The Ineffable Madness of War

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Over 2.2 million American service members have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since September 11, 2001.

Detailed statistics have been recently released that reveal the enormous cost in lives and health of these two ongoing American wars:

  • The US Veteran’s Administration (VA) has diagnosed 167,000 new cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 195,000 cases of depressive conditions and affective psychoses, and 103,000 cases of anxiety disorders among these troops.
  • The suicide rate in the Army and Marine Corps has, for the first time, equaled that of the US civilian population.
  • An estimated 18 US veterans are dying by suicide each day, according to the VA.
  • In 2009 throughout the Army, 160 soldiers died by suicide, at the same time as 160 soldiers died while serving in Iraq, i.e. one suicide for each combat casualty.
  • In 2009 worldwide another 146 Army soldiers died from unintentional drug overdoses, murders, or from other causes that the Army labels as risky behaviors.
  • The Army reported over 1700 known suicide attempts in 2009.
  • The suicide rate in 2009 for the US Marines was 24 suicides per 100,000 marines, which was even higher than the 22 suicides per 100,000 rate of the US Army.

I’m Bored: Does This Mean I’m Stressed?

aaEscher_RelativityBoredom, like pain, is an entirely subjective experience mediated by personality, needs, wants, past history and contingent upon one’s perceptions of the experience, and thus very difficult to describe with precision and quantify. The state of boredom has been variously described as a dullness of the mind, mental inertia, sloth, or ennui. Its characteristic features are a lack of interest in the ordinary and a lack of delight in the extraordinary. The forcibly approximate label of boredom often changes into something more precise when it can be examined without prejudice. Often, there’s an unpleasant or stressful feeling lurking in the shadows just behind boredom. Individual perception and the subjective assessment of a situation play a significant role, as the following little parable illustrates.

Sometime ago, in the Middle Ages, a traveler approached a group of stonecutters and asked, ‘‘What are you doing?’’ The first responded, ‘‘I’m cutting stone. It’s dull work but it pays the bills.’’ The second stonecutter said, ‘‘I’m the best stonecutter in the land. Look at the smoothness of this stone, how perfect the edges are.’’ The third man pointed to a foundation several yards away and said, ‘‘I’m building a cathedral.’’

Boredom is perhaps most vividly experienced at work, although its impact is rather more ubiquitous. When a work task (be it that of the chief executive or the firefighter) does not provide the opportunity to sufficiently use or develop one’s skills and abilities, most individuals can feel undervalued and underutilized, and therefore bored.

Boredom, Stress and Aggression

In time, boredom may result in apathy and lead to poor morale, irritation, depression, job dissatisfaction, and absenteeism. In more sustained cases, the stress of frustrated ambition, unfulfilled goals, and unmet expectations can cause reactions that degenerate into destructive behaviors. Examples of destructive coping strategies against boredom include workplace vandalism, sabotage, alcohol and drug abuse, and binge-eating habits.

Perhaps the most important source of aggression and destructiveness today is to be found in the “bored” character. Boredom, in this sense, is not due to external circumstances such as the absence of any stimulation, as in the experiments in sensory deprivation or in an isolation cell in prison. It is a subjective factor within the person, the inability to respond to things and people around him with real interest. In some respects, the bored character resembles those in chronic, neurotic depressed states. There is a lack of appetite for life, a lack of any deep interest in anything or anybody, a feeling of powerlessness and resignation; personal relations–including erotic and sexual ones–are thin and flat, and there is little joy or contentment. Yet, in contrast to the depressed, chronically bored persons do not tend to torture themselves by feelings of guilt or sin, they are not centered around their own unhappiness and suffering, and their facial expressions are very different from those of depressed persons. They have little incentive to do anything, to plan, and at most can experience thrill but no joy. To use another concept, they are extremely alienated. For these reasons it seems preferable to establish the concept of the chronically bored character as distinct from the depressed character. Milder forms of characterological boredom are usually not conscious, as long as the boredom can be compensated for by ever-changing stimuli. This seems to be the case with a large number of people in industrial society for whom the compulsive consumption of cars, sex, travel, liquor or drugs has this compensatory function, provided that the stimuli either have a strong physiological effect, like liquor and drugs, or are constantly changing: new cars, new sexual partners, new places to travel to, etc. This consumption pattern keeps people from nervous–and industry from economic–breakdowns, and precisely for this reason they are addicted to consumption. — The Theory of Aggression, written by Eric Fromm to introduce his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, first published in The New York Times Magazine, February 1972.

