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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!

 

The Coping Beauty of Service to Others

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”? The idea is pretty simple: If individual parts are put together in a certain way, something new comes out of the arrangement; something new emerges.

Country singer Hank Williams wrote a signature song titled, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The first line introduces a bird singing and asks, “Did you hear that lonesome whippoorwill?” The remarkable second line states, “He sounds too blue to fly.” What an image: Six words describe a bird so down in the dumps that he can’t even fly. Now that’s sadness!

Let’s take those six words in line two and mix them up: too, fly, sounds, he, blue, to. Not much emotion conveyed in that jumble, is there? But when the words are re-arranged in a different order, plus put in the context of line 1, something new emerges: A level of sadness that is almost incomprehensible. When the parts are arranged in a given way, something new emerges.

In psychology, the concept of emergence is generally used in the area of perception. But let’s see if we can use it more broadly to shed some light on personality functioning and coping with stress.

A lot of people are stressed out because they’re not happy. Their lives are filled with disappointments, anger, anxiety, and feelings of incompetence and low self-esteem. And so, they wail to anyone who will listen: “I need to be happy.” Now, here’s something very important: When you utter this phrase, thinking you can find happiness just by looking for it, you’re making it all about you. “I’m having a hard time!” “I deserve better.” “My needs come first.” “I need to be happy.”

We have two coping problems here: First, effective coping cannot be centered around your needs. Second, happiness is not something you can look for and find. You can’t circle a date on your calendar and write, “Today find happiness.” It’s not something laying on the ground that you can pick up. Rather, happiness is something that emerges from actions you perform.

Actions are the coping key, but those actions cannot be centered around you. Instead of putting yourself as the main ingredient in the coping recipe, reduce your part in the recipe. You can accomplish this by allowing your troublesome emotions and interpersonal conflicts to help you increase your sensitivity to others – your empathy toward them — who suffer from conflicts similar to yours. This sensitivity and empathy will encourage you to reach out to help them. The bonus? You will discover ample helpings of personal satisfaction to help you cope better with your own problems. In other words, happiness will emerge from your altruistic actions.

The true human beauty of empathy is that both the giver (you) and the taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy for your coping difficulties than empathic service to others. As you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, you will discover that whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties; you will realize, that the best way to have coping strength emerge from your actions is to make sure you leave no one behind.

 

Talking to Others, Part III

In two earlier posts (April 6 and August 17), drawing on his more than 30 years of clinical psychology practice, Michael Church shared some ideas about how to talk to others who are troubled:

“Listen” to what others tell you; don’t just “hear” them. Be uncritical to show them you understand what they are going through.

Remember, it’s not about you, but about them. “Here’s what I would do if I were you,” is not a helpful comment. You are not about “being them,” so don’t go there.

Do not label them (“Jane is bipolar, so I should offer to babysit her kids.”) The labels will stereotype them in your mind and bias your interactions with them.

Rather than criticizing them, help them consider positive actions they can take when down on life.

Use caution when discussing medications. Focus your talks on their life conflicts, not on their medications.

Here are some more examples of conversations that illustrate some good ways to respond to troubled folks.

Comment:        “I don’t know why I drink so much. Things go well for a while and then I do stupid things and just hurt myself with stupid actions. It seems like I go three steps forward and four steps back. What is my problem?”

Response:        “I guess we don’t always know why we do what we do. That seems natural to me. But you’re asking some pretty deep questions about why you’re so self-defeating and self-destructive. Do you think a professional could help you find the answers?”

Notice how the commenter is cleverly trying to trap the respondent into joining the pity parade. But the respondent doesn’t fall for it, and instead directs a question at the commenter forcing him/her to focus on the solution proposed. It’s important to convey empathy to those who are troubled, but that doesn’t mean joining their pity parade.

 

Comment:        “I don’t know why I can’t take my medications and go to counseling like I’m supposed to. I don’t want to work or even get out of bed. It has been this way for a long time. I don’t even care about my friends and family. Who cares?”

