‘Tis the Season … for Reflection

I’m finding it hard to believe that Christmas is only a few days away and it’s only two weeks until the end of the year. Where did this year go?
The space between Christmas and the end of the year can be a great time to take a step back and reflect on the ups and downs of the past year, see what lessons there are to be learned, and to create some plans for the coming year.

For those who really want to get their teeth into this, I recommend Jinny Ditzler’s book Your Best Year Yet!, which takes you through the process using ten specific steps. Here are a selection of those steps to get you started…

First, make an extensive list of all you’ve achieved during 2013. Include absolutely everything, big or small. If you do nothing else at the end of the year I strongly recommend you do this. You’ll be surprised at the number of things you have achieved and how good it feels to acknowledge them.

Secondly, consider anything that didn’t go as well as you’d hoped — or things that you’d intended to do but didn’t. What can you learn from this? Can you take this learning forward into 2014 to ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes again?

Thirdly, consider what you want your focus to be in the coming year. What are your priorities? What’s really important to you? What successes do you want to build on? Are there things in your life that you’d like to drop altogether? Is it time to take a risk and make some radical changes? Or perhaps 2014 will be the year when you really step out of your comfort zone and go for the big goal.

Having done that, come up with a list of your Top Ten Goals for 2014. Ditzler suggests that when pondering these goals it can help to consider all the different roles you play in your life (partner, parent, business owner, employee, community member, sports team member, volunteer etc) and link your goals to these roles. Don’t forget to include goals that relate to your role as ‘yourself’ as well … This helps to make sure you get a good balance between work and rest.

Whatever you decide I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.

Annabel Sutton

ICF Professional Certified Coach
Member International Coach Federation
Email:  annabel@annabelsutton.com
Web:   www.annabelsutton.com
Web:   www.52waystotransformyourlife.com 

The Seasonal Stress Buster

Oh, for the good old days when people would stop Christmas shopping when they ran out of money. –Author Unknown

I’m not sure where this year has gone, but all of a sudden Christmas is here. With so much going on at this time of year it’s quite common to feel stressed and rushed off our feet. If you’re juggling a million different things, here’s a brilliant time management technique which might help.

I wish I could say that I thought of this technique myself, but must give credit to Time Management guru Mark Forster. According to Mark, we work much more effectively when we do things in short, concentrated bursts. This is definitely true for me. If I sit down at my computer to check emails I’m very likely to still be there an hour later. But if I know I’ve only got 15 minutes to do the task I’ll be considerably more productive.

So, using this principle, if you’ve got several jobs to do, write them down and assign each one a time limit (from 5 – 30 minutes). Set a kitchen timer, start the first task and when the timer goes you must stop and go onto the next one. Again set the timer for the allotted time, work on the task until the timer goes off and move on to the next. Don’t worry if the task isn’t finished; you can go back to the beginning once you’ve worked your way through the list.

This is the best time management technique I know and it works equally well when you have a big chunky job to do. Get stuck into the job for half an hour, have a break/do something else for ten minutes, then go back to it.

At this time of year, with so many demands on our time, this technique will help you to get everything done in the shortest time — leaving you more time to enjoy the seasonal activities.

2012 has been an unusually challenging year for many of us and so as it draws to a close I wish you a healthy and Happy Christmas and all good things in the New Year.

Annabel Sutton
ICF Professional Certified Coach
Author of 52 Ways to Transform Your Life

Connect with Annabel on LinkedIn: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/annabelsutton. Book a FREE Coaching Consultation with Annabel. Find out more about Life Coaching.

Is Time a Ferrari or a Donkey Cart?

Time can be, and indeed is, for many people a source of stress. The perception of time or the use we make of the time we have can present a challenge to the mind and be causes of emotional distress. At times, and for some people, time flies by Ferrari-fast. For others, it seems to inch forward in fits and starts, perhaps more akin to the pace of a reluctant donkey.

The Perception of Time

timeimage Rationally, we understand that time passes at a substantially fixed pace with no perceptible variation. The earth rotates around the sun at a precise speed, given or take a few mph’s, and the sun in turn moves around the galaxy at an equally precise speed, give or take a few kmh’s. Our whole universe expands at a measurable rate, as scientists who have been able to measure it tell us. Since the invention of clocks, humans have acquired the ability to slice daylight and nighttime intro those discrete units of measure we call hours. The calendar helps us group hours into days, months, weeks and years. Humans have also agreed among themselves that years can be grouped into decades, centuries and millennia. And that’s how we generally understand, rationally, the passage of time as an objective and measurable phenomenon.

