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Coping With Everyday Life

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What This Blog is About

Your hosts for this blog are listed under “Hosts” in the menu choices. We invite you to join the blog and participate in our discussions about psychology and stress. If you are interested in pursuing any topic we cover, email us at charlesbrooks@kings.edu. We also encourage you to visit our website (www.subtlesuicide.com) to learn about our published books on subtle suicide, dysfunctional giver/taker relationships, and research on how psychology applies to everyday life.

This blog is about what psychology has to say about facing everyday stress. Anxiety, jealousy, anger, love, depression, grief – like everyone, you experience these emotions and the stress they can produce. You lose loved ones, you get bored with your job, you have kids, you care for elderly parents, the water heater breaks, you suffer a personal attack, a storm damages your house, your neighbor is a pain in the a……well, you get the idea. Stress surrounds you and sometimes you feel helpless to do anything about it.

Faced with life, you really have two choices: You can say the hell with it, decide to live with the stress, withdraw into a protective shell, and avoid trying to do anything about it. From a psychological perspective, this choice will turn you into a stagnant pool; you exist, but not in any productive or satisfying way.

On the other hand, you can decide to attack the stress in your life, to accept challenges and meet them as best you can. You can decide not to be ruled by your emotions, but to use them to your advantage. This choice requires more effort and focus than the first one, but the effort is well worth it in the long run. This choice, and how you can apply psychology to your life and become better at dealing with your everyday stressors, is what we talk about in this blog. Join us!

 

Coping With Disappointment

Last summer I was taking a walk and saw four young people in the park, each wearing their graduation cap and gown. They were laughing and having a great time as they posed for pictures taken by each of them in turn.

I wasn’t sure what high school they had attended, but it didn’t matter because every school in the area had canceled graduation exercises because of the coronavirus. But these four kids were doing a great job of coping with what had to be a disappointing time for them. Good for them!

Hara Estroff Marano wrote about the high-school class of 2020 in Psychology Today (August 2020). Marano said these kids have been thrown a wicked curveball by life, a pitch that deprived them of a ceremony signaling achievement, and filled with accolades and pride. “Life needs such events,” said Marano. “Taking the time to acknowledge them…works as a kind of push-off to the challenges ahead. The future feels less certain, rockier, without the landmarks.”

I imagined myself spouting this stuff to the four students in their graduation garb and just began laughing. Their future will be rougher without experiencing a ceremony? Nonsense! You know what I think? Years down the road those kids will have kids of their own, and one day their kids will suffer a terrible disappointment, and the parent will take them aside and say, “You think you have it bad? Let me tell you what happened when I graduated from high school!” Kind of like when our grandparents tell us how they walked five miles to school each day, usually in a foot or two of snow, uphill both ways.

As I continued walking, I began to think about how we cope – or don’t – with disappointment. Life is full of disappointments, beginning when we discover that we may not get fed before those hunger pangs begin, or we may not get a clean diaper right away. Then we reach that age when we can walk, and we long to discover all the wondrous things surrounding us – only to learn that the most frequently-used word in the language is, “NO!”

In my 41 years of teaching and advising college students, I had numerous student office visits – not to talk about coursework, but to talk about some disappointment in their lives: broken romances; family finances that could preclude their return to college; alcohol/drug problems; acquaintance rape; sexual identity; roommate problems; parents trying to dictate their life, etc., etc.

My most memorable one was when a student came in at the end of a semester and said that her wedding scheduled in 10 days had to be canceled because the groom decided to back out. As you might expect she was pretty emotional about the whole thing, although angrier than anything else. One thing for sure, she wasn’t going to cancel the honeymoon that was booked. Turns out she and the bridesmaid took the trip and they had a ball. Everyone they met assumed they were a lesbian couple, and they just let that story ride.

No matter what the issue, when chatting with “disappointed” students, I tried – not always successfully – to follow this model: Let them monopolize the conversation; show understanding and empathy, not criticism; ask them to identify what options – realistic ones – they had to solve the issue. In a few cases, I referred them to the Counseling Center, or to an outside mental health service. Most of the time, however, I discovered that they wanted to hear someone say, “I understand,” and, “It’s not your fault”; then they began to handle their problem on their own.   

