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Finding Renewal in Springtime

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

Springtime is on its way. The sunshine is returning and bringing with it the promise of blossoming trees, long days and summertime fun. The typical spring day carries the smell of blooming flowers on the breeze and the chirping of birds to remind us that life is indomitable, and that better times are just around the corner. Coming after a long dreary winter, the season is a natural mood booster for most of us.

But not all. Some suffer from a persistent, hard-to-describe gloom that even the brightest sunshine cannot penetrate.

So it seems like a good time for reminding ourselves that if the “wintertime blues” refuse to be chased away it may be more than just a funk caused by lack of daylight and snowy weather. It could very well be clinical depression. Perhaps you’re noticing yourself seeing more of the negative in the world and less of the positive, being less optimistic and more solitary, and less energetic both cognitively and physically. Maybe you feel you lack the energy and motivation to do things you know will make you feel better. These are all hallmarks of depression.

The most effective approach tends to be medication to boost your low serotonin levels paired with mental health counseling. These, like most to-do items, seem like insurmountable tasks when mired in the throes of depression. However, there are small (and cost-free) steps you can take on your own to moderately boost your mood and begin to make progress in conquering your low mood.

Physical: Exercise is key. Although you may not have enough energy for a workout, just walking around the block can help. Stretching is good as well, and try some basic calisthenics. Studies have shown that even these moderate exercises have mood-boosting benefits, helping to mitigate the damage done by so-called “stress hormones” like cortisol.

Emotional: The simple and easy act of talking to a friend can help immensely; it can distract you from your own world of gloom and worry that is so easy to dwell in when in depression. It can also help you gain perspective on your circumstances. Practice being kind also; the emotional benefits make being kind a definite win-win scenario.

Cognitive: Read a good book…really. A good story can arouse emotions and the simple act of reading provides important exercise of your brain, both hugely beneficial when in depression. A good book can also provide distraction. Further, the visualization your brain must carry out when reading a story can engage circuits that can be useful in revving up your brain’s cognitive capacity, a capacity which is depressed when you are.

Mind you, these are just a few of the easy-to-do activities that can help boost your mood right now, regardless of whether you’re clinically depressed or not. If you’ve been feeling mentally and physically drained for an unreasonable amount of time, see a doctor or therapist without delay. Diagnosing and treating the underlying problem is too important to put off, and research has consistently shown that the one-two punch of medication and counseling is vital to piercing the veil of depression.

Above all, remember the great lesson of springtime: Even after the harshest winter, renewal is always possible.

Creating Control in 2015

Originally published on my  Psychology Today blog.

Each New Year brings with it the promise of starting fresh or tackling that long-standing item on the bucket list. It’s a great opportunity to commit to something that can enhance your well-being, the most popular being health-related. We all want to feel our best and perform at our highest level, and this is a great time of the year to think about how to go about it. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your physical and emotional health is to establish a stronger sense of control over your life in 2015.

A feeling of lack of control over one’s life–a vague sense of powerlessness over the micro-and-macro events and irritations thrown at us every day– can lead to depression, anxiety, and chemical dependency. Life is, of course, unpredictable and at times overwhelming, but there are a few strategies anyone can employ to counteract the feeling of a life gone out of control:

Set achievable goals in your professional and private life. Much distress and dissatisfaction comes from laboring after unrealistic goals in our professional and relational world. Keep in mind there is only so much you can achieve by yourself in an organization or a relationship.

Choose relationships that are fair and mutually healthy. This follows the previous suggestion. Learn to identify narcissists, sociopaths and other individuals driven by ego and a desire for control over others. They care nothing about destabilizing the lives of others and often leave a trail of human devastation in their wake. Avoid these toxic people at all costs in every sphere of your life, even if it means sacrificing companionship or professional gain in the short term.

Work in a healthy atmosphere. If at all possible, choose a healthy work arrangement. Having a difficult or incompetent boss or a clutch of difficult colleagues can make any job harder. If you’re stuck with a bad situation, try to communicate to your boss that his or her behavior is negatively affecting your ability to function. You might not change their personality or management style, but making them aware of how their approach is detrimental to your performance might make them more thoughtful in their interactions with you.

Follow your passion. Another significant source of dissatisfaction is laboring in something we don’t care much about. Locate your passion in your professional and personal lives and pursue it with all your energy; you’ll find it energizes you rather than depletes you.

Practice meditation. This is one of the most impactful ways to spend a few minutes of your day, and doesn’t mean you have to reach Bhudda-like levels of transcendence or don an orange toga. Neural research shows that even a few minutes of quiet contemplation and measured breathing can restore our mental equilibrium, reduce the cortisol in our system and lower our blood pressure. Even recalling a favorite memory can produce emotional and physiological benefits.

