Childhood Trauma and Their Future as Adults

Painful events during childhood – such as death of a family member, serious injury or illness, and physical or sexual assault – can potentially have long-lasting and significant negative impacts on later adult physical and mental functioning. Even more stressful for children are ongoing patterns that persist over years, conditions like parental emotional deprivation and rejection, and deprivation of basic needs like food and shelter. The consequences of such experiences were documented in The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the late 1990s. The ACES test screened for childhood trauma in ten areas: Physical Abuse, Verbal Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Emotional Deprivation, Physical Deprivation, Addiction, Domestic Violence, Incarcerated Family Member, Divorce/Abandonment, and Mental Illness. The presence of such traumas was highly positively correlated with medical and emotional problems later in life: Smoking; alcoholism; IV drug use; obesity; chronic anxiety; panic attacks; early and unprotected intercourse; depression. The consequences of childhood traumas are often carried into adulthood.

            But – and it’s a big but – there is another side to the coin.

            There is also solid evidence that early experience with stress – in moderation – can help one become more resilient, hardy, and able to maintain a sense of control and confidence when confronted with difficult events. For example, Larissa Dooley and colleagues found that – compared to adults who report highly stressful early lives – adults who report moderate levels of stressors in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, describe their current lives as satisfying, low in psychological discomfort, low in PTSD symptoms, and generally strong in day-to-day functioning. Again, we’re talking about the advantages of moderate stress in early life. Conversely, indulging children and protecting them from exposure to moderate levels of reality-based stress can be harmful because the kids never learn coping skills, which later puts them at a disadvantage in dealing with the inevitable reality of challenges imposed by daily adult living. Thus, shielding children and adolescents by exposing them only to minimal stress may be every bit as harmful in the long run as subjecting them to devastating stress.

            Here we are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with increasing racial and tribal violence, and our media filled with negative reports of more and more people seeking counseling for anxiety and depression. Dire warnings are also issued for the psychological damage being done to our children, as the pandemic causes disruptions in school and other daily activities. These and other stressors in society are associated with increased emergency mental health interventions for children, including self-injury, suicide, and low levels of mental well-being.

Whereas it is important to be aware of stressors imposed on young people, these worrisome predictions of psychological doom seem to overlook something important: The role of parents, teachers, and other adult role models in helping children learn that experiencing stressful events does not automatically mean defeat; young people can profit by learning how to cope with adversity and maintain some control and stability in the face of stress.

            When parents teach their children these life lessons, and when parents by their own example show children how to confront – not avoid – challenges, the parents are providing future adults with “counseling” that will serve them well in the future. Highly stressful events like our current pandemic and social-media interactions need not inevitably lead to anxiety, depression, and other psychological difficulties. Parents who are wise, strong, stable, and involved in their children’s lives in authoritative – not authoritarian – ways are appropriately preparing children with lessons for meeting future stressors. And what are some of these lessons? Just because you feel or think you are a loser does not make you a loser; just because you are bullied does not make you a reject; just because you are afraid does not make you a bad person. These events should not make you feel guilty and ashamed because your thoughts do not make you good or bad; they are natural for you and part of what makes you human. You do not have to feel guilty about your thoughts or feelings. You have some thoughts from time to time that worry you, but those thoughts and feelings do not define you. Your freely-chosen behaviors define you.

            These lessons, of course, also apply to adults, who must learn to say: “I am not likely to get out of my depression by thinking or feeling my way out. I can’t expect or demand that others pad the corners of my world for me. The past happened and can’t be denied. I need to function in my present without being dominated by my past. I must accept the reality of my here-and-now, and be accountable for my actions. I must identify my values, purposes, goals, humility, and empathy. At some point, I need to bring my behaviors into alignment with my core values. If I am not living corresponding with my value systems, then it is not realistic for me to be happy.”

Resisting “cult” influence

Are others trying to get you to think as they do, indoctrinate you, influence you, make it difficult for you to think for yourself? Sometimes it’s tough to resist, especially if they’re friends. But you can cope effectively and resist by being vigilant and knowing some basic things to watch for. To illustrate, let’s assume you have some acquaintances who want to convert you to their way of thinking. What are some steps they would probably take, things you want to watch for?

