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Election 2016: When reality and “rules” collided

(Trigger warning – this post contains the “F” word – “Feelings.” A lot.)

If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen reports of colleges cancelling classes or postponing exams because of election grief. You’ve probably also seen the responses – those students should just suck it up and turn down their sensitivity. Some of the “advice” has turned into outright mockery.

First, a reminder that it is never helpful to tell another person – or yourself – how they “should” feel. It is tempting when emotions strike us as inappropriate, weak or wrong and we want to explain them away. It is a natural inclination. But especially now, we need to look deeper, listen harder. I know that I’ve caused myself a lot of suffering by insisting that something “should not” upset me, because…. whatever.

After getting requests to help lead post-election emotional support groups, I’ve been asking myself if the election really is a subject for crisis intervention as I know it. My answer is a qualified “yes.” It is yes, because people are having strong reactions. We never base our decision to intervene on what happened, we base it on reactions. But it is a qualified “yes” because we are in new territory. In all of the crisis intervention training I’ve had, nobody ever taught me how to respond to a political event that impacts everyone,  in which so many people have strong beliefs and feelings. We’re at an intersection of psychology and sociology where I doubt anyone really knows what’s best.

For those who are bringing people together for emotional support, I’ve compiled some guidelines.

Here’s what we do know about holding strong (often unconscious) beliefs – they can be the source of great emotional pain, frustration and anger when reality disagrees. Today, people who strongly believed that the United States could never, must never elect someone like Donald Trump (regardless of who or what they think he is), are having that kind of stress. The more certain they were that “someone like Trump” could not or must not win, the stronger their emotions probably are.  Notice that this is about “facts” they believe, not judgments. It is quite different to believe “Trump cannot, must not win” versus “Trump should not win.” The latter leaves room for acceptance and disappointment – perhaps deep, deep disappointment – rather than the confusion, anger, frustration, resentment and even violence that the first one can trigger.

An “unenforceable rule” is the name that psychologist Fred Luskin, author of “Forgive for Good”, calls this kind of belief.  We need rules to make sense of the world, but when we hold onto unenforceable rules in the face of conflicting reality, we’re stuck – painfully, often angrily stuck, often with no clear sense of why.

For those who had the unenforceable rule “Trump cannot, must not win,” and now believe that his election will cause pain to them or to people they care about or identify with, the feelings are amplified. When the effects are personal, pain, anger and frustration are stronger.

Well, say the critics in social media, those people just need to get in touch with reality! But that doesn’t work – logic doesn’t wipe out feelings. In fact, saying things like “You’re out of touch with reality” will probably make the feelings worse – broadening the divide – because it amounts to telling them how they should feel.

In a Star Trek episode, a senior officer yells, “Lieutenant Worf, I order you to calm down!” It doesn’t work. It never works. Not with Klingons. Not with humans.

A supportive response starts with nothing more than acknowledging the pain, frustration and anger that many people feel, quite naturally, now that world has refused to go along with how they think it’s supposed to be. If you believe that’s just catering to weak-minded wimps, hang on. Those people have a great challenge before them. They can hold a grudge, build resentments, perhaps even cross the line from political protest into criminal behavior. Or they can take a more difficult, positive path for which Luskin’s book can be one of the guides. His book can be especially meaningful to those who were already mired in resentments against their political opponents.

Resentments are like taking poison and waiting for the other person – or political party – to die.

If you were one of the “Trump cannot, must not win” people, your choice is between getting stuck there or aiming for connection and compassion. I would invite you to start with compassion for yourself – the world really did suddenly stop making sense – on a global scale! – and that truly is difficult. You will find that compassion for others is a great source of peace.

If you’re one of those who is tempted to issue orders – “It’s reality, deal with it” – you’ll find that compassion will go much farther.

At some point, healing and growth call us to take action. In my opinion, the most important action we can all take these days is the hard work of reconnecting with one another. We are so disconnected. Our American individualism has been an ally, but it has also meant we were always a less interdependent society. Technology – from highways and TVs to the Internet and smart phones – has prompted more disconnections than connections. The election outcome surprised us because we are so disconnected. Most of us had no idea of the depth of discontent and anger, in our nation.

Far fewer of us would have held the “Trump cannot, must not win” unenforceable rule if we knew each other better. Too many voices are unheard, too many faces unseen – and although Trump tapped into the politics of disconnection, this is far from merely a political problem. When we are disconnected and dispassionate about each other, we are weaker. The more isolated we are, the less stress we can handle.  Creativity and growth thrive on exposing ourselves to others’ ideas, even – perhaps especially – ideas that disturb us. “Love your neighbor as yourself” includes the neighbors you feel uncomfortable around.

