Category Archives: Uncategorized

Timing Is Everything

We’re all sheltering in place, maintaining a safe social distance from everyone except our immediate families. Now, we could benefit from increased time with our families, without outside distraction. It’s an opportunity for closeness that was previously unattainable, due to busy schedules. But after a while, being together 24/7 can feel like a prison sentence. Even the people we love most can get on our nerves. “I wouldn’t trade my spouse for anything, but I can’t stand another minute of this.” “I love my kids, but they are driving me crazy.” “If my mother criticizes me one more time, I will explode.”

Rather than explode, shouldn’t we just talk it out? After all, we have all this time together, and if they could understand that their behavior upsets met, they’d change, right? Not necessarily.

Some change is possible, but a lot of it isn’t. We can change our habits and behaviors with effort, but our personality tends to be rather fixed. Habits are best changed with time and practice. Once formed, personality doesn’t change dramatically.

If you have already expressed your displeasure previously, and your family members haven’t changed, or were unable to sustain change, you are asking for something difficult. Change is difficult in the best of times. Covid-19 has created the worst of times for most people. Asking for change during stressful times is likely to lead to argument rather than agreement.

Good communication at the right time is key. Unless you are a highly skilled communicator, now is not the time to make complaints. This is not the time to bring up past hurts. Your partner will not simply snap out of their depression or anxiety. They will not stop drinking just because they love you. Your mother will always have her own opinions. This is not the time to expect that your child’s stubborn nature will change.

In truth, we have little control over others. If you start focusing on your response instead of the family member’s behavior, you gain some measure of control over the situation. You can’t change them, but you can control your response. You can choose to withdraw, distract yourself, change the subject to something pleasant, or take a walk.

This is the time to accept them for who they are. Psychologist John Gottman says, “People can change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted the way they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated, they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.”

Rather than focus on your family member’s annoying traits, examine your own. Instead of trying to change your family member, be the change you wish to see.

It is of note, however, that one should never tolerate abuse. In spite of a shelter in place mandate, if you experience abuse, call 911 for immediate help. Agencies continue to operate for the safety of victims.

Financial Stress? Increase Your Stress Tolerance

There’s nothing like financial insecurity to create intense stress. Money was the dominant source of stress for 44% of Americans prior to the Covid19 pandemic. I imagine that it now soars to the top of the list for most of us. Many Americans have large amounts of credit card debt and/or student loans. About 1 in 4 Americans do not have any savings for an emergency. People seeking unemployment claims in the US are past three million, a record-breaking number, due to workers being laid off or business closings. Unemployment is a crisis within a pandemic crisis.

People with poor financial health tend to have poor physical health in that they are less likely to see a doctor and don’t utilize preventive health measures like exercise and good diets. This makes people with pre-existing conditions more vulnerable to viral infections. Additionally, people with greater financial stress have more symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who don’t have financial worries.

Uncertainty stresses us out and unfortunately getting to the end of this pandemic is going to be more a marathon than a sprint, so the longer a lock-down persists, the greater the uncertainty that we will survive it.

A 1994 research study out of Quebec, developed the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale. It demonstrates that humans prefer certainty to uncertainty. People would rather get an electric shock now than possibly later, and they show greater nervous-system activation when waiting for an unpredictable shock than an expected one. Stress maxes out when uncertainty is at its highest.

Individuals differ in the amount of uncertainty they can tolerate well. Being overwhelmed with uncertainty will result in physical and emotional symptoms. Emotional symptoms may include feelings of shock, panic, grief, or anger. Some of us will experience a sense of disorientation, indecisiveness, avoidance, lack of motivation, increased alcohol or drug use, or an inability to concentrate. Although we may have more down time, we may be unproductive.

However, some uncertainty can be an impetus for creative problem solving and growth. The amount of stress you can handle without becoming overwhelmed is called your “stress tolerance.” It’s the ability to cope with adversity and bounce back. The higher your stress tolerance, the more you will be relaxed and composed when faced with difficulties. You will be less carried away by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

In the face of uncertainty, we have two options. First, we can seek to control that which is in our power through action. Rely on your support networks, seek professional coaching or financial advice, and utilize federal or state assistance, if possible.