First of all, they won’t let you know they’re “working on you.” They will keep things casual and full of distractions. For instance, if they want to convince you not to get the coronavirus vaccination, they will disguise their efforts with a lot of talk about how “Big Brother Government” is always keeping an eye on you and making sure you behave.

They will become familiar with your standard reference group. It might be family, a club, teammates, a particular teacher, etc. Now and then they will mention how those models fall short of expectations, but be subtle, deceptive, amusing, confusing, and engaging when doing so. They will present arguments that contradict your role models, and always “document” their own arguments, even using bogus sources. They will casually encourage you to resist succumbing to your traditional ways of perceiving, interpreting, and evaluating events around you. They will argue that the old attitudes don’t work, and they will present alternatives to those old ways and point out how they make more sense.

They will try to become the predominant presence in your life. They will suggest that others do not have your best interests in mind, and you should “listen to us.” They will work to become a source of comfort and reinforcement for you, and make their interactions with you profitable, enjoyable, and productive. They will be available for you as much as possible, and create an “us vs. them” platform. Fostering tribalism – identification with the “us” – is a fundamental principle of indoctrination. The group will point out frequently how “them” rob you of independence, autonomy, and power. They will slowly impart the idea that “them” are to be feared, and make an effort to instill in you a confrontational model of a world-view that is simplistic: There are good guys and there are bad guys; we are the good guys, the latter are to be feared, rejected, and avoided.

The bottom line to indoctrination is to use deception, misdirection, and false information to trick you. Knowing this fundamental principle of propagandization, let’s consider what you should do when you sense you are the recipient of efforts to change your attitudes. That is, how can you resist? What should be your first line of defense? Simple – critical thinking. Too often, when you hear something new or unusual from someone, your default response is, “Really? I didn’t know that.” If you really want to cope better with information that has the potential to throw you out of balance and increase your stress, delete that default response and substitute it with, “How do you know that? Where did you get that information?” Once you have their sources, you can evaluate them with three simple questions: “Is this source reliable? Do they have an agenda? Is the agenda designed to serve them or me?”

That last question is absolutely essential. More often than not, those who would indoctrinate you are insecure, have an agenda to bolster their self-esteem, and want to use you to justify their efforts. Thus, when you sense you are a target of indoctrination to serve others’ purposes, you must ask if their arguments are supported by information from independent sources – deceptive information will not be. Ask yourself if you are being asked to passively accept someone else’s “facts,” or being required to be personally accountable for your decision – remember, accountability is a cornerstone of effective coping. Finally, ask yourself if you are allowed to appreciate and respect the needs and opinions of others – indoctrination will stress tribalism not cooperation, and it will undermine the cornerstones of effective coping: humility and empathy for the perspective of others.

There’s no secret to being in charge of yourself and rejecting those who would turn your brain into jelly. You have to align yourself with those who are not afraid to let you be yourself, and who encourage you to forge your own path, not theirs. Those who are vulnerable to indoctrination by others are tormented, guilty, and shameful about their past and want someone to pad the corners of their world. They believe it’s all about them; life is unfair and they whine and cry like sniveling children. They agree to lash out against the “others” because those “others” are the cause of their insecurities, low self-esteem, self-hatred, and fear of being left alone.  To resist losing your identity and autonomy, you must fight those vulnerabilities; you must learn to accept, not deny, your reality; you must learn to challenge the false messages of indoctrination and how to correct them before they build momentum and lead to self-destructive patterns in your life.

Know Who You Are

Martin is an Executive Assistant to his lifelong friend, Carlton, who is the CEO of a company that employs 500. At work, Carlton keeps Martin nearby, and their offices are next to each other. Carlton trusts Martin, values his judgment, and rarely makes a decision without Martin’s input. When Carlton travels on business, Martin is at his side. Carlton understands the strain this dependency puts on Martin, and he often says to Martin, “Bring Cheryl [Martin’s wife] and the kids along for this trip. We’ll give them some vacation time.”

Business associates who work with Carlton regularly are aware of how much Martin knows about the business, and how much he contributes to his company. His reputation as a knowledgeable insider is so high, many companies have tried to lure him away from his company. Martin, however, is exceptionally loyal, and he is unfazed by competitors who say, “It’s time for you to be a CEO yourself. Come work with us and you will be totally in charge of our Operational Division, and we’ll pay you 50% more than you make now.” Martin always turns them down. On one of these occasions, he was asked, “Why do you reject this offer? You’re ready, Martin. You know this business better than anyone I know. Why would you want to stay #2 on the totem pole?”

