Loneliness Part 3

26 Oct

Another way to deal with loneliness is to try to learn from the experience and use it to make positive changes. Loneliness might be a signal that we are missing something. Perhaps we’re missing an important, specific person, contact with people in general, or close relationships. Like other emotional experiences (e.g., fear might inform us about danger), loneliness might be telling us that we have a problem to solve. When the problem is that we miss a specific person who is no longer in our lives, it might be appropriate to work through the process of grieving. When the problem is that we have less contact with others than we would like to, the solution might involve finding ways to spend time around and with other people. Finally, if we are missing close relationships, perhaps the solution is to work over the long-run to establish such relationships or strengthen existing ones.

It can be challenging to make some of these changes in life. Many of these solutions to loneliness are long-term projects requiring some work. Loneliness might stick around while we’re working to make these longer term changes. Fortunately, some of the skills we teach in DBT can make it a little easier to tolerate loneliness in the short-term. These skills include the distress tolerance skills, such as distraction or self-soothing, and mindfulness skills, particularly mindfully attending to your emotional experiences. Also, if you’re trying to make connections or improve existing ones, it might be helpful to pay attention to how you relate to other people. It can be easy to remain lonely even around close loved ones if you (a) don’t mindfully attend to your connection to others, and (b) engage in behaviours that distance you from others. Consider ways to be mindful of the people you do have in your life. Attend to others, make time for them, and nurture your relationships.

If you’re working toward being with people or closer to people, there is an important pitfall to avoid. I think this pitfall is captured nicely by the quote, “If you are not capable of being alone, your relationship is false. It is just a trick to avoid your loneliness, nothing else.” Sometimes, people begin or stay in harmful relationships, because loneliness is frightening. It’s like staying in a burning building because you’re afraid the danger outside is worse. Avoid basing relationships on the avoidance of loneliness. The foundation of these relationships will be weak, and you might find yourself willing to allow your self-respect to take a hit in order to avoid being alone. ~Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.

Loneliness Part 2

19 Oct

One way to work on thinking patterns related to loneliness is to check the facts. Checking the facts is a skill in the emotion regulation section of Dr. Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd Edition (Linehan, 2015). The idea is that we sometimes feel strong emotions partly because of how we are thinking of or interpreting situations in our lives. Checking the facts involves objectively observing and describing these situations, identifying our interpretations or assumptions, considering alternatives, and asking ourselves questions about whether our situation is as horrible or catastrophic as it may seem. When it comes to loneliness, it can be helpful to first identify the experience of loneliness, the emotions, and the thoughts that go along with it. Then, checking the facts involves objectively observing and describing the situation that seems to be bringing up feelings of loneliness. You might, for example, be alone watching television in your home, feeling intense loneliness. You might say, “It’s Thursday evening, 7 PM, and I am in my apartment with no one else around watching TV. I feel sad and lonely.” Another step would be to identify thoughts related to the situation. For example: “I don’t have anyone to spend time with. All I have to look forward to are many evenings sitting around alone. I will always be alone. Nobody would notice if I were to drop off the face of the earth.” Once these thoughts are identified, it can be helpful to think of alternative thoughts about the situation. You don’t always have to immediately believe the alternatives. Simply coming up with alternatives is a way to practice flexibility in your thinking. Indeed, some cognitive behavioural therapists believe that the most important outcome of cognitive therapy is greater flexibility in thinking. Some alternatives to these thoughts could include, “I’m fortunate to have leisure time to watch my favourite show. I have close friends and loved ones who love and respect me even if I’m not with them right now. Although I don’t like being alone, this gives me an opportunity to learn how to simply be with myself. Just because I’m alone this evening doesn’t mean I  will always be alone. I can handle being alone this evening, and I’m going to try to make the most of it.” Many of these alternatives involve what we call reappraisal, or thinking about the difficulty of a situation in a different way. Reappraisal also can involve thinking differently about your ability to cope with a situation. If you struggle with loneliness, as we all do from time to time, see if it helps to first identify feelings and thoughts related to loneliness, and then observe and describe the situation, and try to use the skill of checking the facts to reappraise the situation. See if this takes the edge off the loneliness and maybe even opens up opportunities that you hadn’t noticed. ~ Alexander L. Chapman

Loneliness Part 1

14 Oct

Many people we see struggle with loneliness. Sometimes, they’re alone more often than they would like. At other times, they feel lonely regardless of whether they’re around other people. Yet another challenge is that people sometimes go to great lengths to avoid loneliness. Despite the pervasiveness of loneliness as a complaint among people seeking help for psychological difficulties, and indeed among many of us in the broader community, very little work has been done to better understand loneliness and how to help people with it.

One starting point would be to define loneliness. Is it a feeling? Is it a thinking pattern? Is it a mix of both? Or, is it a fact? Dictionary definitions of loneliness tend to emphasize a sense of sadness, a reaction to loss or isolation, etc. My personal opinion is that loneliness is usually combination of emotions and thoughts. A person could, for example, feel sad without feeling lonely if she or he had no thoughts of being disconnected or isolated from others. If, however, sadness comes along with thoughts of being isolated, alone, etc., then the experience might be a lot more like loneliness. On the other hand, some situations might naturally lead to a sense of loneliness, such as being stranded alone in the wilderness or having no friends or loved ones. It’s probably not necessary to think that you’re alone if you are in these situation. Many of us would probably feel lonely regardless of what we are thinking. That said, how we think about being alone probably influences how horrible the experience actually is. Being a parent and busy professional, I am rarely alone in my home or office. When I am alone, I experience it as a positive thing. I might think, “Finally, I’m alone!” If I construed being alone differently, such as, “This is horrible. I can’t take this,” I would probably feel quite lonely, and it would be miserable. That’s not to say that, if you struggle with loneliness, it’s all in your head. If, however, thinking plays a role in how we experience loneliness, strategies to change thinking patterns might help.  ~Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.

