Irrational thoughts impede effective coping

Be realistic about the stress in your life. Are you ruled by irrational thoughts, such as, “I must be perfect and succeed in everything I do,” or, “I am a worthless person”? A more realistic thought would be, “If I fail, I will examine what I did wrong and take steps to correct my mistake so I will be less likely to fail the next time.”

Think about it. Is it really so hard to put things in a realistic perspective by balancing those events beyond your control with those you can control? If you’re stressed about driving to a meeting across town, how difficult can it be to say, “I have no control over how bad the traffic will be, but I can leave early so heavy traffic will not make me late. I can also map out alternative routes in advance in case traffic backs up.”

When you are stressed and feeling overwhelmed, you have to guard against feeling sorry for yourself and asking others to join in your pity parade. There are always alternative proactive actions you can take. Instead of being dominated by irrational, self-serving thoughts, find those realistic actions that will serve you well.

 

When a Gun is Visible

If you walked into a public place, say a Mall, a restaurant, or a retail store, and you saw another customer wearing a gun, how would you feel? Would seeing that gun make you feel safer, more secure and comfortable, or would you feel some stress and anxiety?

It’s interesting that at a time when Americans are becoming more and more vocal about the need for sensible laws dealing with guns, some states are actually loosening some of their gun restrictions. Thirty-one states allow open carry of guns. Texas, for instance, recently legalized open carry of guns in churches, schools, and foster homes.

Open carry, of course, makes the weapon visible to others. Many argue that such visibility will have an inhibiting effect on violence by others. Let’s note, however, that it’s been 30 years since psychologists first presented evidence – evidence that has been replicated in multiple studies — that the presence of a gun can increase aggressive tendencies in others.

The standard interpretation is that the sight of a gun might produce aggression-related thinking in the observer. Naturally, this effect could be more pronounced in certain individuals, and even absent in others, but let’s take home an important lesson: Open-carry laws will not necessarily have an inhibiting effect on violence in everybody. In fact, in certain individuals the effect might be to increase the likelihood of aggressive actions.

People love to use “psychology” to give simplistic answers to social problems. Case in point: “Gun violence is a mental health problem.” Next time you hear that one, ask the speaker to define “mental illness.” While they struggle with their answer, remind them that conditions we all often see in our families – such as post-traumatic stress; anxiety and panic attacks; narcissism; absence of guilt following wrongdoing – can often qualify as formal disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations.

Is there a coping lesson here? Yes. When you are armed with facts and valid evidence, you are inoculated against the psychological effects of false propaganda, and better empowered to make up your own mind.

Do You Molest Your Relationships?

When we hear words like “molester” and “abuser,” we typically think of sexual or brutal physical attacks. In a very broad sense, however, the psychological dynamics that underlie the molester’s and abuser’s actions can also come into play in everyday relationships. When they do, the relationship is probably doomed to become a source of discomfort for all involved.

What we’re suggesting is that some of the dynamics of the molester — insecurity, immaturity, narcissism, anxiety, fear of competition and losing that competition — are at work in many everyday relationships that are in trouble.

Think about your relationships that are causing you stress and anxiety. The problem could be with a friend, co-worker, spouse, parent, child, or whomever. As a first step in helping you begin to confront the coping challenge and find actions that might help you move toward a resolution of the conflict, ask yourself some specific questions. As always, focus on the issue and keep your questions within the boundaries of, “What parts of this situation are under my control?”

The most fundamental questions are, “Am I able to maintain my individuality, my sense of self, in my relationships with others? Can I share, cooperate, compromise, respect those who disagree with me, and even admit I’m wrong, but through it all remain myself? Am I secure in my own skin?” These are tough questions requiring some honest self-assessment. The premise, however, says if you want a truly meaningful relationship, you must be pretty firm in your sense of self.

Here are some other penetrating questions: “Do I subjugate myself to his/her will, or do I feel compelled to assert power and dominance? Do I feel in competition with him/her? Do I feel I will lose the competition? Does (s)he arouse anxiety and insecurities in me? Am I behaving in childish ways?” (If you can’t relate to “childish” simply ask yourself if you deal with the person like you’re on the playground during recess in the third grade!)

