Monday, May 11, 2020

COVID-19: Psychological Defensive Driving & Anxiety

When you first learn to drive, it's inevitable that somewhere along the line someone will talk to you about the importance of defensive driving.  These driving techniques can save your life and drastically reduce your chances of injury or death.  Sadly, that they exist at all is admittance that there are some really bad drivers out there, not to mention bad conditions and situations that can't be avoided.  It's an educational way of saying, "Watch out, out there!"

We can draw analogies to these same techniques with the COVID pandemic in America, and the new pressure to "return to normal" life, while getting back to work, and returning to our shopping, dining out, and socializing with others.

Yet, there is a lot of anxiety being raised with the early push to try to get the economy back up and running, and the convincing of a society that they can resume life as it was.  Of course--as is the usual pattern these days in America--it has created yet another bipolar, bipartisan, and marital-bickering among the already polarized society dwelling in the land of the free.  Why our beloved country seems paralyzed to the ability of polite compromise anymore is a mystery to write about on another day.

Never-the-less, the drive to get folks back to the workplace and into the stores--but mostly to serving their dutiful chores of spending money and supporting the establishment--has come nearly at the barrel of a symbolic gun representing our right to bear arms, and this return to what many think will be what it was before, will require a lot of psychological and emotional defensive driving on our part.

In the same way that it would typically be a waste of time, energy and attention to argue about whether someone is a good or bad driver, you would just as equally better spend your time learning to drive defensively to protect yourself (and your loved ones) from those who might be more careless in their skills and attention to the road.

And yes, the same holds true now for the manner in which we are being pressured to return for our first trial run at resuscitating our coveted-capitalistic-society, which has become part of American's sense of identity to the point that, to kill the society is to kill those who have become identified with it.  So you won't be able to hold Americans indoors for long, because in fighting for their right to be free, functioning, profit-making citizens, they need to have full reign.  That's why behavioral and psychological defensive driving is very important right now in a society hell-bent on flexing its muscle in the face of COVID-19.

So how do we utilize defensive driving techniques to help us cope with and reduce our stress and anxiety when it comes to the dropping of the first-wave of stay-at-home orders in America?    Let's take a look: 

1)  Plan ahead for the unexpected:  This means we need to think before we leave the house.  Make sure you don't leave without your mask, sanitizer, and patience because things aren't moving that fast our there right now.  Prepare in advance to have what you need to personally feel safer in a society that is trying to get back up to full speed.  Some feel safer wearing gloves and taking their own water, food and utensils, etc.  If you are thinking you can go about without a mask, you might find that you can't get into some of your favorite places anymore.  So just take it and be ready to wear it.

2)  Be prepared to react to others:  This means that you need to be ready to move out of the way if someone steps closer than 6 feet inside your personal circle right now.  Many people will be eager to get right back to the way things once were and will unintentionally step or breathe in your space.

3)  Don't make assumptions about what others "should" do:  This means that you can't just assume everyone will be courteous and stand back, cover their face, wear gloves, not cough or sneeze in your direction, etc.  So when they do, don't come undone or make a scene.  Just do what you need to do to step back and take care of your safety the same way you'd hold back a bit when seeing a reckless driver.  In addition, don't assume everyone should just drop their masks in the trash and return to pre-COVID-19 behavior.  Many of the elderly people interviewed who had survived the 1918 pandemic of the Spanish flu told interviewers that it took two to three years for people to trust again, to be able to not tense up if someone was coughing or sneezing, and to be fully able to be out in society again as they had been before the pandemic.

4)  Respect others along the way:  Respecting that others have views different from your own is very important, and is just being courteous and kind.  For one thing, it's just not cool to laugh at others or make fun of them.  So if you chose to not wear a mask and see someone who is, just smile and move on.  It's like changing the channel on the TV when you don't like what you see.  Move on!  Respect that others feel, believe, and think differently and carry on.  You don't have to be mean and bully others.  And for goodness sakes!  Put the guns away.  We're all in this together!  The art of debate still exists, so there is no need for aggression or intimidation.  Everyone knows you have the right to carry, but you don't have to scare kids by showing you have one!

