What to do with fear?

Waiting

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

As we all know, some people worry too much.  Rather than solving a problem, too much worry becomes the problem.  Not only does excessive worry create much personal suffering, but it also affects the people around the worrier.  I wonder if a lot of our worrying in life is like this:  constant, spontaneous and effortless focus that gets dislodged by distracting external events or our own change of perspective.  Now, I think that anyone who does not worry is just living on a different planet; yet, as we know, just worrying about the weather does not make it rain.

After 31 years of working in the field of psychology, I know a few things make a difference in coping with life.

  1. Pay Attention to the Important Things, More than the Urgent.  Sometimes the only way to get the important done is to stick it between the urgent things that drive our days. Worry is often related to disorganization.  Make a list of things to do each day and cross off tasks once they are completed.  Leave early enough to make appointments on time.  Put your keys in the same place every time you come home.  Keep your house straightened up.  When things are under control, there is less to worry about.
  2. Take Action on What You Want To Do And Figure Your Results As A “Prototype”. A handy friend of mine told me how he approaches building things.  He considers the first version as his working model.  Although I have two left hands with tools, I always thought I had to get it right the first time.  My combination of ridiculously high expectations and little tolerance for error was a deeply frustrating workshop ethic to follow.
  3. If You Do Not Know How To Do it, Ask For Help.  Most of us just need a little guidance or a resource with whom to check out our experience.  We all need support and positive feedback from time to time.  Other people may have solutions to problems that we haven’t thought about.  For reassurance, find people who know how to give it.  Many of us spend a lifetime looking in all the wrong places for approval.
  4. Try To Do The Right Thing.  Maintain your sense of integrity whenever you do something.  Tell the truth. Obey the law.  Keep to your promises.  Let your conscience be your guide.  Granted, we might tell an occasional lie or break a promise, and this is fairly common – but it can also set the stage for worry.  We may think sometimes that we can get ahead in the world the easy way – but the price we pay could be excessive worry, among other penalties.
  5. Minimize Catastrophic Thinking. Some people find it difficult to keep perspective when faced with even a minor stressor.  Not every mole means cancer and not every bill is going to lead to bankruptcy.  Test out the reality of these situations by talking them over with a trust friend.
  6. Limit your Exposure to the News. Although there is value in keeping up with the latest news, understand that the media focus on bad news since this tends to sell best.  We seldom hear about the good news in the world on TV or newspapers.  Constant exposure to negative events increases our tendency to worry.  Instead, look for what is good in life.
  7. Sleep, Eat Properly, Exercise.  Lack of sleep and a bad diet can make us irritable, distracted, and anxious – all condition which set the stage for worry.  (Try to be mindful of the problem of overeating as a way of making our worries disappear.)  Exercise helps us dissipate the anxiety that often accompanies worry.
  8. Avoid Substance Abuse.  Drugs and alcohol may give the illusion of comfort for the time being, but using them has negative long-term consequences.  They increase depression, cloud judgment and may give you something to really worry about later.
  9. Learn How to Let Go of Worries. This is a skill that might require some practice and each of us will have our way of doing it.  Some people do this by allowing themselves perhaps half an hour a day of worry time – and at the end of the allotted time period, they will be free of worrying until the next day.  Some people give up their worries by writing them down on a piece of paper and then tearing them up.  Some people prefer to hand them over to a higher power.

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardships as the pathway to peace, taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will, that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

As this year continues, on behalf of the psychologists in the practice, I want to thank you for recommending us to others.

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How can you tell if someone is suicidal?

My friend Steve and I talked about him the last time we met for breakfast.  The three of us had been college classmates but Steve and Rich were closer in those years.  A few years after graduating school, Rich shot himself to death.  Neither of us could remember any sign or warning of his despair.  He was there in our lives and then gone.