How we perceive the passing of time, however, ends up being far more subjective and somewhat unpredictable. Certain slices of time can appear to one individual to be passing more slowly than for another. Within our own personal experience, there are hours or days or longer periods in which time seems to speed up (especially when we are experiencing something pleasurable), and others in which it seems to slow down (think dentist chair). Excluding any chemical influence that may alter our perception (e.g., medication, alcohol or other artificial or natural mind-altering substances), these different “speeds” of time can indeed be puzzling and seemingly without explanation. In fact, these perceptions can and do induce stress and anxiety about having too little time, or boredom and restlessness about having too much of it. What is happening to the objectivity and predictability of time when it is perceived through our emotions?

The Emotion of Time

Age and one’s mental and emotional state appear to have something to do with the emotional perception of time. Most people recall feeling that time passed very slowly in their childhood and, indeed, young people confirm that, for them, time tends to be perceived as crawling along. Conversely, older people are often heard complaining that time seems to zip along very fast and that, “it seems like yesterday that I was having such and such” or, “where is the day-week-month-year gone? It’s already Christmas!”

In times of distress, especially if traumatic events are occurring, we might perceive every second of time with heightened sharpness, which can contribute to the perception that “time stands still” when something dramatic is happening. The opposite is produced by very positive feelings of pleasure and enjoyment, that are often said to be “way too short” in duration. Indeed, a week’s vacation can go by in just a flash (perception-wise), whereas a week in school or at work may seem like it’s never going to end. Both last exactly one week, by the way.

The Best Way To Handle Time

The best approach to time, emotionally, is to just let it pass. Paying too much attention to the passing of time is counterproductive. In fact, it can be anxiety-provoking and, in addition, take us either too far forward or too far back and render us unable to enjoy the moment.

Thought stopping, a congitive-behavioral technique, can help in this respect. Whenever we catch ourselves paying too much attention to the passing of time (or rather, to its perceived speed), we can say, “stop!” to our thoughts and divert our attention elsewhere. With practice, we may not completely eliminate our preoccupation with time, but we can minimize its impact on our ability to enjoy the present—which is, as a matter of fact, all that we have to enjoy.

Election Stress: What’s Remarkable

Have you noticed how resilient, how unflappable, how remarkably at ease the Republican candidates seem to be with the ups and downs of the primaries? I see good public stress management in this.  There appears to be an ability to maintain one’s composure in the face of the many gyrations brought on by polls, speculations and actual results, which have made these primaries particularly stressful and also particularly interesting.

Unless one has direct experience of it, it is objectively hard to appreciate the rigors of a national political campaign.  The lack of sleep, poor nutrition, constant travel are hard on the body.  The need to be constantly on, to never let one’s guard down more than so much, to come across as competent and well prepared on anything the candidate may be asked to speak on are hard on the mind.  The relentless demands of the news cycle, the unflinching stare of the media and of the public in general, and the near-constant re-examination of one’s principles, conviction and history are hard on the soul.  There is probably no better image of what stressful circumstances really are about than a candidate for political office on a bus or airplane, exhausted, traveling toward yet another rally, another interview, another stump speech, another event.  And it goes on like this for months and months.

The aging that takes place in office is a well known phenomenon.  In our modern era, we have photographs of presidents taken at all points of their campaign, at inauguration, at midterm, and after they leave office.  It is plain to see the toll that the job takes on the individual’s physical appearance.  Less obvious is the toll that it takes on the mind and on the soul. The fact that we have presidents and ex-presidents who not only do what they are supposed to do, but do it well, and continue to be in good health and function well into their late adulthood is certainly a testament to their resilience and excellent stress management skills.

And so for the candidates, the test begins upon declaring their intention to run for the highest office.  The highly public management of their stress levels begins at that moment and never lets up. If their bid is unsuccessful and their campaign ends, they can return to normality and what they may have to work through is the fallout from having lost their campaign.  Not easy, to be sure, but at least it can be relatively private.  For those who succeed and win primary after primary, or win enough to be a player and stay in the race, the rigors of the campaign will either hone their skills or bring out the lack thereof.

When the last man is finally left standing and he’s elected president of the United States, another even more demanding phase of public stress management begins, never to let up again until the very end of life.  It is remarkable and an object lesson that it can even be done as well as it is by these truly exceptional individuals we call our presidents.