And second, we can practice the art of surrendering to that which we cannot control. We can learn from monks and people who meditate to surrender. Take comfort in the reality that you are not alone. Remind yourself that this will eventually pass.

If you are overwhelmed, therapists are ready to provide support through phone or video counseling.

If you have stress related to financial hardship, I am offering a free online 6 week support group. Please contact me.

Gail L. Gabbert, D.Min., LMFT, CRADC
Interactions Therapy Center, Inc.
815-777-2850; itc@interactionstherapycenter.com

Covid-19 Can Be a Nightmare for People with a Pre-Existing Anxiety Disorder

The coronavirus pandemic has rightfully caused fear in the general population. But it can be a nightmare for people who have an underlying anxiety disorder. People with anxiety already have racing thoughts, excessive worry, fear, feeling of impending doom, and insomnia. Of course, their anxiety will be heightened.

We’ve already seen panic in large numbers of people. We’ve seen video of shoppers coming to blows over toilet paper. They’re also hoarding large quantities of hand sanitizers and surgical masks, leaving others without means to protect themselves from a potentially deadly disease.

Some say these people are selfish and greedy. But I would say that this is a human reaction rooted in a fight or flight response. The hoarders have an instinct for self-preservation. When faced with stress and worry, there are two typical responses. One is to ramp up anxiety into a panic for survival. The other is to decrease anxiety by minimizing or denying in order to avoid being overwhelmed by fear.

Panic buying often occurs in anticipation of a disaster such as a hurricane or blizzard. These goods are purchased to offset a fear for our safety. Panic buying makes people feel in control; they are combatting the enemy and taking action to survive. Herd mentality tells us that if others are stocking up on toilet paper, maybe we should too. We don’t want to be left empty handed if in fact, toilet paper makes the difference between those who survive and those who perish. It’s a natural response to a stressful experience.

The coronavirus is a mystery. We don’t know how long it will paralyze us or how many lives will be lost. However, we are most likely faced with long term stress rather than acute stress. This is more a marathon than a sprint. Let’s adjust our expectations and calm ourselves.

There are many tools designed to increase coping. Practice relaxation and mindfulness, stay connected to your social network, make healthy food choices and get plenty of rest, and get outside for fresh air and walks if permitted. This pandemic is controlled if we all cover our coughs, wash our hands, and keep a distance from others, no matter how difficult these tasks are. If we don’t, then the pandemic will spread.

Don’t hesitate to seek counseling if needed. Most health insurers have stepped up to allow reimbursement for video or phone counseling. Many therapists, like myself, are offering free or low cost services. Few people have been faced with this type of disaster. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.

 

Moral Panic Can Cause Immoral Outcomes

Have you heard the term “moral panic?” A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society. Moral panics are often centered on people who are marginalized in society due to their race or ethnicity, class, sexuality, nationality, or religion. It often draws on and reinforces stereotypes. It exacerbates differences and divisions between groups of people. Stanley Cohen developed a theory of moral panic identifies five stages.
1. Something or someone is perceived as a threat to social norms.
2. Society depicts the threat in simplistic ways that quickly become recognizable to the public.
3. Public concern is aroused by the way news media portrays the representation of the threat.
4. New laws or policies are created as a way to respond to the threat.
5. The actions by those in power results in social change within the community.

An example of moral panic is the Salem witch trials that took place throughout Massachusetts in 1692. This moral panic was a threat to the authority of religious leaders and was perceived as a threat to Christian values, laws and orders. It was also called Satanic Panic. The War on Drugs in the 1980’s and 1990’s is another example of moral panic. Media attention linked crack cocaine to urban Black people and associated it with delinquency and crime. Laws and policies left white middle and upper classes untouched. “Welfare queens,” “cocaine babies” and the “gay agenda” are more examples.

According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, In order to be a moral panic, there must be characteristics of the following:
1. Concern that the group is deemed deviant and is likely to have a negative effect on society.
2. Hostility toward the group increases as do divisions of “us” and “them.”
3. Concern does not need to be nationwide, but there is enough of a consensus to be thought to be a threat to society.
4. Laws and policies are disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
5. Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as a new story catches media attention.