Martin laughed. “I know who I am. My strengths are working behind the scenes – organizing, planning, strategizing. Put me in front of a Board of Directors or a Congressional committee and I melt. My heart pounds, I sweat, I fumble over words. I don’t think fast on my feet. But Carlton – he could stand before the United Nations and stay cool as a cucumber. As long as he has my outline before him, he’s never at a loss for words and sounding coherent. If he’s asked a question we didn’t anticipate, he thinks with the speed of a lightning bolt and bluffs his way through it, always staying like a rock: solid and cool, guided by my outline. Make me a CEO? No thanks. I would fall on my face all the time. It’s not who I am.”

“It’s not who I am.” If you want to cope well, you must both learn and accept who you are. By that, I don’t mean you should never try to improve yourself. But you must know yourself well enough to identify the particular skills and attributes you are able to improve. You must know your body and your mind. Martin is there – he knows the situations when he is strong, and he knows when he is “out of his league.” He also knows that his weaknesses do not make him incompetent and useless; recognizing his weaknesses does not affect his self-esteem. He also chooses not to try and deny and overcome those weaknesses that are a part of his fundamental nature. It is those things he does fairly well that he always works to improve. He is who he is and he feels fine with the life he has.

Take the example of Martin to heart. Coping with stress often involves recognizing the reality of your strengths and weaknesses. Yes, you may choose to attack and work on some of your weaknesses and be able to take on new challenges. You may also, decide, however, that confronting some of those weaknesses and changing them probably won’t work, nor is that effort needed for your sense of self-worth, purpose, and ability to meet the demands of your chosen life path. Know who you are, be that person as best you can, and move forward as that person, purposefully moving toward goals that give your life some meaning.

Past, Present, Future

When developing models of behavior, psychologists focus on one of three life segments: the past, the present, or the future. In the early 20th century, the primary focus was on the past. Freud’s psychoanalysis analyzed how unconscious conflicts from childhood determined adult functioning. Also in the early 1900s, John Watson developed the system of Behaviorism, which stressed how early conditioning/learning experiences could have a permanent effect on later development.

In the mid-20th century, Carl Rogers developed client-centered therapy, which focused on clients’ perception of their present circumstances – especially the congruity between their real and ideal selves in their current lives. Also working in the mid-1900s, Joseph Wolpe developed “systematic desensitization,” a behavior modification approach to treating current anxieties without reference to their origin. Wolpe treated problems like social anxiety and phobias by providing new conditioning experiences in the present, which could override the influence of past events.

In the late 1990s, psychology began to focus on the future. Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology talks about goals and purposes that can help one adapt better through optimism and hope. The fundamental question is, “How can you deal with current stressors for a better tomorrow?” Autonomous and confident striving toward your goals not only helps with coping in the present, but also inspires the search for opportunities to increase the likelihood of future success. Your past is real and cannot be denied, but it should be accepted as a part of your current reality, and be incorporated into a purposeful coping plan for the future.

Angelina, a college sophomore, found herself on probation for hitting another girl at a party. As part of her probation, she had to meet weekly with a therapist in the college Counseling Center. Beginning around age 13, Angelina – like many teens – became rebellious and confrontational with her parents. Unable to control her, they sent her to a variety of mental-health professionals over the years, several of whom prescribed psychiatric medications. She moved through adolescence in somewhat of a muddled medication-induced fog, and never really learned to deal with her emotional life in a healthy, productive way.

In college, Angelina was determined to get off her current psychiatric medications. One of her professors referred her to a local psychiatrist, and she helped Angelina slowly wean herself off the drugs. It was also apparent, however, that Angelina was filled with anger toward her parents, had poor impulse control, and blamed the parents for all her faults. Once off all her meds, she terminated her meetings with the psychiatrist and took no steps to deal with these concerns. Slowly, her anger issues and obsession with her past overwhelmed her, and she had the outburst at the party.