Collective Effort, Helping, and Values

5 Oct

My son was asking me the other day why our relatively meagre donation to the Terry Fox Foundation should make any difference at all in the grand scheme of things. Many people donate to this and other funds geared toward fighting cancer, and the absence of any individual donation, with the notable exception of those who donate enormous amounts, shouldn’t make much of a difference. Indeed, this is probably true of most of the things we do to either help others or improve our living situation on the planet. Does it really make a difference on a global scale if I decide to run the water a little less? Or, if I walk versus drive to get some work done at the local Starbucks? On a global, galactic, or universal scale, probably not. If we were to make everyday life decisions based on how much of an impact we individually have, we might simply give up worrying about anything we do. It would be quite easy to become fixated on our own insignificance and just decide to do nothing. But, it is amazing what could happen if millions, if not billions, of people were to make small changes in their behaviour. The collective effort of many people toward an important goal can result in changes with huge consequences. Think of the zombies in the show, The Walking Dead. How on earth could these mentally vegetative, slow moving, stiff-legged creatures have taken over the world? They can barely even figure out how to open a door. But, there are so many of them that, collectively, they have managed to wreak havoc.

OK, so what does this have to do with emotions, psychology, or coping skills? Well, in DBT, we often teach people skills to clarify and act according to their value system. One could easily argue that there’s no point in bothering to act according to our values, or even bothering to help others (if that’s one of your values), because of the relatively and in insignificant impact we have individually. I think that perspective would be missing the point of these skills. As I have probably mentioned in a previous blog, value-oriented goals are accomplished by simply engaging in behaviour consistent with one’s values. This behaviour might not work out. You might try to help someone, and simply cause more problems. You might be working on the value of becoming more independent and repeatedly hit a number of roadblocks. You might value power and money but never truly earn any significant status or income. You might want to change the environment, but all your efforts may have vanishingly small effects on global warming. Fortunately, that’s OK. Acting in accordance with our values can still enhance our lives and help us build a strong emotional foundation. Filling your life with seemingly insignificant but highly valued behaviour can enhance your sense of meaning and well-being even if your behaviour has little discernable impact. If you’re working on building up valued behavior, look for every opportunity to do these small things that are consistent with your values. Avoid measuring success simply based on the results of your actions. Look for every opportunity to engage in small actions that fit you value system. You’re successful in working on your values if you are simply doing things that are important to you.

In Love With Your Smartphone? Part 3

4 Oct

A more disturbing trend that appears to be afoot is that smart phones and other electronic devices seem to be eroding wonder and interest in the environment around us. As with some of my comments in this particular blog series, an important caveat is that there has been little research on this phenomenon. That said, I think many of us have probably observed children and teens glued to their devices on walks, during hikes, at beautiful beaches, while watching soccer games in person (even when it’s their own team), and so on.

In an article in the Vancouver Sun, published on September 2nd, 2016, high school counsellor Calvin White wrote, “There is also a looming issue in terms of kids feeling at ease relating to and exploring the external world around them. On field trips, instead of a “Wow!” at an opulent opera hall, a sublime jazz concert, an avenue of grand architecture, or stunning natural beauty, there is more often a muted, “Yeah, it’s OK. ”

Yet, if you listen to youth talking about games or apps, they often are bubbling over with excitement. Further, I have observed that many children seem to have lost (or perhaps never fully developed) the capacity to play in the absence of electronics. Being a parent, I’ve observed many playdates in which the children seem to give lip service to regular, old-fashioned play, while they wait desperately for the time when they are allowed to turn on their devices. And, how can we blame them? The highly stimulating images and sounds, complex games that give them a sense of mastery and control, and the related social bonding experiences are awfully hard to compete with. What troubles me as both a parent and a psychologist is that there does not seem to be much concern about these issues among the agencies or organizations that could help to mitigate the downsides of electronics use among youth. Again referring to Calvin White’s excellent article, it seems as if schools are unwilling to implement reasonable restrictions on smart phones are other devices, out of concern that parents will be displeased. Apparently, it is normative these days for youth to remain in regular contact with their parents throughout the school day via text or phone calls. While one could imagine this being an example of strong attachment to parents and the presence of a secure base, is all of this contact really necessary? On the one or two occasions on which I had to communicate with my parents during school (only when I became violently ill), I simply went to the main office at my high school and made a phone call. I’m not sure that I understand the urgency to remain in constant contact with one’s children during the school day. On another, related matter, in some provinces, distracted driving (caused primarily by smartphone use) causes more deaths than intoxicated driving. Government officials, however, have yet to commit to any movement toward parity in the legal consequences of distracted vs. intoxicated driving. In any case, many of these issues are so new that it’s understandable that finding helpful ways to adapt and manage the risks and benefits of electronic devices is a work in progress. I think one thing we can do is find a way to bring a greater focus on mindfulness to our use of electronic devices. I will discuss this in a future blog.

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.