September 11

FlagRigger_EN-US1903695983Memory is learning. The persistence of memory helps us make sense of what has already happened, to hold on to the felt experience of happiness, accomplishment, mistake and pain, so that we can learn what to pursue more eagerly and what to avoid at all cost. Memory is the accumulation of life.

There are many ways of looking at September 11, 2001. We can replay the images of that day in our mind as we would watch a documentary. Many of us can do that, and examine the events as they unfolded from many different points of view. Or, we can re-experience the memories of those events as we would watch a horror movie. Many of us are still beset by the images and the sounds of that day, and are far from being able to just remember what happened. They remember and indeed also relive vividly all the emotions of that day.

911memorialDocumentary memories are transferred to another part of the brain, where they become archival items of experience. Unless they are intentionally recalled, they cause no special emotion. Indeed, the emotions associated with the original events are also memories, much like the sound track attached to a recording.

Traumatic memories never quite make it to the other side of the brain. No intentional recall is necessary, as they are ready to resurface at any moment, given the right trigger. These memories are intrusive, pervasive, they are the stuff of nightmares. The picture of a jetliner flying into one building, the second aircraft flying into its twin… Emotions are far from just a memory: we are back there, at that very moment, heart racing, sweat beads and all.

Freedom_Tower_NewAfter a traumatic event, persistent emotion-laden memories can help foster a syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. The experience never quite goes into the archive. Bits and chunks of it just lie around, waiting to be re-experienced again and again. And so it is for many of our generation with 9/11, as it was for the prior one with the assassination of John or Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King. Earlier than that it was Pearl Harbor, or the long horrors of the Great Depression.

Remembering what we lost that day of September, 10 years ago today—people, buildings, and peace. Will we, who lived through that day, ever truly be able to watch the Towers come down—as a documentary?

Type A and Hi-Tech: A Dangerous Mix

Tower of Babel by Bruegel at Stresshacker.comWhat does the relentless push of technology into our lives do to our ability to manage stress and to our health in general? It depends on the personality. For individuals who have a type A personality, multiple e-mail addresses available from any platform, high-speed anywhere Internet access, smart mobile phones, tablets, and e-readers have enabled even greater flexibility and mobility in teleworking and telecommuting. In effect, traditional boundaries between the different roles at work, in the family, at leisure have been blurred or even removed.

In addition to the advancing technology, economic conditions have made short-term employment, work on time-limited projects, and working two or even three part-time jobs simultaneously increasingly more common.

Type A individuals claim that this new rhythm of life has produced beneficial effects in terms of greater task variety and flexibility. Thanks to these ubiquitous and always-on hardware devices and the software tools they provide, there often is no break of continuity between work and non-work states, between being somewhere dedicated to work activities and being somewhere else, where relationships or relaxation are possible. Again, for the type A personality, this is just fine–at least in theory and by their own admission.

Type A Individuals Thrive…At Their Own Peril?

Type A personality is characterized by an extreme sense of time urgency, frequent impatience with one’s self and others, high competitiveness, and more frequent aggression and/or hostility (either in the form of overt outbursts, or constricted and internalized through tight behavioral control). Clinical evidence indicates that there is at least an increased risk of stress in these individuals due to their proneness to work overload, disruption of natural circadian patterns, role conflicts, lack of time for relationships, for sufficient rest and energy replenishment through sleep or relaxation activities.

This particular personality type, given the current availability of communication and connection devices, appears to thrive in this environment that promotes maximum efficiency, high productivity, a faster pace of work output, and competitiveness.

Is this a competitive advantage for individuals who happen to possess these personality traits, or is this a potential problem? Apparently, higher productivity and efficiency are desirable outcomes. From a business efficiency point of view, they most definitely are. This may explain why significant technological resources are being devoted by an increasing number of companies toward making this always-on-the-job state of affairs a reality for their employees. It is seen as a competitive advantage over other companies (which are fewer and fewer) that shut down at a reasonable hour and do not work on weekends.

Most type A individuals proclaim to “love” this uninterrupted access to the marketplace and the instantaneous availability that is demanded of them.

There are however potentially serious health consequences, unless the individual can set and maintain reasonable and appropriate boundaries.