Her required counseling sessions turned out to be very productive, and she began to accept some realities about herself. First, Angelina admitted she was confrontational and combative in social situations, and alcohol greatly amplified those tendencies. She agreed to forgo parties and drinking, and focus on her academics – which was easy for her to do because she was very intelligent and an A student. Second, Angelina accepted that could not use her past as an excuse for her present behavior; she had to be accountable for her present choices. Yes, events in her past contributed to her current stresses and conflicts, but only she could accept that reality and use the lessons of her past to help her define and clarify her values for the present and the future. Third, she slowly realized that she needed to coordinate her values to purposeful striving toward future goals. Her task became clear to her during one session when she told her counselor, “I don’t like how this college is making me behave.” The counselor chuckled and said, “This college is not making you do anything. It is presenting you with opportunities to express yourself, to see yourself in a variety of situations. And guess what? You don’t like what you see. Well, Angelina, only you can decide to confront those things about yourself that you don’t like.”

Counseling helped Angelina learn about conflict resolution; about humility and seeing things from others’ perspectives; about empathy and the importance of sharing and working with people. She got involved in student organizations, and also began volunteering at a group home for troubled adolescents. She got “outside of herself” and served others. Once she re-evaluated her perception of her current college life, she used that discovery to think about her life in more positive and rational ways. She identified other opportunities at her college to help her move forward toward goals that gave her life some meaning. She graduated on time with honors and secured an entry-level job in social services, planning eventually to continue with studies toward a Masters in social-work administration.

Santa Takes it on the Chin…Again

Poor ole Santa. Just at that time of year when millions of children idolize the guy, some journalist or reporter comes down on him as the cause of mistrust in children toward their parents. The idea boils down to a kid discovering – usually from a peer – that there is no jolly guy flying around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and that “my parents have been lying to me all this time. I’ll never trust them again.” Ah, the simplicity of pop psychology.

Christian evangelicals are also often vocal in their criticism of presenting Santa as real. They point out that lying is sinful; your child could also be embarrassed in front of peers; even worse, your child could suffer religious confusion among peers when faced with a question like, “You believe in God? I suppose you also believe in Santa, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny!” And, finally, many argue that focusing a child on Santa encourages them to overlook the true meaning of Christmas – the birth of Jesus.

I don’t buy it. Truly enlightened and empathetic parents are able to use their children’s newly-discovered skepticism about Santa as valuable life, family, and yes, religious lessons. “Hey, mom, Sally just told me that Santa isn’t real. Is that true?” I remember a conversation I had with a former student. I asked her how her Christmas was. Great, she said, but she added that a few days before the 25th she and her 6-year-old daughter were wrapping a couple of presents for her dad. She told her they could make one from Santa, and she said, “Mom, I know Santa’s not real.” When I asked mom how she handled that, paraphrasing, here’s what she said:

“Well, you know I teach elementary school, and I was ready for it. In a nutshell, I admitted that there was indeed not a bearded old man in a sleigh. But I brought up some of our family traditions and talked about them with her. Things we did, special decorations, meals, all the fun times we had at Christmas. And I asked her, ‘Has Santa been a part of all those fun times? How is Santa in this house? Could it be that we’re all Santa? You, me, your dad, your little brother? And what makes us Santa?’ She nailed this one and said, ‘We give each other presents!’ Building on that insight I went into some comments about giving and receiving, that both are blessings, they are things that bring us together as a family. I said, ‘That’s who Santa is. All of us, and it’s one of the things that shows each of us that we love each other.’ I could tell she was really soaking all this in like a sponge. And then I took the plunge. I pointed at the Nativity scene we always had in a prominent place under the tree. And I went into the great gift that God, the ultimate Santa, gave us – his son who would teach us to love one another.”

The pop-psychology stuff about seeding mistrust in children by lying to them about Santa is nonsense. The great Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, showed us that children’s understanding about their world progresses through stages, and the first stage is very concrete. Their understanding is primitive. Try to explain to a 3-year-old that Santa is symbolic of the gifts of giving and receiving, those things that define a family and love, including the love and redemption we receive from Christ. Good luck. But, believe it or not, the vision of a jolly, smiling guy being towed through the sky by a bunch of flying reindeer, is preparing the child’s mind for understanding those greater mysteries to be grappled with at a later age, with a more physically-matured brain. The fact is, the early belief in the real Santa is not at all incompatible with appreciating at a later age the significance of what’s really going on in that Bethlehem stable.

