Of Mel Gibson, Narcissus and Stress

mel-gibson-oksanaA sad pattern seems to be emerging: as Mel Gibson becomes distressed, some self-medication ensues, allegedly alcohol. The medication, instead of solving the problem, appears to merely loosen Mel’s inhibitions and he unleashes a now painfully public tirade laced with profanity, discrimination, and sexism. In many quarters, his behavior has been described as the epitome of narcissism. But is this really his problem? Let’s consider the story of Echo and Narcissus.

In the vicinity of Mt. Olympus, about 2,500 years ago, the sylvan nymph Echo fell in love with Narcissus. Narcissus was an uncommonly handsome and incredibly vain man who would live on beyond Greek mythology and become the eponym of self-centeredness. He rejected Echo’s love with such callousness and contempt that she died of a broken heart. Apollo, angered by Narcissus’ vanity and cruelty, cursed him to die without ever knowing human love. Not too long afterwards, as a thirsty Narcissus went to a pool of clear water and knelt beside it to drink, he saw his face reflected on the surface of the water and fell in love with it. Unable to reach the image in the water, Narcissus continued to stare at it forgetting everything else, and eventually died beside the pool.

From ancient tale to modern problem, the term narcissism today describes a mental disorder that is characterized by an excessive positive self-evaluation and near-total lack of consideration for others. As a personality type, a narcissist is prone to a grandiose evaluations of self, a constant preoccupation with success and power, an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and an exploitative approach to others. A narcissistic personality shows an enduring pattern of personal adjustment characterized by grandiosity, need for attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy. Individuals with this disorder believe that they are special and are excessively envious of others while being preoccupied with their own achievement and power.

Freud believed narcissism originated in childhood, making it particularly difficult to treat in adults. There is much controversy as to the core problem in narcissism. Some believe it may be primarily an emotional problem; others view it as a cognitive deficit, i.e. the narcissist’s inability to construct an accurate view of self. A third school of thought theorizes that a narcissist is cursed with an ‘‘empty’’ sense of self; yet another group argues that the narcissist may have a ‘‘disorganized’’ self.

The problem that originates all these theories as to the origin of narcissism is produced by the lack of accurate measurements of its impact and severity. Narcissistic people do not admit their problems when asked. When diagnosed, they are very reluctant to cooperate with the treating therapist. In fact, they are widely considered by clinicians as among the most intractable of mental health patients.

In the most recent large-scale research, Russ, Bradley, Shedler, and Westen (2006) have produced evidence that a clinical distinction may be made between grandiose narcissism, characterized by genuinely inflated views of self and a need-gratifying approach toward other people and relationships, and fragile narcissism, characterized by explicit grandiosity paired with feelings of inadequacy or self-loathing.

So where can we place Mr. Gibson along the continuum from normal self-evaluation to narcissism?  If there is narcissism in his personality, would it be the grandiose, or rather the fragile type? Without falling into the trap of long-distance diagnosis, a few comments can be made on his reported behavior. First, if there is self-medication with alcohol as has been reported, the something that is being medicated hurts, perhaps deeply, at the emotional level. Relationship problems, as they have been reported to exist, invariably cause emotional reactivity and chronic sympathetic arousal, i.e. chronic stress. The combination of stress and the disinhibiting effects of self-medication can produce a state of mind that exacerbates any feelings of entitlement, lack of empathy for others and an exploitative approach to problem-solving (a condition popularly known as an amygdala hijack).

It would seem that there is a match with Mr. Gibson’s recently broadcast telephone rants.

What Would You Do?

777 Cockpit at Stresshacker.comThe airliner, heavy with fuel and filled with passengers, is climbing toward its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, having taken off less than twenty minutes earlier and more than one hour behind schedule. The captain and the second officer are completing their post-takeoff routines and anticipating a smooth ride; the weather forecast is for clear skies ahead and relatively little turbulence. The steady muffled roar of the four jet engines envelops the aircraft.

In the cockpit, a large amber light begins flashing on the upper center quadrant of the dashboard. After a few seconds, the light goes off. An automatic correction has taken place, initiated by the onboard navigation computers. Other lights flash briefly and then go off. To the uninitiated eye, seemingly at random.

