In Love with Your Smartphone? Part 2

8 Sep

Have many people actually fallen in love with or even become addicted to their smartphones? I think many of us have heard statistics suggesting that women are more likely to say that they would give up sex than their smartphones. Many of us have also witnessed scenarios like the ones I described in part 1 of this blog, where it seems as if the people around us are so addicted to their smartphones that they have become oblivious to everything else (even the emotional needs of loved ones).

I do believe it is possible to become addicted to a smartphone. When we think about addiction or substance dependence as it is often called, there are generally a few key components: preoccupation with the substance, the development of tolerance characterized by the need for increasing amounts of the substance to produce the same affects, withdrawal symptoms, and negative effects on relationship and other important areas of functioning.

In terms of preoccupation, I recently heard that the transportation authority in Britain has considered placing lights along the road at crosswalks, chiefly because people so often cross the road while looking down at their phones. As a result, they often don’t see the “walk” or “don’t walk” signs. If taking your life in your hands by crossing the road staring at a smartphone isn’t a sign of preoccupation, I’m not sure what it is. Of course, over the past several years, there also have been several prominent and tragic distracted driving cases and new laws and fines targeting distracted drivers who use their phones while driving. The vast majority of people who own smartphones report that they have their phones with them at almost all times. Smartphones accompany people into the washroom (consider that before you touch someone else’s smartphone), while driving, on dates, in movies, during therapy sessions (to the point where we have had to use what we call a mindful bucket and encourage our clients to place their smart phones in the bucket so they don’t end up texting during therapy groups), and the list goes on.

People who are addicted to substances often also become preoccupied with having, finding, or obtaining such substances. A person who is dependent on alcohol, for example, will often feel uncomfortable if there is no alcohol available in her or his home and will go out to seek and even sometimes stockpile alcohol (people addicted to prescription medications or other drugs often do the same thing). So, what happens to people when they don’t have their smartphone around? I don’t know if there’s a lot of research on this, but from what I’ve observed, many people become rather anxious when they don’t know where their smartphone is. Now, this is understandable, as those phones are rather expensive. In terms of monetary value, not knowing the location of your smartphone is akin to not knowing where your expensive mountain bike is. I don’t believe, however, that the anxiety about the missing smartphone has much to do with its cost. I think it has much more to do with our psychological attachment to the phone and what it does for us.

What about tolerance? Is it possible that people can develop a tolerance for their smartphones much like people develop a tolerance for substances? First, we could consider what a tolerance for smartphones would look like. People would need to spend more and more time with their smart phones to achieve the same effect. They might also need to do more different, interesting, or stimulating things with their phones to feel satisfied. Does this sound familiar? When you first got your smart phone, did you notice a rush of enjoyment, pleasure, or captivation just doing the simple things like checking your email or surfing the web? Do you still get that same rush, or do you need to do more interesting and diverse activities with your phone in order to achieve a similar result? I’m guessing the latter is true. Neurochemically, we know that the dopamine system in the brain is highly involved in responsiveness to rewarding stimuli. When we get positive feedback, get something right, or when our behaviour produces an immediate and desired effect, there is generally an increase in dopamine activity in our brains. Interestingly, the dopamine system also is involved in people’s responses to drugs like cocaine. In fact, there is some evidence that, over time, the use of such substances can burn out and damage dopamine receptors. Whether this kind of effect can happen with smartphones is unclear, but smartphones do have several characteristics that would seem ideally suited to activate the reward centres of our brains: (a) they are highly stimulating, (b) our behaviours produce an immediate, desired response, and (c) smartphones provide us with immediate access to a variety of enjoyable activities and stimuli such as images, sounds, writing, games and fun activities, etc. Whether tolerance for smart phones actually develops requires more research, but another even more disturbing phenomenon seems to be afoot. To be continued… ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.

