Thursday, March 22, 2018

Happiness Myths

Did you know March 20 was the International Day of Happiness!

This “Happiness Holiday” began in 2013 following the UN General Assembly resolution  which recognized happiness and well-being as fundamental global goals. This kind of recognition and attention on happiness has found its way into national news programs like this week on Megyn KellyToday 

Here in NJ, I am honored to be a part of a community movement called Paint theTown Yellow. This movement is about brightening the lives and the community through Optimistic Art, Activities and Events. Check out this fantastic video HERE

Riley and Whitny, the founders of UMEWE and Paint the TownYellow, are passionate about optimism, happiness and bringing out the good in their local communities and beyond. Here in Madison, they have the full support of the Mayor, Bob Conley, who has officially declared the following:

WHEREAS, citizens can make a difference by brightening lives and the community through volunteer civic engagement, activities and collaborations in town throughout the months of March through May; we hereby appoint the following as Honorary Ambassadors of Optimism …

It is such an exciting and humbling experience to be an honorary Ambassador of Optimism and to be able to be part of the process here in Madison, NJ! Anyone who wants to get involved or attend one of the fantastic speakers who will be presenting at Short Stories Bookshop and Community Hub, can go to the FACEBOOK@madisonisintoyellow for details. Here's the calendar of events!

As a Clinical Therapist, I often see how the concept of happiness isn't so easy to define for so many people.  Misconceptions and limiting beliefs around happiness can take a toll on our emotional health. So, for that reason, I would like to dispel three common myths I hear about happiness:

Myth 1: I’ll be happy when___________(you fill in the blank).

How would you fill in that blank? Perhaps something like:
  •   I finally lose that last 10lbs
  •  get that promotion at work
  •  finish my home project
  • get through this final exam
Whatever you use to fill in the blank, achieving that goal you will only bring about a temporary boost of happiness, pretty quickly you return to your baseline. Soon after you will have another “I’ll be happy when…” Positive psychology research tells us that external circumstances, like those listed above, account for only about 10% of people’s actual happiness. Researcher and California University Psychology Professor, Sonja Lyubomirsky has shown that we all have a “set point” of happiness that we are born with and that external circumstances do very little to alter that baseline. What does make a difference is intentional activity. We have the capacity to improve our happiness levels by 40% with intentional activities and mindful actions! To learn more about her work, check out her book The How of Happiness. Some really simple intentional activities Dr. Lyubomirsky suggests in her book are; practicing gratitude, savoring life’s joys, letting go of rumination and social comparison, practicing acts of kindness and fostering social connections. A simple gratitude practice you can try right now is called #fillyourBAGhappy. You can learn how to do it by going to this website .
Another take away from Positive Psychology research that you can implement today is to do something kind for someone else. Random acts of kindness don’t need to be huge or expensive to be meaningful. Little gestures focused on helping others quietly can, not only improve the other person’s day but can improve yours as well. Acts of kindness have been shown to increase and sustain happiness levels. A simple smile at a stranger can go a long way!

Myth 2: Negative emotions are bad. I shouldn’t feel angry or sad and when I do, something is “wrong” with me.

There is a misconception that it is not ok to feel sad, confused or feel angry. Negative emotions are thought to signal defectiveness. The reality is that negative emotions serve an important purpose in our lives. Experiencing a full range of feelings is part of what makes us human. Anxiety can alert us to something dangerous in our environment. Sadness builds empathy and connection with others. When we can feel disappointment or sadness we can become more connected with loved ones and can better provide support and encouragement. Feeling anger can motivates us to step up and right a wrong. It motivates us toward needed change. Look at the recent events in Florida and the action being taken by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS student survivors. They are motivated by fear and anger and are channeling those emotions into making what they see as a positive difference in the world. Feeling negative emotions can also help us to appreciate and savor positive emotions and moments in our lives. Experiencing a variety of emotions are a normal and natural part of daily living. The key is to have a healthy balance. If you are interested in learning more about benefits of negative emotions from Positive Psychology practitioners, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, check out the book Upside of Your Dark Side. Another great resource that depicts this concept is the Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out. Even if you don’t have little kids, this movie is worth watching and provides such an insightful message about finding emotional balance and recognizing that it is okay to not be “all joy, all the time."