Parents don’t always do a good job of preparing their kids for disappointment because they believe that the road to healthy self-esteem for their kids is paved with success. Thus, they work hard to protect their kids from failure, and to help the kids enjoy success in all they do. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to teach children how to cope with the reality of failure and disappointment.

Kids need to be taught that success is never guaranteed, and comes from preparation and effort. Likewise, they must learn that failure does not mean they are worthless. In fact, they need to discover that failure provides learning opportunities by giving them information about where they need to improve so they can increase their chance of success in the future.

When parents structure their children’s environment to make success easy, the children don’t learn the importance of preparation and effort; they don’t learn to ask if their evaluations of their abilities are realistic; nor do they learn the danger in assuming that someone will always be there to bail them out.

These points apply to all of us, not just to kids. Your biggest coping enemy is trying to avoid failure, because then you will never learn to correct mistakes and improve. To cope well, you must accept challenges, face your failures, examine the information they provide, and correct your mistakes to increase your chances of success.

Empathy Deficiency

Some people have a hard time understanding how others are feeling. Do you feel empathy for others when they suffer discomfort? If not, you’re not alone, but it’s kind of sad when you think about it. We humans are “social animals,” but if you can’t feel empathy for others, how can you be fully “social”? Is it reasonable to say that empathy is one of the most honorable expressions we can give to others because it fulfills our destiny as social beings?

“Well,” you might ask, “if empathy is so crucial to being human, why do I have a hard time with it? I don’t hate people, and I enjoy helping others, so what’s my problem?”

Where might an empathy deficiency come from? The answer can be complicated because it would depend on the particular experiences and genetic make-up of each individual. Bill might be un-empathetic for entirely different reasons than Sally.

Still, it is possible to come up with a general understanding of empathy deficiency if we think about empathy in a different way. That is, when you boil it down, empathy means you are sensitive to emotional signals from others.

Larry: “I’m glad to see that Roger is recovering nicely from Susan’s death.”

Declan: “Recovering nicely? Didn’t you see his face or hear his voice when you asked him how he’s doing? Yeh, he said, ‘Just fine; the kids and I are moving forward and we’re doing OK,’ – but that was bull. It’s three months since Susan died and the guy is just eaten up inside. He’s in bad shape and needs support. It’s all over his face and in his voice. I can see it and hear it. The guy is really hurting. I think we need to steer him toward some support group.”

Declan seems to “get it,” but Larry doesn’t. Declan picked up on some facial and voice cues that Larry didn’t. So, let’s re-phrase our question – “Where might an empathy deficiency come from?” – and ask, “How could a person develop an insensitivity to emotional social cues expressed by others?”

Note how this question doesn’t see an empathy deficiency as always meaning someone mean-spirited – a misanthrope who dislikes people and uses them for personal gain. That could be true for a particular individual, but seeing the deficit as an insensitivity to social cues makes the deficiency more of a perceptual problem for someone, not necessarily a character flaw or chronic indecency on their part. So, let’s ask, “What might be the origin of this perceptual handicap?”

Imagine being raised from birth in a home that is cold, rejecting, and full of criticism. Love and support are in short supply. In infancy, you learn that the world is not a trusting place – you can’t depend on others to satisfy your needs, especially your need for comfort, warmth, soft cuddling, and gentleness. During your preschool years the deprivation continues and you begin to feel some guilt (“What am I doing wrong?”). The guilt makes you develop fear of showing any initiative or independent action, believing that doing so will certainly result in abandonment by your parents. 

As you grow older you have no idea how to give and receive love because you have never been taught such interactions. Any developmental mirroring that occurs in your early experience is limited to experiencing frustration, uncertainty, guilt, and rejection – never understanding, support, compassion, and affection. Furthermore, any thought of “giving yourself” to another in a context of love is threatening because it triggers guilt, fear of rejection, and your core fear of abandonment.

Empathy becomes a threat to your stability. If you try to understand how others are feeling you expose yourself to a situation in which you have no idea how to behave. Everyday emotional social cues – a smile, a laugh, a grimace, a cry – become aversive to you because you don’t know how to respond to them. You learn to avoid or ignore them.

If someone says with a smile, “You know, I really like you,” you are threatened because you don’t know what to say. Your cold upbringing did not prepare you for mutual caring and empathy. If a friend says, “I’m hurting ever since Gail dumped me,” you’re at a loss as to how to answer, how to offer solace, how to…empathize.