Response:        “Sounds logical to me. Why would you care about taking your medicine or going to doctors if you have this apathy about life? Until you care you’re sure not going to be doing much of anything that makes you feel good. You’ll just keep giving yourself more pain. Is pain what you want, though? You have to decide because aren’t you the only one who can change your life? Aren’t you the only one who can decide if you have a desire to live your life to the fullest?”

This response goes a long way toward expressing acceptance and understanding of the commenter. But then a key question is raised that challenges the commenter in a positive way: “Is pain what you want?” Again, notice how the response conveys empathy, but goes on to challenge the listener.

To summarize, the main thing to remember when someone comes to you for advice and help is simple: It’s not about you; it’s about them. In these instances, we tend to say things like, “You really shouldn’t feel that way. You’re being unrealistic; plus, I have found that it helps a lot to….” Such comments, which substitute your perspective for the other person’s, show a lack of empathy and understanding on your part.

When talking to those who are troubled, resist the temptation to express your opinion. Rather than tell them what to do, encourage them to develop a feeling of empowerment by posing questions to them to help them consider possible courses of action. Take yourself out of the equation because the issue is not what you would do; the issue is to encourage them to consider proactive options consistent with their needs and abilities.

New Book

I’m happy to announce a new book by myself and Michael Church, “Using Psychology to Cope with Everyday Stress.” We are also joined by four contributors, all of whom are our former students who graduated from King’s College. David Jenkins, PhD, class of 1980, Licensed Specialist in School Psychology and Lead for Psychological Services at Lubbock (Texas) Independent School District. Carlea Alfieri Dries, PsyD, class of 2002, Nationally Certified Counselor and School Psychologist. Brian Cook, MS, NCC, LPC, class of 2004, Director of King’s College Counseling Center. Michael Mariano, MA, LPC, LCADC, ACS, class of 2009, Psychotherapist, Addiction Specialist, Clinical Supervisor.

Using Psychology to Cope  with Everyday Stress

Do not “delete” your stressors

Want to get rid of all your stress? Of course you do! Well, just settle back into a comfy chair or sofa and close your eyes.

Now picture in your mind all the people and events that give you occasional stress and sometimes cause you to have a bad day. As you go along it’s OK to open your eyes to write them down on a piece of paper. When you’re done, check out your list and see who’s on it: Mom and dad, maybe? Spouse or partner? Kids? Siblings? Co-workers? Your boss? A BFF? The dog? Christmas? Anniversaries and birthdays? Computers? Smart phones? Vacations? Facebook? We bet if you took enough time your list would be quite long.

Next, rid yourself of all your stressful times, all those bad days, by imagining your life without any of those problem people and events in your life. The goal is to imagine a world where you avoid all your sources of stress. So, close your eyes and start designing your relaxing new world by deleting all those stresses.

“Wait a minute,” you protest, “you want me to get rid of my kids, my parents, even the dog? All those people I love? Give up my job and my friends? The dog? Are you kidding me? My dog? I’m going to end up with an empty world!”

Bingo! If you work really hard to avoid stress in your life, you will stop living! Stress is a vital part of being alive, and trying to eliminate it is a losing strategy. In fact, you’ll end up not only alone, but also lonely. You’ll suffer despair, helplessness, and hopelessness; your self-esteem and confidence will be in the toilet; your world will spin out of control, and the next stop on your life path will be…. Depression.

Stress, challenges, obstacles, hard work, frustration, anger, anxiety, and a host of other things you prefer to avoid must not be avoided. Those bothersome emotions are a part of you; they are not alien invaders. To try and avoid them will compromise your very being. So rather than avoid them, accept them! Confront them, meet them head on, deal with them. Emotions and stressors are a part of your life. Once you accept them you will be able to develop coping actions that take them into account.

Here’s a simple example. You have to give a presentation to other professionals in your field. You hate speaking in front of groups; you get anxious days in advance, and by the time of the event you feel like you’ll pass out. You desperately wish you could do something to get out of it. What can you do?

Rehearse the presentation until you’re sick of it. Do it in front of a couple of knowledgeable friends who can comment on clarity and organization. Is it thorough? Anything important left out? As close as possible to the actual presentation, do a rehearsal in the actual presentation area and make sure the equipment works and that you are totally familiar with it.