Suddenly a bright red warning light flashes in the section of the dashboard that groups all engine functions. The cockpit crew appears to pay scant attention to it. The red flashing continues. If you were the pilot of the aircraft, what would you do?

  1. Put a dark cloth over the light. Too much flashing can be distracting and one simply cannot chase after every light. Get busy doing flight path calculations.
  2. Relax. Take a break and go get some coffee from the galley with the copilot. The light may be off by the time you all come back to the cockpit.
  3. Ignore the light. Look at some other part of the dashboard where there are no lights. A lot of lights come and go. It will probably shut itself off, eventually.
  4. Respond to the message that the light is giving. Check engine functions and take the appropriate steps to address the problem.

If you answered 1, 2 or 3, your stress level is probably very high. If you answered 1, your preferred mode of dealing with high stress is by covering it up. If you answered 2, your strategy consists of using various relaxation techniques hoping that stress will take care of itself somehow, without addressing its cause. If you answered 3, your favorite approach consists of denying the existence of high stress, preferring instead to believe that there are plenty of times when you are really not stressed at all.

If you answered 4, you understand that the amber and red lights (representing mild or severe stress reactions) are occurring as an indication that something of importance (a significant stressor) requires your immediate attention. By acknowledging the valuable message that the stress reaction (the cockpit light) is giving you, you begin to address its cause, the stressor (the engine problem). This is the essence of effective stress management: managing the cause of the stress, instead of simply mitigating (or covering up, or denying) the symptoms.

How do you react to the warning signs of stress? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. Check out Stresshacker’s StressWise program: stress coaching, online webinars, and downloads for making sense of stress, and for better stress and stressor management.

Children Are Dangerously Stressed and Their Parents Are…Out to Lunch

One nation, under stress, with sleeplessness and anxiety for all.

US_Flag_Flying_1A nationwide survey about stress has revealed a worrisome disconnect between what parents believe causes stress in their children, or that their children have any stress at all, and what the children themselves consider seriously stressful. Here are some of the most disconcerting findings.

  • Stress and worry about their family’s financial difficulties are having a significant impact on young people, and their parents either don’t know it or don’t believe it.
  • Children are more likely to have experienced difficulty sleeping in the past month than their parents know about.
  • Fewer parents than children believe that children’s stress has increased in the past year.
  • Parents appear to be unaware of the degree to which children report physical symptoms like headaches that are often associated with stress.
  • Children are four times more likely to report having eaten too much or too little in the past month than their parents noticed.

The recent survey, Stress in America by the American Psychological Association, reveals that American children are not getting the attention or the support they need to identify and understand stress or to learn healthy strategies for managing its effects.

The full executive summary of the survey is available from the APA here. It is not an easy or comfortable read.  Over 40% of Americans report that their stress has increased in the last year. The same percentage report that they lay awake at night because of stress. And the same percentage again say they eat too much or eat unhealthy foods because of stress.

iPhone, iPad, iBrain: A Multitasker Paradise?

Multitasking at Stresshacker.com Here’s a (very) short history of information explosion: oral poetry; carved tablets; papyrus; illuminated manuscripts; printing press; radio; television; computer; iPhone; iPad. At each turn, the volume and quality of available information grew, first geometrically, then exponentially. Availability has now far exceeded the capacity, and some say the need, of the human brain to receive, decode, and make use of the data. Volume has also created an additional stressor that was unknown until the latter part of the 20th century: information overload.

Today more than ever, we are exposed to a far larger volume of sensory input than our senses and brain can process. Billions of individual bits of information compete for our attention, requiring us to rapidly determine which needs to be processed, remembered, or used for action. Information can be just data (it’s now 7:15pm) but it can also carry an emotional value (it’s later than I thought!). Emotion-laden stimuli have a special advantage in the competition for our limited attention resources because the correct evaluation of an emotional stimulus may be critical in determining whether it represents a threat (oh no, I’ll miss the start of the game!) or a reward (good, I wont’ have to sit through the previews). See this post on the value of emotion as information.

