Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Cheshire Cat: The Epitome of Mental Health Coaching?

The Cheshire Cat is nearly the epitome of what mental health coaching is all about.

Regardless of which adaptation of Alice's adventures you're familiar with, you only meet him after you're getting comfortable in Wonderland, and then he's not at all what you've just learned to expect. His normalcy is unsettling. Okay, so is the manic grin. But that's just for show. Anyway, you aren't sure what to make of him because, by all appearances, he's just another Wonderland inhabitant. But there's something very off about him, compared to the rest.

I could go deep and say the Cheshire Cat is the Jungian archetype of mystery and tricks, but that analysis only loosely fits. (He's clever, but not deceptive, malicious, selfish, or "getting away with" anything.) Cheshire is:
  • straightforward, no sugar-coating
  • rational despite prevailing Wonderland madness
  • unthreatened by other creatures
  • a good advisor
  • capable of intelligent and clear conversation
  • the only character that actually listens to Alice
  • the only character that Alice can like and trust, despite appearances
  • consistent in following standard rules, as opposed to other Wonderland citizens who spontaneously create their own rules
He also doesn't stick around long. Long enough to listen, propose a sensible solution, and make sure Alice is all right. There really isn't that much mysterious about him. He's only there to be sure Alice is still on the track she wants to be on. He allows her to decide what's next. It's her dream, after all, not his.

A little madness is perfectly fine with him, and may, after all, be necessary for survival in Wonderland. Or even here.

The cat is a mental health pro, in any case. He makes perceptive observations:
  • Wonderland is mad. Alice is in Wonderland, therefore, she must be mad as well. He doesn't pull punches but presents a pretty objective diagnosis.
  • Wonderland's madness is greater than the sum of its parts. When surrounded by chaos, no single situation or person has especially strong influence, but the cumulative effect on one is more than the situations and people added together.
  • Alice's "normal" behavior is "mad" in the Wonderland context (for example, her curiosity). What may have been functional behavior once no longer serves one's best interests. But context matters; it determines whether the behavior needs to change or not.
Cheshire Cat is a great coach or counselor, plain and simple.

*  *  *  *  *

It's Adopt-A-Cat Month, folks. And cats can be great listeners, but they can also decide to go to sleep just when you get to the exciting part, or choose that moment to walk off to the food bowl, or clean their nether regions. We aren't in Wonderland, after all. But they are great stress relievers, when the general madness starts to creep in.

And when felines float off to dream about chasing white rabbits, I'm still here for ya! 

(Now the little avatar makes sense, doesn't it?)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tough, Strong, and ... Happy?

(Scene: a desert vista just before sunset, heat waves shimmering up from the ground, blurring the horizon. A lone figure on a horse rides steadily along toward a distant town. Camera zooms in so we see the rider is a rugged cowboy. He's slouching with eyes downcast, obviously weary but determined.)

How many scenes like that have we seen on TV or in the movies? Or updated, and it's a detective on the prowl, or a researcher at a computer. Appearances change, but the characters are pretty much the same. They aren't bulletproof or immune to grief, frustration, or disappointment, but they're tough.

We know people like this in real life, too. And chances are, they're happier than the general population.

Mental toughness - resilience - is a predictor of happiness and satisfaction in life. Resilience includes a bucket of mental behaviors, like empathy, the ability to regulate emotions and control impulses, and the tendency to do causal analysis rather than jump to conclusions. Resilience also signifies a very reduced tendency toward tunnel vision, over-personalizing a situation, over-generalizing a situation, or blowing things out of proportion.

A resilient person sees things more objectively. The more practice they have, the better they are at it. And since they aren't drama divas, they aren't at the mercy of negativity. They're free to enjoy all the positive emotions that come along. They think things through rather than assume the world hates them, so they can accept that a situation is unpleasant, but it doesn't define them or their entire day.

If you don't consider yourself especially tough-minded (or happy), try changing some of your thought processes:

  • In any situation, give yourself 60 seconds, and then evaluate your emotions. Are you reacting or responding? A clue to the less-appropriate behavior is in the root verb, act. Sometimes grief or shock or rage is appropriate, like if you just found out a dearly beloved family member has suddenly died, or you discover that your boss has been embezzling for years and the company is closing tomorrow and you're jobless, or you catch a puny burglar red-handed sneaking out of your house and he drops your flat-screen on your dog when he sees you. In most cases, a less extreme response is probably better, because focusing energy on reaction means you can't focus as much on the situation. Which creates a lovely segue to the next point.