We need creative solutions today and disturbing ideas are often fuel for creativity. One of the most creative people I have ever known, who often seemed to most people (including me for a long time) to be a narcissistic, egotistical prima donna, invited me back to his company, over and over, for years, to criticize his ideas. It was my job – I was an industry analyst. But I wondered why he encouraged me, even though I would often publicly challenge his cherished ideas and products. If he really was a narcissist, why expose himself to that? After he died, when I read his biography, I realized that he was in the habit of keeping people around him who disagreed, who would argue. In fact, if you agreed with him regularly, that would get you fired. I can’t say that I ever really liked him, but I respect the way he embraced the challenge of people who would tear apart his ideas. His name was Steve Jobs. One more thing about Steve that many people either don’t know or don’t appreciate – he practiced meditation. Nobody should try to imitate Steve, but I think we would all benefit by following both of those habits, especially these days.

 

Paper: Adolescent stress management – there’s an app for that

Researchers who gave adolescents a mobile phone app for mindfulness and self- compassion, which have been repeatedly shown to help with stress, found that the young people were willing to use the app regularly. Given the ubiquity of mobile devices, this is good news.

Abstract:

The aim of the study was to test the feasibility of a mindfulness and self-compassion based program for adolescents, to be delivered though mobile phones. Twenty racially and ethnically diverse US adolescents enrolled in a study to use the app for 30 days, after which they provided satisfaction data and participated in focus groups to describe their experiences and offer suggestions for improving the app. Usage data were also captured. Results indicated that participants used the app on the majority of days over the intervention period, reported finding it helpful for managing stress, and provided suggestions for substantive areas for improvement. These findings suggest that a mobile app may be a feasible way to disseminate a mindfulness and selfcompassion based program widely among adolescents.

DOI link.

Article: Middle School Suicides Reach All-Time High

NPR reports that the suicide rate for middle schoolers doubled from 2007 to 2014, reaching an all-time high. More of them now die by suicide than car crashes. The article describes six common myths about student suicides.

For those of us who do crisis intervention in schools in the aftermath of suicides, the statistic is all too real. Our Bay Area Critical Incident Stress Management Team helps schools with notifications, resources for the child’s family, students, the school staff and the community. Administrators are almost always focused on what they can do for teachers; the teachers are mostly focused on what they can do for the students. Nearly everyone is asking themselves what they could have done to change the outcome. It is a tough situation to walk into.

Eva Bee/Getty Images

Although schools know in theory that children sometimes kill themselves, when it actually happens, they know it in an entirely new way. We sometimes call this “crossing a line.” One you have crossed that line, you can never go back and “un-know” the reality. Although school has to go on, it’s not going to be the same again. You will never be the same again.

One of the most difficult parts of all suicides, but particularly painful for teachers and school staff, is to recognize the warning signs afterwards, when it is too late to intervene. There are almost always warnings when you know what to look for. Suicides are rarely impulsive and are preventable. (Nevertheless, we often tell friends and family afterwards that if someone is absolutely determined, they will probably succeed no matter what you do – and acknowledge how incredibly pain that helplessness is.)

Suicide is preventable because – and this might seem strange – it is a solution to life’s problems. The suicidal person unfortunately, mistakenly, comes to the conclusion that suicide is the only solution. It is absolutely possible to help them postpone their decision, giving them time and resources to recognize that there are other solutions. I have seen it happen – we regularly discover and intervene with other suicidal students in the aftermath.

Schools have to walk a fine line after a suicide – honoring and acknowledging the grief and suffering of the student who died, while avoiding activities that would send the message that suicide is an acceptable solution to life problems.

I’ve seen a pattern in many of the student suicides to which I’ve responded in recent years. There’s nothing scientific about this observation, but my instincts suggest it is not uncommon. The student who took their own life was often quite successful academically, involved in many activities, leading a very busy life. They become attracted to or involved romantically with another person, who rejects them. These are typical teenage experiences, except that these students seem to have become deeply, deeply invested in this one relationship, so that when it fails, they are left emotionally adrift. They are so busy with school and activities that they didn’t have time and space – and little encouragement – to develop a social support network with depth; instead, they “bet everything” on the one person. This pattern doesn’t always lead to suicide, but many teen and young adult suicides seem to fit it.

I believe that we will fail to truly address the problem if we only blame suicides on academic pressure, which often is the immediate reaction. Stress doesn’t have to be bad for you, but it certainly is when you are socially isolated. Disconnection is toxic for anyone who lets work or school become so important that they let go or fail to develop the kinds of relationships that we increasingly recognize are crucial to thriving under pressure.