Type A personality have long been known to be at risk in terms of elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, higher blood lipids, and near-continuous catecholamine (stress hormone) output. Intensive, frequent, and sustained activation of these physiological stress responses can contribute to the atherosclerotic process and to blood clotting. This prolonged state of arousal can cause, with type A behavior, an elevated risk of myocardial infarction. A longitudinal study by Barefoot et al., found that medical students with high scores on the Cook-Medley hostility scale of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)–which would indicate type A personalities– had a six fold increase in mortality when followed up 25 years later, mainly due to coronary heart disease.

The negative psychosocial and socioeconomic factors in which type A behavior appears to thrive is associated with increased risk of serious illness and mortality because of the elevated activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system and the increased secretion of the stress hormone cortisol. A very high workload, such as regularly working more than 10 hours of overtime per week, is also associated with markedly elevated cortisol levels. Prolonged and sustained activity of the HPA system is related to a series of endocrine and metabolic effects, causing, among other things, increased storage of fat in the abdominal region.

It is a mixed blessing, to say the least, for type A personality to see modern technology facilitate and indeed augment their relentless rhythm of activity. Is the risk really worth the reward?

Songs of Self-focus, Social Alienation, Misery

aaKandinsky_YellowRedBlueListening to the lyrics of the most popular songs being played on the radio or downloaded from the web provides an increased understanding of important psychological characteristics of the U.S. population—and of how these characteristics may change in the future. Words used in popular song lyrics are a cultural product that changes along with cultural changes in the individual psychological traits of the population for which the songs are written and by which they are consumed. A new study conducted on U.S. song lyrics published between 1980 and 2007 shows the influence of this heretofore understudied cultural product in ways that reflect psychological transformations in their authors and listeners. The results show that, over a time span of 27 years, changes have occurred in the frequency of words related to self-focus, social disconnection, anger, antisocial behavior, and misery vs. the frequency of words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion.

black-eyed-peas-2The results of the study, conducted by researchers from the universities of Kentucky, Georgia, and San Diego State provide consistent evidence in support of the hypothesis that popular U.S. music lyrics now include more words related to a focus on the self with an increase in the use of first-person singular pronouns and fewer first-person plural pronouns over the last 27 years. Popular song lyrics now include fewer words related to social interactions and positive emotions, which parallels evidence in other studies showing increases in U.S. loneliness and psychopathology over time. Words related to anger and antisocial behavior have also increased significantly, which appears to reflect increases in narcissism and social rejection that are conducive to heightened anger and antisocial behavior. To arrive at these results, the researchers analyzed song lyrics for the 10 most popular U.S. songs (according to the Billboard Hot 100 year-end chart) for each year between 1980 through 2007, for a total of 88,621 words.

RihannaChanges in popular music lyrics appear to closely mirror increases in narcissism and self-focus. Just as people report more frequent instances of loneliness and social isolation over time (feelings of loneliness and social isolation in the United States rose 250% between 1985 and 2004), popular song lyrics have progressively included fewer words related to social interactions. Correspondingly, the use of angry and antisocial song lyrics has increased over the same time span, to such an extent that the tone and content of popular songs has become increasingly more angry and antisocial over time.

Other longitudinal data appear to support the findings in the song lyrics. For example, scores on the widely-administered Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) clinical scales, which measure mental health, have increased approximately one full standard deviation between 1938 and 2007. In particular, scores on the depression scale have risen by 0.66 standard deviation units between 1938 and 2007. This would indicate that more people meet diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder in recent generations as compared to their predecessors.

Lady-GagaU.S. culture is continuously inundated with cultural products which are delivered through a wide variety of media and are increasingly consumed in isolation. Americans listen to popular music, view billboards, and watch TV programs and movies—in increasing numbers, they do these activities alone. The evidence that changes in cultural products reflect generational changes in psychological characteristics is not surprising. Given the ubiquity of cultural products, in spite of the ongoing controversy over whether the media induce or reflect cultural changes, we need a better understanding of how cultural changes over time influence personality traits, goals, and emotions. It appears that, at least on the basis of song lyrics, things aren’t looking up at all for social connection, altruism, and positive emotions.

Tsunami Deja Vu: Greece and Alexandria

800px-Kamakura_tsunamiWe’ve never seen anything like the pictures emanating out of Japan. Modern video and still photography technology give us an unprecedented view of a phenomenon of vast power and consequence. It might seem like something that has never been witnessed before. However, the impact of a tsunami (Japanese: 津波, lit. “harbor wave”), only by chance a Japanese word that has entered into worldwide parlance, was reported in chilling detail by at least two prominent Greek and Roman historians.