  • Process situations to determine their cause. Did you get a flat tire because fate wanted you to be late, or because you failed to check your tire pressure recently, or because that semi full of nails tipped over on the freeway? (In which case, it's an inconvenience for you, but it's way worse for him.) And while you're looking at causes, don't stop at the first one you come to. You're irritated why? Because some guy cut you off in traffic. Take it one more step and ask why. Is he a jerk? Is he just a bad driver? Or might something be going on in his world right now that's causing him to drive that way? (Maybe he just got some horribly shocking news. Maybe his wife is delivering his first child and he's trying to get to the hospital.) You don't know. Which takes us to the next point.

  • Don't assume so much. You know what happens when you assume. And making assumptions without bothering to get all the facts is the same as jumping to conclusions. It's a bad habit. Same goes for mind-reading (unless you're an actual psychic). You might think you know, but odds are, you're wrong. At best, you only know a part. Don't believe me? Play a game with friends. Have them think of an event or situation going on in their lives, but ask them to tell you only half of the facts. You make your guess about the other half, and see how often you're right. The point is, it's not your life, so you can't even make educated guesses sometimes. And that takes us to the last point.

  • Remember that not everything is about you. Even if you are a diva, don't try to make it all about you. Empathy for others will help you be more aware of when things go well, and you'll appreciate those times more. And you'll be happier for others when they're happy. And when bad things do happen, you'll be better able to cope.

Developing your resilience is an ├╝ber-effective positive psychology technique. The really cool thing about it is, there's no end limit on how resilient (or happy) you can be.  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Milk, Batteries, and Balance?

If you have a battery connected the wrong way, things may work, but not well, and only for a short time. For optimum results, your positive and negative have to be in the right places. If you haven't read my post, Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk (, it's a good place to start. Go ahead. I'll just refill my cuppa while you're there.

Things go wrong. Bad things happen. Negativity exists and you're certainly allowed to feel bad, sad, angry, frustrated, hurt, guilty, distrustful, or whatever, as long as your negative response is in context. AKA, don't over-dramatize. Acknowledging your (appropriate) negative feelings is healthy.

In other words, it's the nature of milk to spill. And it's perfectly okay to not like it. It's reasonable to prepare for the potential of spillage and not tap dance while carrying a full glass. You're on the diva side when - wonder of wonders - the milk actually spills and you let it ruin your day.

But wait, there's more:

As it turns out, negativity is a more intense experience. It's about twice as strong as positivity. If you have positivity in a 2:1 ratio, you're living with mediocrity and a LOT of dissatisfaction. There's as much positive as negative in your world. That's an average person.

We need positivity in a 3:1 ration to really thrive and succeed and feel good about anything.* That makes sense; at 3:1, positive finally outweighs negative.

How do we get there? One very concrete way is to intentionally track the 3:1. Acknowledge the positives and negatives, even if some days it seems like you have to get creative and spin an event. You know how we say that if you look for something bad, you'll find it? The reverse is also true.

Practicing looking for and acknowledging good stuff is good for you. First, it reduces your negativity bias. That makes the negatives in your life weaker, which means you can get by with the occasional 2:1 day and still be happy. Second, it increases your awareness of a wider range of thoughts and actions. You aren't jumping to conclusions and  automatically seeing (and judging) things as good or bad, so you have more choices about what you think or how you feel. 

(And just as a sidenote, jumping to conclusions isn't a great thing. It's handy, sometimes, to be able to make quick judgments - like in heavy traffic, for example. But in human interaction, it's not so useful. Leaping ahead without all the facts prevents you from paying attention so others feel unheard. It forces you to make assumptions ... and we all know what happens when you assume. And, in the human context, it's kind of an addicting behavior, which means you're increasingly likely to be wrong.)

Keep a journal or a tally sheet if it makes you happy. Or just take a half-second to allow yourself to think "yes, that was a good thing," when a positive happens. At the same time, work on reframing neutral events:
            "Oh no! There's milk all over the counter, what a mess, what a waste! I'm such a clutz, no one will ever want me and I'm going to die, sad and alone. And milk-less!"
            "Well, milk spills," (event neutralized) "but I've got a towel right here," (acknowledging positive aspect) "so it's no big deal."
And you can go on with your life, without making the jump to connect your love life, your eventual demise, or your grocery list. Because that's just weird.