Social signals – whether positive like a smile or negative like a frown – frustrate you, make you angry, and foster conflict in your relationships with others, the very emotions and actions you have experienced from others in your upbringing.

Are you doomed for life? No. People and events in your past helped make you who you are, butunless you choose it you are seldom perpetually enslaved by your past.

Remember that statement: When you blame people from your past – parents, siblings, or other caregivers – for your adult problems, you are ignoring the fact that you are capable of making decisions to help you overcome the effects of a rocky childhood. Blaming your past says you believe you are entitled to special treatment because your childhood was tough. That’s not the way life works. Effective coping must always involve accountability on your part.

If your sense of entitlement, and your history of difficulty in assessing social signals lasts for years – for instance, well into adulthood – you may need professional psychological help to unravel the various threads your mind has woven over the years. Just remember, there’s no shame in seeking help. It’s the honorable thing to do, and, in fact, you empower yourself by doing so. On the other hand, if you obsess about yesterday as the cause of your troubles, how can you possibly be ready to cope with today’s challenges, much less tomorrow’s?

The bottom line? You can learn empathy; you can – with help – teach yourself to be sensitive to social cues; you can learn to become a more active participant in the social enterprise of being human. Like so many things in life that challenge you, it’s your choice.

Perceptions Need Adjusting?

Note: This story has been modified to insure anonymity.

I was just about checked out at the grocery register when the clerk recognized the man behind me and said, “Pete, it’s good to see you out.”

            He replied, “This is the first time in 6 months I’ve been out. I’ve just been so scared. It’s really tough being alone when you’re not used to it. People just don’t know.”

            I figured that Pete – who looked around 70 behind his mask – had possibly lost his wife. But I didn’t know Pete, so I didn’t know for sure, but I decided to chime in anyway. I said, “I know I wouldn’t want to go through it. When you’re used to being with someone, suddenly being alone has to be really frightening.”

            “It’s terrible,” he said. “Everything became so quiet. Even the slightest noise scared me to death. I never knew the refrigerator made so much noise. It was so quiet and all of a sudden it came on and I nearly jumped out of my skin every time.”

            I had to get moving or people would start scowling at me for holding up the checkout line. But I wanted to leave Pete with something, and said, “The refrigerator is reminding you it’s there for you, keeping your food cold, just for you. Think of the noise as something reassuring – ‘It’s OK, I’m here for you. Relax and feel safe.’”

            He didn’t say anything, but just looked at me. I hope he was processing what I said, and in a positive way. I just smiled – which was hidden by my mask – and said, “Take care,” as I walked away.

            We’ve said this before, but coping efforts are not helped when you focus on – and try to avoid – the emotions you feel. Pete, for instance, had been paralyzed by fear for 6 months that imprisoned him at home. His fear was his focus, so much so that even a small noise was fed into his fear network. His perception of the noise from the fridge got all messed up, and the result was increased fear. Same with his grief. Fred no doubt mixed his grief and fear together, which made it more difficult for him to process his sadness.

            Pete was all hung up on his fear and grief, so he stayed hidden away, avoiding the outside world. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that emotions carry valuable signals that can help him adjust to the unknown, and to loss. Fear tells him to find ways to prepare and be vigilant; grief tells him to seek ways to honor the memory of the loved one he lost. The focus must be on actions, not on how he feels.

            When you’re faced with a coping issue, it pays to remember that if you focus on your troublesome emotions – like fear and grief – you become self-absorbed and begin to feel sorry for yourself; you lose confidence to take on challenges; you begin to perceive things irrationally.

“Well, OK,” you ask, “but what could Pete have been doing differently during those 6 months?”  

For starters, four things come to mind: Maintain his social network by reaching out to friends and family; join a support group of people with similar problems; allow himself to accept help from others; finally, give help to others.

            In short, after giving himself a reasonable time to grieve, Pete’s focus should be just as it was that day I saw him – re-evaluating things like a refrigerator noise, venturing into the world once again, and acting in ways that make him feel a part of life again.