So, what’s our coping lesson here? Put more Santa into your life throughout the year. The reality of Santa embodies the principles of effective coping with stress: Get outside yourself and give service and support to others; likewise, receive what others bring you, remembering the difference between taking – which is based on egotistical self-absorption – and receiving – which is based on understanding, empathy, and humility. Putting Santa’s Ho-Ho-Ho in your heart will help you establish a psychologically healthy daily legacy, which is based on how you make others, and yourself, feel.

It’s New Year’s Resolution Time.

Christmas is over for another year. Hope yours was a merry one. Time now to put those New Year’s resolutions in order. Aaron is ready. He resolves that this year he is going to find a new job. Sure, it was the same resolution he made a year ago but this time he’s serious.

Sorry, Aaron, but right out of the gate you are showing us how not to make a resolution, how not to attack a challenge: First, you have an excuse for last year’s failure; you say you weren’t serious last year, but this year you are. The excuse says you have not accepted the reality of your situation. If you did, you wouldn’t need to say you’re serious. Second, you focus on external factors like the economy, rather than on what you may have done wrong to fail in your search last year. In other words, you haven’t taken accountability for your actions. You have a lousy strategy based on chance external factors, and you haven’t worked on a plan of action that corrects previous mistakes.

So, what can we learn from Aaron? When failure occurs, effective coping requires taking action to correct errors, not focusing on excuses “out there.” The former is under your control; the latter is not. After a loss, coaches say, “We’ve got to correct our mistakes, and that’s what we’ll be concentrating on in practice. We can execute better if we work hard.” Coaches do not say, “We need to petition the league for better refs, and make sure we don’t get that crew again. They screwed us!”

New Year’s Resolutions generally don’t last. Why not? First, the very fact that you pick a specific date to begin your transformation into a better person shows that you are procrastinating, and are really not motivated. Picking a date is artificial and means you are just kicking the can down the road.

Second, many folks use resolutions to motivate themselves. “I’m joining a gym on January 2nd and that will help me lose weight.” This resolution puts the cart before the horse. Resolutions must be the result of motivation to do something, not the catalyst for generating motivation. “I want to lose weight, so I’m joining a gym.” Resolutions should be connected to a specific motivator: “Warm weather will be here soon, and I want to look decent at the pool”; “That wedding I’m in is only a few weeks away and I want to look sharp”; “The boss invited me to join in a jog last week and I nearly died of exhaustion. That’s no way to get a promotion. I have to be able to keep up.” To look decent, sharp, or get a promotion – those are specific motivators that increase the chance of success.

Third, resolutions tend to be overly general. To have any chance of success, a resolution must involve specific actions and specific goals: “I will eat a piece of fruit for lunch instead of a sandwich”; “I will do a 30-minute workout at the gym 3 days a week”; “I will walk my neighborhood (or my treadmill) for 30 minutes every day.”

Fourth, resolutions are usually unrealistic. “I will run a marathon by Spring”; “I will lose 30 lbs. by February”; “My resolution will help me reinvent myself, create a new me.” These resolutions are grandiose, unattainable, and unrealistic. They will lead to disappointment, frustration, and self-criticism.

Sixth, and very important, your resolution must connect personal values to actions. Specifically, you must engage in values-oriented thinking and make your actions consistent with that thinking. Consider these disconnects: you say, “I care about my health” (your value), but you put off investigating diets (an action); you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value), but you put off joining a gym (an action); you say, “I love being with my family” (your value), but you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action). If you truly value those things, then you must admit to yourself that your actions are inconsistent with those values, and you must work to correct that problem. Connecting actions to values requires a much deeper commitment than does making a simple resolution. To cope with everyday life more effectively, identify your values, the things that are important to you. Then devise a plan that will help you coordinate your values with specific actions that are compatible with those values.

So far, we have been talking about New Year’s resolutions. But our observations extend to any coping challenge. The keys to being successful with New Year’s resolutions are no different than the keys for being successful when dealing with any stress in your life: (1) Accept your current situation and be accountable for it; (2) make a plan of action that results from your motivation to change, not a plan designed to motivate you; (3) include realistic, attainable, and specific actions and goals in your plan; (4) connect your plan to your values; (5) begin now, not at some future date.  

Coping with Holiday Grief

The holidays can be a tough time if you lost a loved one during the previous year. Suddenly, someone who was a part of family celebrations and joy is not there. Grief is magnified by holiday family traditions.