“IS PATH WARM?” is a mnemonic device developed by Lanny Berman, Ph.D. (Executive Director, American Association of Suicidology) to identify acute risk factors for suicide.  I share it with you for we all want to be on our toes for those we care about.

I Ideation – directly or indirectly disclosed thinking of ending one’s life.
S Substance Use – misuse of alcohol or drugs.

P Purposeless – finding no meaning or value in living.
A Anxiety – a regular sense of being on edge; sleep problems.
T
Trapped – thinking that there is no other solution.
H
Hopelessness – and it will always be like this.

W Withdrawal – increased isolation from family, friends, and usual activities.
A
Anger – rage at self or others.
R
Recklessness – making risky and dangerous choices.
M
Mood Change – endless despair or a sudden and unexplained release from it.

In the thirty years I have worked as a psychologist, I have gone to court one time to speak with a judge about detaining someone in a hospital because of imminent danger of suicide.  This list captures many of the signs I saw back then.

More information on these suicidal risk factors is available at www.suicidology.org.

On a minor note, I recommend two books to bolster our strength before we get to despair: Endurance by Caroline Alexander and Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand.  These true stories, one of hardship and the other of wartime cruelty, and are breathtaking descriptions of impossible conditions and human triumph.

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Thoughts on obsessive thoughts

I still remember their names to this day: classmates of mine from seventh and eighth grade. I envied their athletic prowess and basketball self-confidence playing on the asphalt behind St. Rita Grammar School.  I’ll bet I thought about them and their talent nearly every day and probably wished as often I could be just like them.  There have been many times in my life that I have been so caught up as well by an idea (marketing employee assistance programs in 1985) or an event (not getting into DePaul University in fall 1973).  This kind of thinking has often struck me as merely and stubbornly obsessive.  I came across another explanation recently that I find more compelling and freeing.

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist at Princeton University, describes this cognitive distortion as a Focusing Illusion, namely “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”  I invite you to recall two or three times in your life where you may have been so lasered in with concentration on something and test out whether it still matters to you today with the same importance.

In treating depression and anxiety issues, I have found this kind of sticky preoccupied thinking present.  Using Kahneman’s observation both respects the thinker and dislodges the thought.  I have not found successful ways to argue myself or others out of strongly held viewpoints.  I think intentionally remembering that whatever we obsess about as “true and forever” will be so until we think about something else.

On a minor note, if you have not heard The Moth storytelling radio show on NPR, I’d recommend it.  The show presents true stories told live.  I know when I hear it, it gives me something else to think about.

Till the next line…

David

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Anxiety Help for Fears and Phobias

Looking for anxiety help? If you struggle with panic attacks, chronic worry, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder, here’s help that’s practical and powerful.

Anxiety disorders are generally very treatable, but people who experience them find them hard to overcome. The reason is that while most people have the ability to recover, anxiety literally tricks them into using methods that make their fears worse rather than better.

This is the most natural thing in the world. People think of chronic anxiety as something that invades their lives, something they have to resist and oppose. However, the worst problems come from our efforts to resist and remove anxiety, rather than from the anxiety itself.

People do not get fooled by this trick entirely on their own. All too often well meaning friends, doctors, and therapists get fooled by it as well, and unwittingly suggest methods to their patients that make the situation worse.

For instance, there’s a well publicized technique called “thought stopping”, in which you snap a rubber band against your wrist when you have an anxious thought, and say “stop!” to yourself. It’s hard for me to understand why professionals still suggest this idea, because it’s very unlikely to be of any help. The more you tell yourself not to think something, the more you’ll think about it.

If you want a quick demonstration right now, take two minutes and don’t think about dancing elephants.

See what I mean? Don’t even think about thought stopping.

When anxiety tricks you, you get fooled into using recovery methods that actually make your fears stronger and more persistent. The more you fight an anxiety disorder, the more it grows. It’s like putting out fires with gasoline.

When your fears and worries and undue anxieties overcome you, give us a call.  We can help.

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