My Way or the Highway

Do you prefer simple, definitive answers to questions? Suppose you hear on the news about a man who lives in your town. A local business where this guy worked was losing money and was forced to lay-off 50% of its work force, and he was one of them. Over a period of months his financial situation worsened. He was unable to find another job and his unemployment benefits ran out. His 10-year old son has a life-threatening illness that requires medication he can no longer afford. Desperate, our unemployed dad breaks into a pharmacy and steals the medicine. He gets caught. How should this man be punished?

Simple Answer: He committed a felony and should go to trial. If found guilty he should go to jail.

Complicated Answer: If found guilty maybe he should receive a suspended sentence so he can continue to look for work. Could the pharmacy put him on an affordable payment plan for the medicine? Could the drug company supply him with the medication and put him on an affordable payment plan once he is back at work? Maybe local media could run his story, and local businesses and neighbors might work to help him financially until he is able to find a job.

If you like the simple answer, and believe that life is really an either/or deal, the odds are that you’re going to have some coping problems somewhere along the line. Why? Because you want life to be something it isn’t: Simple. You want things to be black or white, right or wrong. You believe that if something is right for you, it should be right for everyone, and everyone should see it as right. You have no tolerance for ambiguity, subtleties, nuance, or dissenting opinions. 

Let’s face it, stress results when the answers to problems are not simple; it results when others disagree with you, and don’t see your way as best; it results when others show creativity, independence, and initiative, but you are unwilling – or unable – to do so.

When faced with complex stressful situations, coping requires compromise, courtesy, humility, empathy, and teamwork. If you insist on living by simplistic, either/or, black/white rules, you will not be equipped to solve the challenges posed by life’s complexities, shades of gray, and nuance. If you believe, “There’s only one way to solve this conflict,” you will fail, and stress will continue to haunt you.

In the Spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, some people took to the streets to demonstrate against stay-at-home restrictions. Many TV viewers watched, fearful for their health if reopening occurred too soon, yet also empathetic with the demonstrators, understanding their frustration. Stress was in ample supply all around.

A major contribution to everyone’s stress resulted from the either/or manner in which choices were delivered to the people: Close or reopen society; follow the President or your Governor; think like a liberal or like a conservative; be guided by the medical or by the financial aspects of the crisis; choose us or them, your needs or your neighbor’s. In other words, some leaders preached either/or thinking, and encouraged us to think like simpletons!

Unfortunately, simplistic either/or thinking encouraged everyone to take sides and overlook the complexities of the problem facing them. The result was emotional upheaval, anxiety, frustration, and anger that made coping difficult. Emotions! Decisions were approached from an emotion-based context, when they needed to be approached from a problem-based context. There were problems that needed solutions, but everyone worried about how much they were worrying.

Imagine that your boss tells you to decide to make Pete or Joan –it’s your decision – the leader of the team for an upcoming important project. When you see the issue as either/or, Pete or Joan, you put yourself in a decision-making straitjacket that is almost guaranteed to maintain your stress level. Your focus on emotion will make you anxious about how you will be seen by your boss if your choice is terrible.

Give yourself a break. Your emotions do not need solving – a problem needs solving. Why not make Pete and Joan provisional co-leaders? If one obviously shines, you slowly elevate that one to leader. Notice how you have removed the either/or stressor, and made the conflict data driven: “I will let their performance determine which one emerges as leader.”

Assigning Pete and Joan as co-leaders is a middle-ground solution that allows you to design a flexible plan of action, and continually measure how well the plan is proceeding. The resolutions to most conflicts are usually most successful when they include features from all possible options, and allow for feedback – data – to evaluate their effectiveness. Let Pete’s and Joan’s performance determine your final decision.

Note how this strategy makes your accountability much easier. You convert an emotion-based approach to your decision to a problem-based approach. That means you are guided by results, not by a gut feeling. A problem-solving analysis involves actions based on realistic evaluation of measurable outcomes. Over the long run, your problem-focused approach – unlike an emotional-focused approach – will allow you to be accountable for your decision, and a lot more confident that your decision was valid.

Personality Disorders, Narcissism

The Personality Disorder called Narcissism is in the news quite a bit these days. This week’s post deals with two questions: “What exactly is a Personality Disorder”; and, “What are the general dynamics of the individual who exhibits narcissism to such an extreme degree that it can be labeled a disorder?”