Learn to say “no.” This is a hard one for so many of us. Especially those who like to please and hate to disappoint a friend who’d like us to join a last-minute party, a lecture or a chore like helping them move house. But not having the skill of knowing when—and how—to say “no” to certain things –i.e. things that will clog up our schedule and end up inflicting stress as a result—can undermine our well-being. Learning to politely but firmly decline is vital for maintaining peak emotional health.

To a great degree, gaining a sense of control is about knowing oneself, and as Shakespeare adroitly advised, “To thyne own self be true.” Knowing your priorities and establishing your boundaries accordingly can guide your decision making as you face the myriad of opportunities in the year ahead, and can help you choose the kinds of situations and relationships that empower you rather than demoralize you. Control is something we create and foster, and it is up to each individual to maximize their own sense of control over an increasingly complicated life.

New Studies On Emotional Impact of U.S. Work Culture

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

An ongoing theme of this blog has been the profoundly negative effects of stress and overwork induced by our work culture, both of which are chronic problems that are undermining our emotional (and physical) healthy every day.

Now comes news of two major studies on the emotional and practical dimensions of the topic and their interesting findings, helpfully described in a new article by Quentin Fottrell of MarketWatch (link to article is here). One study discourages the long-held belief (promoted by big business) that more lenient workplace schedules depress a nation’s economic competitiveness, while another suggests that cutting the length of the work week boosts emotional health among a variety of other positive value for society.

Dean Baker, co-director of the left-of-center Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. addressed some of the economic trends involved: “Countries like Germany stand out,” he says of the prosperous European economies known for their generous time-off policies. “It’s been remarkably successful.” He goes on to cite the fact that the unemployment rate in Germany (5.2 percent) is down more than 4 percentage points since before the 2008 recession, while the U.S. unemployment rate (6.1 percent) is still more than 1.5 percentage points higher than it was before the recession.

This suggests that the correlation between hours worked and actual productivity is not nearly as straight forward as most Americans would assume.

Addressing the emotional and social aspects of the issue, a report from the London-based, left-of-center think tank New Economics Foundation found that cutting the workweek roughly in half would help to address overwork, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, and, crucially, the “lack of time to simply to enjoy life.”

The writer also quotes Anna Coote, head of social policy at NEF, as adding that the deputy mayor of a major Swedish city is trialing a 30-hour week for staff, on the theory—recently gaining in popularity due to other findings—that thirty hours per week is roughly the limit for productive time in an office environment.

In fairness, Fottrell cites researcher Robert Rudolf, assistant professor in the Division of International Studies at Korea University, whose own study found that people given a reduction in working hours reported no strong impact on job or life satisfaction.

Of course these are just studies, and their findings may or may not be accurate. But the fact remains that more and more research seems to be indicating that the societal ills of chronic stress, mental illness and physical illness are tightly connected, and that an adjustment in the work culture of the United States might likely bring emotional benefits that offset these afflictions.

Corporate Stockholm Syndrome

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

A phenomenon called “Corporate Stockholm Syndrome” is being observed more often in individuals who have experienced workplace trauma, and the concept is beginning to filter into the clinical awareness. This deserves some articulation.

Stockholm Syndrome refers to the psychological phenomenon often observed in hostage situations where the hostages start to identify with (and sympathize with) their captor, even though mistreated. The captor controls the life source (food, water, shelter, etc.) of the captive, and punishment/reward is received from the same source: the captor.

Because so much of our self-worth in modern times is defined and derived by work, we are at risk for experiencing Corporate Stockholm Syndrome when put into a certain work environment for long enough. Corporate Stockholm Syndrome can be defined as employees of a business beginning to identify with—and being deeply loyal to—an employer who mistreats them (defined in this situation as verbal abuse, demanding overly long hours, and generally ignoring the wellbeing and emotional needs of the employee). As with the captor/captive dynamic, the employer is certainly in control of the employee’s fate (they sign the much-needed paycheck and generally can terminate employment at any time).

The employee experiencing Corporate Stockholm Syndrome typically displays a tendency to become emotionally attached to the company to the detriment of their own emotional health. The employee will also rationalize to themselves and to others the employer’s poor treatment of them as necessary for the good of the organization as a whole, and angrily defend the employer’s actions when those actions are questioned by an outsider. In other words, denial of the obvious.