Let’s take a recent example of undocumented immigrants. President Trump casts Mexican immigrants as deviant, causing harm to America. He remarked “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He fans the flames of hostility and creates divisions between “us” and “them.” “These aren’t people. These are animals. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are.” Many would say that immigration laws, policies and proposals (border walls) are disproportionate to the actual threat.

Goode and Ben-Yehuda say “the fears and concerns underlying moral panics are said to be part and parcel of the human condition as expression of human frailty. All societies have them. We’ve seen them before and we’ll see them again. Let’s learn from history and avoid irrational and unjustified responses. The women of Salem were not witches. Crack cocaine is not better or worse than other substances of abuse, and people who use it should not be punished with longer sentences than other groups of people. We now know that “crack babies” are most often indistinguishable from babies not born to women who used crack during their pregnancies. “Welfare queens” are a myth. And there is no “gay agenda”.

We can be alarmed, be concerned, and be cautious. But let’s not panic. Panic produces outcomes such as separating children from their parents. I’m confident that Americans will deeply regret this policy, and their complicity, one day.

“Moral panic” tends to create immoral outcomes. Don’t get swept up by irrational fear.

We All Want Respect

I recently met a young man who received a legal charge of domestic assault. His girlfriend of one year came to his house and “started an argument” about his unfaithfulness. He admits that he punched her in the eye, causing injury that required medical care. In his opinion, she disrespected him by going to his house to confront him. He also had a couple of previous battery charges, due to arguments with “people who disrespected me.” Yet, he considers himself an easy-going person who ignores people and problems. “I try to walk away as much as I can.” How does he account for his aggressive episodes? “They keep disrespecting me.” This made me wonder about the importance of respect.

Respect can mean life or death in gangs. The issue of respect, or disrespect, can trigger confrontations and violence between gangs. Criminal justice experts say its how gang members prove their loyalty, maintain a sense of belonging, and demonstrate power. If you are challenged, and you don’t step up, you lose status.

Respect is equally important for people who are not gang affiliated. Respect is a positive feeling or action shown toward someone held in high regard. It conveys a sense of admiration for valuable qualities. Respect can be conveyed with a handshake, a slight bow, a smile, direct eye contact, or a fist bump. It is shown differently in different cultures. But we all want it.

Research suggests that how much we are respected and admired determine our overall happiness in life, more so than how much money we have. Cameron Anderson, Psychological scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, found that higher socioeconomic status, meaning higher income or wealth, or higher education, does not boost subjective happiness much at all. Rather respect and admiration in your friendship network, neighborhood, or social teams improves overall happiness. “Having high standing in your local ladder leads to receiving more respect, having more influence, and being more integrated into the groups social fabric” Anderson said. He went on to say “One of the reasons why money doesn’t buy happiness is that people quickly adapt to the new level of income or wealth. Lottery winners, for example, are initially happy but then return to their original level of happiness quickly.” Other studies have indicated that people who reach an income of about $45,000 are no more happy after winning the lottery. Once one’s basic needs are met, wealth alone does not determine happiness. Being respected, having influence, and being socially connected are the sources of true happiness.

Let’s return to the young man who is quick to demand respect by violent means. In my opinion, he is easily slighted. We all feel slighted from time to time, in big and small ways. Maybe someone didn’t return your call, spoke rudely to you, or didn’t invite you to an event with others. Psychologists call slights “narcissistic injuries” that bruise our egos and make us feel belittled. It hurts to feel devalued or disrespected. It can cause us to feel humiliated, with potentially dangerous consequences. Maybe we want to hurt them back. Slights can trigger a violent reaction.

Psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson estimated that two-thirds of all murders were the result of men feeling that they had been disrespected and acted to “save face.” Our ego, our sense of self, is often fragile and easily damaged.

There’s no getting around it. We will be slighted on occasion. Rather than protect our fragile egos in unproductive ways, find other means to be respected, have influence, and be socially connected.