Asking such questions in the context of a specific relationship can lead you to broader questions: “In general, can I work with others as someone who is stable and self-assured, or do I look for relationships to compensate for my weaknesses, insecurities, and dependency needs? Do I constantly look for attention and approval from others? Do I suffocate them with demands, possessiveness, and jealousy, trying to make them meet my wants and needs? Do I deny responsibility for problems in a relationship, and simply see others as objects to manipulate for my self-glorification?”

Is that you? Do you see others as opponents to defeat and belittle so you can declare yourself dominant? Do you regularly and hypocritically cast blame on others while never considering your own role in causing problems?

These are important questions because you’re basically asking yourself, “Do I socially and emotionally molest others? Are my relationships mostly about me?” If you’re honest with yourself you can greatly improve your self-understanding, your coping skills, and the quality of your interactions by working to minimize yourself as the primary focus. In other words, some self-analysis, even if you don’t like what you see, is well worth the effort. An honest analysis will help you modify your actions by removing yourself as the primary ingredient in your relationship recipe.

 

Does playing violent video games foster aggressive behavior?

For over 50 years, psychologists have studied the influence of TV and movie violence, and violent video games on the behavior of young people. The issue of TV violence came up in the 1960s and was geared mainly to children viewers. The question was, “Are children likely to imitate the violence they see on TV?”

After years of research two factors emerged as definitely playing a role: The degree to which children see depictions of violence on TV as real — if they see TV as real, they are more likely to imitate the violence — and the degree to which children identify with a violent TV character — if they admire and want to be like an aggressive character, they likely to imitate that aggression. These conclusions make sense, but they beg the questions: “What makes kids more likely to see TV as real, and more likely to identify with a violent character on TV?”

Not surprisingly, the research shows the answer appears to depend on kids’ home lives. Children who imitate violence on TV have parents who are mostly cold, disengaged, and rejecting. “Can’t you see I’m busy, Danny? Go watch TV or something.” Doesn’t it make sense that children who have a non-supportive, frustrating, and anxiety-laden home life filled with criticism might turn to the more reassuring world of TV, especially content that depicts violence as a way to achieve goals?

The point is, we’re not going to take random children, place them in front of a TV to watch violent shows, and turn them into aggressive bullies or murderers. There must be other factors in the children’s lives that “fit in” with the TV violence – factors that make them vulnerable to accepting an aggressive world, and believing that aggression is the best way to resolve conflicts.

How about violent video games? Extensive research reveals that playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior, thoughts, and emotions in children and young adults. Although causation has not been firmly established, high levels of violent video game exposure have been linked to delinquency, fighting at school, assaults, and robberies. A 2018 review of 24 studies from countries including the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan found that kids who played violent games — such as “Grand Theft Auto,” “Call of Duty” and “Manhunt” — were more likely to get in trouble at school for fighting.

A leading researcher, Jay Hull, says, “Based on our findings, we feel it is clear that violent video game play is associated with subsequent increases in physical aggression. A lot of people ask, do these games really cause these kids to behave aggressively? I would say that is one possibility. The other possibility is that it’s a really bad sign. If your kids are playing these games, either these games are having a warping effect on right and wrong, or they have a warped sense of right or wrong and that’s why they are attracted to these games. Either way you should be concerned about it.”

If we link this comment to the research on TV violence showing the influence of parents on children’s suggestibility, we might do well to focus on Hull’s statement, “…or they have a warped sense of right or wrong and that’s why they are attracted to these games.” Ask yourself, “If a young person has a warped sense of right and wrong, who is their likely teacher?” By the same token, if a young person believes that violent video games portray real options for dealing with frustrations and conflict, who is falling short in helping these kids to discriminate between what is fantasy and what is reality?

Communication, love, trust, confidence, security, openness, honesty. When conditions like these exist between parent and child, negative temptations of the internet, TV, video games, peers, predator adults, and other nefarious elements of society can be diminished. When young people are secure in their family identity, they have less need to turn to these elements – and that includes hate groups, cults, and others dedicated to indoctrination of the young, malleable mind for perverse purposes.

When children and teens know they are loved and valued, they are better able to exercise critical thinking about TV and game depictions, and internet messages; they are better able to evaluate the reliability and validity of such messages; they are better able to discern if the message is geared to indoctrination or to education. They are also better prepared emotionally to handle hateful, bullying messages from peers, and more likely to reach out to trusted adults for support and coping strategies to deal with such messages.

