugar well, obesity will be more likely. This is exactly what one study found – the research suggested a link between sleep deprivation and weight gain. This problem then becomes a vicious circle because weight gain increases the likelihood of sleep apnea which increases the probability of sleep deprivation, and so on.

Is this the end of the bad news? Nope. If sleep deprivation continues too long you can experience hallucinations, temporary insanity or even death as your system shuts down.

To be continued Friday

Friday, February 20, 2009

25 Random Facts About Psychology

  1. Not everyone who hears voices is mentally ill.
  2. Lightner Witmer founded clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896.
  3. A psychologist and psychiatrist are not the same: psychiatrists are physicians who specialize in helping people through medication; psychologists use non-medical means to help people.
  4. The results of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 were so unexpected that Dr. Zimbardo had to discontinue the experiment before it was complete.
  5. Psychology is a science; parapsychology is a pseudoscience.
  6. No one yet knows how the brain develops consciousness — often called "an awareness of awareness."
  7. Psychologists try to describe reality as it really is rather than what humans believe it to be.
  8. For a person to practice psychology, she must be licensed and have a doctorate degree.
  9. Psychology has discovered over forty cognitive, thinking errors all people are susceptible to.
  10. The polygraph, the so-called "lie detector," cannot reliably detect a person who is lying.
  11. Psychologists do more than provide therapy to people in need (clinical psychology). They teach, do research, design programs for NASA, work with law enforcement, help business be more effective, and show athletes strategies for peak performance — to name a few of the many areas of expertise for psychologists.
  12. Psychologists cannot read people’s minds.
  13. There are currently more female than male graduate students in psychology.
  14. Hypnosis, when effective, is nothing more than the operation of the placebo effect.
  15. Freud was not the "Father of Psychology." Although there is no one founder of psychology, many psychologists consider Wilhelm Wundt the founder of psychology in the sense that he made it a true science.
  16. Psychologists have shown that two- and three-day old babies can perceive musical rhythms.
  17. Psychohistories are problematical when they "explain too much." This occurs when the writer doesn’t account for chance and coincidence in the life of the person being studied.
  18. The ink-blot test is not much use for finding out anything about another person.
  19. In psychology, a "believer" is someone who accepts something before checking it out scientifically whereas the "skeptic" is someone who does not accept something until it has been verified scientifically. Most psychologists are skeptics.
  20. The term ESP (extrasensory perception) was made popular by Duke University researcher J. B. Rhine. He identified four types of ESP: clairvoyance, telepathy, telekinesis, precognition. He was a poor researcher and was often tricked by many of his subjects. Any good magician can outperform the most successful practitioner of ESP.
  21. Psychologists now study concepts earlier thought impossible to study such as morality, love, and human belief systems.
  22. In 1907 German psychologist Oskar Pfungst studied a horse that its owner claimed could perform mental feats such as adding numbers. It couldn’t without unconscious cues from its owner.
  23. Psychology research in human perception has solved problems such as radar monitoring, street lighting, and airplane cockpit design.
  24. One study on a college campus found that there is a wide discrepancy between student perceptions of the profession of psychology and reality.
  25. Psychologists, like all scientists, understand that there is no such thing as final proven knowledge in science. Knowledge is always susceptible to change. Some knowledge changes frequently, other knowledge changes minimally.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Art of Napping

Do you ever take naps? If you do, are other people aware of your napping? It wasn’t so long ago that napping was seen as a sign of weakness. Then we realized very famous people regularly took naps: Winston Churchill, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Napoleon Bonaparte, Johannes Brahms, John D. Rockefeller.

We might even say these "nap models" could credit some of their success to naps. None of them could have accomplished what they did if they were sleep deprived. Their output demanded mental and physical alertness which is not possible for those who are sleep deprived. Yet more people are sleep deprived today than what we need in a healthy society. Unfortunately, two-thirds of Americans are sleep deprived according to a poll taken in 2000 by the National Sleep Foundation.

Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep each night — few of us get it. So what’s the point of getting so much sleep? The answer is that it makes us less dangerous. For example, we know that car crashes and other accidents are often the result of sleep deprivation. Many people use late night driving tricks like drinking caffeine, turning on loud music, talking aloud to oneself in order to stay awake. Napping is a much more effective alternative. If a tired driver were to take a sixty minute nap before getting in the car, alertness could be improved for up to ten hours.

For those whom alertness is vital, napping also increases performance. One such study was done on pilots who took a twenty-six minute nap during their flight. The results showed a thirty-four percent improvement in performance and a fifty-four percent improvement in overall alertness.

Napping can sometimes reverse the effects of too little sleep. Some studies have demonstrated that naps are as good as an entire night of sleep on certain types of memory tasks. Many studies have agreed that naps can make our late afternoon hours as good as our morning hours. The participants in these studies found that an early afternoon nap boosted their performance back to morning levels.

Napping also helps us to become more productive, alert and creative. Naps can even improve our mood. One study, from Harvard University, showed the effectiveness that naps had in reversing burnout from a stressful workday.

Napping might also make us healthier and less susceptible to certain diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, even stress. Some studies have even suggested that naps can lower the risk of excessive weight gain.

With all these benefits, why don’t more people nap? William Anthony is a psychologist and the executive director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University. In his book, The Art of Napping, he explains that even though more people are willing to privately tell others they nap, it is still a forbidden topic in the workplace."Our culture has developed the mistaken belief that productivity and napping are two different extremes," he says. He has coined some funny terms. Unlike some people in European countries, Americans devalue the siesta because they think it diminishes their work output. Dr. Anthony calls us a "nappist society" filled with napaphoics — people who try to make nappers feel guilty. His nickname for people who nap but keep it a secret is a "clapper" — a closet napper.

A humorous aside about Dr. Anthony. His entire family believes in napping. His family is so competitive they can be found having napping contests. No wonder he wrote a book on napping.

How long should you nap? That depends on what you want to accomplish. Naps can vary from a few minutes to more than an hour. Sometimes the "pretend nap" can also be effective. This is a nap that is not a nap — you lay down, close your eyes and never fall asleep. Just relaxing and letting your mind drift peacefully can also be restorative.

Some people take catnaps of about twenty minutes. Even this short amount of time can give you benefits in concentration and alertness. Additionally your mood may improve. If you need to be immediately alert after your short nap, you can turn your catnap into what is called a caffeine nap. This is done by ingesting caffeine (caffeinated beverage or caffeine pill) before napping. Since caffeine takes about twenty to thirty minutes to kick in, soon after you wake up you will be alert and full of energy.

If you sleep longer — up to forty-five minutes — your nap may also include REM sleep (dreaming). This stage of sleep improves creative thinking and lets your brain process information more effectively. Napping even longer will cause your brain to experience all five stages of sleep including slow-wave sleep. If you have a long nap in the morning, you will have more REM sleep; long afternoon naps produce more slow-wave sleep. If you choose an extended nap be sure to avoid being awakened before you automatically wake up. Being awakened during slow-wave sleep will produce "sleep inertia" — a condition that makes you feel disoriented and foggy headed. You may even feel more sleepy than you did before napping.

A psychologist at Cornell University, James Maas, developed something called the power nap. In his book, Power Sleep, he suggests that naps should take place about eight hours after we wake up from our night’s sleep. The power nap needs to quit just prior the slow-wave sleep so that you can awake fully alert with no drowsiness. Some power nappers set an alarm so that they don’t slip into slow-wave sleep.

Typically, people think naps are only for people who don’t get enough sleep. Two Japanese researchers have shown that napping can improve mental performance even if a person has had a full night’s sleep. Naps, then, are important. You need to find the best napping style for you. There is no one best length of time. If I have nothing scheduled, I like to nap until I wake up. Sometimes when I feel really tired, I might nap for only twenty to thirty minutes. Other times, I’ll tell myself that I only need a few minutes rest and will awake an hour or more later. At other times, I feel like I have not napped at all and decide to get up finding myself surprised by the clock that I had actually slept. Do what works for you.