This is NOT to say that things won't go wrong, or that you can never allow yourself to feel bad. It's only a recommendation to keep things in perspective, lest you lose it.

* Frederickson, B.L. (2009). Positivity. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

5 Reasons We Should Have Seen It Coming

Ever read much about Jeffrey Dahmer's childhood? If you only perceive him as an evil monster, you really should check it out. He wasn't always a psychopath. It's possible that for a while, he was a happy, normal, healthy, loved baby.

The cumulative traumas in his life led to anti-social personality disorder and tragedy. How much worse, considering the suffering of his victims and families, is the knowledge that it could have been prevented?

1.  His mother had a "difficult" pregnancy.
There aren't many details on what that meant. Maybe she was suffering from depression. That might have prevented her from bonding with the baby prior to birth. If she had post-partum depression, she may not have been able to bond with Jeffrey at all. Without any explanation of what "difficult" meant, it's hard to know how much this impacted Jeffrey. But since this gets trotted out - sans details - I have to wonder how much was fact and how much was hype from a mother who wanted more attention for herself.

A narcissistic parent is jealous of her child's increasing independence. She's incapable of meeting any emotional needs. She's selfish, critical, and abusive. If Jeffrey's mom was a narcissist, it would almost be a guarantee that there was no bonding, so he almost certainly would've developed an attachment disorder. It's the perfect set-up for a sociopath.

2.  He had surgery for a double hernia when he was just four.
That's understandably tough for a little kid. But add to that the fact that he was either unaware or was confused about the surgery. Imagine how you'd feel if you were in pain, and then all kinds of people in the hospital started touching and looking at your privates!

This kind of trauma can alter development of the central nervous system. In turn, that can change hormone production enough that it interferes with brain development. It would have been very difficult for him to understand personal boundaries.

3.  He was sexually abused when he was eight, by an older neighbor boy.
No details on this, either, but we know this kind of abuse has the potential to physically alter brain development. If you don't think this was a huge event in his life, look up the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Most kids who are victims of CSA go on to become abusers themselves.

If the earlier surgery trauma didn't do it, this was enough to seriously diminish serotonin. And where we see decreased serotonin function, we usually see impulsiveness and aggression, especially if there are also high cortisol levels, which go along with stress. Think this kid wasn't stressed? See #4.

4.  Since his birth, his parents (when his father wasn't isolating himself) fought bitterly.
Even when there's no physical violence, the sheer stress of witnessing intense marital discord psychologically impacts children. When he was a teenager and his parents finally divorced, they only argued about which parent his younger brother would live with. Wouldn't any kid feel a bit uncared for?

Going through life with parents demanding all the attention would do damage. Even if they didn't consciously do it for attention, who could ignore it? Jeffrey would've had to find some outlet for his natural aggressive impulses, since his feelings were first ignored, then repressed. Talk about adding fuel to the fire!

5.  After the divorce, he was abandoned by both parents.
His mother and brother moved out of state and he had no way to contact them. He wasn't even out of high school, but with his father gone most of the time (who had never been emotionally available, anyway, it seems), Jeff truly had to fend for himself, without food, money, or a working refrigerator.

And so how surprising is it that he started to experiment with alcohol? And alcoholism, combined with depression and personality disorder, really takes its toll on how well the frontal lobe functions. (Like, as in, pretty well destroys rational judgment.)

*  *  *  *  *

His father later wrote "I could not imagine how he had become such a ruined soul." Seriously? Let's see, we've created a child with an attachment disorder, meaning he'll never understand love or trust. He was traumatized and abused and never provided counseling, so he coped with tremendous stress, fear, and aggression with no outlet. He learned that bodies were for others to manipulate. He was forced to find alternative means of expression in order to survive and function, although - through alcohol abuse - he found a way to eliminate any shred of rational judgment he had.

Oh wait, let's add insult to injury. Jeffrey admitted to his crimes. Because he was reasonably intelligent, the court rejected his insanity plea. (Yeah, because a kid goes through a childhood like that, and has a human barbecue, but he's completely sane. Sure.) Yeah, okay, it was a little late to save the victims.