In spite of the enormous amount of valuable and potentially interesting information that can be ours just for the asking (or the thumbing), more than 99% will not be accessed, processed or remembered. The greater part of the remaining 1% that makes it to our eyes and ears will be discarded by the brain as irrelevant and unimportant. So we are left with an almost insignificant sliver of information that manages to be retained and used in some way. Pity, one might say. Thank goodness, says I.

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Is Love Apart As Good As Love Nearby?

ShipwreckBeach_EN-US2696310123 Being apart is not as satisfying as being together. Certainly true, common sense would say. Well, not so fast. New, more recent research suggests that long-distance relationships can be, and often are, at least as emotionally satisfying as geographically close ones.

The new research comes from Purdue University(i), where researchers studied attachment patterns of individuals in the United States and South Africa who for various reasons were in a committed (married or unmarried) long-distance relationship. The conclusions of the study are that, with a few caveats, love at a distance can be a well-functioning, if not ideal, committed relationship.

Earlier studies had identified severe distress, loneliness, emotional roller-coasters, and generally very problematic outcomes in the separation-temporary reunion-separation cycle of relationships where one or both individuals are pursuing a career goal in another geographic area. Anecdotal evidence abounds as to the heartaches and dissatisfaction of these arrangements, of the tearful goodbyes and too short reunions. The common assumption is therefore that all long-distance relationships are inherently stressful and more vulnerable to break-ups.

By studying attachment patterns between people in close relationships, Purdue researchers have identified the characteristics that make these relationships endure and flourish. Read more to see how they arrived at their conclusions and what they recommend to couples in these situations.

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Runaway Stress Attacks Financial Markets

High anxiety produced the equivalent of a panic attack in the world’s financial markets last Thursday. It was a day reminiscent of the high anxiety, high stress situation in the fall of 2008 when the markets lost almost half of their value in a few weeks.

On Thursday, from the Hang Seng to the Tadawul, from the DAX to Wall Street, fear gripped traders. On Wall Street, shares plunged by nearly 10% of their value and then regained it almost all back by closing time. Millions of dollars were lost and gained in minutes. Automatic halts on trading by computerized safeguards prevented a complete meltdown.

For at least “a discrete period” (i) of a few hours on Thursday, there was “a sudden onset of intense apprehension, fearfulness, or terror, often associated with feelings of impending doom.” (ii)

Among individual traders, “symptoms such as shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain or discomfort, choking or smothering sensations, and fear of ‘going crazy’ or losing control” (iii) appeared and disappeared throughout the day.

This appeared to be the type of panic attack that was “situationally bound (cued)… occurring on exposure to or in anticipation of the situational cue or trigger.” (iv) The situational cue on Thursday was a real or perceived threat to the world economy by the crisis of confidence in Greece’s ability to meet the obligations of its national debt.

When the panic attack was over on Friday, financial analysts and the rest of us were left to wonder if” “the increased global anxiety threatens to slow the recovery in the United States, where job growth has finally picked up after the deepest recession since the Great Depression.” And if “it could also inhibit consumer spending as stock portfolios shrink and loans are harder to come by.”

For anxiety, stress and panic attacks to be linked to allegedly rational financial evaluations and transactions is nothing new.

The notorious tug of war between quantitative economists and those who believe that financial decisions are to a large extent irrational, continues unabated.

An April 2010 NOVA special on PBS, Mind Over Money asked a very straightforward question: Can markets be rational when humans aren’t?

Thursday’s events would seem to indicate, once again, that mathematically-bound, high-intellect frontal lobe activities such as financial markets are vulnerable to sudden irrationality.

Just like the rest of us.

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Successful Leadership: What Does It Take?

