Values are Essential for Effective Coping

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the examples are composites from multiple cases involving different topics.

Alice is 52 and appears to have withdrawn from life. Her youngest child just graduated from college and has gone off to another city to pursue her career. Alice feels like her usefulness in life has ended; for 30 years she has devoted her life to raising three children, running the household, and supporting her husband as he moved up the career ladder. But now, Alice thinks, “It’s gone, all gone. I’m not worth much anymore.” She begins seeing a psychologist “to try and get my life in order.” The counselor diagnoses her with persistent depressive disorder – dysthymia – and recommends she get a prescription for an antidepressant from her physician.

Many psychologists would say, “Hold on. Let’s not rush into medication. Alice’s problem is not depression. Depression is the symptom of being confronted with stressors in her life. Alice needs to confront these stressors and do realistic evaluations of how she might handle them.” From this perspective, the psychologist might help Alice develop a treatment plan that involves working toward a new sense of purpose in her life, and committing herself to actions that will help her face and work through her stress, not be immobilized by it. The goal will be to find actions that, when combined with motivation and purpose, will bring Alice to a greater sense of being worthwhile and productive. Note, the emphasis is not having Alice focus on changing the symptom – depression – or asking her to change her thoughts and fears, which are normal states of anxiety and sadness resulting from the “empty nest.” Instead, Alice needs to see that she can act in ways that will give her a renewed sense of purpose, and not rely on medication.

But first, Alice must examine her values. What things matter to her? “I like to help others,” she says. “It’s important to me to be a source of support and guidance to those who feel a little lost and looking for meaning in their lives. I always did that with my kids. I didn’t tell them what to do, but said to see what sorts of things are important to them, things that they value, and we’ll go from there.” Alice pauses. “Good lord, that’s where I am right now, isn’t it? I’m like one of my kids looking for guidance and help from others.” She chuckles. “How about that!”

Once Alice had a grasp on her issues, she worked with the psychologist on listing her values, and finding activities that would be a good substitute for her parenting, which was now minimized, at least on a daily basis. She focused on volunteer activities and came up with five programs that she felt would work for her: Big Brother/Big Sister; Be a Mentor, providing a role model for kids, just as she did with her own; Hospice volunteer, which required 12 hours of training, plus Alice liked the fact that she would be challenged by needs for those at the end of the road, not the beginning: JustServe community volunteer, where she could use her vast knowledge of her local community; Mentoring programs at local high schools, an activity that would also make her feel like a needed parent again. She contacted each one to determine which  would work best for her.

Laura is a recent high-school graduate who works at Walmart. She is unsure of what she wants to do with her future: College? Marriage and kids? Stay at Walmart? She admits that her uncertainty is affecting her self-esteem, and she gets a little depressed about it all. She found herself joining her friends and buying into all sorts of conspiracy theories about what was going on in the world. “I felt more secure living in a simple world.” When people outside of her circle of friends would challenge her about the conspiracy beliefs, she would justify those beliefs by criticizing them and ignoring their contradictory information.

At some level, Laura began to feel uncomfortable with so much denial, and she began to ask herself, “Is it really me and so many of my friends who are correct, and everyone else is wrong? Does feeling I’m a loser because I’m uncertain about my plans, does that make me a loser?” Laura began to dip her toes in the water of critical thinking. She will swim in those waters when she is able to say, “I am what I do. I am not defined by my thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. I won’t feel better by simply thinking or feeling my way out by following some of my friends’ beliefs. I must be guided by what I value.”

Maybe Laura will eventually realize a basic truth about coping and learning how to evaluate your life: “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. Every person has some extreme, distorted, bizarre or self-centered thoughts from time to time. Your thoughts and feelings do not define you. Your freely-chosen actions define you. That is what you need to concentrate on – your actions, not your thoughts and feelings.” 

The Meaning of Acceptance

NOTE: Jessica is a composite from multiple cases.

Like everyone else, you have stress in your life, and you want to be able to deal with it. The first step is Acceptance. Many people hear that word and say, “You want me to quit? To give up? To admit I’ve been defeated?” A lot of people confuse acceptance with giving up, being passive, and resigned to the inevitability of stressful events swirling around them. Passivity and helplessness, however, are not at all what we mean by acceptance.

Think of acceptance as the opposite of avoidance, of running away from your problems. When you seek to avoid and escape your stressors, you get trapped by irrational thinking, denial, and passively accepting what others tell you. Acceptance, on the other hand, means empowering yourself, facing yourself and the reality around you. Sometimes those actions mean working through some pain and suffering, but that is often necessary if you are to grow. President Woodrow Wilson once told an assistant, “I have found that one can never get anything in life that is worthwhile without fighting for it.” (Cited from Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper, Jr.)