It is really important to note that there is a difference between a healthy range of emotions and experiencing depressed mood most of the day or difficulty enjoying pleasurable activities. This level of sadness that may signal something more is going on and you could be experiencing symptoms of clinical depression. Please understand that depression is not a choice or something that is caused by anything anyone did wrong, nor is it a personality flaw. It is a medical illness that can be treated. If you are unsure and think you may be having symptoms of depression or are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, I urge you to talk with someone right away. NJ Hope line is 855-654-6735 and the National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-784-2433. If you want to speak with a counselor or therapist. PsychologyToday is an excellent resource to find someone in your area. If you are near Chatham NJ, you can always reach out to me at Maximize Wellness. 

Myth 3: Happiness is the ultimate goal.

If we look at happiness as an end goal, we find ourselves missing out on the process and how we got there. We may also never truly find ourselves “arriving”. Try altering your perspective so that happiness becomes a byproduct of a well-lived life. It is the journey, not the destination.  Someone once described it as the difference between being able to enjoy the beauty of the rainbow instead of just seeing it as a means to the pot of gold at the end. Practicing mindfulness and being more aware of being in the moment, versus living life in autopilot, can help you recognize more of the good in the little things in life. Savoring the little moments day to day is a great way to begin to enjoy the journey!

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Therapist's Perspective on Guns, Teachers, & Mental Health

Photo: Unsplash by Sophia Sforza
To start, I want to say that although I personally don’t understand gun ownership and would never want or have a firearm in my home, I respect the Second Amendment to the Constitution and recognize that just because I am anti-gun, I totally get that my personal belief is not the same as everyone else’s. 

That being said, the latest school shootings bring me to a place of concern and fear about the direction of our country when it comes to gun violence. It is time for reasonable action. The NRA talking points say that  “gun control doesn’t work” and yet Canada, Japan, England Australia, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Iceland, Italy, and Denmark all have passed stricter gun laws and saw decreases in gun violence and deaths. So why wouldn’t it work here?

The latest solution by Mr. Trump is to arm school teachers (or the top 20% qualified school teachers to be exact). I can’t, for even a millisecond, believe that is even being considered. A clip from an old All in The Family episode shows Archie Bunker talking on how to reduce gun violence on airplanes by arming passengers. He speaks about gun control being nothing but a conspiracy to turn the US into Russia. This was considered satire, so ridiculous that it was funny. Yet, it isn’t far off from what is being proposed by leadership today. It is hard to fathom how we got here.  Here’s the clip if you are interested:

The solution to gun violence is certainly not to add more guns. What other problem has anyone been able to solve by increasing the cause of the problem? How does that make sense?

Let’s talk about our teachers. They have one of the toughest jobs there is. Many teachers are under-paid, under-appreciated and have a huge and important responsibility to educate our children. Now our government wants to give them guns to protect the school on top of it. There are so many problems with that, I don’t even know where to begin.  The security guard who’s entire job and purpose for being at the school in Florida last week could not do anything about the shooting and now we expect the teachers to step up? I can’t imagine a worse idea than that. The sound bite I heard from the NRA spokesperson as well as from Mr. Trump was “harden our school”. Really? How does that make any sense?

Police officers and security guards go into their jobs understanding that using firearms and protecting citizens is at the core of what they are trained, hired and expected to do. I am not implying that our teachers aren’t brave or aren’t adept at using a firearm. I bet many are both, but that doesn’t mean they could or should be carrying a gun in school. The trained security guard couldn’t step up and we are asking Mrs. Smith to do it while she is trying to do the hundreds of other tasks we put on our teachers every day? And what type of gun would it be? If someone was in the school with the type of gun used in every mass shooting, how could an armed teacher really help? He or she is expected to make a kill shot while being sprayed by bullets? Are we saying that our teacher are able to do it on the first try, because it’s unlikely that they would be alive to get a second shot.  