Narcissism is one of several “Personality Disorders” listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Personality disorders can be tricky because they include personality traits that are pretty common for most people.

For instance, have you ever thought friends whispering over in the corner were whispering about you? (Paranoid Disorder) Have you ever shared an idea with someone and they said, “That’s kind of weird, you know!” (Schizotypal Disorder) Do your relationships get so “rocky” at times that you fear being rejected, abandoned, and alone? (Borderline Disorder) Do you ever feel kind of indifferent toward some of your friends, sort of a “whatever” attitude? (Schizoid Disorder) Do you sometimes fear rejection and criticism that makes you hesitant to enter into a relationship? (Avoidant Disorder)

Most people would answer these questions, “Sure, doesn’t everyone?” Does this mean that everyone has a personality disorder? (In the previous paragraph, the type of disorder would be the word in parentheses following each question). Of course not. So how do personality disorders differ from “normal” everyday tendencies in all of us?

Personality disorders involve traits, emotions, and actions that are chronic, enduring, intense, and exaggerated. We’re not talking about everyday tendencies that come and go; we’re talking about habitual, reliable, and consistent ways of acting that extend across time and different situations. Because these tendencies can become thoroughly ingrained in the brain, personality disorders are notoriously resistant to treatment.

Take narcissism, for instance. The narcissist is chronically consumed by egotism: “I am the best at everything. It’s all about me. I am the primary ingredient for solving any problem.” Narcissists see themselves as special, entitled, perfect, and always right. To help them assert their dominance, they love to “stir the pot,” keep things out of kilter for others. They create chaos so others can’t react sensibly, and the narcissist can step in and take charge.

Narcissists need constant praise, support, and validation from others, like a leaking balloon that regularly needs air. Ironically, however, what narcissists want from others – empathy – they can’t give to others. Narcissists habitually lack empathy and insensitivity to others’ emotions. Who has time for others when wrapped up in oneself? Others must be constantly devalued, which makes stability in relationships impossible. Treating members of the opposite sex as equals is impossible; to do so would elevate them in status, and make them a threat to the narcissist’s extremely fragile ego.

Here’s the key to the narcissist: Deep down, probably at an unconscious level, they’re filled with self-doubt, low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness. They constantly fight against letting these “I-am-inferior” impulses out. Such a threat – I am inferior – to their gargantuan ego must be suppressed, kept hidden, or their personality will disintegrate. Anyone who disagrees with them or challenges them must be defeated, bullied, and subjugated so they can reassure themselves that, “I am superior and in total charge.” They can never admit they were wrong, or apologize to someone, because that would release too much air from the “ego  balloon,” and they would be plunged into psychological chaos.

The narcissist is vulnerable to these core insecurities that generally have their origins in childhood. Therefore, any circumstance that triggers childhood fears – often the fear is of authoritarian parents criticizing and ridiculing them as unworthy – has the potential to plunge them into anxiety. Thus, they must constantly be on the attack against others to convince themselves that they are in control. One thing for sure: Give an extreme narcissist power and the results will likely be catastrophic.

Most of us have narcissistic tendencies. That is, we like to look out for good old number one! Few of us, however, habitually – and with great exaggeration – display the traits and actions described above in our interactions with others. Most of us do not let our egos constantly get in the way of being sensitive to the feelings of others, and developing empathy for their discomfort. Thank goodness for that!

Choosing Well

When you cope with the stresses of everyday living, you have chosen to live. Coping with life is the opposite of avoiding life. Too often, people choose not to face their problems to stay in their comfort zone and let life pass them by. Their choice, of course, gives them an easy road to travel in the short run; but, over the long haul they constantly fight the gnawing reality festering inside them that, “I could have done better.”

Facing up to stress accepting it, confronting it, attacking it – puts you on a rocky road that forces you to carry a stress load that cries out, “I can’t handle this!” But you can, and that’s why you must persist. Only by confronting stress can you discover that the obstacles in your life road are not obstacles – they are the road.  

Choosing to travel this road brings you long-term benefits: empowerment, self-esteem, and a healthy connection to yourself and others. You come closer to a humble realization of your potential, as who you are emerges from empathetic actions in service of others. You discover your Honor and the humanity that comprises it: integrity, decency, morality, and values.