When you hear that acceptance is the first step in coping with stress, do not think for a minute that it means you must tolerate things or give up. In a coping context, acceptance means facing the stark realities of life. For instance, you can rationally accept something like your mortality, or the passing of a loved one. However, in many circumstances, acceptance can take a lot of time and work because you must engage in emotional, behavioral, and thought acceptance. It’s not unusual to hear people say they accept something, but their behavior does not coincide with their verbalizations or with their emotional reactions. When those elements are out of sync, there’s coping trouble ahead!

Suppose you’re anxious and fearful about something going on in the world. Someone tells you, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine. You’re worrying over nothing.” Does that comment make you feel better? It shouldn’t because it advises acceptance by denial – “Just deny what’s worrying you.” But you listen to this advice and say to yourself, “Yeh, you’re right, I shouldn’t be afraid. Everything will work out. I’ll just stay calm.” Do your words make you feel better? Probably not, and you continue to be bothered by troublesome emotions and thoughts in spite of your comforting words. This lack of synchronism is a warning to you that you are asking yourself to deny something, in this case, the part of you that is anxious and fearful. Denying yourself is a dangerous, self-defeating game that sabotages coping efforts and your mind senses it.

Jessica is a high-achieving college student. She says, “My parents always drilled in me the importance of doing things right. Sloppy work was just not an option. But I get so anxious and angry at myself when I fall short of perfection. Why am I like that? Why can’t I be like my brother who screws up but stays laid back, so cool, so in control? But me, I’m there biting my fingernails off!”

Do you see what’s happening here? Jessica refuses to accept her perfectionistic tendencies. That refusal makes her criticize herself; she is never satisfied with her work, even when it’s good, because in her mind it always falls short of perfection. She treats her traits like her enemy, and that treatment denies who she is.

What does acceptance mean for Jessica? She’s frustrated, anxious, and angry. How should she handle those emotions? How should she handle her perfectionistic thoughts that bring self-criticizing words upon her? Once she accepts that how she feels is a part of who she is, then she can think about her emotions a little differently. She’s mad at herself for being overly perfectionistic, but now – rather than deny her emotions by trying to eliminate them – she can pause and consider the positive aspects of her perfectionism: She is less likely to make foolish mistakes; she is showing others that she cares about the quality of her work; she is more likely to seek creative solutions to a task; she is less likely to depend on others for completing a task; she demonstrates how her actions are consistent with her values.

Jessica can disconnect her self-criticism by focusing on these points. She can also remind herself that her perfectionistic tendencies are consistent with how she was raised and taught by role models she respects. “I was always taught that I must act in ways that make me proud of the result. If I’m going to do something, do it right. That’s my value and it’s the principle I live by.”

As a general rule of coping, here’s what you can take from Jessica’s case: Instead of criticizing yourself for who you are, accept who you are and examine the benefits of your traits, even the ones you find troublesome. This analysis can increase your sense of control, personal empowerment, and autonomy, and allow you to adapt and synchronize those troublesome traits with accepting emotions and actions.

Are You “Hurt”? Or, Really “Injured”?

            Years ago, I remember a football coach say something like, “Many of our guys go on the field and play through pain and being hurt; but I won’t let anyone play injured.” Apparently, the coach was making a distinction between being hurt, and being injured. I figured by the former he meant something like a blister, a bruise, or a body ache that produced some discomfort, but that a real athlete was able to “play through.” This view would fit under the adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” On the other hand, the coach obviously saw being injured as more serious, like a pulled or torn muscle or ligament, or a bone fracture. In this case, playing would pose a real threat of further injury. (Of course, some might argue that the same could be said about playing hurt!)

            Could this distinction between being hurt vs. injured also be applied to mental anguish? For instance, you could be down in the dumps because the car repair is going to cost more than you thought, and it’s going to be a strain on this month’s budget. You’re bummed out, but certainly not clinically depressed. Would the stress about the car repair be analogous to being hurt? What if, on the other hand, your despondent mood persisted for months, disturbing your sleep and appetite, and giving you a general loss of interest and pleasure in life itself? Would this Major Depression, or even the less severe form, Persistent Depressive Disorder, be analogous to being injured? We might also ask, “Would awareness of this distinction be helpful when it comes to coping with stress?”

            Consider Carl, who recently completed his third tour of combat duty in Afghanistan, and is now home for good. He’s having a couple of beers in his friend’s backyard, and says, “You know, Dan, I had forgotten how much my kids expect from me. And now it’s worse than ever because they really don’t believe me when I say I’m home for good. They just demand my time and kind of cling to me. I’m not sure I can live up to what they want.” Is Carl “hurting,” and maybe in danger of more serious “injury”?

            Then there’s Haley, who just returned to the office after a full year of working from home. While having lunch with a co-worker she says, “Honestly, Gail, I forgot the stresses involving in getting to the office. I need to get up an hour earlier for the commute. And I have Fred around again. God, not having to put up with his distracting corny jokes during the day was a blessing. After that year of working from home, I really don’t look forward to work like I used to.” Is Haley “hurting,” and maybe in danger of more serious “injury”?