In Love with Your Smartphone? Part 1

27 Aug

I was sitting in an airport terminal recently, and across from me were a young girl, perhaps 13 years old, and her father. The girl was visibly distressed, periodically crying softly, and when not crying, barely containing her tears. The father, sitting next to her, was in a position that many of us recognize these days: sitting with his head tilted downward at about a 45° angle cradling his smart phone. When the girl spoke to him, presumably about what she was upset about, he occasionally nodded, but his eyes remained firmly planted on his smart phone. Now, to give this fellow the benefit of the doubt, it’s always possible that the girl was crying because she was denied something, and he was attempting to ignore her behaviour. Many parents struggle to arrive at an approach to this kind of situation that is both compassionate and avoids reinforcing nagging and other undesirable behaviour. That said, from what I heard the daughter saying, I’m pretty sure this was not the situation. Instead, it appeared that she was having a hard time because she was missing or going to miss a family member or friend. Not once in this exchange did I see the father turn his head toward her or take his eyes off the smart phone. Of course, it’s also possible that I was just assuming that this person was her father. Perhaps she was crying and speaking to a complete stranger, who was trying to ignore her. He might as well have been a complete stranger, although I suspect that a stranger would have been more responsive. Although I had dismaying thoughts about the state of our society and what smart phone technology has done to human beings, I let those thoughts go, got on the plane, and arrived at my connecting city. As I often tell clients, ruminating about things we don’t like rarely leads to productive action and usually causes greater distress.

At the connecting airport, I had about a 3 to 4 hour layover, and I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner. As my meal arrived, a young man, his apparent girlfriend, and her or his parents arrived and sat across from me. The girlfriend was visibly distressed and kept putting her head in her arms. When her head arose, it was clear that she had been crying. The boyfriend was sitting on the barstool cradling his smart phone and staring at it, much like the father in the other airport terminal. Every once in a while, the young woman would turn to him and say something, and he would nod almost imperceptibly, remaining glued to his phone. From what I could tell, she was very upset, exhausted, and really struggling. She would have to have been having a really hard time to be openly crying in a public restaurant. I will go out on a limb here and guess that, if the young man’s smart phone had malfunctioned, or if he accidentally dropped it, he would probably take action right away and find a way to fix or take care of it. If whatever media he was watching stopped playing, he would probably try to get it to start up again, check his Wi-Fi connection, and do some troubleshooting. And yet, when his girlfriend was breaking down next to him, he did not seem to give her the same care and attention that he would likely give his smart phone. I wonder if the girlfriend was crying because she has learned that her boyfriend is in love with someone or something else? Perhaps, over time, she has discovered that her boyfriend is actually in love with his smart phone. The elegant contours, smooth, wrinkle and scratch-proof screen, lightening fast responsivity, willingness to do whatever he wants whenever he wants it, lack of emotional needs or demands, and so forth, are probably rather difficult to compete with. Interestingly, I noticed that the screen of the young woman’s smart phone was shattered. To be continued… – Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.

Road Rage Part 2

23 Aug

I think that, to understand the problem of road rage, one important question is the following: Why do so many people seem to believe it is absolutely imperative that they be allowed to drive as quickly as possible from place to place? I believe it’s possible that people are perceiving some kind of threat associated with being slowed down. An intense emotion like strong anger or rage usually comes about when there is some kind of threat to one’s well-being, safety, or ability to achieve an important goal. Injustices and other such events also are common triggers for intense anger. To understand road rage, therefore, it is important to consider what types of threats the enraged driver is perceiving.

I was driving in the left (fast) lane awhile ago, and my speed approximated the traffic flow for the area. I was driving about as fast as I was comfortable driving (while still maintaining a safe speed only a little above the speed limit) but still a little slower than the fellow behind me could tolerate. He swerved back and forth several times, waved his arms, flashed his lights, and then dangerously passed me in the HOV lane and cut me off, continuing to wave his arms, gesturing for me to move to the slow lane. What threat was this fellow perceiving? A fair assumption is that he wished to drive faster than he could when he was behind me. Was he rushing to the hospital with his pregnant wife? Was he the only one who knew about a tornado quickly approaching from Surrey? Was he being chased by a velociraptor only visible to him? Was he in a rush to capture a prized Pokemon? I really have no idea, as I don’t know him, but his behaviour would suggest a degree of urgency that would only be appropriate if there was some imminent threat associated with driving close to the speed limit.

All joking aside, I believe that understanding the threats that people associate with driving more slowly than desired is an important first step in tackling road rage. For people who struggle with road rage, some helpful steps could be to (a) pay attention to any mounting distress, frustration, or anger associated with fellow drivers’ behaviours, and (b) consider whether this frustration or anger might relate to the perception of some kind of threat. To do this, it can be helpful to ask questions such as, “What about this situation is really frustrating me?” “What bad consequence will happen if I have to keep driving slower than I want to?” “Is there a catastrophe related to slower driving?” “What is the likelihood that a terrible event will occur if I, for example, get home (or to work) a few minutes later than planned?” “Why do I have to get from A to B as fast as humanly possible?” When I have asked myself these types of questions (normally while walking and frustrated about slow walkers in front of me), normally, the answer is nothing. There really is no real, imminent, or important threat. The universe will keep plugging along just fine even if I have to go slower than I want to. More on this in a future blog. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.