The Authoritarian Personality

After World War II ended and the Nazi atrocities were exposed for all the world to see, people could not help but wonder, “Why would anyone follow Hitler and help him carry out murderous policies that extended far beyond conventional warfare?” In 1950, social scientists Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford, provided an answer to this question when they published The Authoritarian Personality, based on their research at the University of California, Berkeley both during and after the war.

The authors hypothesized a specific personality type – Authoritarian – and proposed criteria by which to measure components of the type. Their measuring instrument was called the California F-Scale, the F standing for Fascist. The scale identifies a personality type that makes one susceptible to fascist, anti-democratic messages. The components of this type include: Belief in conventional values, and admiration of authority figures who preach those values; a worldview that sees danger from those who express individuality, independence, and imaginative thinking; acceptance of a simplistic view of reality as black or white, right or wrong, us or them; a belief that those who are wrong – them, the outsiders – must be suppressed and dominated by a forceful leader.

Someone with this authoritarian personality would obviously be attracted to a strong, charismatic leader like Hitler, and believe that he knows how to solve problems. He is confident and self-assured, he divides the world into good guys (Aryan non-Jews) and bad guys (Jews and various political and social groups), and presents issues in unambiguous fashion. Following him makes sense.

In 2016, before election day, Matthew MacWilliams, a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, did an informal survey of 1,800 South Carolina voters. In addition to the usual demographic questions (gender, race, age, etc.), and for which candidate they intended to vote, he also asked them how they thought children should be raised. Specifically, he asked them to pick only one from each of the following pairs of words to describe the traits they valued most in children and would want their children to show:

(1) respectful/independent; (2) obedient/self-reliant; (3) well-behaved/considerate; and (4) well-mannered/curious.

The first word of each pair reflects the preference of an authoritarian parent; the second word reflects the preference of an egalitarian parent. Interestingly, the voters’ candidate preference was strongly correlated with whether they chose the first or the second word of each pair: Trump voters tended to choose the first word; Clinton voters tended to choose the second word.

Politics aside, the authoritarian personality provides us with a valuable reminder about coping with stress: Sometimes your personality dynamics can make you overly susceptible to particular individuals and their messages that may not be in your best interest. Recognizing that fact and being alert to your personality tendencies can help you maintain critical thinking about messaging that sounds a little too good to be true. When confronted with any messaging, exercising careful and critical thinking is a good coping rule to follow.

The authoritarian research also illustrates how you might inadvertently validate questionable messaging by literally indoctrinating your children into obediently accepting your beliefs as best. For instance, if children are rigidly taught that it is best to obey the dictates of the person in charge – such as, Dad – they may grow up being vulnerable to messages from individuals they consider to be authority figures – like their Dad! In essence, they become vulnerable to cult messages issued from dictatorial and autocratic cult leaders.

Your parental childrearing values may be genuine and honorable, but surely – unless you are an authoritarian personality – you want to raise your children to think for themselves, and be able to decide on their own to identify with your values – not from a sense of obligation but from free and autonomous choosing. It’s great to teach kids your values, but you must be vigilant to do so in a democratic-authoritative – not authoritarian – manner.

History Shows We’re Not Unique

It’s a wonder any of us are sane. I mean, look at all the stressors we have in society: We have the evils of social media; we have regular reports on TV news about horrible things going on everywhere; we have larger and larger cities that are noisy, polluted, and overcrowded. People run from the cities and what happens? The suburbs become noisy, polluted, and overcrowded.

Feeling stressed from all these pressures? Of course you are! How can anyone be expected to cope well? Sure, you have a lot of excuses, a host of things in society that you can blame for your inability to cope. Still, the bottom line is you’ve really got it bad these days, worse than any other generation, right? Wrong!

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in both Europe and America, so-called “nervous disorders” were increasing drastically, especially among women. Today, these problems would be called anxiety disorders, and would also come under the general rubric of what we talk about in this blog: coping with stress.

Practitioners 100+ years ago blamed the increase in these nervous disorders on the stressors of modern civilization. First, there were the railroads, which made a lot of noise and transported people around very quickly, maybe too quickly for their brains to process calmly. Second, there was the telegraph, which gave almost instantaneous communication. Talk about immediate news! Who can process that? No wonder people were all stressed out. Third, American society had the sensory overload of overcrowding and noise in larger and larger cities, and their dirt and filth that took people away from the serenity of nature. Finally, there were an increased number of newspapers, magazines, and popular media sources that spread disturbing news among the populace. Bad news traveled fast and was plentiful.