As the day approaches, don’t tell yourself, “I’m going to be cool as a cucumber.” Such talk is a deal-breaker. That is, the odds are you will not be “cool as a cucumber,” and when you experience the anxiety at the time of the event, you will be devasted. “I wasn’t supposed to feel this way,” you moan. So, don’t delude yourself. If you do, you will be unprepared for the inevitable.

What you have to do is remind yourself, “I’m going to be nervous; that’s who I am. But I’m prepared. I’ve practiced and I know this thing. When the anxiety hits, I’ll just continue right through it.” You’ll be much better off if you’re honest with yourself and don’t paint some rosy, hoped-for picture that may not materialize.

Short lesson here? Denial and avoidance are lousy coping strategies that will increase your stress in the long run. Instead of running away, design a plan of attack that allows you to engage in productive actions that make you feel more confident and empowered.

Be Wary of False Messengers

A friend who works in the mental health field told me that conversations with her colleagues — counselors, psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists — revealed a disturbing trend: The professionals see a noticeable increase in anxiety-based problems that are driving more and more folks to therapy and to psychiatric medication. International pressures, health insurance worries, suspicious political shenanigans, concern about the future of the country — these and other issues seem to be weighing heavily on a growing number of people.

Worse yet, as the anxiety affects more and more people, professionals find their clients are beginning to disengage, give up, and withdraw. This sequence of fear, helplessness, and withdrawal can lead to serious psychological consequences, notably depression.

Should this psychological descent into despair and depression continue to expand at a national level, we will have a serious problem. Not only will our fellow citizens be troubled with personal crises, but they will also become more vulnerable to messages from powerful others who tell them, “I have the answer.” They will succumb to propaganda, and our government of checks and balances bound by Constitutional laws could be damaged.

We’re not really talking partisan politics here, folks. That has been a reality since the days of Adams and Jefferson and the other Founders. No, we’re talking about facing up to — coping with — pressures being put in place to sow psychological distress in the populace to make people more malleable.

Some people point out that both broadcast media and social media compound the pressure by saturating society with troublesome news. Media influences can indeed add to stress levels. At least we know from research, however, that this effect can be counteracted significantly by talking with friends and others about your anxieties concerning current events. This makes sense because it is well-known that when faced with stress and challenges, talking it over with a good friend or trusted members of a support group is quite helpful.

The problem is, if media coverage makes talking with friends and relatives less likely, then the negative effects of the saturation coverage are greatly compounded. And this is precisely what you must be aware of and guard against. Check our blogs of May 17 and 24, 2019 that dealt with psychological vaccinations. Those points certainly apply to this case.

Here is the coping lesson we can take from this discussion: When you are troubled, talking about it with trusted friends and family, a support group, or even a counselor, can be very beneficial. Yes, turning off the media source can also be helpful, but unless you crawl into a hole, the event will eventually force itself on you. So, reach out to others and discuss your concerns. You will probably find you are not alone.

Most importantly, remember something very important about coping with stress: There is absolutely no reason, psychologically speaking, that you cannot find appropriate coping actions to deal with any situation that you can control, and use those actions to produce positive change. That may be your new challenge at a national level. Like all other challenges, do not be afraid to confront it.

That’s Silly, Part II

THAT’S SILLY, PART II

The Summer between my first and second years of college I got a job selling encyclopedias door-to-door. It was 1962, folks, and encyclopedias were a large set of volumes, each one corresponding to a letter or two of the alphabet. They were beautifully bound and took up a lot of shelf space, but Google was far off, and these volumes were a great knowledge source right at your fingertips in the comfort of your home.

I lasted about three weeks because I was, and remain, a terrible salesman. If someone said they weren’t interested in the books, that made perfectly good sense to me. For instance, many of the folks I talked to didn’t have kids. Realistically, you needed school-age kids to get the most encyclopedia bang for your buck. Also, that buck required for purchase was sizeable and many folks had other budget priorities.