Stopping Thoughts?

20 Jul

Many of us experience thoughts that we’d rather not have on a regular basis. I think that’s just part of being human. For all I know, it might also be part of being other types of animals as well. In any case, as many people know, the research on stopping or getting rid of your thoughts is not particularly encouraging. There has been a lot of research on whether it works to suppress or try to get rid of thoughts that we don’t want to have. One of the pioneers of this research, Dr. Daniel Wegner (check out the following link for a brief article on his research: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/10/unwanted-thoughts.aspx), conducted a series of experiments in which people were instructed not to think of white bears. Most of us probably don’t think of white bears too often, and when we do, we probably don’t have much of an emotional reaction to these thoughts, unless we live in the Arctic Circle and need to be vigilant about polar bears. As a result, white bears are fairly neutral kind of thought. Even so, it turns out the people are not very good at suppressing thoughts about white bears. More specifically, while they are trying not to think about white bears, people can generally keep these bears out of their minds, but there tends to be a rebound effect. As soon as they are allowed to think about white bears again, they have more such thoughts than people who were allowed to think about them all along. Since these early white bear experiments, many studies have supported the idea that suppressing thoughts is a losing battle. This is bad news if you are someone who worries or ruminates a lot. If you have a lot of repetitive, negative and distressing thoughts, wouldn’t it be much nicer if you were able to stop them somehow? Of course, in modern cognitive behavioural therapy, we often teach people the opposite: It may be more valuable and effective to learn how to experience and accept your thoughts than to try to suppress or get rid of them. I believe in this approach, which is very consistent with the mindfulness and acceptance oriented skills that we teach at the DBT Centre. There are times, however, when I have been in the throes of rumination and wished I could find some way to simply stop the thoughts from flowing through my mind. I imagine most of us have had this experience. Mindfulness of thoughts can be helpful under these circumstances, but a little bit of light distraction or thought stopping is not completely unreasonable. One of the skills that we teach in DBT is called pushing away. The skill of pushing away involves temporarily ignoring, avoiding, and getting your mind off a problem that is bothering you. It’s kind of like, if you were in a house full of chaos, yelling, laughing, and screaming noises everywhere, you might need to move to a quiet room in order to calm down and gather your thoughts before going back into the chaos and finding a way to sort it out. This, I think, is the real value of pushing away. It is a temporary strategy to give yourself a break from the cascade of thoughts and emotions that are making it hard to see a clear, effective path forward. If you can get a short breather from what’s happening in your mind, you might be able to return to it with a fresh perspective, a calmer emotional state, and some new ideas about how to tackle the problems you’ve been thinking about. The trick is not to use pushing away for too long or to overuse it as your go-to coping strategy. Just use it when you need a break from what’s going on in your own mind, make it temporary, and then return to the problem and find a way around it. – Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.

Taking Care of Business #2

15 Jul

I believe it is quite important for people to do things that give them a sense of accomplishment every day. Activities that give you a sense of accomplishment are often referred to in psychology circles as “mastery” activities. These are activities that give you a sense that you are capable of doing something. They might also give you a sense of satisfaction, as you notice that a task is completed. Think of how you feel when you cross or check an item off on your to-do list. I would imagine that most of us feel at least a fleeting sense of satisfaction, if not a strong sense of relief and accomplishment – particularly when the task has been sitting on the to-do list for a long time or is momentous. As mentioned in previous blogs, mastery activities form part of the backbone of effective treatments for depression. People who are depressed often have negative thoughts about themselves, the world, and the future. Some of those negative thoughts about themselves are that they are worthless and incompetent. Scheduling and accomplishing mastery oriented tasks each day can help counter these negative thinking patterns. You can think of engaging in master activities as a type of experiment to test the validity of negative beliefs about your own competence. Mastery activities are not only helpful, however, for people who struggle with depression or other mental health problems. It can be helpful for anyone to have a balance of mastery and pleasure oriented activities each day. Indeed, although it might sound good, spending most of one’s time engaging solely in pleasurable activities can have some downsides. One downside is that these pleasurable activities can lose their strength over time. Perhaps the most important downside is that you might never get anything done, and the tasks that pileup will begin to generate stress. Of course, if your daily activities are imbalanced in favour of mastery, you may be marching down the road to being overworked, stressed, and burnt out. Try to strike an effective balance of mastery and pleasure activities each day. If you have negative thoughts about your own competence or find that your daily life is in balanced and lacking in mastery activities, consider incorporating mastery activities into your daily life. Schedule them, keep on top of them, and allow yourself to experience and enjoy any resulting sense of accomplishment or capability. – Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.