I remember a class several years ago when we were reviewing the research and discussing this issue. I asked, “How many of you play really violent video games where you shoot people?” About 80% of the guys raised a hand (none of the women did). “OK, how many of you go around shooting people?” No hands went up. “How come,” I asked, “given that these games can have such an influence on players?”

A student started laughing and said, “Because they’re games, entertainment! It’s not real! If you think the games are real, you’re crazy!”

How Do You Make Others Feel?

How do you want to be remembered? What legacy do you want to leave behind? I’m not talking about when you die. Sure, that’s a part of your legacy, but I’m asking how you want people to remember you at the end of the day. What do you want to be your daily legacy?

If you want to get along with people – and that means communicate better with them, understand their perspective when it’s different from yours, and respect them as human beings –remember one simple thing: People will remember how you make them feel.

Imagine Betty and Frank arguing about some social issue. After going back and forth for a while Frank says, “I just can’t understand how you can believe that. You haven’t done your homework. You’re obviously biased and reached an opinion without giving it much thought.”

If you were Betty, how would you feel? You’ve not only been insulted for holding an invalid opinion, but you have also experienced condescension and arrogance. Would you be inclined to walk away and avoid any future conversations with Frank?

Suppose, on the other hand, Frank says, “I understand your argument and can see where you’re coming from. I get it but I’m looking at the issue from a different perspective and that’s part of the reason for our disagreement. I bet if we talk about this some more, we might even come to some sort of middle ground. For now, let’s just agree to disagree.”

The thing about this comment is that it probably makes you feel worthy of the discussion because it gives validity to your position.

The coping lesson here is that when you focus on how your words make others feel, and not on trying to convince them that you are correct, social interaction can proceed much more productively. Not only that, others are more likely to engage you in spirited conversation in the future. Wouldn’t that bring you a sense of satisfaction and empowerment?

 

Self-analysis

(NOTICE: Hurricane Dorian may cause power interruptions that could delay future posts.)

One thing for sure, when you are faced with stress, one of greatest obstacles to coping is to look inward and attempt a self-analysis. This process can be counterproductive because, more often than not, you enter a world of self-doubt (“Do I have the courage and strength to recover?”), self-blame (“I should have done things differently; the whole event is my fault.”), and self-pity (“I need to let others know how I have been victimized because I deserve their sympathy.”).

These self-intrusions make successful coping with stress almost impossible because you become unable to look objectively and accurately at the challenges facing you. One excellent way to resist these ventures into a self-centered mine field is to join a support group for those who have suffered the same, or very similar, stressors. Such groups are plentiful and can be located by contacting a local mental health association, crisis hotline, or even local law enforcement.

Support groups allow you to take yourself out of your life recipe and realize it’s not all about you. This is the Golden Rule of coping and is summed up nicely by a support-group member: “In my group I discovered sympathy and empathy…I mean to the point that I realized it was not all about me. We asked the same questions, faced the same demons, and found lifelines. Since joining my group. I have felt and become more human than ever before in my life.”

 

It’s not all about you.

Do you believe your thoughts and feelings cause your problems? Do you think negative states like depression and anxiety are both your problem and the cause of your problem? Do you tell yourself that such emotions are the reason you can’t form committed relationships or be able work cooperatively with others?

When you believe your emotions are the cause of your problems, you will try to manage, control, and, most importantly, avoid them. Unfortunately, when you take this approach – a suppression strategy – those negative emotions will become more frequent and intrusive in your life. Thought suppression rarely works, and results in frustration, agitation, and demeaning self-talk – “It’s all my fault.”

You must accept your feelings for what they are — only feelings. Yes, they are a part of you, but when you focus on them because you feel negatively affected and bothered by them, you treat them as a negative part of who you are. “I’m too much of an anxious person to deal with this!” If that’s your perception of yourself, you’re not going to cope well with stress.

If we have been describing you, it’s time to stop focusing on your emotions as responsible for your problems. That focus makes it all about you and who you think you are, and when you’re wrapped up in yourself you will look “inside” yourself for solutions, not “outside” yourself where genuine coping takes place.

It’s time to focus on the fact that you are stressed not because of your emotional characteristics, but because of actions you take, actions like social withdrawal, avoidance of responsibility, generating conflict with others, or hanging on in an unsatisfying relationship like some masochist. Let some air out of your ego and accept the reality that you are stressed because of actions you choose to perform. When you do so you will find it easier to engage in more productive actions, and you will be taking an important step toward more effective coping.