David_NapoleonSt-Bernard In reporting the results of a global survey, Michael Haid discusses the factors that contribute most to exceptional leadership performance. It turns out that it is not what leaders know, i.e. their skill set, but it is how they fit in their company’s culture, how they are motivated by opportunities within the organization, and how they interact with those around them that result in high performance. Read more

Research News: Stress and IVF

Klimt_1895_Love Researchers at the University of Aarhus in Denmark have uncovered preliminary evidence that appears to suggest a link between stress and the chances of success with in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Unlike other studies that focused on stress caused by infertility and the IVF treatment itself, this study[i] analyzed non-fertility-related, naturally occurring life stressors. Specifically, this research explored the association between IVF outcome and stressful life events during the previous 12 months. Read the study methods and results after the jump. Read more

Stress Software: You Survived Monday Morning?

vanGogh_1889_StarryNight_MOMANY Is There a Better Time of Day to Have a Heart Attack? This question was asked by Dr. David J. Lefer of the Department of Surgery, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta in a study published this February. (1)

According to Dr. Lefer, it is widely accepted that the time of the day, the day of the week, and the season of the year influence the risk of a cardiovascular episode.

For example, heart attacks occur more frequently early on Monday mornings, especially during the fall and winter months. Recent research confirms that there is also “a significant contribution of intrinsic mechanisms mediating temporal dependence of cardiovascular physiology and pathophysiology,” medspeak for “the time of day and day of the week matters a lot, no matter where you are.”

Dr. Lefer cites the example of travelers who appear to retain time-of-day oscillations if they have a sudden cardiac episode, in such a way that the peak incidence is equivalent to the early hours of the morning in their time zone of origin.

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Business of Stress: CHD At Work

PointLobosLExp Researchers have substantially defined the specific characteristics of stressful occupations and have examined whether they promote the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), which is the progressive and often fatal hardening of the blood vessels that surround the heart.

Specifically, the question of whether high job strain can be used to predict job stress-related CHD is worth asking in this era of constant communication and information flow.

What constitutes high job strain?

Although many subjective and environmental factors can determine the level of strain in any one individual, the accepted common-sense definition is circumstances of high demand and correspondingly few opportunities to control outcomes. 

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Business of Stress: Rise of the Type A Machines

PieroDellaFrancesca_Malatesta

The now irreversible and accelerating developments in communication technology (multiple e-mail addresses available from any platform, high-speed anywhere Internet access, smart mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, and what not) have enabled greater flexibility and mobility (e.g., teleworking, telecommuting) but they also have removed traditional boundaries between different roles in life (work, family, leisure). Thanks to these ubiquitous and always-on hardware devices and the software tools they provide, there often is no solution 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.

In addition, short-term employment, work on time-limited projects, and working two or even three part-time jobs simultaneously are becoming increasingly more common. These trends may indeed be producing  beneficial effects in terms of greater task variety and flexibility, but also an increased risk of stress due to work overload, disruption of natural circadian patterns, role conflicts, and lack of time for relationships, for rest and energy replenishment through sleep or relaxation activities.

The individual executive, rather than the company, is now tasked with setting appropriate boundaries between work and other roles in life. This is a particularly challenging task for the executive who may be classified as exhibiting Type A behavior. What is type A behavior and why is it becoming increasingly problematic?

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Business of Stress: The Psychosocial Benefits of Work

David_NapoleonSt-Bernard

Being out work carries more than financial consequences to the individual. One of the most important sequelae is the negative impact on self-esteem and to the sense of well-being and adjustment.

Having a meaningful activity provides many non-economic benefits. These may include giving a consistent time structure to the day; self-esteem through achievement and self-satisfaction; the respect of others; an opportunity for physical and mental activity; a setting where to use one’s skills; and frequent interpersonal contact.

When Bohb Jadhav’s architecture firm reduced its staff by 30 percent a year ago, he turned a cozy Park Slope coffee shop, with its sitcom-style mismatched furniture and a rotating gallery of local art on the walls, into his new work space. For six hours each day, Mr. Jadhav takes up residence in one of the comfy, oversized chairs, works on his future plans, and indulges in occasional, workday-like breaks for coffee, cigarettes, lunch and general kibitzing. Mr. Jadhav says the stimulating environment, the hum of ceiling fans, music and conversation, was a crucial bulwark against the feelings of desperation that followed the loss of his job. ”This place is critical to my sanity,” he says. “If I was at home I’d be more easily distracted. And it’s nice to have the company of others. It’s like working with the TV on.”

The New York Times Nov. 27, 2009

Very often, the loss of these psychosocial benefits of employment is at least as important as loss of income to the stress levels and overall health of unemployed people.