Chats With Strangers Can Be Good for You

When living in Chicago, I noticed that people don’t make eye contact with strangers on the street. I assumed that in such heavily populated areas, people preferred to keep a bubble of personal space between themselves and others. Upon moving to a small rural community, I noticed that everyone waved hello when driving by. It was almost as if they were pleased to see another human on an otherwise unpopulated road.

My father had a wave protocol when driving. If you passed someone you knew, you gave an open hand wave. If you weren’t sure if you knew them, you held up your fingers while keeping your hand on the steering wheel. If they were a stranger, you still acknowledged them by holding up one finger as you passed by. I don’t know if he created the protocol but it seems like a warm gesture.

Perhaps people who live in large urban areas are more prone to think of “stranger danger.” It is the idea that all strangers can potentially be dangerous. It is most often used as a teaching tool to keep children safe, but don’t most of us feel threatened by the unknown or unfamiliar?

The problem is that we can feel cut off from others, even while surrounded by people. In the US, health experts warn of a “loneliness epidemic.” Loneliness can increase the risk of depression, heart disease, dementia and premature death.

To combat a lack of a social connection, psychotherapist, Traci Ruble started “Sidewalk Talk” which trains volunteers to listen empathetically to strangers. They put up signs on the street that say “Free Listening” next to chairs facing each other. This is a community listening project that has grown to 1000 volunteers in 29 US cities and 10 countries. She believes that we as a society desperately need more face-to-face contact. She wants people to look less at their devices and more at others’ faces.

Another group hosts “Tea with Strangers” in New York, in an effort to help people feel less isolated. It was founded by Ankit Shah who moved from New York to California’s bay area without any social connections. He asked his Facebook friends to ask their bay area friends if they’d like to have tea with him, a stranger. It has turned into an international movement in 15 cities. They invite five strangers to chat for about two hours over tea. Their goal is to make cities feel like neighborhoods. Rather than ask, “what do you do?” the host may ask “What surprises you?”

Interestingly, in spite of social media, young adults in the UK are much more likely to report feeling lonely than those aged 65 and over. Half of the people surveyed claimed to persistently feel lonely or left out.

Hosted groups such as these seem to have a better success rate than simply talking to strangers. Olivia Petter in the UK challenged herself to talk to strangers every day for week while riding the tube in honor of Loneliness Awareness Week. She’d ask someone sitting next to her how their day is going, or what their name is. It didn’t go well. She was unable to sustain a conversation for longer than a minute. But if you can pull it off, research indicates that there is a positive impact for your own and other’s well-being. You might both feel happier than you would think. Other studies have shown that talking with strangers is surprisingly pleasant. No one wants intrusive attention. Don’t be creepy. But a pleasant hello might be better received than you think.

Personally, I like the idea of tea with strangers. Would anyone like to join me for tea?

Addiction Doesn’t Start with a Gateway Drug

The following is a meme going viral on Facebook:
“Unpopular Opinion: Weed isn’t a gateway drug. Alcohol isn’t a gateway drug. Nicotine isn’t a gateway drug. Caffeine isn’t a gateway drug.
Trauma is the gateway. Childhood abuse is the gateway. Molestation is the gateway. Neglect is the gateway. Rape is the gateway.
Drug abuse, violent behavior, hyper sexuality, self-harm (etc) are often the symptoms (not the cause) of bigger issues. And it almost always stems from a childhood filled with trauma, absent parents, and abusive family.
But ya’ll too busy laughing at the homeless, the crackheads, and meth addicts to realize that your own kids could be in their shoes in 15 years.
Communicate, Empathize, Rehabilitate
– Enlightened Consciousness”

If we overlook the angry edge and implication that families cause addiction, this meme has a kernel of truth. Addiction is not caused by the first use of a substance. It’s much more complicated than that. People who become addicted to a substance often have underlying issues such as poor emotion regulation, insecure attachment, and may have a history of trauma. They may have repeated failures, helplessness, hopelessness and feel demoralized. These issues are not going to be addressed in a 10-week class.

And prevention is not as simple as we’d like to think. Drug prevention education is insufficient to stop addiction. You can’t teach a course to young people and expect good results. Prevention has to be experienced throughout one’s lifetime in the form of protective factors.