The company culture in which Corporate Stockholm Syndrome thrives will have certain traits. It will often tolerate—in fact implicitly encourage—employees to verbally abuse each other when someone isn’t seen as working hard enough or not being a “team player”. The inculcation of the “company culture” is viewed as significantly important by the management. This is aimed at cultivating loyalty to the company while it has no similar loyalty to the emotional wellbeing of the employees.

There will be the occasional perks, of course, but these will be manipulative by desire; a key aspect of inducing Stockholm Syndrome is the more powerful party providing both threats and kindness to the less powerful party. When these come from the same source, the psychological welfare of the lesser party can be more easily controlled.

The worker experiencing these symptoms is at risk for significant emotional trauma. Working day in and day out under psychological pressure in such an environment is inherently unhealthy. Moreover, it is unhealthy for that worker’s friends and family members who will inevitably find themselves on the receiving end of misdirected anger, which must find a vent somewhere. Sadly this anger and its venting and usually finds the least powerful and least culpable target.

Breaking the cycle is hard, particularly in a culture that prizes work and wealth over emotional health, but abusers do not deserve loyalty. Peace of mind is too valuable to sell for any price.

How Workaholics Can Relax Right During the Holidays

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

So the holidays have arrived and that detested stretch of time when nothing much happens—a few days before Christmas till a few days after New Year’s is here. The workaholic in you hates it; the long void between the Yuletide and early January makes you feel anxious and powerless. Your nerves jangle and you feel guilty. Irritation and a maybe some depression set in as your frustration mounts.

Let’s face it: Workaholics don’t do vacation well. Especially enforced vacations like the one currently underway, presents and parties be damned.

So what can you do?

One of the best things you can do in this situation is to deal with that lingering sense of guilt lurking in the back of your mind; the one that drives you to work so hard to begin with. Negotiating a deal with yourself can be helpful; try striking a bargain to put a little bit of work in here and there, in return for extended downtime.

This ties into a critical task: reframing the situation. Instead of the enforced break that the holidays represent to you, try reframing them as an ideal opportunity to recharge for the coming year’s exertions and gain a clearer head. The time away from projects can bring the distance needed to gain a fresh perspective, which could lead to better solutions and brighter ideas. We all know burnout is our enemy; the holiday break can be used as a perfect chance to defeat it and start the year off strong.

Another benefit of refocusing your attitude to avoid burnout is seizing the opportunity to improve relations with your loved ones. The youngsters will be out of school and the adults will likely be working less, if at all, between Christmas and New Year’s. Study after study has shown that the health of relationships with those close to us have an enormous bearing on our emotional and physical wellbeing. Seize the chance to spend the time with those you love and start of the year with a tighter and healthier bond.

The holiday break also represents a great opportunity to get in shape; counter the depression and anxiety with some vigorous activity. You’re no good to anyone if you’re injured or ill, and regular exercise can keep both at bay. Put on the gym shoes and get those feel-good endorphins flowing. It doesn’t have to take long; a half hour of intense cardiovascular exercise reduces body tension and can clear the mind magnificently. You’ll feel better and think clearer afterward, trust me.

So don’t despair at the holiday break, workaholics. It represents a golden opportunity for much-needed reconnecting with loved ones, recharging mind and body, and rethinking ideas of all sizes. All these activities can provide huge boosts to your emotional and physical wellbeing. And that’s a great project to focus on until the New Year dawns—just in case the next year’s challenges require every bit of wellbeing you can muster.

Great NYT article on commuting’s emotional and physical cost

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

This article in today’s New York Times, Commuting’s Hidden Cost, resonated with me and spoke to an issue that has received a criminally low amount of discussion in recent years. It’s a well-written indictment of our country’s commuting trend and a chilling look at the emotional and physical toll it takes on those who do it every day. I highly recommend reading it and, more importantly, reflecting on it. Is this what we want in our fleeting lives?

This subject deserves much more attention, and next week I’ll be blogging on the subject for Psychology Today at my regular blog “The Modern Time Crunch” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-modern-time-crunch).

Three Actions to Start Making Things Happen

Originally published on my blog “The Modern Time Crunch” for Psychology Today.                Thinking about a huge task or a series of tasks can be daunting. It’s easy to let the mountain of “to-do’s” intimidate you into abandoning all hope of reaching the summit. But there are common-sense ways to make the heights seem climbable.

1) Break down the mountain of to-do’s into achievable chunks.

A great mountain climber was once asked, “How do you manage to climb a mountain?” His answer: “One step at a time, and I just keep going.” A monumental goal can be broken down into very doable mini-goals.