Carl and Haley are hypothetical composites of thousands of people in those situations. Simone Biles, however, is real. Following Simone’s withdrawal from gymnastics events during the Tokyo Olympics, USA Today columnist Nancy Armour cited an Instagram post from Simone 15 months earlier (April 2020) when the Olympic games were postponed for a year: “Mentally I was ready to go in three months and ready to be done. That’s what I was striving for. Now we have to take our foot off the gas. Not three months, now it’s going to be 15. For a lot of us athletes, that’s a big adjustment.”

            Simone’s post has a lot in common with the hypothetical comments proposed for Carl and Haley: All three are implying, “I’m mentally hurt and I’m not sure how long I can keep this up.” They’re not truly “injured” at this point, but sending out warning signals that the “hurt” they’re feeling has put them in a vulnerable spot, a susceptible condition that could eventually result in more serious mental anguish.

            We’ve all had experiences like this. You have surgery scheduled in two days and you get a call from the surgeon’s office: “The Dr. had a family emergency and we have to re-schedule for next week.” “Damn,” you think, “I was ready for this and now I have to psych myself up all over again next week.” Another example: You have a sleepless Thursday night anxious about your presentation to company executives on Friday, when you’re told Friday morning, “We have to move your presentation to Monday.” “Damn,” you think, “now I’ll have a sleepless weekend.” Anyone who has had experiences like these should know full well how Biles felt following the delay announcement in 2020.

            The lesson here for coping with stress should be pretty clear. When those relatively small setbacks – the hurt – bring you discomfort, don’t ignore the resulting distress and uneasiness, because those reactions are warning signals that without taking pre-emptive and proactive coping actions, the hurt could easily turn into more serious injury over time. “OK,” you ask, “what might some of those preventive actions be?” Depending on circumstances and the individual, there are potentially many. Here are four: Take some time off to give your mind a rest, and let it slowly and calmly process – on its own – the challenges ahead; talk about your concerns with others you trust, especially those who have had similar experiences and, like you, may be troubled; get outside yourself by immersing yourself in projects that serve others and bring you a sense of satisfaction and contentment. And through it all, maintain humility by remembering that it’s not all about you – you are not the primary ingredient in this recipe. These are examples of accepting, empowering, and emboldening steps for tending to “hurt,” – getting fit mentally and psychologically – and increasing your resistance to more serious “injury” down the road.

Placebo, Coping, and Counseling

There is no magic wand when it comes to stabilizing yourself psychologically and coping with life effectively. Are you one of those who believes that psychology provides such a “magic-wand moment,” when a counselor is able make you better with little effort on your part? The truth is, successful counseling depends on several conditions: You must trust the counselor, be willing to “open up” and answer questions honestly, and follow recommendations; you must be willing to take an active role in treatment and work hard to produce needed changes in your behavior; most importantly, you must truly believe the process will help you.

That last condition sounds like a placebo-effect. That is, you believe counseling will work, and that makes it more likely to work. However, successful counseling is more than just a placebo effect. Notice, for example, that if you believe there will be a positive outcome, then you will also be more willing to work hard, stay optimistic and confident, trust the counselor, and persevere when the going gets tough. It is those qualities and actions that result in successful counseling, not some sort of magical placebo effect. Counseling is not like taking an aspirin, lying down, and waiting for your headache to subside. Counseling requires you to take an active role in your treatment. If you sincerely believe that it can bring you positive benefits, you will be more likely to engage in actions that will bring those benefits.

There are other intriguing aspects of the placebo effect that can provide insight into improving your ability to cope with stress. Consider medical research using an “honest placebo.” Imagine you’re in a study to investigate a drug for back pain. One group receives the drug, one group gets no treatment and is told nothing, and a third group gets the honest placebo. This last group is told, straight up, that they will receive a placebo. No deception; no fake pill that leaves you wondering if it’s real or not; just complete honesty from the researcher – you’re in the placebo group! Of course, this honest placebo should have no effect on pain levels, right? After all, you know you’re taking a “fake” drug. Initial studies, however, have shown that the honest placebo significantly reduces pain compared to the no treatment group.

How can that be? If you know you’re taking a sugar pill, and not real medicine, why would your pain subside? Here’s a possible answer. You go to the physician with back pain; she gives you a bottle of pills and tells you they are placebos, fake inert compounds. You take the pills and bingo, your pain subsides. Some professionals theorize that what is going on here is pretty straightforward: Even though you know the pills are fake, you receive them in a larger context of treatment that includes a trained, caring, and attentive physician. These stimuli may very well activate memories associated with medical care throughout your life, care that has more often than not resulted in relief from what ails you. That global context may very well trigger brain systems that lessen your pain. Your body shows a conditioned response to the global stimuli of a physician attending to your problem.