So, what can you do? Do your part to create a healthy environment for families from birth through adulthood. If you can’t stop trauma, at least be a protective factor in their lives. Communicate, Empathize, Rehabilitate. In short, surround them with love.

Does Power Corrupt, or Reveal, Who You Are?

Lord Acton was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer in the 1800’s. He said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Michelle Obama countered this with a statement in her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in which she said “being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”

Have you been in a position of power? Perhaps you function in some role as a leader. You are the president of a service club, or you manage a group of workers at your job, or you are the church treasurer. Would you say that it changed who you are? Or did it reveal who you are?

Power has the capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others. Psychologists generally define power as control over others, by providing or withholding resources. The experience of power is often associated with promoting self-interest. It makes people more likely to act on their own desires. People who feel powerful are more likely to voice their opinions, talk more often, and interrupt others. They are quicker to make a decision with less information. Power allows us to ignore others’ concerns and pursue our own objectives. Therefore, it can become the basis of unethical behavior.

Melissa Williams, a psychologist at Emory University, has written about what leads power to corrupt or ennoble. Her research identified traits that can guide ethical or unethical leadership. Ethical leaders are found to have traits of agreeableness, honesty, cooperation and humility. They are supportive and served their followers rather than demanding to be served. Ethical leaders feel a need to do the morally right thing. One study showed that leaders with high moral standards became more generous. Unethical leaders tend to feel entitled, want to stand out from the crowd and they exhibit more abusive behaviors. Those with low moral standards become more selfish.

There is nothing wrong with seeking a position of power. The critical issue is how you intend to use that power. We can examine one’s past use of power as an indicator of how they will wield power in the future. If someone has a high moral standard, it is reasonable to assume that power will demonstrate their standards. If someone has a low moral standard, they are more likely to misuse their position of power.

Interestingly, it is demonstrated that power can rewire your brain. Brain stimulation experiments by Sukhvinder Obhi, neuroscientist, and colleagues, found that power impairs a neural process involved in empathy. They found, through transcranial magnetic stimulation, that people in power do worse than others in recognizing social cues and responding in kind. The longer a person exercises power, the less empathy they have.

UC Berkeley psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner summarized his view of power in saying “Here is what power does to just about every human being. It’s going to make you not pay attention to people as well as you used to pay attention to them. You may find yourself swearing at a colleague or telling them that their work is (expletive). You will be a little less careful in the language you use. You will be a little less thoughtful about how things look from their perspective. So just practice a little gratitude. Listen empathetically. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”

So, does power corrupt, or reveal, who you are? In general, if you live by a high moral standard these traits will be revealed by the manner in which you wield power. If you live by a low moral standard, that will also be revealed. If you hold a position of power, watch that you don’t become corrupted.

Are You a Clean Freak? When Is It Too Much?

Did you hear about the Massachusetts homeowner who returned to his home and realized that someone had broken in, to find that rather than stealing property they cleaned it? The intruder hadn’t taken anything and instead they’d cleaned up. The family found the home more perfectly made up than when they left. In fact, the invader made all the beds, stacked the stuffed animals, and left an origami rose on the toilet paper. They scrubbed the toilets and shower. The only thing that was not cleaned was the kitchen. Police officers are taking this case very seriously and had no leads or suspects at the time of this writing. Is this a clean freak gone wild? If so, is this the result of someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, or is it the result of an addiction?

Many of us feel better when things are in order and in a presentable manner. I tend to be a tidy person and feel most at ease when my home, car and office are in good shape. For example, before I start writing, I need my environment to be free of clutter. Then, my mind can become focused on the task at hand. But when does tidiness become too much? When does cleaning become obsessive, or worse yet, an addiction?

