Worry versus Planning?

20 Sep

I recently attended a very interesting talk on generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), given by Dr. Melisa Robichaud, an expert in anxiety disorders. GAD essentially is a disorder of worry. The core symptom is excessive anxiety and worry about many topics, and the person suffering from this disorder experiences the worry as very difficult to control. Often, people with GAD also experience muscle tension, restlessness, irritability, insomnia, and other symptoms. Having GAD doesn’t just mean you’re a worrywart, but that your worrying feels uncontrollable and interferes with your life in important ways. You might think you know a lot of people with GAD, but keep in mind that mild worry and anxiety don’t fit the bill. GAD can be an extremely distressing and painful condition, causing serious problems in relationships, work, and other areas. During her talk, Dr. Robichaud explained that people with GAD often engage in a lot of planning, have rigid routines, and do things to prevent their worries from coming true. The idea is that, if they don’t plan, something uncertain and distressing might happen, and they might not be able to cope with it.

As I was listening, I started to worry that I might have GAD! I’ve never thought of myself as a worrier, but over the past decade or so, I’ve become a planner. I plan my breakfast and lunch the night before, often making these meals (for the most part) before I go to bed. I have an elegant but somewhat complex to-do/reminder system to organize myself and avoid forgetting important tasks. I set yearly, monthly, and daily reminders in order to avoid having to set reminders when the same yearly (or monthly, etc.) task comes down the pike later on (e.g., doing taxes). When I go on work trips with other people, I am nearly always the dinner organizer, and I make reservations weeks and months in advance. I usually pack my suitcase several days before travel, write emails that I know I’ll need to send a few weeks in advance, and the list goes on. I don’t worry as I’m doing these things, nor do I think I worry much about what might happen if I don’t do these things. This is why I think this is planning and preparation rather than worry-related. The distinction can be hard to make, as worriers are typically planners, and why would you plan unless you have the thought (or worry) that you’re either avoiding some kind of inconvenience or making things better for yourself or others? For the most part, I spend very little time worrying about anything, but I spend a fair amount of time planning. There is one exception, however. I do worry that I might have a lot of work to do and become overwhelmed or tired. It’s not what you’d call an explicit, obvious worry, in that the thought rarely crosses my mind that, if I don’t prepare, I’ll be too busy and won’t be able to handle it. It’s more under the surface, and I think it’s related to what I affectionately call fundamental laziness. Fundamentally, I simply want things to go smoothly, and I seek stability almost wherever I go. Basically, I just want to relax! So, even though all that planning and preparing seems contrary to laziness, it is in the service of laziness, and until they come up with “generalized laziness/excessive planning disorder,” I think I’m in the clear. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.


Eye of the Storm

12 Sep

Labour day has passed, kids are back to school, and the summer (not the season but what I like to think of as the “psychological summer”) has officially passed. More cars are on the road, more people are out and about, and there’s just a lot more bustle and activity. And, of course, sadly for those in the Caribbean, Florida, and other southeastern U.S. states, it’s hurricane season. Some people are sticking around despite all of the warnings just to experience the eye of the storm. The eye of a storm is popularly conceived as an area of relatively calm weather, little or no rain, low winds, etc., right in the centre of the hurricane. The problem with sticking around to experience the eye of the storm is that the storm is always moving, and ferocious winds and weather nearly always follow.