We should not focus so hard on what is happening to these students; we have to remember to look for what is missing. To cope with stress effectively, we need strong connections to the people around us, to ourselves and nature, and to our spiritual values. When schools focus too much on academics and accomplishments, the stress-coping resources can easily lose priority.

Technology hasn’t helped – it has given us myriad new ways to connect with others in shallow ways, contributing to sedentary lives that disconnect us from our bodies and nature, disrupting traditional communities, and devaluing spirituality. In fact, spirituality has been so devalued and confused with religion that I feel as though any time I mention it, I also need to define it – spirituality (in the context of thriving under pressure) means having values and a sense of awe and wonder., bigger-than-self goals and purposes. Religion can be a source of spirituality, but schools can instill values, selflessness and care for others without crossing the line into religion.

Article: Therapists treating patients stressed out about presidential election

Fox News (which I’m afraid I view as a major source of stress) reports that therapists are seeing a lot of people stressed about the presidential election.  Not surprising, since there’s a widespread sense that things have gone out of control – a sure indicator of high stress.

“I’ve never seen this level of stress and anxiety over an impending election in my 26 years (of practicing),” said Nancy Molitor, a clinical psychologist from just outside Chicago.

What do counselors suggest? Yoga. And turn off the news.

The benefits of practices like yoga are clear, but I see it as a partial solution. When things feel out of control, we also need to reconnect with people and values. We need to build and nurture relationships in three dimensions – people, practices and values. Research suggests that social support actually has the strongest correlation to resistance and resilience under pressure.

This is a bad time to try to carry it all by yourself. My advice is to set politics aside much of the time and seek to find common ground with friends. The election is important, but there are more important matters, after all.

Article: How Transformative Tech Can Bring Out the Best in Us All

Nichol Bradford, CEO of Willow, published an insightful article today on SingularityHub advocating for “inner wellbeing” and the ability of a new generation of sensors and data analysis to bring harder science to the formerly touchy-feely world of studying emotion.

“Too often, the tools for developing mental and emotional wellbeing are mistakenly thought to be solely subjective, shrouded in mystery or religion, or dependent only on luck or human willpower,” she writes.  “This blind spot is dangerous. The lag between our inner well-being and outer abilities results in tremendous social and individual stress. Worldwide you can see people who are overwhelmed by the change.”

Indeed.

Mindfulness Reduces Texting While Driving

I titled an earlier post “We are so desperate to connect with others that we will risk our own lives and those around us to exchange 140 characters while driving.” (which the observant reader will have noticed is 136 characters).

If texting while driving is an indication of hunger for connection, driven by stress-induced mind/body imbalance, then we should expect stress management techniques to reduce the urge to text at inappropriate times. Sure enough, a study of 231 undergraduates at at Simmons College showed that those who scored higher on a mindfulness scale were less inclined to text while driving.

However, to be fair to the researchers, they didn’t see the problem entirely as one of disconnectedness. Their focus was on self-regulation of emotions and attention, which mindfulness has been shown to improve. However, two of the study’s three emotion-regulation questions were clearly relational:

  • “When I am feeling upset, I send or read text messages to distract myself.”
  • “If I am bored or annoyed with the people I am with, I will text someone else.”

Another study, which looked at the social influence on texting while driving among teens and young adults, found that “the more a person believes that their friends and peers approve of and engage in texting while driving, the greater their intention to engage in these behaviours .” Social pressure matters. And so do values, the same study concluded – those who believed it is morally wrong to text while driving are less likely to do so – and the moral influence against texting seemed to be stronger than the social one in favor.

 

We are so desperate to connect with others that we will risk our own lives and those around us to exchange 140 characters while driving.

Although technology connects us in some ways, it has done much more to disconnect us over the last half-century or so. Freeways, commuting, school busing, television and most recently, handheld devices – all of these have resulted in a society unlike anything in history. Most of us don’t know many of our neighbors, we don’t often see our own families face to face. Most of our co-workers become strangers when the work day is over. Commuter churches are disconnected from their neighborhood.

I’m not a Luddite. Decades ago, when the Web was brand-new, I began to write about how access to more points of view was becoming a positive force in the world. I still believe that, even as Internet

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Face-to-face communication is essential sometimes. Photo from the Loma Fire, where I’ve spent most of this week.

gossip also does so much damage. Media domination by a handful of mega-corporations whose mission is to sell eyeballs to advertisers is not good for anyone. Diversity in viewpoints can drive creativity.