Psychologist Elaine Ryan, at mytherapist.ie, specializes in anxiety disorders. She provided an example of someone who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder focused on cleaning. She wrote about a woman named Shala and described her everyday cleaning routines and rituals. “Upon awakening, she immediately starts cleaning her room. She takes a lint roller and rolls her entire bedroom floor in case any hair has fallen. She then takes a dirty piece of laundry and gets on her hands and knees and wipes the floors of her home to get up any hair of crumbs that may have fallen. She then goes and wipes down the toilet and polishes every door knob in the home. To brush her teeth, she kneels down at the bathtub to brush them because she doesn’t want to dry out the bathroom sink, which is one of her rituals. She goes to work, comes home, and starts cleaning more. She wipes down blinds with her hands, one by one. She then goes on to clean and dust for a couple of hours. Then, she feels as if she can relax and eat. She’s more than exhausted, yet she will do these things each day and on her days off she will diligently clean even more. Shala is already taxed due to a hectic and stressful work day. She doesn’t necessarily want to clean when she gets home, yet she cannot relax until she does. She also requests that her partner keep things exactly the way she wants and perform certain tasks the partner would not normally do, like drying out the sink each time it is used or cleaning the floors with a piece of dirty laundry instead of a dust mop. Her partner begins to feel controlled and carry some resentment.”

An obsessive-compulsive person and a person with an addiction can look the same but have different roots. An obsessive-compulsive behavior is a repetitive, ritualistic behavior that a person performs without rational motivation. An obsession has roots in fear. If they don’t follow the routine, something bad will happen. Shala may fear some catastrophe if she doesn’t clean, or a fear that if she falls short of perfection, no one will love her.

Compulsions may offer relief but do not include the experience of pleasure. Instead, they ward off fear. Addictions normally begin with the expectation that it will be pleasurable. The outcomes of the pleasure are unhealthy and repeated misuse of certain behaviors. Their addiction has roots in escaping an undesirable place to something more tolerable. Perhaps they drink to relax, use drugs to experience euphoria, gamble to experience an adrenaline rush. But once they start, they cannot stop. Their behavior eventually causes negative consequences.

In the case of someone who illegally entered a home and cleaned it, we don’t have sufficient information to assess whether the perpetrator was operating from obsession-compulsion or from addiction. One hypothesis is that it was neither a compulsion nor an addiction, but rather a cleaning crew that entered the wrong home and realized their error before cleaning the kitchen. But that theory doesn’t account for entering a locked home.

Does cleaning, or some other excessive behavior, cause problems in your life? Reflect on the root causes of your behavior and seek help.

Dating Is Not for the Faint of Heart

Most of us have a natural and healthy human yearning for closeness. Humans are social creatures who thrive in loving relationships whether it is family or friends. But finding the person that you’d want to partner with for a lifetime can be very difficult. In fact, it is like finding a needle in a haystack. It’s also a numbers game. You have to date a large number of people before connecting with Mr. or Ms. Right. That said, you will likely either be rejected, or have to reject others, multiple times over.

Dating is a minefield. I’ve learned a new vocabulary from my clients. You may be “ghosted” by someone who shows an initial interest in you, then disappears. You might find someone “orbits” you by repeated views of your dating profile or social media posts without actual contact. You might find a “submarine dater” who previously ghosted you but resurfaces weeks or months later. And an “ostrich” might block you if you don’t respond to them immediately. And then there is “breadcrumbing.”

Breadcrumbing is defined as “The act of sending out flirtatious, but noncommital text messages to lure a sexual partner without expending much effort.” It is the conscious act of giving someone just enough attention to keep them from leaving, but not enough to feel satisfying or secure in the relationship. It might look like the following:
1. They send sporadic messages, but not consistently, so that you are wondering what’s going on.
2. The messages lack substance, and are timed just when they think you are drifting away.
3. The messages are vague and you never really know what they mean.
4. They just want to hook up without any commitment.
5. They are noncommital and you can’t get them to define how they perceive the relationship.
6. You feel anxiety wondering if they will contact you again.
7. You start to doubt yourself and wonder what you did wrong.
8. Your relationship feels passive-aggressive when you try to have open communication, resulting in argument.

It is hurtful and incredibly anxiety producing to be strung along by someone who is not really into you. If you are not interested in a long term partner, say so. Perhaps someone else is looking for mutual breadcrumbing. But be clear on this from the outset in order to protect someone else from emotional distress. If you are caught in the crumb trap, end the anxiety by not picking up the breadcrumb. Walk away, take a break while you repair your self-esteem, then get back in the ring.