With all of the hustle and bustle of family and work life, I sometimes wish I could stay in the eye of the storm. It’s easy to get swept up in the winds and pelting, drenching rain. The other evening, my kids came home from somewhere and were bouncing from one thing to the next, complaining about things, bugging each other, avoiding their bedtime routines, yelling, running, and so forth. A few weeks ago, I returned to work after an extended vacation – same kind of thing. The eye of the storm was nowhere to be seen. Then, I remembered what Dr. Marsha Linehan (developer of DBT) used to say to people when they asked her how she can do so much work and not seem completely overwhelmed. She used to say that she takes a vacation whenever she walks somewhere, meaning she walks mindfully, focused only on walking. In DBT, this is called the skill of “one-mindfully.” I think an important lesson here is that, if we have our full attention on just one thing in the moment, we might be able to find the eye of the storm wherever we are and almost whatever we’re doing. Whether we’re running for the bus, trying to meet a deadline, listening to kids in the (seriously annoying) throes of sibling rivalry, if we have our entire attention on one thing in the moment, it might still be possible to find peace. Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “… dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment.” I often find it helpful to remind myself that this is the only moment, and whatever I’m doing is the only activity. If that’s the case, there really is no storm. Try to bring your full attention to as many things you do. Do one thing at a time, with your full attention and awareness. Let go of other things you will soon be doing, or that you or others think you should be doing. Centre your mind on just this one thing in the moment, and see if you get a glimpse of the eye of the storm. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.


5 Sep

In my martial arts class, sometimes when a student performs a maneuver particularly well, our grandmaster praises her/him and says, “…no enemies!” I’ve always found this to be an interesting way to think about self-defense and martial arts training. Martial arts was developed to enhance fitness and well-being and promote peace, but also to help people overcome opponents (i.e., “enemies”) when needed. If you’re good enough at this, you have no real enemies. Someone might threaten to attack you, but you know you can protect yourself if needed; thus, the person ceases to be a threat, and thereby, ceases to be an enemy. When this happens, many options open up. You might choose to avoid the fight altogether (you have nothing to prove, and why hurt someone if you don’t have to?) and treat the person as if he or she is not an enemy. Your mind will be open to the many possibilities, and you will be more likely to leave the interaction unscathed. You might even decide to treat the person with respect and compassion. If you’re not so sure of your own abilities, are insecure, or believe the other person can overpower you, you may view that other person with malice or consider her or him to be an enemy. I see this a lot in other spheres. Some people early in their training (in many areas, including academic, professional, and so forth) believe they have something to prove and are easily threatened by others who are adept in particular areas, have difficulty with authority, engage in competitive behaviour, and so forth. After some time, some of us realize we don’t have anything to prove; thus, others’ successes cease to engender envy, resentment or a sense of threat.

Where is all of this going? Well, I think that the practice of mindfulness, over time, can also engender this sense that there are “no enemies.” Mindful practice involves being open to the present moment, experiencing what’s happening right now without attachment to our wants and desires, without “ego” as some suggest. Some mindfulness practices involve actively generating and experiencing compassion toward others (and ourselves). Perhaps the regular practice of mindfulness, both alone and with others, can increase our sense of connection with other people and the world (and universe) more broadly. Indeed, some studies have suggested that children show slower declines in generous behaviour toward others after a course of compassion-oriented mindfulness training. Other research has supported the idea that mindfulness training may increase compassion toward others (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/07/mindfulness-meditation-empathy-compassion/398867/). If we’re all connected, there truly are no “outsiders” (as Desmond Tutu famously stated) and no enemies. It’s one thing to recognize this logically (we’re all connected, breathe the same air, are living creatures, made up of atoms, and so forth), but sometimes, I find I don’t really get things until I experience them. And, I’m sure I’m not the only one! Perhaps the practice of mindfulness and compassion-oriented meditation can help us all experience connection and compassion and realize through this experience that there are truly no enemies. Imagine what might happen if we stopped viewing the person who criticizes or attacks us as an enemy, and instead, began viewing that person with compassion and felt curious and open to her or his perspective. There are several practices that can promote this experience and mindset, and I’ll discuss some of those soon. ~Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych

Envy Cont’d…

10 Jul

Years ago, my wife and I once decided to set out and hike to the top of the highest mountain in Idaho. Mount Borah, located in south central Idaho, is 12,667 feet high. It’s hardly mount Everest, but the hike from the base to the top is a long and steep, and you have to cross an ice field near the top. We prepared for weeks in advance, booking a cosy hotel room near the mountain, renting gigantic aluminum framed backpacks, purchasing self-heating meals, and so forth. When we set out that morning to conquer Mount Borah, we must have had 30 pounds of water with us. We set out, trudging up the extremely steep incline past various micro climate zones, with an extraordinary view for most of the hike. About 2/3 of the way up, burdened with our gear, we were huffing and puffing and having a water break when we saw a man coming down the mountain. We were a little surprised, as we set out at around 7 AM, so we were wondering when this guy could possibly have started his hike. Even more perplexing, he was wearing loafers and a fanny pack and had a small bottle of water that was still more than half full! The first emotion I had was something like confusion. How could someone scale this formidable peak without heavy duty hiking boots, a giant backpack, and a copious supply of water? The next emotion was probably embarrassment-related – the feeling you get when you realize you are way worse at something than someone else, or are going ridiculously overboard, and that fact has just become blatantly obvious. Envy crept in as well. Clearly, this guy had enviable mountaineering skills, and if we had those skills, we wouldn’t be putting ourselves at risk for scoliosis and death by sheer exhaustion with all of our expedition gear. The envy pretty quickly subsided, though, replaced by extreme fear when we reached the dreaded “Chicken Out Ridge.” (a story for another day). This, of course, is a pretty minor situation in which to feel envious. Sometimes, envy can burn and simmer and remind us that our lives are nowhere near the way we want them to be.

In a previous blog, I discussed ways to identify whether envy fits the facts or is “justified” as we say in DBT. Once you’ve identified whether envy fits the facts, there are a couple of different directions you could go. First, if envy does fit the facts (someone else or some group has something that you don’t have and want/need), it is helpful to start by accepting that the situation is as it is. It’s very difficult to do anything about a difficult situation without first acknowledging and accepting that it is the way it is. Another helpful step is to find some way to solve the problem contributing to envy. There are many ways to do this, but a few common methods include: (a) working, step-by-step, to try to acquire what you want or or need, (b) try to reduce the value you put on the things that others seem to have (that you don’t have), (c) avoid other people or groups of people who have what you don’t have, (d) put on rose coloured glasses, or try to see your situation in a different or better light (Linehan, 2015). Basically, you want to remove or change the situation that contributes to envy by either seeing it differently, working to get what you want/need and don’t have, or spending less time around people you envy. All of these steps are described in Dr. Linehan’s DBT skills training manual (Linehan, 2015). There are also some steps to take if your envy doesn’t fit the facts (is not justified), and I’ll discuss those in another blog. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.


27 Jun

I don’t know much about birds, but I do know that I love watching and listening to them. In the morning, I’ve been eating breakfast outside, and I can hear so many different types of bird calls, near and far. I often hear a bird make a particular call, and then if I listen carefully, I hear a faint version of the same call coming from far away. I assume they’re saying something like, “I’m here.” But, I really have no idea. Another thing I enjoy about birds is that they’re almost always on the move, whether they’re digging in the dirt for food, flying from branch to branch, or simply moving their heads back and forth and up and down, staying alert for danger (or perhaps food). In fact, I’ve often found all of the bird activity outside to be so compelling that I give up reading my book and just sit, watch, and listen. And it takes something pretty good for me to want to stop reading!
I’m not usually thinking, “I’m practicing mindfulness,” but this is undeniably a mindfulness practice. If you are trying to practice mindfulness regularly, and you’re having a hard time with more traditional meditation-style practices, such as observing your breathing and so forth, you might consider sitting somewhere and observing something that is always active and moving. Also, when you first start to practice mindfulness, it can be easier to sustain attention on something external (e.g., birds, boats, people walking by) versus internal (e.g., breath). If that external thing is moving a lot and making sound, like the birds in my backyard, it can be even easier to keep up your practice. Go somewhere without your smartphone, sit comfortably, and observe the birds, the movement of the leaves of the trees, and the people walking by. Watch with an open, curious mind. Try to let go of any judgmental thoughts, and just be for a while. Act like there’s nothing better that you could be doing, like your whole life is encapsulated in this activity of observing nature, right here, right now. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.