The ultimate answer to honest placebos may be more complex, but let’s ask what this honest placebo finding can teach us about counseling and coping. If you enter counseling with a well-trained, competent, and supportive therapist, those characteristics increase your odds of success. Your success, however, will begin with the belief that you can improve, and an acceptance of the role you must play in producing that recovery: You are the agent of change; only you can control your thinking and actions; only you can decide to embolden yourself to develop and carry out an effective coping strategy. Notice how we are describing beliefs that empower you, require you to be accountable for the role you play in your therapy, and require you to work with your counselor, not passively wait for benefits to magically arise. So, the question of therapy being a placebo is irrelevant. What matters is that the counseling context spurs you into action, activating behaviors that embody the principles of effective coping – accepting the realities facing you, being accountable for what you do, and devising a coping plan that involves humility and empathy. Remember, it is not the magic of the counselor that brings you favorable outcomes; it is the consequences of appropriate actions on your part that produce coping benefits for you.

“Fake News” Means Psychological Denial

The phrase “fake news” is relatively new. Criticisms of the news media have been around for as long as there have been media summaries of events. Generally, however, criticisms focus on one of three things: distortions – “You have taken my comments out of context,” – selecting only portions of what one said – “You included only the first sentence of my comment,” – and blatant misquotations – “I did not say dire consequences ‘will result’ from your actions, but that dire consequences ‘could possibly result’ from your actions.” The “fake news” comment, however, is different because to most people it does not mean distorted, doctored, or inaccurate news. Rather, it seems to mean, “This is news contrary to what I believe and I don’t want to hear it. Therefore, what I am seeing and hearing is not real. It is fake.” In other words, they are saying their position is based on personal belief, is set in stone, and there is no point in even discussing contrary news because it is like counterfeit money – a fraud, bogus. In short, they simply deny the reality of “fake news” because it opposes their belief. This is not a healthy way to cope with adversity, or to solve disagreements with others.

When I was a young college professor, a local TV sports reporter asked me for an interview about the psychological effects of Little League participation. I readily agreed because I believe Little League provides important life lessons to kids and strengthens them psychologically. Having the chance to deliver that message on TV was a great opportunity.

At the beginning of the interview, I mentioned standards that Little League helped instill in participants: teamwork, sportsmanship, and respect for others; how to lose or win with dignity, honor, and integrity; respecting and understanding rules and following them honestly; being accountable for mistakes and working to correct those mistakes. And on I went in what I felt was fine professorial form. Then the interviewer asked, “What about the importance of winning? Can winning be overemphasized? Can playing the game for the sole purpose of winning give kids the wrong message?”

“Of course,” I said, and proceeded to note how an overemphasis on winning would undermine all the positive life lessons I had just mentioned. For example, a stress on winning does not prepare young people for failure, and ultimately produces low self-esteem.

Guess which part of the interview was broadcast? You got it! The second part. I watched the interview on TV and was horrified to see myself sound like someone who hated Little League, and believed it did severe psychological damage to kids. After a class the next day, a student came up to me and said, “My dad coaches Little League and he thinks you should shut up.” I described the entire interview to the student, and asked for his dad’s phone number so I could call him and explain my real position to him. (I did so and we had a great conversation about the importance of Little League values and principles.)

Was the TV broadcast fake news? Absolutely not! The tape was not doctored or counterfeit; what viewers saw and heard was precisely what I had said: in Little League there is the possibility of over-emphasizing winning, and doing so can be psychologically harmful. But, if not fake news, did the broadcast at least distort and misrepresent my views by not presenting my critical comments in the context of my original positive evaluation of Little League? You bet it did! And I guarantee you I called the TV station producer and the reporter the next day and told them what I thought about the reporter’s ethics.

OK, let’s see if there’s a coping lesson in all this. The phrase “Fake News” is simplistic and implies that life operates according to either/or rules: things are right or wrong, real or fake; what I believe is correct and real, what you believe is false and fake. This kind of juvenile thinking denies subtle distinctions that surround us every day. When it comes to evaluating information, there just aren’t too many incontrovertible absolutes. In my interview the segment that aired was accurate in conveying what I said; it was, however, unfair (to me, at least) because viewers had no chance to evaluate my criticism in an appropriate context.

“That’s Fake News!” is so easy to say, but the comment boils down to psychological denial. You rely on arguments that are simple, concrete, childlike, and easy for you to accept, so you can effortlessly deny the validity of others’ beliefs. “That’s Fake News! I am right, you are wrong, so get lost!” What is difficult, however, is rising above the “Fake News” phrase and trying to understand opinions different from your own. That effort requires an appreciation of nuance; a willingness to discuss opposing viewpoints; and empathy, a characteristic that a phrase like “Fake News” does not encourage. Like most things in life, choosing the difficult road may be worth the effort. That road leads to unity by finding commonalities in differences, resolving conflicts, and proposing compromise where everyone emerges a little bit unhappy, but also a little bit happy.