For example, planning a major career change and desiring to do something very different than you’ve ever done before? The notion can make a hearty person think twice, and stay in an unfulfilling job out of sheer intimidation. But chopping the challenge into smaller, doable tasks, such as re-writing the resume and networking with those in your chosen field can drastically reduce the intimidation factor.

2) The key metric is productivity, not just being busy. Measure your progress.

In our whirlwind world, it’s easy to mistake “busy” for “productive”. Sometimes they are the same but often they are not; busyness is a very clever imposter. The best way to foil this imposter and prevent it from stealing your time and energy is to prioritize your tasks. This takes focus and deliberate planning. It takes some tough decisions; you must be ruthless with your time.

Finally, it requires tracking of your productivity and establishing clear metrics against which to measure your efforts. Are the hours and energy expended yielding significant results that are germane to your goal? In the answer leaves you unsatisfied, the message is clear: A course correction is needed. Revisit your list of tasks and adjust your priorities.

3) Make time for fun and exercise.

It seems counter intuitive that having fun (however you personally define it) can boost your productivity. But study after study has proven that “behavioral activation”, as the researchers call it, can flood the brain with the feel-good chemicals we need. The result is improved focus andoptimism, renewed emotional strength and generally a healthier state of mind. Pair this with the similarly endorphin-releasing activity of exercise (every plain old stretching) and you have brain-refreshing re-set.

Whatever your goal, these three tactics can help you to feel happier and more empowered in your quest. The triple-threat of breaking a project into feasible tasks, creating metrics against which to measure your efforts, and taking ownership of your emotional, spiritual and physical well-being can put you on course for conquering the summit, no matter how daunting the elevation. Channel your inner mountain climber and get moving.

Social Isolation in Work-Obsessed America

Originally published on my blog “The Modern Time Crunch” for Psychology Today.                 A friend and I recently discussed the isolation that can come from being too ensconced in work. He ought to know, having been an excellent student and worker who is now struggling socially. This isolation—and, more specifically, the depression and profound sense of disconnect from others it can cause—is a growing problem that deserves more attention.

Aiding and abetting this problem is, of course, the relatively recent ability to do so much of our work remotely. One might not need to speak to another for days at a time except over email. While sometimes much more convenient and less stressful that genuine interaction, the isolation afforded by our technology can ultimately harm us. The wonders of the digital age can reinforce the sense of social isolation and give the less social opportunities to avoid interaction which previous generations did not possess.

This sort of estrangement has very real consequences for the work-obsessed. Nature has a wicked sense of irony: Workers cutting corners in their social lives in order to squeeze out a few more hours of productivity are harming only themselves and their output rate in the long term. The sacrifice of strong social bonds in the name of work can end up sabotaging the very energy and dynamism upon which the workaholic thrives.

Not surprisingly, mounting research suggests such loss of energy and fulfilment can be traced to the depression triggered by social isolation. It is a fundamental truth that humans are meant to be social creatures, biologically hardwired by evolution to seek companionship and interdependence. When the fragile bonds of the social system are broken—as they can be when neglected for too long—isolation occurs and depression can easily set in, creeping in like a thief in the night.

The workaholic—having had the source of his energy undermined by the depression caused by social isolation—finds there are few close friends to turn to, thus reinforcing the sense of loneliness. From the outside, this can seem like karma; in reality, it’s the predictable consequence of letting those social bonds lapse like a bridge neglected for too long.

Fortunately, the cure is straight forward, if not always easy or quick. If you’re putting work ahead of meaningful relationships. Coming to grips with workaholism is necessary. Like any addiction, the exploration of why the behavior is so rewarding for you—and exploring why it’s more emotionally comfortable to live in the grip of a consuming activity than engaging in genuine interaction with others—is a crucial step.

The key word here is engage. Engage in a rigorous self-examination with qualified psychotherapist, and begin arming yourself with the emotional tools to begin engaging with the world once again. Make no mistake: Replacing the addiction of work and achievement with the warmth of interaction and mutual dependence can be difficult, frightening, and sometimes messy. But it is well worth the effort. Live as you were meant to live—with and for others.

The Perils of Perfectionism Part II

Originally published on my blog “Modern Time Crunch” for Psychology Today.                       Negative self-talk, lack of dichotomy, and unreasonable goals are all perils of perfectionism and should be guarded against as we strive for better work and better lives.

This is the second in a series of posts to flesh out the main aspects of this unhealthy pattern of thought and behavior. As I mentioned in my last post, “Perfectionism as a Roadblock to Productivity”, many people procrastinate due to their perfectionism.

