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

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Lower Thanksgiving Stress by Keeping it Simple

In America, from Halloween until New Years, stress levels tend to rise.  There are many things that perpetuate this trend, such as increased shopping, spending, eating and outward focus, as the holiday season is about giving and sharing time with family and friends.

One of the reasons the holidays have become so hectic is because over the generations, we've tended to make these events much more complicated than they need to be.  In fact, simplifying these events can bring back the joy and reduce stress levels for everyone.

For Thanksgiving this year, keep in mind that you don't have to prepare a large event gathering all by yourself.  Though it is a large feasting event, there is no need for there to be multiple things for one person to prepare.  This only leads to feeling overwhelmed with keeping track of it all.  Be sure to reduce your load by asking everyone who attends to help out by bringing a dish.  This not only helps the person(s) preparing the main meal, but also gives attendees something to do so they can feel they've contributed to the event.

Once people arrive, have simple tasks ready to assign out to anyone offering to help.  There are a number of things others can do to participate in the preparation of the main meal, such as chopping foods, setting the table, carving the meat, pouring wine, greeting guests, etc.  If you are a guest, be sure to show your thanks by offering to do some of these helpful things.

Thanksgiving is about gathering to give thanks.  So be ready to step back and let conversations unfold.  Consider a living room gathering during dessert in which each person is given the opportunity to express what they are thankful for.  Leave some various board games accessible for people who want to play and converse, and stay mindful about what you are personally thankful for as you include yourself in the unfolding festivities. 

There is no need to complicate the event by adding in shopping, which pulls people away from the event and distracts from the festivities.  Something to consider instead is a traditional after-dinner movie, such as A Christmas Carol, or Scrooge.  Or maybe traditional holiday cartoons to keep it light and fun.  Allow plenty of time for visiting with your guests, since this gathering together is really what it's all about.

Keeping the holidays simple is the best way to keep your stress and anxiety at a minimum.  You want to be able to enjoy it and capitalize on the opportunity to relax, catch your breath, and most of all... remember what you are thankful for.

Thanks to Martin Cathrae for the great holiday photo

Friday, October 11, 2019

Relaxing with the Mindful practice of Tea Time.

Sometimes the simplest form of relaxation is found in the simplest of activities, like sitting down for a relaxing cup of tea.  You can add it to your daily relaxation routine--be it sitting for meditation, or adding it to your mindful meal, or reading time.

To keep it as simple as possible, try applying mindfulness to your tea time routine.  In other words, be present for everything from getting the tea pot, to selecting the tea cup.

If you invite all of your senses to be a part of the present moment of this activity, you become more aware of the smell, sight, sound, feel and taste of everything you are doing.

If your thoughts wander during this task, just notice that they have done so.  Then, without judgment--and especially without self-judgement--bring your focus back to the task at hand.  And if the mind wanders again, repeat!

Notice the feel of the cup, the sight of the steam rising, and the sound of the boiling water.  Take the time to smell the tea as you pour or prepare it.

Without judgment means without deciding "good or bad", "right or wrong way", "enjoyable or non-enjoyable", "tasty or bitter", etc.  In other words, you are not placing a judgment of any kind on the task.  You are in the moment of tea moment without moving into labeling and judging the tea moment.  It is "just this" tea moment.

Your tea does not have to be that of an expert or that of an amateur.  It can be expensive loose leaf tea or a bag of that you grew up with from the grocery store.  It doesn't matter if it's herbal or decaffeinated.  There is no one judging your authenticity.  It's just you, the aroma, the smoothness of the cup, the warmth of the tea, and the mindfulness of each sip.  There is no way it should be, and no way it ought not to be, nor is there any comparison of how it's done by others.

It's just tea, in this moment, with full awareness.  Watching thoughts come and go, and returning to the present moment.  Noticing your breath come and go, and returning to the present.  Repeatedly returning to the moment is a practice of meditation.  And staying in the present moment in this way is to be in the only place that actually ever exists.  That is, in this never-ending and yet, ever-changing, unfolding moment.

Thanks to Sheila Sund for the great photo

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Transforming Suffering to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

In Buddhism the lotus flower is very symbolic for the path of enlightenment.  It's the lotus flower that grows up out of muddy water and represents a person's journey through suffering in life (i.e., rising up out of that mud to become a beautiful flower).  It's actually the mud itself that makes you strong.  Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book about this called, "No Mud, No Lotus:  The Art of Transforming Suffering."  

Now, this doesn't mean we should go around looking for things to suffer about.  Life offers plenty of suffering just as it is.  What does happen, however, is that we need to be alert to the ways we make great, and even elaborate attempts to avoid suffering and this is what causes our suffering.  In other words, we can't avoid the realities of life.  Sickness and death come, and discomfort is sometimes a part of our daily living.  We can't always have what we'd like or live in the luxury we'd prefer.  And it is the desire for things to be other than what they actually are, that leads to the most suffering.

There are lots of ways we try to avoid suffering:  Drugs and alcohol, shopping, sex, gambling, entertainment, money, workaholism, eating, etc.  If we give these up, we return to experiencing the realities of life.  That is, that sometimes there might not be something to fill your time, or sometimes there are losses, breakups, empty feelings.  Sometimes we are depressed, sad, tearful, lonely, and yet if we try to escape these by filling the time with some of the above bad habits, it only makes life worse.

So learning to suffer through some of this mud in life is key to finding our way to reducing stress and anxiety, or challenging depression and sadness.  Learning to endure the discomforts that life can serve us is important and it's this "mud" that makes us strong enough to grow up out of it, and rise above the waterline in life to bloom as the lotus flowers we are.

The lotus flower grows up and out of the water and stands prominently above it with bright colors of white, red, pink, gold, etc.  These flowers shine in the sun and have multiple pedals which are also symbolic for the beauty of one's enlightenment.  But none of this would happen without the mud (the struggle and suffering) that this great flower is rooted in.

So too with you, that you must learn to endure the difficulties in life and not expect it to be other than what it really is.  Sometimes we have natural and normal anxiety and sometimes we are not always so happy.  The good news is that none of these states is permanent and you can be sure they (and you) will change and transform, just like the lotus flower does.

Thanks to Rajeev K for the great photo