5)  Be aware of special conditions:  Make sure you leave room in your emotional bank for rare situations that don't represent groups as a whole.  With defensive driving this is the sudden pothole that hammers your shock absorbers and nearly rips your bumper off with the blow.  Or a hail storm that comes upon you and other drivers out of nowhere.  For our return to society, just open your mind to knowing that stuff you didn't expect WILL happen, so just chill out when it does and keep steady to the course.  Everyone is trying to cope the best they can so as long as it's not harming you or others, try to be patient.

6)  Stay alert and avoid distractions:  This means that just because you are prepared, doesn't mean that everyone else is.  If you take your eye off the road, you might run into something, and the same is true for returning to a society coping with COVID-19.  Look ahead to see if someone is entering your personal space or if a cashier has not wiped down a self check-out register when it's your turn to use it.  Be ready for someone to forget that we are using safe practices of social distancing and be ready to speak up if you need to, but be respectful.  You might forget as well, so stay alert! 

7)  Control your speed:  This means that there are many in the country who are definitely ready NOW to return life to "normal".  But the news is that we are never going back to the normal we had before COVID-19.  Everyone is entering or re-entering (or choosing not to enter) society at their own pace.  Don't let yourself be pressured into going before you are ready and have the things you need to produce the least amount of anxiety.  If you are ready now, don't forget to go with caution.  You seriously don't want to catch this illness!  Getting back out there doesn't mean you don't need to take care of your safety, health and life, or be careless with the safety, health and lives of others.  

Don’t forget to practice safe psychological driving folk.  Be kind and courteous to each other, and use defensive psychological driving if you must drive at all.

Thanks to siddharthav for the great photo

Friday, April 10, 2020

COVID-19: Normalizing Feelings (Extra April Blog)


I know a lot of people have lost their jobs recently in a short amount of time.  Many can’t afford to see a counselor right now, so I want to share what you might find psychologically helpful, without stepping into a therapist's office.

As a counselor I know the importance of normalizing situations for clients.  In other words, helping them see how what they are going through is similar when compared to, or sized up to, what others in a similar situation are going through.  So let me tell you the key themes I’ve noticed while offering online counseling, during the first 4 weeks of the COVID situation.

Week #1:  If you felt like you were being pushed rapidly by a wave of energy that was demanding of you to go home, work from there, and figure out how to make that just “happen” nearly overnight, you were not alone.  Many people went through waves of awareness and denial while trying to sort out if the situation was serious enough to even warrant a plan to work from home.  As one business and school after another closed, most people began to realize--this is real.  For others it meant that work just ended, income was stopped, and the future was a sudden blank slate--empty of information.

Week #2:  During the second week of COVID if you were feeling angry and frustrated that you had no choice but to work from home, be laid off, or cope with a situation you could not control--you were in the norm.  It’s like when you go through the grief process and get through your shock and denial, and then comes the anger.  Many people were mad that their lives had been disrupted and they had no choice but to stay home, go without pay for many, and live a much more limited life.  Favorite places were closed, familiar items were no longer available, and needed items were vanishing from the shelves too fast.  So if you were grumpy on week two, you were pretty much in the norm.

Week #3:  A lot of depression and anxiety set in during week #3 as folks began to wonder, “how long is this going to last” and, “when will we be getting back to normal”.  I think people were trying their best to endure and hold out in hopes this whole thing would be over soon.  But realizing that it was only getting worse led to a lot of anxiety about what is to come (the unknown) and depression about what’s been lost, changed, or place outside of everyone’s control.

Week #4:  This week it was clear that folks have been starting to feel suffocated and closed in upon by those they are living with, and are now forced to be around much more than before the stay-at-home orders and social distancing set in.  If you are feeling this, you are having pretty normal feelings as this seems to be what’s happening in many households right now.  So no, you’re not "losing it".  Those around you are feeling the same thing.