Taking Care of Business

6 Jul

Lately, I’ve been noticing a sense of well-being and accomplishment after getting stuff done around the house. I am by no means a person who can actually do anything industrious with or around the house (no painting, drywalling, or building decks for me!), but I am pretty good at cleaning up the kitchen, cooking meals, sorting out finances, and making sure the hummingbirds are happy with their feeders. I’ve noticed, however, that before I do these tasks, I have a mild sense of dread. My brain is somehow predicting that the tasks will be burdensome, annoying, and a lot less enjoyable than simply sitting on my lawn chair and reading a good book. Once I get started, however, I actually find these regular household tasks to be quite enjoyable, and I normally feel a sense of satisfaction when they are done. This brought to mind a couple of topics that are relevant to emotions, psychology, and behaviour change: 1.) how we can go wrong in our predictions of how we will feel when we engage in certain activities, and 2.) the importance of including activities in our daily lives that give us a sense of accomplishment.

As for 1.), researchers have found that, while we are generally fairly good at predicting whether an event will result in positive or negative emotions, several biases can make it difficult for us to accurately predict how we will feel when certain events occur (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003). One such bias has to do with recall. Our recall of events that have happened to us is not always perfect; thus, I might not remember that I actually experience pleasure while washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen. As a result, when I contemplate these tasks, I might inaccurately predict that I won’t feel so great while doing them. Another bias has to do with what people call inaccurate theories. Basically, this means that we sometimes have inaccurate ideas about which types of activities will result in which types of emotional states. I might think, for example, that I will feel a lot more pleasure sitting in the sun with a snack, reading my book, compared to washing my car or putting the kids to bed. In reality, if I were to measure my happiness during these tasks, it might not be so different. This suggests that, perhaps I should reconsider my theory or idea of what gives me pleasure or happiness. Similarly, if you struggle with the experience of dread in anticipation of certain activities, such as getting out of bed in the morning, socializing with other people, preparing meals, exercising, and so on, it might be worth reconsidering how you construe these activities. As an experiment, it might also be worth keeping track of your mood, pleasure, and happiness during these activities. Indeed, keeping track of activities and associated moods is one of the main components of a very effective treatment for depression – behavioural activation. Stay tuned, as I will address item #2 next time. – Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.

Coping Effectively with Other People’s Mistakes

27 Jun

As a parent, I am quite familiar with challenges related to spills, broken or damaged items, and so on. Kids, much like the rest of us, make mistakes all the time. If you look closely enough (and I really don’t recommend that you do), you will notice that people make mistakes all the time. People drive too quickly, change lanes erratically, erroneously overcharge you in restaurants, say things that are hurtful or just not particularly tactful, forget to do things, talk too much, talk to little, do too much or too little, turn the heat up too high, spend too much money, forget to look both ways when crossing the street, fail to return your calls, make grammatical errors while writing blogs, and the list goes on and on. While the mistakes that other people make can be quite frustrating and annoying and sometimes lead to distress and inconvenience, they also present opportunities for us to learn and practice effective coping skills.

How can we cope well when other people make mistakes? Often, one important first step is to accept that the other person did whatever she or he did. To take this one step further, it can also be helpful to practice accepting your own thoughts and feelings about the other person’s actions. Accepting is not the same as forgiving, but forgiving can also be a helpful step in this process. Indeed, a recent study found that lower levels of forgiveness among young adults predicted worse mental and physical health outcomes. Also, stress was less strongly related to mental health among people who were higher in forgiveness (Toussaint et al., 2016). Another useful step is to practice engendering some compassion for the person who might have made a mistake. One way to do this is to jump into the other person’s shoes, and try to see the world through his or her perspective. As Dr. Marsha Linehan stated in her video on the DBT skill of opposite action, things that don’t make sense from our perspective might make perfect sense from another person’s perspective. Moreover, recognizing that everyone makes mistakes and that nobody is perfect can help boost our compassion for people who make mistakes that drive us crazy. Finally, how we think about other people’s mistakes can make a big difference in our reactions. If I were to think that someone else made a mistake on purpose to make my life difficult, I would probably be quite irritated with that person. I would probably have a hard time letting go of it, and forgiveness would not be the first thing on my mind. Instead, I find it helpful to avoid assuming that others are doing things on purpose to make my life difficult. I find it a lot more effective to assume that we are all doing the best we can at any given moment. – Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.