Don’t let a platform that uses the term “Fake News” be your guidance in your interpersonal relations. If you do, you will be encouraged to treat others with condescension, making it obvious you believe they are inferior to you because they are fake and you are real. No matter what the issue, if guided by “Fake News,” you will automatically take sides and overlook the complexities of the issue. Your world view will be simpleminded and naive, and you will generate emotional upheaval in your social interactions, allowing anxiety, frustration, and anger to dominate you. Solving conflicts – coping well with reality – requires a problem-based strategy, not an emotion-based one conveyed by the phrase, “Fake news.”

Emotional Dysregulation

Did you ever feel that your emotions and thoughts are out of control? Maybe you have unpredictable outbursts of anger that are not really appropriate to the situation, or experience flare-ups of anxiety, mood, or attitude. In short, do you occasionally show emotional fluctuations when it seems that your emotional life is poorly regulated and beyond your control? Many people would answer “yes” to these questions, and the fluctuations are pretty mild and temporary. But what if they are frequent – almost chronic – and extreme in their intensity? In this case, the instability in emotional expression is called emotional dysregulation. The condition can obviously be quite unsettling, and it may interfere with your relationships and general quality of life.

Emotional dysregulation can exhibit itself in a variety of emotions and thoughts: Anxiety; shame and anger; self-harm; substance abuse; perfectionism; conflict in interpersonal relationships; eating disorder; and even suicidal thoughts. The pattern seems to overlap considerably with borderline personality disorder, which affects the way you think and feel about yourself and others, and includes self-image issues, difficulty managing emotions and behavior, and a pattern of unstable relationships. People diagnosed with borderline personality disorder often experience emotional dysregulation with emotional sensitivity, reactivity, and difficulty finding an emotional level that feels stable.   

How might all this emotional lability develop? What sorts of experiences could cause emotional expressions to become so inconsistent, changeable, uncertain, turbulent, unsettled, and undependable?  Some psychologists say the condition develops out of a childhood characterized by caregiver abuse that involves deprivation of basic needs. The deprivation would show itself in failure to provide consistent and adequate supervision; lack of basic health care, clothing, education, and safe housing; an inability to meet emotional and social needs; and rejecting, ignoring, or harshly judging the child’s thoughts and feelings. In short, the child is raised in a roller coaster environment of uncertainty, ups and downs, and unpredictability that makes emotional stability difficult to develop and maintain.

Regardless of the cause, adults tormented with emotional dysregulation need professional help in learning how to regulate better their emotions, how to mitigate extreme reactions to emotional triggers and stimuli, and in general how to control more effectively their expression of thoughts and feelings. Effective techniques in therapy include helping the sufferer build new skills and actions that can be consistently applied in different situations. A professional mental health care provider can help sufferers learn and practice practical behaviors that can increase satisfaction, foster higher self-esteem, and give them a greater sense of control over their emotions. Examples could include things like taking a college course, learning a new skill, completing school, requesting new opportunities for advancement at work, or volunteering to help those in need.

Whatever the case, note the emphasis on actions, doing things. The best way to increase emotional consistency is not solely by positive thinking, but by consistently doing things that tend to bring you positive results, meaning feelings of contentment and satisfaction from taking on something new. When the situation is structured appropriately, self-esteem will increase; confidence will increase; and you will teach yourself the value of behaving in a predictable way. You will be able to say, “I gave it my all and did the best I could. I will look for ways to improve and do even better tomorrow.”

Rory came to therapy because he was suffering from panic attacks. He didn’t realize it, but these attacks were telling him he needed to make some important life changes. Like many cases, the source of panic attacks was actually anger, not anxiety. He viewed himself as a failure, which resulted in unpredictable waves of anxiety. He also had chaotic wake-sleep cycles with no consistent routine, and his social life was unstable as friends found him unreliable and disordered.

Rory had achieved his life-long career dream, but found his profession did not give him the glamour and luster he thought it would. He wanted to get married and have a family, but not with his present lifestyle. He knew he was young enough to pursue another career, but he was not moving in that direction. Thus, he was unconsciously angry at himself for not moving toward a more appropriate and productive goal. His agitation, panic, and tumultuous disorganized attacks were a signal that he needed to look seriously at making major life changes. Originally, Rory viewed his panic as the problem he had to confront, and he saw the attacks as a sign or weakness. But in fact, the attacks were providing valuable information: “Things are not right! You need to take corrective action.” Ultimately, he made the changes he needed to make. He investigated alternative careers, and he took courses at a local college to prepare himself for a career change. When he began to make specific alternative career plans and follow through with them, his panic attacks subsided.