Over four centuries before Christ, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War about a tsunami that had struck Greek coastal towns. We can recognize the imagery more readily now, as it parallels the footage we are seeing out of Sendai, Japan.

thucydidesThe next summer [426 BC] the Peloponnesians and their confederates came as far as the isthmus under the conduct of Agis the son of Archidamus, intending to have invaded Attica; but by reason of the many earthquakes that then happened, they turned back, and the invasion proceeded not. About the same time (Euboea being then troubled with earthquakes), the sea came in at Orobiae on the part which then was land and, being impetuous withal, overflowed most part of the city, whereof part it covered and part it washed down and made lower in the return so that it is now sea which before was land. And the people, as many as could not prevent it by running up into the higher ground, perished. Another inundation like unto this happened in the isle of Atalanta, on the coast of Locris of the Opuntians, and carried away part of the Athenians’ fort there; and of two galleys that lay on dry land, it brake one in pieces. Also there happened at Peparethus a certain rising of the water, but it brake not in; and a part of the wall, the town-house, and some few houses besides were overthrown by the earthquakes. The cause of such inundation, for my part, I take to be this: that the earthquake, where it was very great, did there send off the sea; and the sea returning on a sudden, caused the water to come on with greater violence. And it seemeth unto me that without an earthquake such an accident could never happen.—Thucydides (ca. 430 BC), History of the Peloponnesian War, (89), Thomas Hobbes, Ed., London: Bohn.

Centuries later, Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus described the tsunami caused by a large earthquake that devastated Alexandria, Egypt in 365 AD. In this even more evocative description, the effects of the retreating sea and its catastrophic return are described in terse and dramatic language.

Ammianus_BookWhile that usurper of whose many deeds and his death we have told, still survived, on the twenty-first of July in the first consulship of Valentinian with his brother, horrible phenomena suddenly spread through the entire extent of the world, such as are related to us neither in fable nor in truthful history. For a little after daybreak, preceded by heavy and repeated thunder and lightning, the whole of the firm and solid earth was shaken and trembled, the sea with its rolling waves was driven back and withdrew from the land, so that in the abyss of the deep thus revealed men saw many kinds of sea-creatures stuck fast in the slime; and vast mountains and deep valleys, which Nature, the creator, had hidden in the unplumbed depths, then, as one might well believe, first saw the beams of the sun. Hence, many ships were stranded as if on dry land, and since many men roamed about without fear in the little that remained of the waters, to gather fish and similar things with their hands, the roaring sea, resenting, as it were, this forced retreat, rose in its turn; and over the boiling shoals it dashed mightily upon islands and broad stretches of the mainland, and leveled innumerable buildings in the cities and where else they were found; so that amid the mad discord of the elements the altered face of the earth revealed wondrous sights. For the great mass of waters, returning when it was least expected, killed many thousands of men by drowning; and by the swift recoil of the eddying tides a number of ships, after the swelling of the wet element subsided, were seen to have foundered, and lifeless bodies of shipwrecked persons lay floating on their backs or on their faces. Other great ships, driven by the mad blasts, landed on the tops of buildings (as happened at Alexandria), and some were driven almost two miles inland, like a Laconian ship which I myself in passing that way saw near the town of Mothone, yawning apart through long decay.—Marcellinus, A. (360) Res Gestae, Vol. II, (26) 15-19.

Marijuana Linked to Earlier Onset of Psychosis

Manifesti_LotteriaTripoli_194_mMarijuana (cannabis), thanks to the powerful depressing action of its active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is one of the oldest and most widely used means of self-medication against acute and chronic stress. THC users report experiencing a pleasurable state of relaxation, with heightened sensory experiences of taste, sound and color. In addition to its psychological effects, THC produces alterations in motor behavior, perception, cognition, memory, learning, endocrine function, food intake, and regulation of body temperature. The common perception is that, of all illegal drugs, marijuana may be the safest and least addictive—despite significant evidence that it causes side effects of fatigue, paranoia, memory problems, depersonalization, mood alterations, urinary retention, constipation, decreased motor coordination, lethargy, slurred speech, and dizziness, in addition to increased tolerance and addiction.