The Time Dimension of Boredom

lastminuteResearch studies on boredom have uncovered that easily bored individuals generally perceive time as passing very slowly, paradoxically, even when they are busy performing a task. It is not surprising to learn that institutionalized individuals, whose days are highly regulated and monotonous, say they experience time as painfully slow. Individuals suffering from depression often say in clinical interviews that they perceive a slowing of time. Cancer patients, who experience high levels of anxiety, have been found to routinely overestimate the duration of treatments and report that hours and days never seem to go by fast enough. In general terms, these studies highlight the distress felt in situations when individuals are not emotionally or cognitively engaged, which draws attention away from meaningful thoughts and actions and focuses it on the passage of time.

Is Ours the Age of Boredom?

It has been said that today’s pervasive boredom is a manifestation of cultural disenchantment. The great danger of boredom, as Fromm surmised, is that it can lead to pursuing irrational thrills in an attempt to relieve it. German philosopher Martin Heidegger, best known for his existential and phenomenological explorations of the concepts of being and time, sought to explain boredom not as a subjective intrapsychic experience whose possible causes might be a matter of interest to psychology, but as a mood in which time becomes the focus of attention. Heidegger distinguished between three forms of boredom: The first, being bored by something, is the most common and easiest to understand. In the second, becoming bored with something, it is not always easy to determine what it is that is boring. The third, when nothing in particular is boring per se, is a profound, unexplainable boredom with existence itself.

In profound boredom, utter anonymity of self, wholesale meaninglessness of world, and total unrelatedness are fused together to create an existential extreme.—Martin Heidegger

Boredom, Stress and Health

Chronic boredom, and the chronic stress it provokes, are associated with undesirable health outcomes. Boredom often complicates and sometimes compromises the course and treatment of physical and mental illnesses that require extended care in treatment facilities. A recent study by McWelling identified sustained boredom as a contributor to the onset of postpsychotic mood disturbances, increased risk-taking and substance seeking behaviors, the exacerbation of positive symptoms such as paranoia and hallucinations, changes in distractibility and overall cognitive efficiency, and a hypohedonic state of highly generalized lack of interest. Who said that boredom is not stressful?

Forced to Lie About Stress

aaDelacroix_1852_LaMerADieppeA full 36% say it’s stomach upset, 13% that it’s a cold; 12% claim to have a headache, 6% a medical appointment; 5% blame it on a bad back. The rest cite a variety of reasons, from housing problems to the illness of a loved one or the death of a beloved relative, for not showing up for work. None of it is true. What’s going on? In most cases, nothing more than an intense stress reaction forces 19% of workers to call in sick, yet as many as 93% feel compelled to lie to their boss and coworkers about the real reason for missing work.

Although employees are willing to go to great lengths to cover up their dangerously high stress levels, the vast majority do not like having to lie: 70% say that they long to be able to discuss stress with their employers. While some try, most can’t seem to find the courage to bring it up and remain hopeful that their boss will make the first move and approach them directly when they show signs of strain. Few employers do.

Millions of people experience unmanageable stress at work, and the fact that so many people feel forced to lie about it rather than finding a solution should be a major concern for our businesses. If employees don’t feel they can be honest about the pressures on them, problems that aren’t addressed can quickly snowball into low morale, low productivity and high sick leave. We’d urge employers to encourage a culture of openness at work so they can solve problems now, rather than storing up problems for the future.–Paul Farmer, Mind Research

These sobering statistics were published in a study released by the British mental health research group Mind, an organization which campaigns vigorously to promote and protect good mental health and advocates that people with experience of mental distress are treated fairly, positively and with respect.

Not being able to come clean clean on workplace stress claims its toll: 62% of employees feel their bosses aren’t doing enough to look after the well-being of their staff and resent this apparent neglect. One in five becomes physically ill from stress, but only 10% seek help from their doctor or from a counselor on specific issues of stress. Doctors and therapists are often told a different reason, at least initially, for the symptoms the individual may be experiencing.

Stress-related symptoms still appear to carry a stigma in the workplace, as stress may be associated, at least in Western cultures, with a negative perception of one’s ability to manage a heavy workload. In this day and age, the fear of being perceived as a stressed out (and therefore unproductive) worker may have the power to trump honesty and reasonable self-care.

People Who Lie Under Stress And How to Tell If They Are

tborig17pe People who make public statements are generally expected to tell the truth, and most of the time that’s the case. Severe stress, however, can override ethical obligations. People in public positions, such as CEOs, political figures, athletes, entertainers who are under media or legal scrutiny may and do lie about facts and circumstances. How to tell if and when someone is not telling the truth? Conducted by a team of researchers at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, a detailed analysis of over 29,000 public statements by CEOs made between 2003 and 2007 which turned out to be false or deceptive sheds some light on the process.