Let’s be clear about Rory: his life changes were not easy to face. But the changes were productive, and they put him on a much smoother life road. Rory’s problem was not the panic attacks, but that he was lounging around stagnating, wasting away in a pool of frustration, confusion, and muddled non-productivity. Only by forcing himself to face challenges, could he produce satisfying outcomes resulting from personal autonomous efforts.

Writing for Mental Health

Joshua Smyth and his colleagues at the State University of New York – Stony Brook studied the effect of writing about personal traumas on physical and psychological health. In Smyth’s general procedure, people were asked to choose a personal trauma and write about it for a few minutes a day for several days. The most frequent topics were the breakup of a relationship, death of a loved one, or being in an accident. A control group of people was asked simply to write about their plans for the next day.

After the writing period, all participants were given physical and psychological tests. The physical tests assessed how well their immune system was functioning; the psychological tests evaluated how effectively they felt they were handling stress in their lives. On both measures, the group that wrote about personal issues scored better than the group that merely wrote about plans for the next day. Along the same lines, James Pennebaker of the University of Texas described a study done with unemployed engineers. Half were randomly chosen to write about how being laid off from their jobs made them feel; the other half did not. Over a period of weeks, measures of psychological well-being showed those who wrote about their feelings were happier, healthier, and more energetic in their job search.

What’s going on here? Does writing provide some sort of energy release – getting rid of negative thoughts and feelings – that is responsible for the benefits? The researchers didn’t think so. They concluded that writing helps people restructure their thinking about current stressful issues. That is, as they write about stressors, they are actually dealing with them at some intellectual and cognitive level; they are seeing things in a new perspective while thinking things through. In other words, the writing exercise helped the writers focus on their problems, not on their emotions and feeling sorry for themselves.

Many entries in this blog describe the dangers of being overly concerned with your emotions. Do you believe your emotions are the cause of your problems? Do you see those emotions as the reason you can’t fall in love, work with colleagues, or have a satisfying social life?  If so, you need to stop focusing on your emotions and focus instead on the fact that you are troubled because of actions you take: denial, social withdrawal, avoidance of responsibility, inappropriately confronting others, hanging on in an unsatisfying relationship like some masochist – these are actions that sabotage effective coping. You need to accept the reality that you are anxious, frustrated, jealous, ashamed, or angry because of actions you choose to perform to service these emotions. “I must become less anxious” is not a good coping strategy because you must deny a part of yourself; “I will learn to act in different ways when I am anxious” is a good strategy because you see that you have a problem to solve.

When you believe your emotions cause your difficulties, you will try to manage, control, and avoid those emotions. This approach won’t work because emotions are a normal part of you. If you try to suppress or deny them, you become obsessed with them, and they actually become more frequent and troublesome. You will become frustrated and self-critical, putting yourself down, complaining that “I can’t even control my emotions.” Such self-criticism can lead to feelings of helplessness, and depression is not far behind.

When psychologically troubled, you may not profit from writing about it. Always remember, when it comes to coping plans and strategies, once size does not fit all. Still, the studies on writing and mental well-being show the benefits of focusing on what you can do about your emotions, rather than preoccupying yourself with those emotions. Asking, “Why am I such an anxious person? How can I get rid of this anxiety?” takes you into a world of denial, avoidance, and instability. Writing about a problem and ways to solve that problem just might inspire you to recognize, “I’m an anxious person in these types of situations, so I need to prepare appropriate behaviors so the anxiety doesn’t overwhelm me.” Such a strategy will take you into a world of effective coping with confidence and personal empowerment.

An Olympic Lesson in Coping

NOTE: What follows is a discussion of the psychological dangers of self-medicating with psychoactive drugs when coping with stress. The discussion uses the Acceptance, Accountability, Action model of coping that we have discussed in this blog over the past 4 years. This entry deals with psychology, and there is no attempt to make a sociocultural statement about marijuana use and laws in the United States, the World Anti-Doping Agency, or the United States Olympic Committee.

Sha’Carri Richardson is an up-and-coming US sprinter who won the 100-meter dash at the US Olympic trials. She was a definite favorite for a gold medal at the Summer ’21 Olympics until she failed a drug test, testing positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. THC is a banned substance under World Anti-Doping Agency rules, and Richardson was suspended for a month, which extended through the 100-meter event at the Olympics. The United States Olympic Committee also decided not to place Richardson on the team to possibly compete in other track events.

In an interview on NBC, Richardson, 21, said, “I want to take responsibility for my actions. I know what I did. I know what I’m supposed to do. I know what I’m allowed to do, and I still made that decision.” Good for her. She accepted responsibility for making a stupid decision. She embraced accountability, which is a cornerstone of the coping model we often repeat in this blog: Effective coping requires acceptance of reality, being accountable for your actions within that reality, and developing a realistic coping plan of action that includes humility and empathy.