This is not a video game or movie, it is real life. 

So let’s then turn to the mental health argument. Of course, any human being who decides to shoot or kill another human being is not of sound mind. That’s a no brainer. The problem is that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not dangerous or problematic. People with mental health issues are much more likely to be victims of violence than to be perpetrators, yet there is a huge misconception perpetuated by fear and lack of knowledge about mental health. Other countries have just as many challenges with mental illness as the US, yet they don’t have the same problem with gun violence at the level that we do. What’s the differentiator?

“A medical professor taught me about the dangers of drawing incorrect conclusions from data with the example of gum chewing, smokers, and lung cancer. He said smokers may be more likely to chew gum to cover bad breath, but that one cannot look at the data and decide that gum chewing causes lung cancer. It is the same type of erroneous logic that focuses on mental health after mass shootings, when banning the sale of semi-automatic rifles would be a far more effective means of preventing them.”
Not only is the mental health argument FALSE, it perpetuates the stigma that surrounds mental health in this country. If you have symptoms of diabetes, you would go to a doctor. If you break a bone in your leg, you would go to the ER.  If you have racing thoughts, feel sad or depressed, have trouble getting out of bed, are struggling with overwhelming fears or negative thoughts… what do you do? Many people unfortunately would do nothing until the situation gets out of control. Common symptoms of depression are mistakenly thought of as character flaws instead of what they really are; symptoms of a diagnosable medical issue. Having depression or anxiety is no different from having diabetes, high cholesterol or the flu. But the stigma associated with mental health problems creates misconceptions that stop people from getting appropriate treatment. The current debate and comments by Mr. Trump are only making it worse!

American Academy of Pediatrics has come out with new guidelines for all pediatricians to screen for depression and anxiety. This is so important. Taking your child to a doctor to screen for depression shouldn’t be any different from taking your child to the doctor for a flu or strep test. Currently that is not what is happening and so many of our kids are falling through the cracks and not getting appropriate support and treatment because of the stigma attached to mental health issues. By putting the blame of mass shootings on mental health, we are perpetuating the stigma and increasing the problem of inadequate treatment. I recognize that overall healthcare in this country has room for improvement, specifically behavioral health. Part of the solution is to talk openly about depression and mental health as a treatable disease and not a stigma or flaw.

So, just because I am not in favor of gun ownership, doesn’t mean I don’t respect other people’s rights to use and own guns.  I understand that a factor that makes this country so great is it's diversity in opinion and thought.

That being said, we still need laws and guidance. We regulate so many things in this country. We register our cars, we have age limits on purchasing alcohol and cigarettes, we have laws prohibiting drug. So why are guns not looked at the same way?  Let’s start looking at the types of guns on the market and seeking more sensible solutions than arming our school teachers. Implement regulations like banning semi-automatic weapons, stricter background checks, enforcing a waiting period, consistent licensing and registration for all guns and owners across all states as a starting point. Even Fox News contributor, retired Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters has come out stating the ridiculousness of AR-15 being in the public sector. The only purpose for that gun is to kill humans and has no place outside of the military. See his interview here: 

After all, if legislators find it appropriate to introduce laws to change the packaging of laundry detergent because of the tide pod challenge I would think it would be appropriate to put some more regulation around gun ownership.  Don’t you?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

What is imposter syndrome and what can I do about it?

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash
So what exactly is “imposter syndrome?” We hear about it more and more. Technically, the term Imposter Syndrome is not a recognized or defined in the DSM. The DSM (aka Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is the reference book which psychologists and therapists use to make an informed clinical diagnosis. That being said, imposter syndrome is widely recognized by most therapists and clinicians as a set of symptoms related to self-doubt and fall into the DSM diagnostic criteria for anxiety and at times, depression.