I know a lot of people are afraid and fearful after losing jobs and possibly income.  And since I know not everyone can afford psychotherapy right now, I’d like to share with you what you might already know from your own experiences of these first 4 weeks of COVID-19.  If it helps you in any distant way--via this writing--to gain some free counseling information, here it is:

On week one I recommended that people create a structured schedule for themselves that included exercise, bathing, brushing their teeth, walking, house cleaning, laundry, and time away from those they live with.  Week two I encouraged folks to find new outlets for their emotions because the kinds of things they used to do to release tension are in many cases no longer available right now, such as fitness centers, bars, restaurants, and shops they once visited.  On week three I focused on mindfulness practices to help clients bring the mind back to the present instead of focusing on the “what-if” thinking about the future, and catastrophic thinking that leads to anxiety symptoms, or the could-of, would-of, should-of thinking that focuses on the past and leads to symptoms of depression.  This week (week 4), I focused on normalizing as it is common to believe that when you are in some difficult and unfamiliar or unpredictable situation or emotions, that you are somehow outside the norm.  (i.e., “losing it”, or “crazy”), etc.  Nope!  It’s pretty normal right now to be feeling cooped up, suffocated by loved ones, a little irritable about the demands of others, and that you could just used a little space.

Since COVID-19 is a new situation, we don’t have much to compare it to that can tell us what week 5 will be like.  For most, each of the prior week’s emotions and feelings has been unfolding as time creeps on.  But I can tell you what I’m beginning to see little hints of, and that is the incredible creative spirit of the human being.  In my area, Denver, people have begun going outside and “howling” at 8pm to acknowledge all the efforts being put in by everyone, including nurses, MD’s, volunteers, those who still have to work, and those who are struggling with sudden unemployment.  My own personal interpretation of the howl is that I hear it as a “don’t give up” trumpet in the early evening, a “we see you and are with you” message that we can all get through this.  It has in it a “we’re all in this together” and “you are not in this alone” message that is that part of the human being that we’ve all been hoping is still there.  That creative, kind, and loving part of the human being that has in it the ability to stretch and think outside oneself about a greater cause.

Don’t be mad that your fellow citizens bought up all of the toilet paper.  They were just scared and all of us had an expression of fear in some way or another over the last 4 weeks, be it buying toilet paper, or stocking up on sanitizer and meat.  What’s important now is that we flow with the creative human spirit that is surfacing, which will (and can) show us the way out of this.  If we didn’t have a collective human sense of self-esteem, we’d of never been able to come together and do what we need to do now to save as many of us from death as possible.  If you ever lost hope about whether we humans can come together to save our planet, look at this COVID situation to cheer yourself up.  As you can see, we are capable of coming together if we try.  The last four weeks have shown us that we are capable of such unification.

Thanks to Sawtooth for the great photo

Friday, April 3, 2020

COVID-19: Perseverance and Stress

If you are treading water right now just to keep your head above water, you are not alone.  All across America, people are struggling to regain their balance from the foundational shake that COVID-19 has brought to the country.  What's the most important thing to keep at the forefront of your mind during this crisis?  It is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and not give up!  Perseverance is important not only because giving up won't solve, or even help a problem, but it's also important because you won't find out how strong you really are if you give up.

We frequently hear about the importance of resilience as a trait that helps people bounce back from trauma or hardship.  But what about the skill of endurance?  Endurance is when we demonstrate the ability to sustain a difficult situation for a prolonged period of time.  And that is what COVID-19 is asking of us all.  That is--enduring quarantines, and showing the staying power we find within ourselves to withstand Stay-at-Home orders whenever they are put in place.

Endurance also has a lot of determination and consistency in it.  With COVID-19 we are repeatedly asked to show consistent behavior of change when it comes to not touching our face, and washing our hands, or not shaking hands, and keeping a six foot distance from those around us.  But the virus situation has also lead to economic scare and financial fears, anxieties and insecurities that will also require staying power.  You might be about to discover how much you can live without and it's very important that you face these challenges to the best of your ability.

