Sunday, July 27, 2014
Saturday, July 26, 2014
ONE of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is “super busy,” “crazy busy” or “insanely busy.” Nobody is just “fine” anymore.
When people aren’t super busy at work, they are crazy busy exercising, entertaining or taking their kids to Chinese lessons. Or maybe they are insanely busy playing fantasy football, tracing their genealogy or churning their own butter.
And if there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device. So it’s worth noting a study published last month in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.
“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”
The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.
Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.
It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.
It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia.
“One explanation why people keep themselves so busy and would rather shock themselves is that they are trying to avoid that kind of negative stuff,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “It doesn’t feel good if you’re not intrinsically good at reflecting.”
The comedian Louis C.K. has a riff that’s been watched nearly eight million times on YouTube in which he describes that not-good feeling. “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”
But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.
“It’s like we’re all in this addicted family where all this busyness seems normal when it’s really harmful,” said Stephanie Brown, a psychologist in Silicon Valley and the author of “Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster — and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down.” “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way, but it’s the opposite.”
Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, she said, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.
Studies further suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind,” said Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist with the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy in Rome, who studies the interplay of self-reflection and empathy. “Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”
Researchers have also found that an idle mind is a crucible of creativity. A number of studies have shown that people tend to come up with more novel uses for objects if they are first given an easy task that allows their minds to wander, rather than a more demanding one.
“Idle mental processing encourages creativity and solutions because imagining your problem when you aren’t in it is not the same as reality,” said Jonathan Smallwood, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of York, in England. “Using your imagination means you are in fact rethinking the problem in a novel way.”
Perhaps that’s why Google offers its employees courses called “Search Inside Yourself” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” which include instruction on mindfulness meditation, where the goal is to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than ignore or repress them. It’s in the company’s interest because it frees up employees’ otherwise embattled brain space to intuit end users’ desires and create products to satisfy them.
“I have a lot of people who come in and want to learn meditation to shut out thoughts that come up in those quiet moments,” said Sarah Griesemer, a psychologist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. “But allowing and tolerating the drifting in of thoughts is part of the process.” Her patients, mostly hard-charging professionals, report being more productive at work and more energetic and engaged parents.
To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally,” said Dr. Kross of Michigan. “The data clearly shows that you can use language to almost trick yourself into thinking your problems are happening to someone else.”
Hard as they sometimes are, negative feelings are a part of everyone’s life, arguably more so if you are crazy busy. But it’s those same deep and troubling feelings, and how you deal with them, that make you the person you are. While busyness may stanch welling sadness, it may also limit your ability to be overcome with joy.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Teenage suicides: Warning signs and how to deal with it
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January 22, 2010 16:40 IST
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Counsellors speak out about the recent spate of student suicides in the city, tell you how to identify warning signs and how to deal with depression. Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
Priya Dutta's voice has a soothing lilt to it. The 24-year-old has answered the phone on the first ring and hears you out patiently before speaking out herself.
When she speaks, she doesn't sound didactic, nor does she tell you what you should do. Instead she lets her callers come to their conclusions. It's what she's been trained for.
Dutta is a tele-psychologist working with the new suicide prevention helpline in Mumbai (022-25706000). The line, which has been functional for the last five-odd months, has come into the limelight after the city's municipal corporation tied up with it and the ever-hungry mass media lapped up the story of this unique helpline that reaches out to patients in the middle of the night, literally!
The helpline has been receiving over 70 calls each day. If experts are to be believed, the number is expected to rise as the exam dates draw closer. From January right up to March each year, helplines such as the one Dutta works for get crazy busy. The numbers drop for a month or so before the graduation exams begin from April and last up to May. This is also the time when most of the exam results are declared across Maharashtra.
When we ask Dutta about the kind of stress that kids may be facing, she has nothing new to offer. 'Parental pressure', 'peer pressure', 'personal ambitions', 'stiff competition' are phrases we've all heard of and things that we as children perhaps faced too.
Ironically, these are the very issues that are troubling today's young children and teens. Three more students committed suicide on Monday, taking the toll to over 27 in less than a month.
Dutta is among the 400-odd psychologists in the city who are perplexed with the issue. With exams approaching this is perhaps the 'peak season'. But never before have so many young students decided to end their lives in an almost domino effect.
Dr Arun John, the Executive Vice President of Vandrevala Foundation and Dutta's boss, has been pleading with newspaper editors to avoid running suicide-related stories on their front pages. "This is a copycat effect," he says, "Children often perceive these kids as their heroes and want to emulate them."
John tells us that his helpline had been equipped to handle 40 calls and has the infrastructure to take about 100 calls each day. From the time it took off in August 2009, the numbers are steadily increasing.
The key, as most psychologists would agree, is to identify the signs. John says that a suicidal person has just a tenth of a second to tide over that feeling of utter dismay before s/he takes the final step. He adds that it is also possible to identify early signs.