Impaired health including lung damage, behavioral changes, and reproductive, cardiovascular and immunological effects have been associated with regular marijuana use. Regular and chronic marijuana smokers may have many of the same respiratory problems that tobacco smokers have (daily cough and phlegm, symptoms of chronic bronchitis), as the amount of tar inhaled and the level of carbon monoxide absorbed by marijuana smokers is 3 to 5 times greater than among tobacco smokers. Smoking marijuana while shooting up cocaine has the potential to cause severe increases in heart rate and blood pressure. – NHTSA Fact Sheet

New research suggests that marijuana use may play a direct causal role in the development of psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia. An extensive meta-analysis of more than 443 studies comparing the age at onset of schizophrenia in individuals who used marijuana with the age at onset of schizophrenia in non–users yielded most sobering results.

Investigators at Prince Wales Hospital and the School of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, found that the mean age at illness onset was more than 2.7 years earlier for cannabis users compared with nonusers. The age of onset did not significantly differ between alcohol users and nonusers. These results were published in the February 2011 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The results support the hypothesis that cannabis use plays a causal role in the development of psychosis… (and) suggest the need for renewed warnings about the potentially harmful effects of cannabis. – Matthew Large

In presenting the findings, lead study author Matthew Large, MBBS, Department of Mental Health Services concluded that the meta-analysis provides strong evidence for a relationship between marijuana use and earlier onset of psychotic illness and of a direct causal role in the development of psychosis in some more vulnerable individuals.

How to Get a Larger Brain

aaMonet_WaterLiliesHow do you increase the volume of gray matter in your brain? Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, may be the answer. MBSR is receiving increasing attention for the significant morphological changes that it appears to produce on brain structures. The most recent results come from a controlled longitudinal study completed at Massachusetts General Hospital and published in the January 2011 edition of Psychiatry Research. Researchers at MGH investigated pre–post changes in brain gray matter concentration in individuals who participated in an 8-week MBSR program. Changes in gray matter concentration, measured using voxel-based morphometry, showed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, as compared with a control group of individuals who did not meditate and showed no such increase. Whole brain analysis also confirmed gray matter increases in the MBSR group only, which were located in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking, such as the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum.

Earlier studies conducted in the last five years at Yale and Harvard have shown that mindfulness meditation increases the thickness of gray matter between .004 and .008  inches (in proportion to the frequency of meditation) in parts of the brain that are responsible for attention and processing of sensory input. It also appears to slow down the brain deterioration which is a part of the natural aging process.

Yoga and tantric meditation, mantra or transcendental meditation, and mindfulness meditation are increasingly popular forms of stress management. The therapeutic value of meditation in producing positive effects on psychological well-being and ameliorating symptoms of a number of disorders has become widely accepted. Research on the neural mechanisms that underlie these beneficial effects and actual morphological changes produced by these practices offers encouraging new avenues of study that further validate their effectiveness.

Abuse in Childhood May Mean Shorter Life

aavanGogh_1885_AutumnLandscapeAccording to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the experience of verbal, physical, sexual abuse, or severe family dysfunction, such as an incarcerated, mentally ill, or substance-abusing family member, domestic violence, or absence of a parent because of divorce or separation, is directly linked to serious problems in adulthood, which may include substance abuse, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and premature death.

The combination of risky behaviors such as substance abuse, the effects of severe depression on variables such as suicide, and the incidence of deadly diseases such as diabetes and cancer contribute to an elevated risk of early death in adults who experienced abuse and dysfunctional family environments. More specific studies have confirmed that individuals with six or more adverse childhood experiences were almost twice as likely (1.7  times) to die before age 75 and 2.4 times more likely to die before age 65 years, i.e. below to well below normal life expectancies.

The CDC analyzed information from 26,229 adults in five US states (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington) using the 2009 ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) module of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which is operated by state health departments in cooperation with the CDC. The results of the analysis show that 59.4% of the interviewed reported having at least one adverse childhood experience, and 8.7% reported five or more.

The prevalence of each adverse childhood experience ranged from a high of 29.1% for household substance abuse to a low of 7.2% for having an incarcerated family member. Over one quarter (25.9%) of respondents reported having experienced verbal abuse, 14.8% reported physical abuse, and 12.2% reported sexual abuse. In measures of severe family dysfunction, 26.6% reported separated or divorced parents, 19.4% reported that they had lived with someone who was depressed, mentally ill, or suicidal, and 16.3% reported witnessing domestic violence.