Coping with Envy

21 Jun

OK, back to the interesting emotion of envy. So, how can we cope effectively with envy? The first step is to identify whether envy is appropriate or fits the situation, whether it fits the factors or is “justified” as we say in DBT. Envy fits the facts when someone else or some other group of people has something you want or need, and you don’t have it (Linehan, 2015). If you don’t have a current romantic partner and envy your friend because she just started dating a new person, your envy probably fits the facts. If you are strapped for cash, just barely getting by each pay period, but your sister is a wealthy, successful lawyer with a large home and no financial worries, your envy probably fits the facts. On the other hand, if you envy your coworker because you’re struggling emotionally, but he seems to have it all together, your envy may or may not fit the facts. You might not really know your coworker’s state of mind, what he’s going through, or whether he also struggles. Consider whether other people really have the things you envy. Do they really have it all together? Do they have as much money, happiness, and so forth that you think they do? Figuring out whether envy fits the facts involves a little fact checking of the assumptions you are making about other people.

It’s also helpful to think about what you’re envying and whether you really want or need it. Take the situation where you have a wealthy sister. Let’s say you’re actually getting by just fine financially. You have a comfortable living situation and can support your family, have enough money to enjoy the occasional dinner and movie out, and can go on a nice family vacation once a year. You still have a mortgage and would like to save more money for retirement, but money is not a big barrier to a reasonable quality of life. Then, would envy fit the facts? It might, if you truly value being rich, really want to be completely debt free, and have these as important personal goals. But, if you have everything you need, and in your heart, you really don’t care that much whether you’re rich and don’t expect to be, your envy might not fit the facts. Consider whether the things you envy are actually important to you. Do you really want and need the things others seem to have? Do you really lack the things others seem to have? It takes a little work to figure out whether an emotion like envy fits the facts, but it’s an important first step, because what you do next depends on what you’ve discovered. I’ll talk about the next step soon. ~Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.


9 Jun

I’m going to put envy aside and come back to it, as I had an experience this morning that’s a lot more relevant to the emotion of fear. Most mornings, I practice mindfulness (important to practice what I preach!) and then do a workout routine before breakfast. This morning, I was sitting doing my mindfulness practice, and I noticed a good-sized house spider walking along the edge of the wall, a couple of feet away from me. It was edging along the floor, stopping, moving a bit, and stopping again. Initially, I could see it pretty clearly, but as it progressed toward me, I could only really see movement out of the corner of my eye. Meanwhile, I was trying to sit and focus on the experience of my breathing – a common mindfulness exercise. My eyes and attention kept gravitating toward the spider, and when that happened, I’d gently guide my gaze toward the front of the room and my attention toward my breath. Although I used to be quite afraid of spiders, I knew I was in no danger, and my fear of spiders has abated considerably (see previous blog about house spiders). So, I just kept bringing my attention back to my breathing. This is the practice of mindfulness. When I practice, my most common distractions usually include thoughts and sensations (itchiness, the urge to move, etc.). I found the spider to be a less annoying distraction than my thoughts, as it seemed a lot more reasonable and didn’t pester me nearly as much as my thoughts usually do.

Sitting there and not moving away from the spider was an example of what you’d do if you were trying to overcome fear of a variety of different things: Be in the presence of what you’re afraid of without avoiding or escaping it. Often referred to as exposure (and similar to the skill we teach in DBT called opposite action), this strategy can help your brain learn that, even though you’re intensely afraid of something, the likelihood that you’ll be harmed or are in danger is quite low. Moreover, other outcomes are more likely, such as that you’ll be perfectly safe, or that you might learn something about spiders, start to find them cute, and so on. If you’re using exposure or opposite action to overcome fears, mindfulness is one of your most important tools. For your brain to learn new things about feared situations, your brain needs to be fully awake and able to process the information around you. So, consider entering into situations you’re afraid of (after first determining that they’re relatively safe), do so mindfully, and pay attention to what happens. Over time, you may or may not become less afraid, but you’ll probably learn that neither the fear nor the situation you’re afraid of are truly dangerous. Once you learn that, you’ll be free to choose what to do and where to go. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.