But wait. Richardson went on to explain that she used the marijuana after being told that her biological mother had died, news, she said, that put her in a state of “emotional panic.” This comment raises a psychological red flag because it contradicted her earlier statement of responsibility for using the drug. Now she played the “entitlement card,” saying that the emotional burden of the news about her mother caused her to self-medicate. Psychologically, that’s an avoidance strategy that says, “It’s not on me.”

Applying our coping model, when Richardson brought in her burden-of-grief excuse she was avoiding accountability and not serving herself well, psychologically speaking. In general, when you’re all stressed out and emotionally overwhelmed, self-medicating with psychoactive drugs is a poor coping strategy. Counselors’ offices are filled with clients who have traveled the self-sabotaging road of alcohol, marijuana, hallucinogens, opioids, stimulants, and designer compounds. This road is paved with avoidance, denial, helplessness, dependence, and self-criticism, and it generally leads to the dead end of depression. In Richardson’s case, her action sacrificed something she values: winning an Olympic medal. Whenever you behave in ways that damage what you value, you’re in psychological trouble.

Richardson’s unfortunate action shows that being accountable for your behavior can be easier said than done. In last week’s post we described Grace, who was molested by a coach when she was 12. She also carried a heavy emotional burden, and for years she coped with it by adopting a sense of entitlement. Grace said, “The only way I could deal with it was to use it to gain sympathy from others. You know, ‘Treat me gently because I suffered abuse as a child. I deserve your sympathy and tenderness.’ That attitude of entitlement drove people away from me; my social and romantic life was a mess. Counseling helped me realize that I did not deserve to have the corners of my world padded just because I had a traumatic experience. It happened, and it raised a whole bunch of emotions that I let dominate me. It took me awhile, and I still process it, but the fact is I don’t deserve squat, and I have to be responsible for living my life now, not yesterday.”

Grief presents a special set of coping challenges, but Richardson could have met hers without seeking padded corners for her world. A world-class athlete like her could have discovered that her grief could be worked through by honoring her mother’s memory with hard training, and dedicating her Olympic performance to her mother. [See blog entry of December 24, 2020] When her suspension ends, she will have many opportunities and challenges ahead. I hope she finds an appropriate social and professional support network to help her realize that effective coping with those challenges must involve complete accountability, independence, confidence, humility, and self-esteem, none of which will be found in a drug.

Memories: “Ah, yes, I remember it well.”

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or group, and the examples are composites from multiple cases.

How often do you reach back into your storehouse of memories to retrieve a memory of an event long past? This can be a tricky undertaking because your memories are not like photos in a scrapbook, unchanging replications of a past event. They are more like sand dunes on a beach, changing shape according to wind and tide fluctuations. For instance, in one experiment, just prior to taking a test, students were asked how anxious they were. About a week after taking the test, they were told they either did well, or did poorly, and then asked again how anxious they felt before taking the test the previous week. Those who were told they did well, remembered themselves as less anxious before the test than they actually were; conversely, students who were told they did poorly, remembered themselves as more anxious before the test than they actually were. In others words, when you reflect back on an event, your memory can be influenced by your current circumstances. If you’re presently depressed and are asked what sort of childhood you had, what are the odds you will remember it as Brady-Bunch delightful? You are more likely to remember your childhood as stressful and frustrating, and you can justify your depression by casting blame on your parents. In this case, the potentially-distorted memory retrieval can greatly complicate efforts to deal with your current depression.

Memories can also be an impediment to effective coping by trapping you in your past. You can become tormented by memories of long-ago events that may produce anger, shame, anxiety, or similar emotions that interfere with stable functioning in the present. You may need to learn to accept the past as something over which you have no control, and focus your coping efforts on the present. Grace, for instance, was physically molested by a coach when she was 12. “I never forgot that experience,” she says, “and it haunted me. The only way I could deal with it was to use it to gain sympathy from others. You know, ‘Treat me gently because I suffered abuse as a child. I deserve your sympathy and tenderness.’ That attitude of entitlement drove people away from me; my social and romantic life was a mess. Counseling helped me realize that I did not deserve to have the corners of my world padded just because I had a traumatic experience. It happened, and it raised a whole bunch of emotions that I let dominate me. It took me awhile, and I still process it, but the fact is I don’t deserve squat, and I have to be responsible for living my life now, not yesterday.”