Results of the study show that, in general, public figures who are not telling the truth use more references to general knowledge (“as you know”), fewer non-extreme positive emotions words (great, good), and fewer references to ethical values and value creation.  Deceivers use significantly fewer self-references (“I believe,” “I think”), preferring to use more third person plural and impersonal pronouns (“it is believed,” “many people think”), fewer extreme negative emotions words (terrible, disastrous), more extreme positive emotions words (fantastic, terrific), fewer certainty words (“to be specific,” “as a matter of fact”), and fewer hesitations.

This and earlier studies on the language of deception suggest that the use of “I” statements implies an individual’s taking ownership of a statement, whereas covert liars try to dissociate themselves from their words by using general attributions (everyone, everybody, anyone, nobody). Dissociation is also evidenced by a greater use of group references rather than self-references, as for example in saying “we, as a company, believe…” Not surprisingly, liars are less forthcoming with their own opinion than truth-tellers and refer to themselves less often in their stories. In extreme cases, people using deceptive statements may choose to omit references to themselves entirely.

The Liar Unmasked

Behind the words chosen by public figures to deceive their audience, say the researchers, are severe stress, a cognitive effort to misrepresent the facts, an attempt to control the audience’s perception of the liar, and a desire to distance themselves from the situation.

The severe stress experienced by deceivers is a consequence of the guilt they feel and the anxiety of being caught in their deceptive act. The high stress level is manifested not only in their negative comments but also in their negative emotional state, which they may or may not be able to hide from the audience. Because of their guilty feelings and their desire to dissociate themselves from the lie, deceivers are also likely to use general terms and not to refer explicitly to themselves. As a result of this dissociation, their statements are often short, indirect, and evasive.

A cognitive effort is necessary to misrepresent the facts because fabricating a “good” lie is inherently difficult. Especially when a liar has little or no opportunity to prepare or rehearse, his or her verbal statements are likely to lack specific detail and include more general terms. Thus, a liar may sound implausible, vague and non-immediate, telling a story that avoids mentioning any personal experiences.

roger-clemens-congress The attempt to control the audience’s perception of the liars themselves induces them to avoid making any statements that are self-incriminating. As a result, the content of deceptive statements is tightly controlled so that listeners would not easily perceive it to be a lie. To achieve this deception, deceptive statements contain more general, non-specific language, fewer self-references, short statements with little detail, and more irrelevant information as a substitute for information that the deceiver does not want to provide. For example, a liar will speak with greater caution, using a greater number of unique words to restate the same information. In contrast, truth-tellers often just repeat the information they have provided, using the exact same words.

The attempt to control may also lead to a very smooth speech when a narrative is prepared and rehearsed in advance, whereas truth-tellers often forget (or adapt) what they have said previously. In contrast to the cognitive effort perspective, the attempted control implies that the deceiver’s well-prepared answers are likely to contain fewer hesitations, more specific statements, and a reduced number of general claims.

In their desire to distance themselves from the situation, liars often appear to lack conviction because they feel uncomfortable when they lie, or because they have not personally experienced the supposed claims. This implies that liars use more general terms, fewer self-references, and shorter answers.

Something Needs to Be Done About Hostility!

Ginetto at Stresshacker.com Hostility is stressful, both ways. To giver and receiver alike, hostility metes out its toxic charge of badness. Far from being a true relief for frustration, pent-up anger, or unexpressed emotion, a sudden explosion of hostility merely releases a burst of energy and briefly discharges some muscle tension. Beyond these ephemeral effects, it is hard to find a good justification for hostility in everyday situations. So why is it so prevalent?

Two reasons account for hostility’s “popularity.” The first is the genetically programmed aggression instinct, which, in its proper setting and situation, can be useful (in a competitive physical sport like football), or downright vital (in combat situations, to fight off an aggressor, or in other situations of danger when a calm and relaxed demeanor would be clearly out of place). We can be aggressive and hostile by design, but we are also given a brain that helps mitigate the limbic system’s rage of emotions, and the amygdala’s watchfulness against aggressors, real or perceived as they may be.

The second reason for the pervasive presence of hostility is a misfiring of the very structures of the brain that are supposed to help us regulate it. Poor regulation of negative emotions can unleash hostility. Notoriously so, antisocial personalities have little to no self-regulation of hostility and most of the times this lands them in jail. Many more individuals, though, fall short of law-breaking hostility but still exhibit plenty of it in everyday situations (behind the wheel of their car, while waiting in line, with customer service people, with their spouses, children, friends) to make life more stressful for themselves and for anyone they come in contact with.