One thing that keeps us from finding our inner sense of endurance and staying power is Catastrophic Thinking.  In this kind of faulty thinking we not only imagine the worst case scenario (something life-threateningly dangerous), but we also add to that imagined scenario the belief that we would never be able to handle the worst case scenario.  "I'd lose my job and income, and then I'd not be able to support my family, and then I'd lose the house, and then we'd have to move to a smaller place", and so the line of continuous downward spiraling thoughts go.

What's not considered in this kind of thinking is the idea that even if things got that bad, you might discover (with staying power and determination) that you actually could survive these difficult situations.  They would not be pleasant or enjoyable, and of course, no one wants them to happen.  But if they did happen, consider the idea that you could survive them.  You still have all your fingers and toes after job loss, and you can still live and breathe in a smaller living area, and you could live on less, and so on.

Marathon runners know all about endurance, but so do those who are oppressed.  The runners literally know how to keep putting one foot in front of the other and the oppressed have no choice but to put one tired and frustrated, psychological and emotional foot in front of the other.  Both teach us that giving up is not only unwise, but also not necessary.  You can survive this difficult time, through all of its anxieties and hardships.  And in doing so you will discover a side of yourself that you never knew was there all along.  If your anxiety is taking hold and fear is setting into your bones--be it about illness or poverty--, challenge your Catastrophic Thinking right now and put a stop to allowing hopelessness to take root.  You are so much more than you think you are, and capable of twice as much.

Thanks to Gabriel S. Delgado C. for the dynamic photo.

Monday, March 9, 2020

COVID-19 Corona Virus: Awareness of Terror Management Theory

No  matter where we are or what we are doing, there is an awareness we carry--be it conscious or unconscious--that our lives will eventually end in death.  And there are plenty of things we do to try to comfort ourselves when the awareness of this truth comes too close to consciousness.  Terror Management Theory (TMT) is the study of this phenomenon, and it has much to tell us about our human behavior when it comes to awareness of death.

In light of the recent COVID-19 (Corona Virus) pandemic that has taken the world's humans by the psychological throat and rendered them terrified beyond belief, it is important that we try to better understand what we are doing as humans and how our brains function , yes.  But more importantly,  how they can frequently function with flaw and error.

Terror Management Theory originally derived from Ernest Becker and his book The Denial of Death, but it is championed today by three main researchers:  Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski.  Together they have come up with some fascinating research about our awareness of death and how it influences our behavior, and more specifically, our beliefs.

Take, for instance, the current human behavior regarding information about the COVID-19 virus. It is safe to say that people are scared.  Just the information and updates about global deaths occurring from the virus has everyone on edge.  Behavior has been altered as evidenced in the buying out of toilet paper, food products, and the stocking up on disinfectant cleaners and hand sanitizers.

But at the heart of all of this is a human behavior that has been studied and identified by the three researchers named above, who together wrote the book, The Worm at the Core:  On the Role of Death in Life.  Basically what they have to say is that our current behavior tends to be affected by our current awareness of our inevitable death.  And at any given time, we may therefore use a bundle of tactics to wipe that awareness from our current awareness simply to maintain a sense of human functioning and self-esteem.  Of course, this makes sense, as it is very hard to maintain a sense of meaning and goal-oriented functioning when we are constantly aware that our own life and the lives of others we may know and love, will eventually end.

What's interesting in their studies, however, is that when we are made more aware of our inevitable death, such as we are now with the daily bombardment in the media regarding COVID-19, our behavior alters because this information clashes with our basic survival instincts.  What they found in their work is that humans prefer to push awareness of death as far away from awareness as possible, and when people are struggling to do this--such as now, due to the introduction of death awareness via the nightly news--they tend to begin using faulty thinking and behavior.

For instance, we begin to make up ideas and beliefs about how we don't really ever die.  Such as reincarnation, life-after-death, and an ongoing future existence in an after-realm.  In addition, we begin to seek out only those that think just like we do, which the research has found, leads to bigotry and prejudice.  So basically, we begin to "manage our terror" of death in these faulty ways, as a form of self-created survival instinct.  Our human confusion and conflict between "terror of death" and "instinct to survive", looks for ways to solve it.  Interestingly, the human brain begins to make mistakes about reality just so-as to convince itself there is plenty of reason to keep focusing on the "instinct to survive".  We give ourselves false hope by making up scenarios in which death never comes.