Happy Napping.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Happiness - Part 2

Why another article on happiness? Because it is becoming a major force in psychology. It is the cover story for this month’s issue of Psychology Today. My article today will summarize some of the information in this 10-page story written by Carlin Flora and entitled, The Pursuit of Happiness. As Flora says on the opening page,

Caught up in a happiness frenzy for much of the past decade, Americans have remarkably little to show for it. Herein we highlight the research that illuminates a more satisfying way to well-being.
In a mere eight years, the number of books on happiness increased by 4000%. Even though the topic has been researched for more than 25 years, it has only become an official part of psychology in the last ten years. Once this research became public "experts" began to appear out of the woodwork. Much of what is available about happiness in books and on websites tends to be of the "quick fix" variety.

Often it tells you "what to do" instead of the "how to do it" of the psychological research. The science of happiness is interested in the details and methods that have proved to work better than placebo. It is how all science is done: use a control group, do the study more than once, and control as many outside variables as possible.

What is happiness about? This article tells us it "is not about smiling all the time. It’s not about eliminating bad moods." We make the distinction in The Worry Free Life between Big "H" and little "h." The distinction is important. Happiness (Big "H" variety) is like contentment, tranquility, or peace of mind. This is the happiness that psychology is interested in. Consensus on what is happiness is shared by many different people in many different fields: "neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks."

The other type of happiness — the little "h" variety — is often equated with excitement, passion or pleasure. This type of happiness cannot be experienced alongside emotional discomfort. You either have one or the other. We often use little "h" to drive away discomfort. Discomfort can also drive away the little "h." In contrast, the Big "H" and discomfort can coexist. No matter how bad we feel, it is possible to have contentment exist underneath all the pain. As you can imagine, the little "h" is short-lived; the Big "H" can last a lifetime.

Ironically, happiness is never a goal but a side effect of engaging in behavior that moves us toward our goals. So many people think that happiness will be theirs when they get what they are going after. When they have achieved their goal, it dawns on them that they were happier while working towards and anticipating the goals. Is this why couples often reminisce about the early days of their relationship when they had no money and were struggling to define their life?

What about money? Does it bring happiness? Yes and no. It can bring enormous amounts of little "h" type happiness — and then it’s gone. It can have an effect on Big "H" if your life has been a struggle because the lack of money has interfered with being comfortable. After you have become comfortable more money has no effect.

You can increase your happiness quotient by what you do and what you think. Researchers have found that expressing your gratitude toward people can strongly increase you sense of happiness and well-being. Frequently engaging in acts of kindness, randomly or planned, has a positive impact on your happiness level. Being more happy is something you must do for yourself. Psychologist Sonya Lyubormirsky, a major researcher in positive psychology, tells us that "Becoming happier takes work, but it may be the most rewarding and fun work you'll ever do."

Your thought life can also have a dramatic impact on future happiness. Carefully replacing habitual negative thoughts and attitudes (our gift from cognitive-behavioral psychology) is one of the most effective techniques. Another technique is to learn to accept and not fight against healthy painful emotions. Even though you need to work at changing your unhealthy emotions such as depression and guilt, you want to use other techniques for managing healthy emotional pain like sadness and remorse. One of the most successful strategies is something called "mindfulness." Author Flora describes mindfulness as "a mental state of relaxed awareness of the present moment, marked by openness and curiosity toward your feelings rather than judgments of them."

Often we find the daily grind can shorten our perceptions of what life is all about. Sometimes it is helpful to look at the longer arcs of your life in order to realize that your life is more than the grinding routine. "Evaluate your well-being at the macro as well as the micro level to get the most accurate picture of your own happiness."