Within a week I truly hated knocking on doors and trying to convince strangers that I had just what they needed. I began looking for a graceful way out of the agony, and a way that my parents would accept. It came unexpectedly when I experienced an event that had a profound impact on me, and taught me the importance of empathy and perspective in trying to understand others’ point of view. Thus, my story is a continuation of last week’s post.

Our sales strategy was simple. I was on a team with two other summer-job college guys and an older (mid-30s) salaried employee who was our leader. Every day we would pile into a car and he would drive us to a neighborhood in Memphis TN. We would each fan out on different streets, knock on doors, and do our thing.

One day we took a road trip to a small (probably around 10,000) Mississippi town about 40 miles south of Memphis. We followed our usual procedure, and I was about 30 minutes into knocking on doors when a police car pulled up by me. The cop said, “Get in the back with your buddies. You’re under arrest for solicitin.’ We don’t allow that s**t in this town.”

My teammates looked pretty confused and scared, like I was. We drove off and the officer began a non-stop dialogue that went something like this: “Takin y’all to the station house so the Sheriff can decide what to do with you. Damn good thing y’all ain’t n***ers. If you was I’d just take you down yonder to the railyard and put a bullet in your f***in’ heads. We don’t like no law-breaking n***ers ‘round here. Got a special place for killin’ em.”

I was frozen with fear and started praying: “Thank you, God, for making me White.”

Our team leader had already been arrested and was at the station when we arrived. The cop went in the Sheriff’s office and our leader said to us, “Let me do all the talking.” No problem with me; I was about to lose all bladder control as it was!

The cop took us into the office and lined us up facing the Sheriff, who was sitting behind his desk. He was the stereotypical southern Sheriff, just as depicted by Rod Steiger in The Heat of the Night, co-starring Sydney Poitier: substantial beer belly, dark eyes that cut into you like a laser, and a cigar that seemed glued to the corner of his mouth. He leaned back in his chair, put his feet on the desk, and started slicing each of us up with those eyes. Legs shaking, I continued to pray, “Thank you God for making me White. Please make him notice.”

Finally, after an eternity, he spoke, looking at our team leader: “You in charge of these boys?” “Yes sir,” he answered.

“Well what in blessed God’s name y’all doin’ in my town breakin’ our laws?”

Our leader went into a brief and respectful explanation sprinkled generously with apologies.

“Holy, Jesus! Sellin’ goddamn books? Where you boys from?”

“Memphis, sir.”

“Memphis? So you big city sons a bitches decided to come take advantage of us poor country folk?” He paused, took his feet off the desk, and leaned forward in silence, I think to let it sink in exactly who was in charge. Those piercing eyes again, and then finally, “Is this all y’all? You got any big city n***ers runnin’ ‘round out there? We’ll shoot ‘em down like goddamn pigs!”

“No sir, it’s just us, sir.”

“Do your bosses hire n***ers up there in Memphis?”

“Absolutely not, sir.”

“Any of you boys n***er lovers?”

“No, no sir, never,” we all replied in unison. I added to myself, “Thank you God for making me White.”

The Sheriff looked satisfied, leaned back, put his feet back on the desk, and put his hands behind his head. “I think you boys are OK, just dumb city s**t.” Long pause while we were all probably turning blue from holding our breath. “I’m havin’ a good day and I’m gonna let you boys get on back to Memphis. Y’all’s vee-hic-cull is outside. Y’all best get your f***in’ asses in it.” Then he leaned forward again, smirked, and unleashed the cutting eyes: “But if y’all ever set foot in my town again, God have mercy on your balls? Understand?”

We all showered him with words of gratitude, apologies, and did all but bow and lick his boots. We hustled out of town, making sure not to breaking any speed limits.

That was my last day on the job. My mother was horrified I got arrested. She said, “I’ll call Jack [family friend] and you can work in his plywood plant for the rest of the summer.” No argument from me. Working in a plywood plant in the Memphis summer heat sounded like heaven!