Imposter syndrome can be defined as someone not being able to fully internalize accomplishments and anxiety around fear “of being found out” or about a perceived current or future threat. It can be seen in highly successful people who have an internal belief they don’t deserve to be at the level of accomplishment the achieved in their career. Psychologists first described imposter syndrome in a clinical paper in 1978 and since then it has been estimated that it affects up to 70% of the population.

In my clinical therapy practice, I work with adults and older teens who struggle with symptoms of depression or anxiety. Many of my clients have thoughts, fears and worries that can be categorized by the term imposter syndrome. It is especially common in my practice with teen girls with high expectations and performance in school.   These fears and worries often come from our beliefs about a situation and not necessarily the situation itself. Self-talk (the way we interpret our lives in our heads) can be based more in fear and anxiety than in objective truth or reality. These thoughts are be labeled “cognitive distortions”. These distortions are ways of labeling or categorizing our negative thought patterns, which we all use to a different degree. Cognitive distortions perpetuate core beliefs about ourselves that we have developed over time from messages we get from our families, teachers, media, friends, and others.  These messages become a part of our automatic inner voice.

The more often we tell ourselves these negative ANTs, (automatic negative thoughts) the more ingrained they become. Imagine they make an impact in our brains not unlike the way a path gets worn in the grass from being walked across over and over. In order to change the thoughts we need to consciously change the ANT and see it from a more realistic and objective view. By really examining the evidence that supports and doesn’t support the ANT, it becomes clear that many times the ANT’s are just thoughts, not truths. By doing so, we can create a new, more realistic cognitive path and allow the figurative grass to grow where the ANT used to be.

Another thing I see in my clinical practice is the connection between imposter syndrome and perfectionism. People who are very driven and success oriented and work hard for achievements can often become frightened once they accomplish what they set out to do. The cognitive distortion manifests as black and white thinking. They believe that they have to be perfect or else they have completely failed. Finding that middle ground can be challenging because so much of who they believe they are rests on perceived performance. People believe that their inner voice needs to be critical and the best way to self-motivate is through harsh inner dialogue. The core belief that “it is not ok to brag” or “if I get too comfortable someone will come along and be better than me” can contribute to the need to buy into the cognitive distortions related to perfectionism.

Although data shows this is seen in both men and women, I find it more and more common with women. It may be because as children, boys are socialized to be more risk takers and girls not as much. Girls are socialized to be more risk adverse than boys and it often can be seen in adulthood related to career. Especially in careers that are more male dominated, women can feel isolated and begin to doubt themselves and their ability to be where they are, despite the evidence that they deserve to be there. 

So if we understand all of this, what can we do about it?

Here are a few steps that can help.

  • Self-care: When people aren’t taking care of themselves physically, negative thoughts can be more prevalent. It is important to exercise and maintain healthy habits. Self-care is not selfish, it is a necessity for happy and productive living.
  • Work/life balance: Having strong boundaries around work are also important. Creating a healthy balance with socializing, family, hobbies and creative outlets.
  • Work with a cognitive behavioral therapist to identify limiting core beliefs and ANTs.  Reframe negative thoughts and beliefs using more adaptive strategies, such as examining the evidence and challenging distorted thinking.
  • Practice self-compassion. Researcher and Psychologist, Kristen Neff describes self-compassion as recognizing stressors and suffering as part of life and that people are not alone in their struggles.  She urges people to speak to themselves the way they would speak to someone they care for and love with kindness and compassion. Often our own self-talk is much harsher than we would ever speak to anyone else, so the idea of practicing self-compassion is creating a kinder and more supportive inner dialogue.
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. By having a regular mindfulness practice we can help to build that awareness around out thoughts. That awareness can create a space between situation and response instead of the automatic reaction and self-destructive thoughts.
  • Let go of perfectionism. Understand the origin and find a balance between perfect and OK in order to create more realistic and healthy standards and expectations.
  • Re-define failure as a motivator, a positive experience. Instead of personalizing failures, see them as growth opportunities to become better and more resilient. Some of the biggest success stories come out of perceived failures.