Steve Slater on Stresshacker.com At the other end of the spectrum, hostility, while present as a natural emotion, can be sublimated into a more productive and less threatening display of displeasure with someone or a situation.  Well-regulated hostility and aggressive instinct become assertiveness, standing up for one’s right, engaging in an passionate discussion. It can also sublimate into artistic pursuit, an all-out workout at the gym, or humor. A recent example of the latter was portrayed by JetBlue flight attendant Jeff Slater. Justifiably enraged by an unjustifiably aggressive passenger, Mr. Slater regulated down his hostility, expressed himself aloud on the plane’s PA system, grabbed a couple of beers, activated the emergency slide, slid down to the tarmac, ran for his car and drove home.

Hostility and (Bad) Health

Negative emotional states, such as anger and hostility, when they persist over time and become chronic, can negatively impact health. The risk to health comes through a number of mechanisms, including engaging in high-risk behavior (verbally provoking, physically attacking others), loss of social support (no one wants to be with a chronically hostile individual), and social isolation.

Chronic negative emotions also induce a semi-permanent activation of the stress reaction and cause sustained systemic inflammation, both of which increase the risk of disease. Research on hostility and aggressive personality has clearly established a link between these emotional states and heart disease, heart attacks, and cardiac-related mortality. Hostility not only contributes to a higher incidence and increased severity of heart disease, but is also related to symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including insulin resistance.

What Can Be Done?

Taking a page from Mr. Slater’s playbook, humor is one of the highest levels of sublimation that can be achieved in down-regulating aggression and hostility. Other forms of self-regulation of hostility (which incidentally are also ways of dealing with stressful situations in general) can be listed as follows:

  • Anticipation (the ability to anticipate the consequences of hostility and evaluate alternative responses)
  • Affiliation (turning to others for help and support, initiating a dialogue instead of a confrontation)
  • Altruism (taking into account the needs of others, and being able to contain rather than meet their aggression head on)
  • Humor (finding the amusing and the ironic in the situation)
  • Self-assertion (expressing feelings and thoughts directly and openly, but without resorting to verbal or physical violence)
  • Self-observation (reflecting on one’s own reactions and regulating them appropriately, before the explosion occurs)
  • Sublimation (channeling negative feelings into positive behaviors, i.e. taking it out on gym equipment, a good run, a distracting activity)
  • Suppression (intentionally avoiding catastrophic, negative and pessimistic thoughts that can lead to aggression).

Smoking Relieves Stress: True or False?

Whistler_1862_White-girlFalse, according to a newly published study on the effect of stopping smoking on perceived stress. Even though many smokers believe that smoking helps them cope with stress, and that stopping smoking would deprive them of an effective stress management tool, this turns out not to be the case, except in the very short term.

This long-term study conducted jointly by the University of London, the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry project has provided more robust data on post-cessation changes in perceived stress levels. The individuals studied were a group of 469 smokers admitted to the hospital after a heart attack or for coronary bypass surgery. They were seen upon admission and completed a 1-year follow-up. Of the patients, 41% maintained abstinence from smoking for 1 year, while the others did not. Abstainers recorded a significantly larger decrease in perceived stress than those who continued to smoke.

The conclusions reached by the research team were that in highly addicted smokers who report that smoking helps them cope with stress, giving up smoking significantly reduced their stress levels. Among those who did not quit, regardless of any immediate effects smoking may have on their perceived stress, it was shown to generate or aggravate their negative emotional states.

The results are being used to reassure smokers who may be worried that quitting may deprive them of a valuable stress-reduction resource. Quitting is better than continuing to smoke, from all health-related points of view, including stress.

Is Stress Entertainment?

Avatar at Stresshacker.com The rep is that stress is to be avoided. The reality is otherwise. Stress is avidly watched, read, and heard because, contrary to what we think we believe about it, stress is entertaining. Why?

The truth is, stress sells—in movies, books, quiz shows, talent shows, and crime scene dramas. Not always and not for everyone, to be sure, but in vast numbers of book plots, screenplays, TV storylines, in radio plays, and theater plays, stress reigns supreme.

The surface reason is that stressful situations, when they are happening to someone else as in most forms of entertainment, hold our attention. Peaceful, restful, and relaxing situations, when we watch them happening to someone else, generally do not. There is not much fun in reading about someone having a really quiet day when nothing much is happening, but isn’t it great to watch a-thrill-every-second action on the big screen? Indeed, there is a deeper, genetically programmed reason why stress can be fun.

What’s the Fun in Stress?

To understand what’s happening, we must step back and consider the mechanics of stress. When we perceive a threat (a risk, a danger, a challenge), our mind is instantly alerted by the stress reaction that we experience in the body. Most often, this consists of increased heart beat, elevated blood pressure, muscle tension, and a release of excitatory hormones into the blood stream (cortisol, epinephrine, adrenaline), plus a host of other biological changes that very quickly get us ready for action. Now, what is interesting here is that, in addition to mobilizing the body, the excitatory hormones also generate a certain amount of pleasurable sensations. Is this nature’s little joke, or what?

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