Finally, we know that part of living the happy life is to be yourself. Although this sounds simplistic it is difficult in a society where are continually being evaluated either directly or indirectly. Finding out who you are can be the beginning of happiness. At some point in the psychotherapy process my clients begin to discover their true self. It can be painful and scary, but an exhilarating step. This is often begun by uncovering one’s personal values and then learning to live out those values. This experience is not an "a-ha" moment but the beginning of a lifelong journey to a different place. The author of the Psychology Today piece puts it this way: "The state of happiness is not really a state at all. It's an ongoing personal experiment."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Have you ever procrastinated? Put something off for another time that you really needed to do right now? How did you feel about putting something off? Many people feel mixed emotions when they procrastinate: a sense of relief that they don’t have to do what needs to be done and guilt because they really should be doing that thing right now.

What do people procrastinate about? Anything! We can put off that phone call, pay bills late enough to get a penalty, delay cleaning out that closet until it is unuseable, forget to change the oil in our car, and the list goes on. Technology has contributed positively to many areas of our lives but it can also make procrastination worse. Cruising the Internet and checking email has become an all-too-common distraction for the procrastinator. It has become so common that we now have the expression "the procrastination superhighway."

There are very few people who have not procrastinated at one time or other. About twenty percent of the population chronically procrastinates. In other words, their entire lives are ruled by putting things off. These numbers tend to be higher in the college population. Estimates for student procrastination run as high as seventy percent.

Society often looks upon procrastination as an annoyance, something trivial. Research has shown that it can be much more than that. Psychologist Timothy Pychyl, Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Canada, has found that procrastination can be "associated with depression, guilt, low exam grades, anxiety, neuroticism, irrational thinking, cheating and low self-esteem.... and be an extremely disabling psychological condition."

Although some people think that procrastination is merely a result of laziness, psychologists don’t agree. We see procrastination as a learned behavior. This is good news because if it has been learned it can be unlearned. How is procrastination learned? It is learned by a process called "negative reinforcement." When we avoid something that results in a reduction discomfort, we are more likely to avoid it again. After that, each time it is avoided the habit of avoidance becomes stronger. Continual avoidance keeps a person from learning skills to eliminate procrastination.

There is a ton of information about coping with garden variety procrastination in books and blogs. If the procrastination is severe, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has been quite effective in helping people. One method Dr. Pychyl and his colleagues tried was to have people forgive themselves after they had procrastinated. The technique decreased procrastination for females but not for males.

If you are familiar with the Domino Effect, you know that there are basically three areas that need to be addressed to change the behavior (domino four) of procrastination. One area that needs to be identified is which emotions are associated with procrastination. Strong emotions can contribute to putting something off. If people feel guilty for delaying a project, they will probably punish themselves and what better way to be punished than to not finish the project. Depression is another emotion that may also play a part. The behavior associated with depression is lifelessness. Not having enough energy can be a precipitating event for putting something off.

Physical sensations can also be a contributor. If you feel anxious about starting a task, you can get rid of the discomfort of anxiety by simply doing something else. Other physical discomforts can also make procrastination more likely.

Self talk is probably the most significant factor in procrastination. It is often associated with perfection. A perfectionist is someone who needs to have perfect outcomes. Procrastination may be the end result of being convinced that starting a task will not lead to a perfect result.
Psychologist Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D. Is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at De Paul University in Chicago. He is another person who has researched and studied procrastination. He and his colleagues have found that five cognitive distortions are shared by many procrastinators.
  1. They estimate how much time they have left to accomplish the task. "I have plenty of time to do this task so I don’t need to start immediately."

  2. They underestimate how long it will take to finish the task. "This is an easy one and I’ll be able to finish it quickly."

  3. They overestimate how motivated they will be to do it later. "I’ll feel much more interested in doing this later."

  4. They don’t believe working on the task will make them feel better. "I’m really feeling stressed right now so working on this task will only make me feel worse."