The analysis reiterates the risk for long-term impact on health and mortality of childhood abuse, stress and trauma. Numerous studies (Sansone & Poole, Ozer, Best, et al., Heim, Newport, et al., Bremner et al., to cite only a few of the most recent) have confirmed the positive and significant correlations between childhood physical abuse, emotional abuse, and witnessing violence and the number of psychophysiological and pain disorders in adulthood.

Freshmen Stress, Debt Worries Grow Higher

JeffersonMemorial_EN-US2610056053Results of the 2009 survey of over 200,000 first-year students at 4-year American colleges, administered by the Cooperative Institute Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, show that at least 67% of freshmen are concerned about financing their college cost, the highest percentage since 1971. Moreover, 53% of first-year students have taken out loans to finance college, 4% more than in 2008 and the highest percentage in the last ten years. 

The global economic downturn is having an impact on the characteristics, attitudes, and beliefs of incoming first-time students at four-year institutions. They are more concerned about finances, more likely to take out loans and need grants in higher amounts. They will likely be graduating with higher debts and have shifted majors and career aspirations away from business fields. Although the values of these students coming into college show a slight retrenching towards financial security and less towards social agency, there is hope that their increased desire for volunteering and community service will foster an increase in such attitudes during their college careers. — Pryor, J.H., Hurtado, S., DeAngelo, L., Palucki Blake, L., & Tran, S. (2009). The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2009. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

The students are describing themselves as being “below average” in their emotional health in higher numbers than ever before. The percentage of students who described their emotional health as above average fell from 64% in 1985 to 52%. Female students have a less positive view of their emotional health than male students, by a wider than ever margin: 18% of the men compared with 39% of the women. Female students also accounted for 60% of the number of students who reported having sought mental health services during their first year of college.

Among the principal causes of the increase in stress, the economy appears to play the major role, due to much greater financial pressures on parents and the students’ own worries about college debt and job prospects after graduation. 29% of the students surveyed reported that they had been frequently overwhelmed by stress during their senior year of high school, up from 27% last year.

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?

A Peaceful Christmas Everyone!

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
 
nativity2
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till, ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The Carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!’

Christmas Bells: A poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Christmas Stress Survival Kit

aaMantegna_1500_AdorazioneMagiThe holiday season is upon us — the cash tills are ringing — the car parks are chocka — the shops are heaving — and stress levels are rising. For all the perfectionists out there this time of year can be a real nightmare as The Need To Do Things Perfectly swings into overdrive.  Advertising induces huge pressure to roll out the perfect Christmas:  perfect gifts — perfect parties — how to cook the perfect turkey …   and so on. We put impossibly high expectations on ourselves and end up being unable to enjoy the celebrations.

So here are a few ideas to help ease the stress and allow you some space to enjoy the festive season.

► DELEGATE/ASK FOR HELP: If the majority of the work falls on your shoulders please don’t suffer alone.  If you do you’ll have an exhausting Christmas and probably end up feeling resentful.  Ask for help from those around you — partner, children, family, friends.  Preparing food or writing cards together feels very festive and will significantly ease the burden on you.

► BEWARE “SHOULDS”: Christmas is full of ‘shoulds’.  Be aware of the number of times you use this word.  It usually implies that you’re about to embark on something you don’t really want to do — but feel you ought to.  In other words, the impetus is stemming from external expectations.  The antidote is simply to supplant the word should with could. This instantly reintroduces the element of choice.  You DON’T have to brave the crowds to buy just one more gift … you could, but you might choose not to…

► TEMPER EXPECTATIONS … of others and, more importantly, of yourself.  Don’t sweat the small stuff. Please let go of the need to be perfect. If the turkey is a bit overcooked, or the Christmas tree lights go on the blink, or someone isn’t overjoyed with the gift you’ve bought them – how important is that in the great scheme of things?

► And finally … don’t forget to get out and do some exercise over the Christmas period.  We all eat and drink more than usual, so getting out for a walk and some fresh air always feels great and does you good.

Wishing you a happy, festive and stress-free Holiday Season.


fac_sutton_annabelThis guest post is courtesy of Annabel Sutton, a fully trained Life Coach and Author. In 2005 she was awarded the Professional Certified Coach credential. Her clients say that she inspires, energizes and motivates them towards success and she gets wonderful results. Email Annabel@annabelsutton.com or visit www.annabelsutton.com for more information or to sign up for Annabel’s free Coaching Tips.