Grief often leads survivors “inward” to focus on their emotions, and dwell on how their loss has broken their emotional stability. This focus is certainly understandable. Unfortunately, though, because holiday time is so strongly associated with happy times for most people, the inward spotlight magnifies sadness, despondency, frustration, guilt, anger – a literal flood of overwhelming emotions that can be devastating. That’s why an inward focus on grief – while OK in small doses – can ravage the coping process if it becomes a daily addiction.

Fortunately, the holidays provide ample opportunities for an “outward” focus to help the aggrieved “live through” their grief. Christmas, for instance, amplifies the need for a parent who has lost a spouse to bring the magic of the time to their kids. The grief-stricken – in a spirit of empathy – can also reach out to others who have fallen on hard times, and discover that this outward focus gives them a way to move forward with their own grief, and honor their departed loved one.

I remember many years ago when a friend of our family suffered a great loss when her son-in-law was killed in an accident several months before Christmas. Her daughter, Jill, now a young widow in her late 20s, came to live with her mom temporarily while both of them sorted out their emotional lives.

My mother invited them to join us for Christmas dinner. Before dinner, my mom handed each of them a wrapped present. Jill was dumbfounded. “But I have no present for you,” she said. “Yes, you do,” my mom replied. “Your presence is our gift.”

I was in college at the time and thought that comment was pretty cool. Years later, however, I saw the comment in a new light.

Giving vs. receiving – we generally separate these actions as quite distinct, but they’re not. When Jill accepted the gift from my mom, she also gave my mom something very special in return: the blessing of fulfillment and satisfaction. It sounds corny but I think my mom received a gift of feeling part of the family of humanity; mom discovered that a simple gesture to someone in distress – “Yes, Jill, you are saddened and in pain, but life endures through the pain.” – offered mom the special “gift” of receiving through the act of giving. So, looking at Jill and my mom, who gave and who received?

For me, the lesson here is pretty straightforward: Are you in emotional pain – depressed, saddened, hurt, upset, guilty, angry? Focus on what’s “out there” and how you can be a part of it. After all, it’s life out there. Accept and receive from others, and in doing so, you will discover that you are also giving, and bringing honor to the memory of your loved one. Give your service and help to those who, like you, need support, and you will be blessed with the contentment of loving your neighbor.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

The Humility Coping Circle

In this blog we often argue that people have difficulty coping with stress because they make their problems all about them. Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? If you’re all tied up in knots because of some obstacle life has thrown in your way, isn’t your problem all about you? After all, you’re the one feeling the stress.

Lexi is at work and gets a call from her supervisor. “Lexi, I’ve made a decision on assigning primary responsibility for that project you’ve started working on. I’ve decided to go with Carl. He has more experience in this area and I think he’s the one who should carry the ball.”

Lexi was hoping she would get the nod, not Carl. She’s devasted, angry, anxious – a whole array of emotions flood her. “Dammit! Why Carl? Why not me? Am I on the way out? Don’t they value me around here? This depresses the hell out of me. I’ve been good to this company. What a lousy thing to do to me. God, this is just awful.”

Me, me, me. I, I, I. Lexi forms her pity parade because she has been wronged. She talks and thinks her way into becoming an emotional cripple. To say she is not coping well would be quite the understatement.

What’s missing here? What does Lexi need to help her deal better with the stress of the rejection? A little dose of humility certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Why would humility be an important part of coping effectively with stress? The answer is simple: Psychologically, humility involves much more than simply admitting your mistakes and weaknesses; much more than not allowing yourself to be an egotistical braggart when you do well. Yes, such actions are a helpful part of coping, but they serve you best when you allow the humility coping circle to play to completion.

What exactly is the humility coping circle? Imagine five actions placed around a circle. At the top, the first position, “Humility,” encourages you to admit that you should not be the primary ingredient in your life recipe; life is not all about you; there are always others involved. Moving around the circle, the second position is “Freedom.” Humility releases you from your pity parade and gives you a sense of freedom – an optimistic spirit – that is uplifting. Continuing around the circle, the third position is “Sharing.” Strengthened with your new-found positivity, you will be more likely to share yourself with others who are also fighting stress in their lives. You move to the fourth position, “Communication.” Sharing your struggles with others not only requires you to talk to them, but also to listen to and learn from them. Doing so plants the seeds of empathy in your mind.