  5. They believe that a poor mood makes working on a task too difficult. "I’m don’t really feel in the mood for doing this right now. I’ll wait till I feel better."

How does CBT help people overcome these unhealthy thoughts that are contributory to procrastination? The standard approach would treat these thoughts – and others – as myths to be challenged. For example, "I have plenty of time to do this task so I don't need to start immediately," would be challenged by looking at the facts. How much time is really available? How much time did it take last time? How much time would someone else estimate for the task? The goal is to convert the procrastination myth to facts.

In The Worry Free Life, I teach people a CBT technique called Voice Training. The "Voice" is merely your worry that has been externalized. Putting the worry outside of yourself makes it easier to change your destructive thoughts into constructive thoughts. There are five steps in Voice Training:

  • Voice Awareness: What is the Voice saying to you?

  • Voice Interrogation: What are the core beliefs that are underneath the Voice messages?

  • Voice Analysis: What is the relationship between Voice messages and my emotions?

  • Voice Fighting: Using a 5-step procedure for changing lies (Voice messages) to truth (reality).

  • Voice Maintenance: Using strategies to manage relapse.

You can get more information on procrastination from these references.

The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression: A Step-by-step Program by William Knaus
Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It by Jane Burka & Lenora Yuen
Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings by Clarry H. Lay and colleagues

Don’t Delay by Dr. Pychyl
Social Science Statistics Blog by Institute for Quantitative Social Science

Procrastination Research Group by Dr. Pychyl, Psychologist
Structured Procrastination by Dr. John Perry, Philospher
Procrastination by Cambridge University

Procrastination Flowchart (click on flowchart to enlarge) by Project Sidewalk
Two Monitors for Procrastination by ProcrastinationBlog
Procrastination Blog by Late Larry

Friday, February 6, 2009

Male Relationships

Women are often puzzled by the relationships that men form with other men. In their eyes men’s relationships seem so superficial because they don’t say much to each other. When male friends do talk it never seems to be about anything important; "How can men get to know each other if they don’t talk about personally deep issues?" When it comes to communication and relationships, men have been confined to the back seat.

Social Psychologist Carol Tavris says this view was not the predominant one until recently. From the time writing began, the great stories and epics have glorified male relationships — Hamlet and Horatio, Laurel and Hardy — while women were seen as solitarily engaged in solo activities like "rummaging around in the garden to gather the odd yam or kumquat." Furthermore, everyone knew that "Women prattle on about their feelings, went the stereotype, but men act."

Dr. Tavris suggests this all began to turn around in the 1970s when society began to "feminize" its definitions of intimacy and friendship. I remember that time because I was in graduate school and was told that relationships were about communication and sharing feelings. We male students scratched our heads and had to be taught about something called the therapeutic triad while the women students just nodded like they had learned this in grade school.

Almost all marriage therapists today work with their clients to help the men (usually) learn how to talk female talk by focusing on feelings, using language like "connection" and "life’s journey." Wives and lovers now insist they want a male who is sensitive, a good listener, funny, and "someone who will be there for them."

When women say they want intimacy from their partners they mean they want men to relate to them like their women friends do. This means talking about their feelings and sharing their problems — called "trouble talk" by Deborah Tannen in her book, You Just Don’t Understand.

During the time of the female revolution it was popular to downplay the differences between men and women. Unfortunately, this just made the old stereotypes into new stereotypes. In older times, the underlying belief was, "if only women could act like men," while the newer belief became, "if only men could talk like women."

In the 1980s the so-called "men’s movement" initiated by Robert Bly and others, urged men to express their feelings by doing male things like drumming. That’s exactly what some of them did. You can be reminded of this on a daily basis by watching TV: vitriolic news shows; Jim Cramer’s screaming comments on the stock market and other common male rants.