How to identify early signs and deal with them
According to John, one of the signs of suicidal persons includes withdrawal. This, he says is most common and must be identified as quickly as possible.
"The teen years are a difficult time for children and they need to be counselled about the changes happening in their bodies. If your friend or child has suddenly withdrawn into a shell, one must try and reach out to him/her."
He adds that while the basic issues that teens and young students face haven't changed much, there is much more cutthroat competition. "There is increased pressure from parents and there is increased pressure from the peer group. No one wants to be left behind. Kids these days desperately want to be in the top five of everything. It isn't possible. When personal ambitions are not fulfilled, things can go drastically wrong."
Sustained bouts of depression are also classic signs. Dutta says that these include depressive talks about loss of interest in the world and sporadic mentions of death.
She adds, "You also have to pay attention to what they say. If someone says, 'I won't see you tomorrow,' chances are that s/he is contemplating suicide. In such cases, you have to talk to the person and find out what is bothering him/her. If you can foresee it but don't know how to handle it, get someone to talk to them"
Dutta continues, "Check the shopping list. If it includes unusual objects like a rope or rat poison or pills and they are unable to justify why they have bought it, you have a red flag right there." Lending a patient ear is perhaps the first in a long list of solutions. Suicide helplines are there for a reason. Get them to talk to your friend/child or get someone your child is comfortable with to have a word with him/her.
Parents who lost their 19-year-old daughter a few years ago but prefer not to be named told us that she had been browsing various Internet websites to find out ways to kill herself. She took the drastic step when they were out one day. They discovered her Internet browsing history much after she died. They say the girl showed absolutely no signs of depression or panic and had hardly anticipated this from her. Ironically, she was an undergraduate student of psychology. While policing your child's Internet history might not be advisable, a random check might give you an insight into what is going on in his/her mind.
According to John, however, one of the best tell-tale signs of a person wanting to commit suicide is when s/he starts giving away his/her things. He points out that no one wants baggage and killing oneself is perhaps the only way they can see themselves getting rid of the pressures and problems. "In such situations, many of them prefer giving off their belongings. If someone is doing that simply out of the blue, it means there is something brewing inside his/her head."
Psychologists such as Dr Sadiya Raval believe that these are just some of the most recognisable signs and it is important to be tuned in to the person next to you to know what might be going on in his/her head. She says that while the person's friends and family can do quite a bit to counsel and save the day, it is important that the person take control of his/her life.
How to deal with depression and stress
Raval believes that as a society we have created stereotypes of successful people and we invariably are chasing that elusive ideal, or are pushing our children to chase it instead. Very often this leads to either or both of the following things -- the child ends up being an underachiever or s/he loses her true calling. In either case, the child will not grow up to be a happy individual.
Raval says that it is pertinent for one to understand one's limitations. "If you are not cut out for engineering or medicine," she says, "it doesn't make sense to study it."
The practicing psychologist shares an instance of a young girl who moved from a small town to Mumbai. "Back there she was at the top of her class, excelling in everything. She was someone who teachers encouraged other kids to emulate. When she moved to Mumbai, she was in a school where there were many achievers like her. Suddenly she found herself lost amidst the bright kids in her class and went into a depression."
Communicating is a two-way process. It is as important for children and young adults to reach out to the people around them, as it is for those people to understand their needs.Johnson Thomas, Director of Aasra, a suicide-prevention helpline says that many parents seem to compensate for the lack of emotional support by giving material gifts. "Children and teenagers need emotional support even if they might not show it. Be there for them, talk to them and understand what they really want," he says.
John feels that thinking positive holds the key. It is something his tele-psychologists practice too. When they get a call from someone who wants to end his/her life they try giving what they call 'positive self talk'. "Besides thinking positive it is important to keep oneself busy. Very often, not having anything to do puts you into a deeper depression," he says. "Watch television, go for a walk or engage yourself in an activity that will keep you engaged."
Dutta adds, "The other thing we tell young callers is to stop worrying about the outcomeof any exam. Very often we get calls from kids who have forgotten their formulae and have a big exam the next morning. We tell them to just take it easy because last minute cramming is of little or no help. When you don't panic and start writing, things usually come to you."
John also says that good sleep is the key to good mental health. "We advise young students to sleep adequately and eat well. A good balance of work and rest is very important. Do yoga, practice meditation."
Even as Rawal agrees with John and Dutta, she is somewhat sceptical of how much a young student actually puts into practice. "How many students practice yoga?" she questions. "At the end of the day the person must be able to believe in oneself and have a support system -- a group of people s/he can turn to in times of distress."
When we ask Raval if she believes that suicide is an escapist's way out, she replies in the positive. "Many of us want to escape from any uncomfortable situation. One must understand that there is always a way out of any mess and that one always has a choice of fighting back. It finally boils down to that," she says. "You need to be independent and if you are a parent, learn to let go and let your child stand on his/her feet. Give your children freedom and let them take responsibility so they can affect change in themselves."