Might not have been too late to save Jeffrey, if only from his own demons. 


Thursday, May 10, 2012

It's Really Easy To Raise A Psychopath

(Technical note: psychopathy is sort of a subset of anti-social personality disorder. It's possible to have ASPD and not become a serial killer, however.)

Lots of child psychologists agree that most kids who go on to kill their families aren't diagnosed earlier because parents ignore the signs. And a lot of those signs are around as early as the pre-school years:
• An interest in fires or starting fires
• Cruelty to animals, or at least inappropriate handling (teasing, waking from sleep, holding too tightly, etc)
• Bed wetting that lasts longer than normal
(Those three are knows as the MacDonald Triad; they almost always occur together in ASPD kids)
• Total lack of conscience, empathy, or compassion for others
• Lying, manipulative and deceptive behavior like conning, especially by being charming, especially to avoid punishment or work, forging signatures
• Lack of remorse or indifference
• Avoiding intimacy such as hugs, although quick to grasp social norms of touching like handshakes, pats on the back, etc.
• Vandalism
• Bizarre or violent writings or drawings
• Preoccupied with violence
• Acting out in a sexually inappropriate manner
• Seeks immediate gratification of needs, no impulse control
• Diagnosable with conduct disorder by mid-teens
• School misbehavior - bullying, truancy, lack of concern for schoolwork
• Complete disregard for authority - running away from home, nonchalance about house rules
• Difficulty understanding cause-effect; difficulty planning ahead
• Little if any emotional control
• Easily bored, may lead to thrill-seeking behaviors, risky sex, and substance abuse

These kids sometimes (rarely) just happen: 
• Some babies are born with abnormalities in the frontal lobe (the part that controls judgment and a concept of needs balanced between the self and others), which keeps it from developing as it should.
• Some kids may sustain a frontal lobe injury or damage from disease, which may halt the development of the frontal lobe or simply prevent it from functioning as it should.

Often, these kids are created: 
• Overly harsh or inconsistent parenting
• Being in foster care
• Large family size
• Single parent
• Physical or sexual abuse
• Violence or domestic abuse (physical, verbal, emotional) in the home
• Poverty
• Other family members with antisocial personality disorder
• Substance abuse in the home
• Parents seen as uncaring, uninvolved, selfish
(These are only risk factors; there are other factors which would negate the risk from these. So just because you're a single parent, or have a big family, or you're a chain smoker, don't freak out!)

Are kids actually psychopaths? Not technically. It's a diagnosis reserved for adults, even though some kids meet the criteria for diagnosis. During pre-teen childhood, a lot of these kids might be diagnosed as having an attachment disorder. Anti-social personality disorder, especially with psychopathology, is cumulative and progressive, which is why paying attention is the most important thing adults can do.

Some psychologists strongly encourage assessments for antisocial behavior as early as age 4, or at least prior to starting school. With appropriate treatment - early - there's hope. Once this kind of child hits puberty, all anyone can do is pray he doesn't become violent. And most people with ASPD don't go on to become serial murderers.

But you never know.

Disclaimer: this is not meant as a diagnosis of any person, child or adult. Just because a child happens to exhibit one or even several characteristics listed does not mean the kid is a wacko about to go on a chainsaw spree at Walmart. It DOES mean, if you have ANY concerns, you need to get the kid in for a proper evaluation asap.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Don't Panic, Be Happy!

It's National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week. Why both? Because they like to show up together a lot more than we'd like. And many people may seek treatment for one, not realizing they should be dealing with both, and then feel worse when their treatment doesn't work.

 Anxiety is weird. It's pretty easy when it's you, because you know your emotional state. When it's a friend or loved one, it's not so simple. There are literally hundreds of possible symptoms, and only certain combinations would make you think of anxiety. Plus, most people don't like to admit they're feeling anything more than a little worried.

 Anxiety disorders affect about 20% of the population every year. Without treatment, some turn to drugs and alcohol, some end up completely unable to function. Anxiety is relatively simple to treat, so there's no reason to try to tough it out.

 About 10% of the population is suffering from depression at any given time. It sucks if you're dealing with it, and it sucks if someone you care about is dealing with it. And the longer it goes untreated, the more miserable the person feels, the greater the risk of drug or alcohol abuse, and the greater the risk of suicide. If it's more than "the blues" or it lasts longer than a couple months - get help!