In a Time magazine essay (December 7, 1998) by Roger Rosenblatt entitled, The Silent Friendships of Men, Rosenblatt reminds people that men, in fact, have feelings but they are different. Their reality is different from women’s feelings. "They remain submerged, and the airing of them often violates their authenticity," he says. This doesn’t mean men can’t talk about their feelings but he believes that men’s brains have become programmed for silence. He tells the story of two famous men spending an evening together.

Wordsworth goes to visit Coleridge at his cottage, walks in, sits down and does not utter a word for three hours. Neither does Coleridge. Wordsworth then rises and, as he leaves, thanks his friend for a perfect evening.
Many men don’t need to keep in touch with their male friends on a daily basis like my sister and my wife often do. We can not have contact for weeks or months with our male friends and when we do there is no sense of regaining a loss nor a sigh of relief that our friend still wants us in his life.

Perhaps, Rosenblatt suggests, being alone might be something about who we are. Maybe we have been hardwired so that silence is our natural state. To most men we don’t have to continually renew our appreciation for each other. Once said, the affection we feel for each other is obvious, so why talk about it?

I saw a cartoon once that compared how men working together is different from the way women work together. A mother and her daughter were painting the inside of the house. The daughter was telling her mom about what her girl friends talked about in school, who was going with whom, how she felt when someone embarrassed her, etc. Her mom talked about when she and her husband met, what she wore on the first date, where they went, what they ate, funny stories about the date, etc. The next panel showed the father and son working on a car, The dad says, "In?" and the son replies, "Yep" That was it. What is difficult for women to understand is that the Dad and son were enjoying their time together just as much as the mother and daughter were.

Rosenblatt ends his article by telling about the death of his long time best friend. "I must have spoken," he says, "with my friend Campbell a total of a hundred times, yet I cannot recollect a single idea exchanged or the substance of a subject addressed."

This is not to say that all men are emotionally unavailable nor that some women don’t like solitude and action more than talking about feelings. But, there certainly seems to be a pattern here. If this were not so, why would so many people laugh at comedians who talk about the differences between men and women? For an example of this, check out A Tale of Two Brains.

Humor columnist, Joyce Maynard, thinks men’s emotional unavailability is a good thing. As much as she dislikes it, she is thankful that her husband’s emotions are protected and kept from her. Her self description is:

"I'm a walking set of nerve endings. I cannot read my sons a book called Love You Forever without crying. I take my emotional temperature (and that of those around me) hourly. Give me passion and even heartache any day over simple contentment. My husband would rather model his life on the "Cosby" show — no problem so large it can't be solved between 8 and 8:30."
As much as men and women need each other — possibly for different reasons, "if you know what I mean, and I think you do" — it is important that each gender has friends of the same gender so that we can deal with matching expectations. The research is beginning to show that females are communal from birth. Men’s brains are different. We enjoy our friends, though we may have fewer. We also enjoy our solitude to spend time with our thoughts.

Nevertheless, we know that we need to learn the new language of female talk. Rosenblatt is a bit cynical about men doing this. "One can make us talk counter to our genetic makeup, but it is like training kangaroos to box. It's mildly entertaining but pointless." This would be correct if there were no women on the planet. However, there are lots of them. If we men are to spend the rest of our lives with the woman we love, this may be the only reason we need to learn this skill.

It is also possible that this is only half of the equation. As Dr. Tavris say, "Maybe men could learn a thing or two about friendship from women. But who is to say, that women couldn't learn a thing or two from them in exchange?"

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Psychology — What Is It? Really?

Psychology has many faces. When a person tries to manipulate someone by telling them the opposite of what they really want the other person to do ("Oh, no, you really don’t have to help. I’ll just struggle along the best I can") they are said to be using "reverse psychology."

Some people think being a psychologist means being able to know what someone else is thinking. More than once I have had someone tell me, "If you’re a psychologist, I better be careful what I say so that you don’t try to analyze me."

Other people think that a psychologist is just someone who has good insights and intuitions into people. In this sense everyone is a psychologist because we all have theories about human behavior. This type of untrained psychological insight is called "recipe knowledge."