            Another way memories can challenge your coping efforts is when you come to believe things that didn’t happen the way you remember. Elke Geraerts of Maastricht University, The Netherlands, and colleagues were interested in determining if presumed victims of sexual abuse when a child, could actually forget the event and then later recover it years later during therapy. The researchers conducted extensive interviews and testing with women in their 40s who claimed they had recovered forgotten memories of earlier sexual abuse, and recovered the memories during formal therapy. Geraerts also interviewed family members and friends, and found little objective confirmation of the recovered memories. That is, extensive interviewing and investigation with relatives and friends just did not verify the events these women said they suddenly began to remember during therapy sessions. Geraerts concluded that during therapy, the clients were slowly buying into suggestions from the therapist – “Maybe the source of your problems is that you were abused as a child. Have you ever considered that?” – and they incorporated imaginary experiences into their memories, experiences that never took place. Impossible? Actually, memory researchers have found that false memories from childhood can be “implanted” in highly suggestible people, memories like getting lost in a store for a few minutes when 3, or being taken to the hospital for a stomach ache when 4. Some people are quite capable of unconsciously manufacturing memories that never happened.

            There are some valuable coping lessons here. When trying to cope with stress, you would be wise not to rely on analyzing your past, especially if your memories of that past are all you have to go on, and you cannot confirm the reliability of your memories with reports of others. Also, remember that your memories can be greatly influenced by suggestions from others, and by your current circumstances and emotional state. Given these caveats, it’s safe to say that your coping efforts will be much more successful when you focus on what you can control and act on in the present, and not dwell on memories of past events.

Improving Self-esteem

Most psychologists agree that your self-concept gives you a sense of stability and allows you to see yourself as the same person from day to day. Yes, you act differently with different people and situations but, nevertheless, you maintain that continuity of “self.” The way you view yourself is called “self-esteem,” and the level of self-esteem that we carry around is important. For instance, if you have high self-esteem, you probably tend to see yourself as empowered and able to obtain high goals; you are not likely to act like a failure and give up when faced with challenges; you enjoy involvement with others, especially in a helping, empathetic context.

People low in self-esteem show quite a different pattern of behavior. Compared to those with high self-esteem, they are more prone to depression, anxiety, poor interpersonal relationships, underachievement, and health problems. They believe they are destined to these fates, helpless to change them, and deserving of unhappiness; they tend to avoid meaningful interactions with others, thinking they are inferior to others; they see failure, rejection, and loss as their fault; their negative self-perceptions sustain their self-doubts, low confidence, self-criticism, and other self-defeating thoughts.

In short, acting like a failure, giving up, immoral behavior, and poor health are inconsistent with having high self-esteem, but consistent with low self-esteem. High self-esteem protects people when negative events occur. They are resilient by reminding themselves that they are worthy; they ascribe setbacks to bad luck or the fault of others. Low self-esteem, however, does not afford these protections. These people have difficulty seeing aspects of their self-concept that are admirable; they blame themselves for adversity, and become self-critical, which makes them vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

How might one improve their level of self-esteem? Therapist Michael Church uses an exercise with low self-esteem clients to help them deal more realistically with who they are, and discover that many aspects of their lives are commendable, admirable, and worthwhile. He asks clients to draw a circle and divide it into pie-like slices that represent the main areas of their life. This task may take several efforts to include all relevant areas, and Church says many clients find that insightful. That is, they don’t usually think about how diverse and complex their self-concepts are.

Church says, “Clients eventually section off spaces relevant to job or school, friendship, extended family, girlfriend/boyfriend, intelligence, physical attractiveness, morality, and health. There are other areas that may or not be included such as citizenship, spirituality, emotional development, and maturity. I discuss their choices with them to make sure that they are comfortable that all pertinent aspects of self-concept in their life are included. Then, I ask them to shade the areas where they see themselves with at least a modicum of self-esteem. I have never had anyone fail to shade in at least a few areas, even those who claim to have ’no self-esteem.’ This part of the exercise helps them realize that contrary to what they believe, they do not have generically low-self-esteem that pervades all aspects of their life. Then, we work on the shaded areas of choice, consistent with their priorities and values. I encourage them to identify actions they can take, and work within productive and proactive goal-setting guidelines. [See blog entry April 30, 2021.]. This helps them define goals appropriately and realistically while also having the means to know objectively whether they are making progress or have reached their goals.”

Note how Church’s exercise stresses action. As he puts it, “The best way to increase self-esteem is not by positive thinking, but by doing things that bring about positive results. Thoughts and feelings can be discarded, but we cannot easily dismiss our efforts and results that are valid and obvious. Our behavior is factual; it either occurred or it did not. Our effort is under our control, unlike the reactions of others and life situations we did not create.” Church is saying that if you want to increase your self-esteem you must focus on what you can control, and in many cases that is personal effort. You may apply for a job and get an interview. You may prepare for the interview – that’s something you can control. But you can’t control the interviewer, and you may not get the job. If you focus on your effort, however, you can view the interview as a learning experience, accept the result, and move on better equipped for the next interview. There is nothing to be gained by hanging on to disappointments and setbacks. Learn from them, correct mistakes, and adapt your effort to the next situation. Self-esteem does not require constant success. It requires you to be able to say, “I gave it my all and did the best I could. I will look for ways to improve and do even better next time.”