Research is uncovering fascinating insights into how our tone of voice, facial expression and eye contact – and even eating together – can act below our awareness to calm our automatic stress responses. Yet those means of communication, which are so important, are almost completely missing from social media. It is no wonder we are desperately eager to stay superficially engaged, even when we know how dangerous distracted driving is.

I myself don’t feel a great need to pay attention to text messages and so forth while driving. Don’t get me wrong – I feel the urge. But I rarely have trouble resisting it. So I’ve asked myself why this might be. The answer from my gut is that I have a good social support network – people I meet with regularly, face-to-face. These are people I trust deeply, from church, work, and our crisis intervention team. Social support has a very strong correlation to resistance and resilience under pressure. My intuition is that for people who build and maintain that kind of support, it is far easier to resist the urge to see and respond to every text, email or posting.

When we don’t have strong social support, we often buy into the myth that just getting away from the sources of stress will give real relief.  However, what really happens is that our “fight-or-flight” response just changes into different kinds of fighting (seen any online political fighting lately?) or fleeing (noticed anybody who is emotionally checked out around you?).

Building Gratefulness

A few years ago, my spiritual director challenged me to list three things I was grateful for, daily, for 30 days. There were a couple of other parts to this exercise, but it was aimed at helping build an “attitude of gratitude.” I’m happy to report that it stuck with me. One of the instructions that helped overcome my perfectionist and self-criticism tendencies was the instruction to not worry about missing a day – just pick it up again. The 30 days didn’t have to be consecutive. gratitude

Psychologists have only recently begun to look into the benefits of cultivating gratitude, but early findings are encouraging, confirming traditional teachings. In two long-term studies of college students and gratitude, researchers in England found that the more often and intensely people feel grateful, the more social support and lowered stress and depression they believe they have. This makes sense because anything that builds social support will almost surely help us cope with stress and do better overall.

Rejoice always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

When we are more grateful, we tend to see the world in a more positive light, which protects against stress and depression. We also make our own world better by thanking helpful people – expressing gratitude – because they become more likely to offer us more support.

Does making gratefulness lists work? Yes, says a recent study titled, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens.” Across three groups who either kept lists of hassles, things they were grateful for or ways in which they were better off than others, the people who tracked gratitude ended up with a more positive outlook. The gratitude list-makers were also more likely to offer emotional support to others – another example of gratitude encouraging social support. They also spent more time exercising, slept better, had fewer physical complaints and were more optimistic. Daily gratitude tracking was more powerful than weekly.

I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me – Psalm 23:4

Another study, on religious involvement and gratitude, showed that attending church more often leads to more gratefulness. The increase was greater for people who believed that God works with them to overcome difficulties and challenges.  This makes perfect sense through the lens of stress as a threat or challenge. When we feel ill-equipped to deal with a situation, our bodies have a “threat” stress response, raising the levels of hormones and neural pathways that cause long-term health problems. On the other hand, if we see the same situation as a challenge – because, in this study, we believe God is with us – our bodies react differently, in a way that doesn’t jeopardize long-term health.

Some other studies on the effects of greater gratitude:

  • Daily well-being increased with daily gratitude practices for Vietnam veterans with PTSD.
  • Gratefulness helps people stick with self-directed interventions to improve their body image.
  • Gratitude in children was related to positive functioning after the 9/11 attacks.
  • People who are more grateful tend to recall more positive life events, which helps make them more positive.
  • Writing about how a good thing, such as finding a romantic partner, might never have happened, increased their positive outlook – to the surprise of the writers.
  • Writing a letter of gratitude, about a time you were at your person best, identifying character strengths all contributed to happiness and positivity, while reducing depression.

Bibliography

Algoe, S. B., & Way, B. M. (2014). Evidence for a role of the oxytocin system, indexed by genetic variation in CD38, in the social bonding effects of expressed gratitude. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(12), 1855–1861. http://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nst182
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377
Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. R. (2003). What Good Are Positive Emotions in Crises? A Prospective Study of Resilience and Emotions Following the Terrorist Attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 365–376.
Geraghty, A. W. A., Wood, A. M., & Hyland, M. E. (2010). Attrition from self-directed interventions: Investigating the relationship between psychological predictors, intervention content and dropout from a body dissatisfaction intervention. Social Science & Medicine, 71(1), 30–37. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.03.007
Gordon, A. K., Musher-Eizenman, D. R., Holub, S. C., & Dalrymple, J. (2004). What are children thankful for? An archival analysis of gratitude before and after the attacks of September 11. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 25(5), 541–553. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2004.08.004
Kashdan, T. B., Uswatte, G., & Julian, T. (2006). Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam war veterans. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(2), 177–199. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2005.01.005
Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1217–1224. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0013316
Krause, N. (2009). Religious Involvement, Gratitude, and Change in Depressive Symptoms Over Time. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19(3), 155–172. http://doi.org/10.1080/10508610902880204
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (n.d.). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions Martin EP Seligman & Tracy A. Steen University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://guardianlv.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/happiness01.pdf
Watkins, P. C., Grimm, D. L., & Kolts, R. (2004). Counting your blessings: Positive memories among grateful persons. Current Psychology, 23(1), 52–67.
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 890–905. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005
Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(4), 854–871. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2007.11.003