Why is this important now?  In the face of the COVID-19 virus?  It's important because we need to realize as human beings that we can be aware of our inevitable death AND also function with our survival instincts on a daily basis, WITHOUT falling into the trap of faulty thinking.  More toilet paper and food in the freezer will not eventually put an end to death.  But embracing reality (i.e., that death eventually comes), can instead help us to live more in the present moment.  Though we may understandably have an awareness that death comes, we may also know that in the present moment "I am alive and breathing".  In moderation, we can prepare for illness, quarantine if necessary, and yes... even prepare for death if it comes.  But we cannot stop death and we cannot wish it away with a mythological fantasy.

In some forms of Buddhism, monks might be asked to meditate while seated in a field next to a decomposing body.  Each day, they return to meditate in the vicinity of this decaying human body in order to help them see that death comes to all of us.  Even to the meditating monk.  Eventually the monk becomes aware of much more than death.  They become aware that the only place life truly exists, is in the present moment, and in each breath.  Existentially, awareness of death can make us more aware of the urgency of life.  Terror Management Theory study can help us see the ways in which we try to deny awareness of death, and try to convince ourselves it will never happen to us.

In the face of COVID-19, work to remind yourself that death is real and does come in time to us all.  It doesn't mean you don't take precautions to protect yourself and others by washing your hands and not touching your face.  It doesn't mean that you don't quarantine when necessary or avoid some social gatherings for awhile.  It doesn't mean you don't stock up (in moderation) on enough food and supplies to be in that quarantine if necessary.  And it doesn't mean you act as if this precious one life is not worth protecting and prolonging.

What it does mean is that we can breathe into the awareness that some things in life we cannot control.  But we can breathe into this very moment and know we are here and alive RIGHT NOW!  We don't have to trick our mind into believing things that aren't true just so we can sleep at night.  It is possible to be aware of the reality of life (and death) limitations, as well as live each moment to its fullest.  Approaching the COVID-19 virus situation with moderation is a sound decision.  Stock up if you need to.  Wash your hands and disinfect, as you should.  But know that death comes, and... you can live with that awareness.

Here are some helpful videos about Terror Management Theory (TMT) and Corpse Meditation:

Stephen Caves:  The 4 Stories we tell ourselves about death

Sheldon Solomon:  How Death Affects Everything You Do

Corpse Meditation (The Washington Times)

Thanks to Mathias Ripp for the great photo from Bamberg Germany

Monday, February 3, 2020

Reducing Anxiety and Stress using Cognitive Reframing

Perspective is the way we view things.  Our frame of reference.  And the way we see things is very important since it has a strong influence on the way we make our decisions and eventually end up feeling.  So making sure that the way we view things is as realistic as possible is key in reducing our stress and anxiety.

Cognitive Restructuring is the way that therapists help individuals learn to identify the types of faulty thinking styles they've been using, and once learned it's just called Cognitive Reframing, which is something you can do on your own in your everyday life.  It was developed by Aaron Beck, who was the same man that developed Cognitive therapy, and it's as easy as ABCDE...

Here's how it works:

A= Activating Event (i.e., an event or events is happening in your world)
B= Belief (i.e., you use faulting beliefs to filtering those events through your mind)
C= Consequences (i.e., negative feelings result from the way you think and filter the events)
D= Disputations (i.e., learning to dispute the negative thinking styles with facts and evidence)
E= Emotions (i.e., the new and more comfortable emotions you experience as a result)


A= Your boss gives you an evaluation and says that your could work a little bit faster
B= You filter that comment through a faulty belief that your boss never appreciates your work
C= As a result you start to feel depressed and angry and think about finding a new job
D= Then you challenge your belief by recalling your boss compliments you quite often
E= The result is a calmer feeling and a realistic awareness that one critique does not end all

Here is a link to read more about some of the most frequently used faulty thinking styles.

