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:, 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.

Don’t Forget that You’re Alive

21 Jun

This might seem like an odd title for a blog on psychological stuff, but what I mean is that it’s important for us all to remember that we’re living, breathing creatures. We need to be maintained and taken care of. Consider what’s involved in taking care of pets or tending a garden. I’m no gardener (although I’d sort of like to be), but I have had pets. You have to consider what your pet needs to survive and thrive: water, food, care, nurturance, attention, play, fresh air, space, and so on. The same goes for humans, except our needs are sometimes a little more complex. I think it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of tending to these needs. I believe that one reason for this is that our brains are always coming up with such compelling stuff. In our minds, we can imagine entirely different lives, universes, and so on. We can have thoughts about how good or bad we are, whether other people love or care about us, what kind of job we will have, and whether we’ll ever have that relationship we yearn for. We can think about horrors of the past and worry about possible horrors in the future. We also have to think to navigate our daily lives, get work done, learn new things at school, and make decisions. Our brains are so active that it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that our brains are connected to our bodies. And, our bodies need to be taken care of. I’ve often heard people describe themselves as disembodied heads, their bodies functioning much like a wagon, bringing their heads from place to place. That might be what it feels like at times, but in reality, our bodies and brains are part of the very same system keeping us alive. Lifestyle behaviours that affect our bodies (what we eat or drink, how much we exercise, our stress levels, and so on) also affect our brains. Indeed, some researchers at the University of British Columbia (Centre for Brain Health) have found that physical exercise can go a long way in minimizing the loss of volume in an important area of the brain – the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory). We often teach clients in DBT that, to effectively manage emotions, it is important to take care of basic needs: treat physical illness; engage in balanced eating and sleeping; avoid harmful or problematic use of substances; engage in physical exercise, among other tips. Moreover, what we do has a huge effect on the activity in our brains and on how we feel. We’re not just disembodied heads. To disengage from the type of thinking patterns that keep you stuck in your head, consider using mindfulness strategies, focusing on your direct experience of the present moment. Get out of your head for a moment, and consider whether you’re taking good enough care of your brain and your body. Come up with a plan to improve your self-care, starting with small and sustainable steps (e.g., don’t make a change that you don’t think you can keep up for at least a year). Remember that you’re a living being that needs care, and give your body the attention and care it needs.  – Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.


17 Jun

Earlier this week, I was sitting in my favourite chair by the window having lunch, and my wife was pulling out of the garage to go out and run some errands. I waved to her by the window, but she didn’t wave back. I am assuming this was because she didn’t see me, and not because I annoyed her in some way earlier in the day. I think my assumption is accurate, as she wasn’t even looking in my direction when I waved. This made me wonder: what’s the point of waving if no one sees you wave? The answer that came to me was that it simply makes me feel good to wave. Why would it make me feel good to wave? I think it’s because waving hello or goodbye to someone I care about is consistent with my value of being a caring family member. As a result, the simple act of doing something that fits my value system can be quite rewarding in and of itself, even if there is no tangible reward or effect. This is the nice thing about acting in accordance with one’s values. You win even if you don’t win anything in particular. People have been arguing for many years as to whether true altruism exists, as it could easily be argued that engaging in selfless acts of kindness actually results in some kind of payoff for the giver. That payoff may not be tangible, but it might be an increase in mood, an increased sense of self-worth or self-esteem, and so on. Anything we do is likely to affect how we feel, the physiological activity in our bodies and brains, and what we think. If we bring a larger proportion of our daily behaviour in line with values that are important to us, these effects will probably be positive, more often than not. In DBT and other treatments, we often teach people the skills of clarifying and acting in accordance with their values. Values can act as a sort of compass, pointing us in the right direction when we are not sure what to do. Keeping our values in mind can also help infuse our everyday activities with importance. If I value being healthy, then when I sit down to have what I would consider a healthy snack, I’m acting in a manner that is consistent with my values. As a result, I don’t only get to enjoy my snack, but I also get to enjoy an additional sense of satisfaction but I’m doing something that I believe is right. Consider ways to bring your everyday activities in line with values that are important to you, even if this means that you are sometimes like the proverbial tree falling in the forest – waving even when no one waves back. -Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.


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