Sound familiar? From a stress perspective, just how different, really, is 2020 from 1900? Just like now, people in 1900 had excuses and scapegoats to blame when they were having trouble coping. And, amazingly enough, the agents of blame were the same ones we use in 2020!

“But wait,” you protest, “we also have a pandemic.” Oh, sorry, the Spanish flu hit in 1918. Also, Americans had that little disturbance called WWI to worry about around the same time.

The point here is simple: your stressors are not unique, not worse than anyone on the planet has ever experienced. That pity parade doesn’t square with reality. So, you might as well accept your problems as a part of life, make yourself accountable in facing them, and develop a rational plan – that includes reading this blog – to cope with them. Sounds pretty empowering, doesn’t it?

Coping in a Pandemic

Nothing like a good pandemic to bring on the stress, right? The coronavirus of 2020 provides all the elements for you: You feel a lack of control of events going around you; there’s little predictability for you to hang onto; you worry not only about yourself, but also about loved ones who may become infected; you worry about your kids’ education and future; you get frustrated and lonely from social isolation, physical distancing, and wearing a face covering.

And then there are media reports that describe increased cases of people suffering emotional problems from it all. The reports say that more and more people are seeking professional psychological help; research documents all sorts of mental health problems – depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, outbursts of anger, guilt, jealousy, envy, insomnia – as a result of restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

Are you doomed? Certainly not! Yes, the pandemic poses coping challenges for you, but that’s what life is all about. You can meet the challenge!

Before we talk about how, please keep in mind that when you’re surrounded by all the messages and reports that we mentioned above, you are at risk of “buying into them.” That is, reading about emotional problems that can arise from the pandemic, you begin to assume that it’s inevitable you will be victimized by those problems. You become caught in a self-fulfilling prophesy: (1) the pandemic is increasing mental health problems; (2) you decide, “I’m under a lot of stress, so I’m going to develop an emotional problem”; (3) you develop an emotional problem.

We made the same point in the PTSD blog entry on April 20, 2019. We said

When trauma strikes, PTSD is not inevitable. You can cope effectively with the excessive stress and anxiety and go on with your life. In the context of PTSD, it is important for you not to accept any message that says exposure to a traumatic event will automatically make you fall apart. If you’re prepared, and have the confidence that comes with feeling empowered, you less likely to disintegrate in the face of adversity. Consider the following exchange:

Interviewer: “Why are you so stressed?”

You: “I’m worried that since suffering that stressful event, I’m going to develop PTSD.”

What could be worse than developing a stress disorder because you’re worried about developing a stress disorder? You have set the stage for a self-fulfilling prophesy.

OK, back to coping during a pandemic. First of all, let’s review the coping model we often talk about in this blog. The components are simple: Accept the reality of your situation; no denials – hoaxes, conspiracy theories – or other distractions. Resolve to face reality by being Accountable for how you deal with reality; no blaming someone else for what’s going on. If you live today blaming others for yesterday’s mistakes, you will never cope with the challenges of tomorrow. Find some Humility to admit that you’re hurting and may need some help. Reach out to others in a spirit of Empathy; share your concerns with others, be a source of support for others, and discover that you’re not alone.

Finally, develop a Plan to deal with your stress. Make sure your plan encourages you to take actions that provide you with social connections. One of the hardest things about the pandemic is the requirement to socially isolate: No parties, no dining out with friends, no group activities. Maintaining physical distance from others creates feelings of social isolation, and few things are more threatening or disturbing to humans. After all, we are social animals.

With that thought in mind, consider a plan that includes regular “contact” with friends and family through platforms like Zoom. These are far superior to the static contact of something like Facebook. There’s nothing like real-time contact with another that allows you to see others’ facial expressions while you hear their voices.

If your plan includes professional help – and it should if you’re feeling out of control, profoundly depressed, or concerned about harming yourself – look into virtual psychotherapy. One such program can be found at LiveWell-Coaching.com – a counseling platform developed by psychologist Mike Ronsisvalle – that allows you to interact with a real person to help you deal with your stress.