That brings us to the fifth and final position, and actions that close the circle: Talking to, listening to, and learning from others will inevitably show you the essence of effective human interaction: “Optimistic Empathy.”

The circle is now complete. You begin with reducing a focus on yourself as the center of it all, and end with an empathetic understanding of others who are wrestling with life challenges just as you are. But now, released from the prison of self-absorbed ego, you are able reach out to help others because you understand their plight. Purged of considering yourself special and deserving of pity, you cope with your stressors by helping others with their difficulties. And you also enjoy the benefits because you are participating in the fullness of the human experience.

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 than empathetic service to others. Whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties. As you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, the best way to have coping strength emerge is to make sure you leave no one behind.

Change Your Thinking. Good Advice?

When you find yourself in stressful situations, there are inappropriate actions you can take that can be detrimental to your coping efforts. In fact, these actions are what we might call “deal breakers,” actions that worsen conflict, enhance your stress, and make you vulnerable to damaging emotions like helplessness and depression. Worst-case scenario, these actions can culminate in self-destructive behaviors that threaten both your own, and others’, welfare.

Seth is 18 and just graduated from high school. He doesn’t know if he should apply to college, get a job, or enlist in the military. He’s still living at home and hanging out with his high-school buddies, a group of friends who don’t have much respect for the law, and are always interested in seeing how much they can get away with. One day, at the group’s urging, Seth shoplifted an item and got caught. During the arrest he resisted. He was fined and sentenced to 6 weeks in jail. Upon release, he violated the first rule of how to rid yourself of unwanted behaviors: He put himself right back in the troublesome situation and resumed hanging out with the gang.

Sarah, 28, works as a clerk in a department store. One day she got in a loud argument with a co-worker. The disturbance was upsetting to customers, and both Sarah and the co-worker were put on unpaid leave. Sarah spent her subsequent days immersed in anger and negative emotions toward her co-worker and her boss. She fantasized about how to take revenge. One day she stormed into the store and confronted her boss, yelling obscenities and insults at her. Sarah was fired on the spot and escorted out of the store. In subsequent job interviews, she was unable to provide a positive reference from her previous employment. Sarah let her negative feelings dominate her, making it impossible for her to cope with problem-solving actions.

Seth and Sarah illustrate two common self-defeating ways of dealing with stress using inappropriate actions: (1) Putting yourself in the wrong situations where you are vulnerable to the negative influence of others; (2) Allowing yourself to be dominated and defined by harmful and destructive emotions. Both types of actions increase your stress by bringing on additional frustration, anger, and aggression; both encourage denial and make it almost impossible for you to accept your reality; both rob you of humility and empathy, and leave you with little hope for finding a satisfactory resolution of conflict.

“OK,” you say, “what should Seth and Sarah do?” Therapist Michael Church says that a counselor might suggest they focus on cognitions, their thinking. They need to think more rationally and act more constructively by substituting more appropriate and less self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. They should identify and change specific thoughts and actions that are self-defeating and cause self-destructiveness. Seth: “You need to start acting like an adult, instead of allowing your parents to support you like you’re still a child. Also, you must stop hanging out with the old crowd.” Sarah: “You have anger issues. When stress hits, you strike back at whomever is around. Emotions rule your life and you must stop allowing that.”

“You must stop doing that.” Nice words, but are they really constructive? As Dr. Church says, imagine telling someone with post-traumatic stress that their trauma symptoms are illogical and irrational, or that their panic attacks to triggering events are exaggerated or unnatural. Or, how about telling those who have lost their job, home, or child due to an accident or illness, “You’re not thinking rationally here.” Does it seem reasonable to tell them that they are not thinking straight and should just pick themselves up and stop thinking in such self-defeating fashion? When trying to comfort someone, it helps to remember that they may be showing natural responses to things like loss, fear, abuse, and illness. And, if you are the sufferer, it may help to remember that you may be showing natural responses to your adversity. Merely telling yourself, “I’ve got to stop thinking this way,” may not an appropriate way to proceed.

When facing problems, it helps to remember that working to change your thinking is mostly an emotion-based strategy, and one that usually fails because you are trying to change a natural part of yourself. You also end up screaming at yourself at how irrational and weak you are. A better strategy is a problem-focused one, where the emphasis is not on your thinking but on your actions, things you can do to cope better. When done correctly, you will end up seeing yourself as more competent and worthy because you are doing something that brings you a sense of contentment. When it comes to coping with stress, changing actions speaks much louder than changing thoughts!