And yes, we all use some of them sometimes, and some of us use all of them sometimes!  Try to identify which of the faulty thinking styles you use most often and practice disputing them with more rational thinking.  What you will find in the end is that the way you feel can change and your stress and anxiety can find relief.

Thanks to Nikky for the great photo

Monday, January 6, 2020

Reducing Stress: Putting your New Year's Resolution on the schedule

New Year's resolutions get a bad rap.  Sometimes folks are afraid to even make them for fear they will be broken before January 31st.  Many fitness centers know this drill well.  New membership rises just after the first of the year and new arrivals fill the centers with people full of vigor and determination.  But by February and March, the facilities fall back to normal attendance as all the health dreams begin to fade away.

If your New Year's resolution includes a focus on stress reduction, you can reduce the risk of the "gradual fade" by building your new stress reduction activities right into your schedule until they become a new part of your daily life.

In the same way you make sure to add your dentist appointment or oil change into your day timer, the focus and activities for daily relaxation need to be included in the same way.   Sometimes it's just a matter of writing the self-imposed new activity into your time plans, just as you would carve out the time to go get a haircut or pick up groceries.

When it comes to relaxation and stress reduction, it's easy to get in the habit of brushing aside the things that are on the schedule for self-care, such as getting a massage, going to the day-spa, or planning time to read that good book you've been meaning to get to.  Putting these items on the schedule also means keeping those appointments with yourself and not cancelling out because other stressful things have begun to crowd your life.

For your success at the new 2020 resolutions, try to include making a vow to put the new relaxation items on the daily schedule and reinforcing that vow with a promise to oneself to not override those relaxation events when stress starts crowding out the limited time schedule.  Consider these events as essential as laundry and putting gas in the car.  Without them you are not clothed with calm energy or supplied with centered transportation.

In the New Year, make a promise to keep your stress reduction appointments with yourself and be a reliable and steady customer.  The only one that can show up for these events is you.

Thanks to mrhayata for the great photo

Monday, December 9, 2019

Greed and Holiday Stress

In Buddhism, greed is considered to be one of the three poisons, alongside ignorance and anger (or hatred).  Greed is an interesting concept when you think about it.  It means:  "A selfish and excessive desire for more of something".

If you need several million dollars to retire that's one thing, but to want several million dollars just because a few hundred thousand, or a few thousand is not enough for your desire, then you are being greedy.

During the Holidays we can see the worst of people's greed show itself.  "I want" is a frequent comment we hear as people list off all the things they want for Christmas.  "I want a new bike", "I want a new video game", or "I want money".

In America the facts show that only 1% of the richest people in the country hold a much larger portion of the countries wealth.  But no matter if you have or don't have wealth, your leaning towards greed can vary.  A very wealthy person can be quite satisfied with the amount and things they have (and generously share it, as well), while a very average income-maker might continue to want things and money in excess of their ability.  As the definition goes, greed is "selfish" and "excessive".  It's beyond what is actually needed and is wrapped up in the individual's desire for more.

In the United States we are nearly all guilty of greed.  We want more money, more things, bigger homes, nicer cars, more food, more substances, and the more we get the more we continue to want.  The holidays reflect this to excess in things such as the store-front rushes on Black Friday, where shoppers push, shove, and even punch one another to grab the first of an electronic device that has already been stocked up to sell for the day to anyone coming in.

Many elderly people who know they have already lived the majority of their lives--and have begun to downsize and simplify--will many times say, "I don't need anything" when asked what they want for a holiday gift.  Or, they might state only one item that they actually need.  "Just get me some slippers", they say.  Knowing that the ones they have are beginning to wear out.  We can take a lesson from their wisdom.

Greed can be stressful and cause increased stress among those around you.  That's why it's important to keep your desires in check during the holidays.  What's enough?  Ask yourself this frequently while shopping, cooking, spending, and especially when taking in substances like alcohol, sugar and marijuana.  When asked, "What do you want for Christmas?," stop for a moment and consider the giver who may be strapped for money, or worried that whatever they get you might not be "good enough".  Be simply in your desires, and simple in your giving.

Happy Holidays!

Thanks to William Brawley for the great holiday photo