A good coping plan will also include strategies for getting involved in service projects that allow you to help others. Such involvement will show you that others suffer like you, that you are not alone, and that you have empowerment strengths you did not realize. Let those strengths emerge from your supportive actions in service to others.

Here’s the bottom line about the pandemic: As is true in any other challenging situation, the pandemic does not automatically make you helpless to meet the challenges it presents. Don’t put yourself down with self-criticism – “I’m too weak to deal with all this.” – or excessive dependency. You are not weak; you are not evil; you are not helpless and dependent; and you are certainly not alone. Let the challenges of the pandemic spur you into productive action to take care of yourself and serve others.

Comparing Stress Loads

A few days ago, I saw a tweet about Joe Biden written by someone who had lost a child. The writer commented how he couldn’t imagine Biden’s pain from losing two children and a spouse. Then I ran across a reply to the tweet that said, “I’ve had it a lot worse than Biden, and so have most Americans.”

Let’s strip this exchange of all things political, and talk about coping with stress. Specifically, let’s ask, “Does comparing the intensity of your stress with someone else’s – “I have suffered more than you have” – help you cope better?”

Suppose you are in a support group to help you deal with some stressful event. You have just shared your story with the group and someone says, “Big deal. I’ve had it a lot tougher than you! You got off easy.” Would you feel better after hearing their story? I would imagine not. No matter how intense their experience was, your trauma and pain do not simply go away.

Here’s the thing: Being stressed out and needing help is not a competition. When you hear that someone else has problems that make yours look minor, you might be tempted to say to yourself, “Why am I getting so overwhelmed by my situation? Others have bigger problems than mine.”

Maybe so, but if your life is being disrupted by a specific stressful event, you need to tend to the problem, or the stress will intensify and likely lead to worse difficulties. The degree to which stressful events affect you is not determined by how your stress stacks up against someone else’s. And, when you start comparing stress loads, you may even feel shame and guilt if you decide someone else’s issues are worse than yours. Any way you look at it, comparing stress intensities is a losing proposition.

Consider this question: When someone says, “I’ve had it a lot tougher than you,” what is missing from their comment? Two things really: First is Humility. As soon as someone says their road has been rockier than yours, they are descending into the depths of self-glorification; they are telling you, “I, not you, am the primary ingredient in the recipe we’re dealing with here. It’s all about me!”

When you remove humility from your coping actions, you won’t be able to deal with your problems effectively. Imagine this exchange:

Jim: “I lost my job, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I’m depressed, I don’t know                                    what to do!”

Bill: “Oh, for heaven’s sake, give me a break. Try having your wife walk out                          on you with another guy, and leave you with two kids to raise.”

Jim: “Well, if you still have your job, at least you can afford to feed them!”

Bill: “Young kids need their mother! I can’t do that kind of parenting. I                                    need help and don’t know where to turn.”

This is pretty absurd, isn’t it? Jim and Bill are each working very hard to convince the other that his burden is heavier. The fact is, the burden is heavy for both of them, and they each need to address their respective problem.

In addition to humility, the second thing missing when stress loads are compared, is the sprout of humility’s seed: Empathy. In the exchange above, for instance, neither speaker empathizes with the suffering of the other; each feels only his own discomfort. The result is that neither is able to resolve their stress.

The irony for Jim and Bill is that if they bothered to appreciate the other’s story, they just might gain some insight into their own difficulty. When you’re stressed and upset, you struggle to find ways to deal with emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt, grief, jealousy, and others that rob you of stability in your life. At this point in the coping process, you think it’s all about you, and this self-centered emphasis makes coping difficult.

When you get outside of yourself, however, and bring others into the picture, the coping picture brightens. Whether you reach out to others with problems similar to yours, or work at trying to understand the effect you are having on others, substituting an “other-oriented” – rather than “self-oriented” – focus will provide insight into your problem. This focus is what we mean by empathy.

One final point to make about comparing stresses: Such a comparison is less likely when a victim is in a support group designed for his or her difficulty. Thus, “Compassionate Friends” and “Healing Hearts” bring bereaved parents together. If the issue is divorce or separation, there are support groups for women, men, those over 40, and even those with a specific religious affiliation. When you’re with similar people who have experienced problems like yours, the issue of comparison is less likely to rear its ugly head.