In this blog we tend to focus on coping with short-term, situational changes in your life, and specific behavioral problems you may be having. We look at everyday issues that present coping challenges, such as relationships, social anxiety, deficits in social skills, assertiveness, and depression. We also try and provide guidance for changing behaviors like smoking, weight control, and emotional impulsivity. The general model we present is pretty straightforward: Accept the reality of who you are and what is going on around you; be accountable for your actions; set realistic goals and formulate a coping plan of actions based on your values to help you move toward your goals; and, perhaps most importantly, sprinkle your action plan generously with doses of humility and empathy. “I must become a less [anxious/angry/jealous, etc.] person” is a self-absorbed, emotion-based, emotion-focused, denial strategy. “I need to find ways I can be of service to others in need,” is a problem-focused strategy that better connects you with your values, a social conscience, and ways to see yourself as part of a larger picture.

Jury Service and Stress

Imagine serving on a jury in a murder trial. After all the evidence, your jury unanimously agrees on a first-degree guilty verdict. Now, your jury must decide on the punishment: life in prison or death. This part of the trial may have some new rules for the jury to follow, and to reach a death verdict, they must all agree to it. Suppose you and everyone else on your jury agree that the death penalty is appropriate.

Once the trial is over and the death sentence is pronounced, how would you feel? A little stressed? Guilty of having poor judgment? Shame over undervaluing a human life? Mulling over a lot of “what ifs” in your mind? It’s no wonder that PTSD occurs not infrequently in jurors serving for murder trials. If that’s not bad enough, what if the judge overrules the jury and orders life imprisonment? Now how would you feel? The judge is essentially saying that your judgment is flawed. Can you even begin to imagine the self-critical thoughts that would begin to flood your mind? One might easily conclude: “If the judge has the final word, why put the jury through such mental turmoil?”

Surveys of jurors following a trial verify that the stress of jury duty can be real. Roughly a third of jurors report stress during the trial and say it complicated their ability to be confident about their judgment. One in five say they needed to talk to someone about residual stress effects after the trial. About half report being concerned about how their fellow jurors were handling their stress.

When a trial is unusually lengthy, these percentages generally increase dramatically. In one survey after a long criminal trial, 96% reported serious stress symptoms, similar to symptoms of PTSD – disturbing memories, sleep disturbances, emotional instability, and tension. These types of symptoms were more likely to be present following lengthy trials that involved graphic pictures of blood, victims, and corpses. Such materials reminded jurors of the overwhelming and potentially devastating responsibility weighing on them. They found themselves in a position where they could drastically change the life of a human being. The fear of making the wrong decision, and living with the guilt, was crushing. And, to add insult to injury, during the trial they could not deal with their stress and anxiety by talking with somebody else. For the length of the trial, they have to bottle up everything that they’re hearing and seeing. The result is a psychological powder keg of denial that can explode when the trial ends.

If chosen for jury duty, is there anything you can do in advance of the trial to fortify yourself against the coming onslaught? Remember, facing any coping challenge requires a plan of action; in this case, it would be a defensive plan so you go into battle psychologically armed. Also remember that even though this list is for jury participation, the general steps would be appropriate for many stressful situations.

First of all, engage in realistic acceptance and admit it won’t be easy. Resist denial comments like, “I can handle it. It won’t be that bad. This will just be a minor inconvenience.” Such beliefs are not realistic because you could be facing major mental and emotional disruptions in your life. Second, prepare for emotional ups and downs, and accept those swings as normal, to be expected. Third, remind yourself you’re not alone. Not only are your fellow jurors facing the same coping challenge as you, but members of your family are also dealing with the stress of your jury duty. When it’s all over, you will have a large empathetic support group. Fourth, keep a diary during the trial, making notes of your feelings, frustrations, and anxieties at the end of each day. This self-talk can be an effective, temporary emotional safety valve until you’re able to talk stressors out with others. Fifth, if you are sequestered, maintain your emotional anchors – friends, family – as allowed by the judge. Sixth, following the trial, do not be afraid to seek professional psychological help if you are adversely affected by the trial.