Perfectionists often consider their perfectionism an ally and credit it for motivating them to produce work of excellent quality. But more often than not perfectionism is a set of skewed perspectives and assumptions that can undermine our efforts, make our goals harder to attain, and sabotage our emotional wellbeing.

Negativity is a significant feature of perfectionists. Undervaluing themselves and their work, perfectionists often talk themselves into states of despondency over minor flaws in their production. Mistaking high standards for impossible standards, they are setting themselves up for disappointment that will only further discourage them.

The self-defeating talk and cognitive distortions don’t end there; perfectionists regularly assume that a bad day at an effort means they possess no talent and are doomed to failure. An example would be telling yourself, “I’m a failure as a parent!” when junior brings home a bad grade or ends up in the Principal’s office.

Another example would be castigating yourself for being the world’s most terrible golfer after a lousy day on the links, or assuming you’re a thoroughly hopeless musician after the first few lessons on an instrument prove harder than anticipated.

Artists are notorious for this sort of blind spot; if a story or painting isn’t working as well as hoped, it’s “awful” and they’re talentless. Isn’t it possible that there are good parts worth keeping? Generally speaking, a perfectionist’s lack of dichotomy won’t tolerate this perspective.

Also, perfectionists regularly compare their performance to the greats at their best. This is a common pitfall of high achievers. Did someone you admire achieve more than you by the same age you are now? Then it follows that you must inferior in talent or effort. It’s easy to see how this belief can wreak havoc on one’s sense of pride and agency.

Perfectionists rarely take extenuating factors into account in these scenarios, such as the relative advantages that other person enjoyed which might account for the difference, that person’s previous failings and hardships, and the unquantifiable element of plain old luck.

Unreasonable goals are a related dimension. The tendency to set such absurd and arbitrary goalposts, and pegging one’s sense of self-esteem to the ability to reach them is a hallmark of perfectionism. When the goal is inevitably missed, the negative self-talk becomes a shouting match and emotional wellbeing is further undermined.

To compensate, the perfectionist will often re-set the unreasonable goals and pledge to “try harder.”

The better route is coolly reassessing the goals versus your resources and then recalibrating the objectives. Looking at the situation with a more dichotomous perspective can help the perfectionist strike a better balance between the ideal and the possible.

In the next post I’ll discuss more hallmarks of perfectionism, their pitfalls, and how to short-circuit them.

Perfectionism as a Roadblock to Productivity

Originally published on my blog “The Modern Time Crunch” for Psychology Today.                        Far from being a motivator for productivity, perfectionism (or more precisely, the byproducts of it) can be a debilitating pattern that inhibits healthy functioning.

Though it’s driven many of the great feats of art, science, and sports, it has driven many others to distraction and led to significant problems with beginning and finishing projects. One of the main roadblocks to productivity created by perfectionists is a tendency to procrastinate.

While procrastination is often confused with plain laziness, sometimes it is the byproduct perfectionism. The daunting nature of the unrealistic goal of perfection can be so intimidating that it leads to a crippling fear of beginning. This is particularly true when one’s self-esteem is closely tied into (or contingent) upon success.

This tendency for perfectionists to yoke their sense of worth to the success of a project can be a prime driver of procrastination. It’s that fear of failure (and the ego-crushing that would inevitably result) is powerful motivation for avoiding the situation altogether.

Falling short of an unreasonable  goal too many times can lead to a sort of learned helplessness, i.e. “no matter what I do, it’s never quite good enough.” Disempowerment follows, which is another significant nail in the coffin of productivity—not perfectionism per se.

The best way to fight this self-reinforcing pattern of negativity is, of course, to water down the perfectionism and thus its unwelcome side effects. How? It’s simple: First, try beginning any project with a good-enough plan and a good-enough skill set. Remind yourself that you can always adjust your plan as you go along, and that you can always find a work-around or draft in help when you’re in over your head.

The important thing is beginning, taking the first steps of the journey. Only then you can develop momentum that can carry you along. Remember the Newtonian gravity rule that, “an object at rest tends to stay at rest”. This can help break through the icy barrier of anxiety that causes procrastination.

Second, decouple your performance from your sense of self-worth. One is not dependent on the other, and punishing yourself for failing to meet an unrealistic goal is simply counterproductive. Talking yourself into a very negative self-image as you castigate yourself is dangerous. Take a more holistic view of yourself and your role in life. Perspective is the key.

This is all easier said than done, and therapy can help.

With these initial steps, you can begin to better manage the anxiety and insecurity issues that drive procrastination and negative self-esteem, the insidious byproducts of perfectionism.