 

 

Yoga, one of these days!

I recently met Shannon McQuaide, director of Fireflex Yoga, which leads first responder on-duty yoga classes. Meeting her may finally get me to actually try yoga, even though I have believed for a long time that it would be good for me. In fact, I became absolutely convinced of its benefit when I read Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score

Fireflex Yoga

Fireflex Yoga

He devotes an entire chapter, Learning to Inhabit your Body, to yoga and its benefits.

Van der Kolk describes how he heard about Heart Rate Variability (HRV, a big topic of Stress, Science, Spirit) as a measure of how well your brain and body are connected.  Activities that increase your HRV will help quiet the fight-or-flight instinct that is responsible for the negative health consequences of carrying too much stress too long. Remember that, as I wrote in You cannot starve the evil wolf, escaping or avoiding stress usually backfires. You have to “feed the good wolf” through attitudes and activities – anything that increases your HRV will accomplish that. Yoga is a powerful way to “feed the good wolf,” in part because of its emphasis on breathing techniques. HRV essentially measures how well synchronized your heart and breathing are.

Van der Kolk’s research showed that traumatized people, including marines at Camp Lejeune, indicate that yoga is effective for helping people with ordinary or highly traumatic stress heal and grow.

I will admit that I’m a lot like “Annie,” van der Kolk’s patient who said, “I don’t know all of the reasons that yoga terrifies me so much, but I do know that it will be an incredible source of healing for me and that is why I am working on myself to try it.

After the earthquake

After the earthquake

Yoga is about looking inward instead of outward and listening to my body, and a lot of my survival has been geared around never doing those things.” I’m not quite “terrified,” but whenever I think about trying something like yoga, part of me seems to resist, strongly.

 

In 1990, I passed up an opportunity to try yoga in post-earthquake Haiti. I was with a Jordan International Aid medical relief team, traveling in and around Port-au-Prince putting on clinics. It was an overwhelming task – every day, far more people were lined up for care than we could possibly see. Women and children were especially hard hit- poor sanitation always hits them harder.

JIA Yoga

JIA medical team doing yoga in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Most evenings when we returned to the house where we operated from, some of the medical team would lead a yoga session. Even our Haitian national policemen were joining in, but somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to try it. I can’t claim to know why we sometimes are so resistant to things that we know would be good for us. I do know that it is related to stress and trauma. Shannon has invited me to join one of her classes at a fire station. Somehow, that seems safer than going to a classroom of strangers whose life experiences are unlikely to resemble mine. It seems to be important to start journeys of healing with people who understand, at a level beyond words, where we are coming from.

Oxytocin enhances men’s spirituality

Patty Van Cappellen, a social psychologist at Duke University, took a look at what happens when you give men oxytocin, a hormone associated with social engagement (sometimes mis-labeled the “moral hormone” because it can promote trust, altruism, generosity and intimacy). Men were studied because oxytocin is known to have different effects in men and women.

Two previous studies had suggested that oxytocin – which is released when we connect with others – is connected with spirituality. Oxytocin levels in HIV patients correlated to how spiritual they considered themselves to be. The same correlation was found in a study of devout American Christians.

In Van Cappellen’s study, some men were given oxytocin, others received a placebo. Then they were taught to meditate, a spiritual practice that the researchers believed would help reveal any effect the oxytocin produced.

The men who were given oxytocin were more likely to say afterwards that spirituality was important and that life has meaning and purpose – whether they reported belonging to an organized religion or not. The effects were still present a week later when the men were re-tested.

Oxytocin is just one of several hormones that have been connected to spirituality, but it has many pro-social and other effects that help balance stress. More than any of the others, it has been found to have many psychological effects that are similar to spiritual beliefs and practices – that’s why some were tempted to label it the “moral” hormone.

See the full study here.

 

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