Helping others work out their problems is sometimes seen as "doing" psychology. There are many different kinds of helpers: non-professional (friends, lay counselors, religiously trained people) and professional (therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists).

These last two are often confusing to many people. They are similar in that both professions try to help people make their lives better and both include post-college school and training for about the same amount of time. The basic difference is that psychiatrists are physicians and can prescribe medications — although psychologists are beginning to make inroads into this once private domain. Psychologists spend their training learning about psychological research and application with some medical (neurological and pharmacological) training. The reverse is true for psychiatrists. Both professions can legally get paid for helping people, teaching, and engaging in research.

So what does psychology really consist of? This is often asked because there are many misconceptions about the core of psychological knowledge. Many people think that the greatest psychologist that ever lived was Sigmund Freud. This is far from true. Psychology existed long before Freud; he was also a medical doctor, not a psychologist. Even though there are psychologists who practice what is known as Freudian psychoanalysis, they are a very small minority of psychologists — less than ten percent.

Since its modest beginnings, psychology has branched out into almost every area of human existence. The American Psychological Association has over fifty divisions and publishes over sixty-five journals. The subject covers a wide variety of human activity. A small sampling includes the psychology of: arts, law, ethnic minorities, military, environment, neuropsychology, gay/lesbian issues, and peace.

When psychologists study some aspect of human existence they use the tools of science. This means they use a technique called "systematic empiricism." It’s a fancy phrase for observing something. This means that when a psychologist "looks" at something and says, "this is what I saw," other psychologists also look to see if they can see the same thing. If others cannot verify the observation, then it becomes merely an interesting idea. All research findings are open to anyone else who would like to take a look.

This type of looking is limited to questions or problems that can be looked at using the tools of science. However, this does not mean that psychologists are uninterested in problems that cannot be tested scientifically. I remember in college that many people thought psychology could never study human emotions like love. Back then it was difficult to study because the tools for doing so were not yet developed. Now it is a subject that is drowning in research studies.

Like other sciences, it takes awhile for research results to trickle down to the average person. Some results hit the media if they have emotional impact and can make money for the media. These reports are a tiny fraction of what is currently happening in psychology at any given point in time. For example, the media has told us that talking on a cell phone while driving is not not a good idea. Psychologists want to know how bad it can be. They have found that the attention needed to talk on the phone while driving decreases the attention one needs to drive safely by a factor of forty percent!

Merely talking to a passenger while driving only has a minimal effect on driving attention. Drivers who use cell phones have the same probability for an accident as someone who has a blood alcohol-level of 0.08. What is more surprising is that this effect is the same whether one is using a hands-free cell phone or not.

What about research for other driving distractions? Did you know that text messaging while driving makes your chance of having an accident six times more likely? If you own an iPod and just scan for music while driving you double your chances of having an accident. Cars with TV screens reduce action times and increase the probability for swerving into another lane. Even drivers who use GPS navigation systems will drive outside their lane twenty-one percent of the time. This is compared to drivers not using such a system — they only stray outside their lane 1.5 percent of the time. Children who talk on cell phones while crossing a street are forty-three percent more likely to be hit by a car.

Psychology has also spent time studying common sense and folk wisdom. For example, most people think that religious people are more likely to be charitable than non-religious people. Research says it ain’t so. The following beliefs are held by many people. Psychology has shown them to be wrong.

  • The full moon has an effect on human behavior.

  • Opposites attract more than similarities.

  • Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

  • Blind people compensate by having supersensitive hearing

If you are interested in reading more about false common beliefs you can check out the book, You Know What They Say . . . ; The Truth About Popular Beliefs by Alfie Kohn.

This has been a quick dash through what is known as the field of psychology. If you would like to know more about psychology as a science you can check out the excellent book, How To Think Straight About Psychology by psychology professor Keith Stanovich.