As I said earlier, this episode occurred during the summer of 1962. The civil rights movement was building up a head of steam and dominating social issues. Over the next few years, whenever racial discussions took place around me, I often thought about my Mississippi arrest. At one point it occurred to me that I had come as close as I ever would, and could, experience what it was like to be Black in America. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

I often thought about my prayer (“Thank you for making me White”) and wondered if I should be ashamed of invoking it. I decided I should not be ashamed of the prayer because it was not motivated out of racial bigotry, but out of self-preservation. I was, however, forced to face an objective reality that had nothing to do with my attitudes, but everything to do with the incontrovertible fact that my white skin greatly increased the odds of my safety in America.

After Mississippi, I understood the dark reality Blacks lived with every day. That insight brought me shame in other contexts: Drinking out of a public fountain with a “Whites only” sign on it, right next to a fountain with a “Coloreds” sign on it; entering an eatery or using a restroom with a “Whites only” sign on the door.

“This is all wrong,” I thought. I found myself listening more intently to the words of a Georgia Baptist preacher who issued a nonviolent invitation to Whites to try and “walk in his shoes.” I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, and I confess to many moments over the years of bigotry in my mind and heart. It’s impossible for anyone to walk 100% in another’s shoes, but we can give it a try because some things in life are just downright wrong.

The coping lesson in my story is the same lesson from Part I posted last week (10.12.19): When in conflict with others, don’t tell them their belief is silly, that they shouldn’t feel that way. Put yourself in their shoes, try and see things from their perspective, and you will find your interactions with them will be more respectful and productive. You might even learn something about yourself.

 

Treat Others’ Feelings as Valid, Part I

Stacey was trying to console her best friend, Marie. After going with this guy for over a year he had suddenly dumped Marie — in an email no less! After reading the email, Marie immediately called Stacey who quickly came over to help her through the agony. Marie was an emotional mess, and Stacey was doing what she could.

“It’s OK, hon,” she said to Marie. “The guy was a bum and you deserve more.”

“He wasn’t a bum and I loved him,” she wailed through the tears. “I don’t see how I can live without him!”

That comment did it for Stacey. “That’s a load of crap and it’s silly to feel that way. You were alive and well before you ever met the jerk, so what’s the big deal? Tomorrow’s a new day and you just move on without him.”

Stacey, of course, is likely correct over the long term, but notice what is happening from Marie’s perspective: Her good friend is basically saying that Marie’s feelings over the breakup are silly; her feelings are not valid; she shouldn’t feel the way she does.

Stacey’s motives are sincere, but she’s judging Marie, not consoling her. No matter what she says, Marie’s reality is that she does feel that she can’t live anymore without the guy; from her point of view, the emotions she feels are valid and real. Stacey’s comments don’t help because she does not accept the reality of Marie’s feelings from Marie’s perspective.

Note those last three words in italics. Problems in your social interactions will arise if you don’t try to see things from others’ perspective. You must guard against selfishly looking at things from your point of view, because whether you’re right or wrong, you’re not providing emotional support for the other person when you make it all about you.

The key to effective interactions with others is empathy, a reaction that requires you to get inside another person, see things as they’re seeing them, and let them know you understand what they’re feeling. Empathy comes much easier when you have been down a similar road.

Imagine if Stacey said, “God, I remember feeling the same way when Bill left me. My world was crushed and I didn’t see how life was worth anything anymore.” In this case, she is not judging Marie; she is accepting her comments and feelings as real and valid; she is showing understanding and compassion. Marie will now feel a lot more inclined to “unload” on Stacey because she knows her friend understands where she’s coming from. She will express her frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, and other feelings, all while knowing she is acting normally and doesn’t have to bottle everything up.

Showing understanding; can you do it in your everyday coping? Take a look at some of the conflicts in society today: Do Whites make an effort to see things from a Black perspective, and vice-versa? Do men try to see things from a women’s perspective, and vice-versa? Do Liberals try and understand a Conservative perspective, and vice-versa? Generally, the answer is “No.” Rather than try and gain understanding through rational discourse, warring sides insult and belittle each other, saying, “How you feel is absurd; you shouldn’t feel that way because that’s not the way it is.”

Not the way it is. Maybe for you! Once again, we see how conflicts develop when parties selfishly make the issue all about them. We say it again and again in this blog: If you’re the main ingredient in your life recipe, you’re not going to cope very well over the long haul.