Common signs of anxiety
• restlessness or feeling edgy
• becoming tired easily
• trouble concentrating
• feeling as if the mind is going blank
• irritability
• muscle tension
• sleep problems (trouble falling / staying asleep / getting restful sleep)
• palpitations
• chest pain, chest tightness, feeling like you're having a heart attack
• shortness of breath or trouble breathing
• sweating of the palms
• nausea or pretty much any "tummy trouble"
• trembling or shaking
• men tend to have more mental problems (tension, irritability, a sense of doom) while women tend to have more physical problems (shortness of breath, nausea)

Common signs of depression:
• difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
• fatigue and decreased energy
• feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
• feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
• insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
• irritability, restlessness
• loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
• overeating or appetite loss
• persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
• persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Going With The Flow ... To Where?

You may have been reading about flow lately. Or not. Thanks to NLP and relatively recent psychological research, it's getting some buzz. It's nothing new, though; you probably recognize an alias or two:
  • being in the zone
  • in the groove
  • centered
  • in the moment
  • fully present
  • on fire
  • tuned in

The word "flow" to describe the mental state came about in the late 60's, but whatever you want to call it, it's a cool thing to pursue.

For one thing, while most humans can kinda-sorta multi-task, we basically suck at it. Our brains can only handle a tiny fraction of the millions of bits of information available at any given second - about 126 bits. Just having a conversation takes about a third of that capacity. (Which is why a lot of people really need to hang up and drive.) With a limited capacity, we're pretty easily distracted. Flow helps us get completely focused.

But it's more than just focus. Focus = thinking - distraction. Flow = (thinking - distraction)2. Flow has been described as a self-induced hypnotic trance, but it's not. (You know how you can be driving along, and suddenly you realize you don't remember the last three miles? That's a self-induced hypnotic trance. You don't remember driving, nor what you were thinking about.) Flow may lower heart rate and blood pressure, but mental activity increases along with focus on the task at hand. Instead of being disconnected from driving, you're hyper-connected and able to lose yourself (or, your self) in the activity, while being completely aware of your activity.

Flow improves learning, performance, motivation, satisfaction, creativity, personal growth....  Plenty of ways it could take you to a better place.

But this is just a bunch of psychobabble, right?

Well, no. The brain is an electrochemical organ. That's how we can measure brain activity - by charting brain activity in terms of electrical amplitude:
  • Beta waves - 15 to 40 cycles per second. When you're thinking about stuff or in an active conversation, intentionally learning or reading (not for pleasure). It's intentional activity that requires some amount of mental effort.
  • Alpha waves - 9 to 14 cycles per second. This is somebody who's meditating, closing their eyes for a minute to breathe deeply, or something restful and not mentally stimulating. Kids who are pretty good students may cruise through school in high alpha rather than beta. But this is where most adults are when their heads are hitting the pillow at night.
  • Theta waves - 5 to 8 cycles per second. This is daydreaming, or that self-induced hypnotic state when you're driving and don't remember the last few miles. This is also dreamland and that sort of auto-pilot state when you're in the shower and get a brilliant idea.
  • Delta waves - the slowest: 1.5 to 4 cycles per second. (There's no 0, because that would indicate that you're brain dead!) This is deep sleep.  

Flow happens right around 10 cycles per second, right at the slow edge of alpha. Waaaaaay slower than you'd think would be required, considering the results! And yet, that's how it can do what it does. When you're in flow state, you don't think deeply or intently. You don't have to. You're humming along quite efficiently right here, without getting in your own way.

The catch is, you can't just decide it's going to happen. You have to be involved in something with a purpose and structure. There also has to be a decent balance between your perception of the task and your perception of your skills. And finally, the task has to provide clear, immediate feedback. (Meaning, you have to be able to see right away if what you're doing is working. The task or activity may not literally say "Hey, that was a smooth move, buddy, keep it up.")

For a practical application in any area of life, simply start setting high-quality goals. Flow is a self-sustaining form of motivation. You're better able to achieve when you're in flow, and you'll enjoy the challenge. And you'll find that to maintain flow, you'll have to keep challenging yourself.

Where could flow take you?