Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday Money and Time

Americans often report money as a significant source of stress in their lives, as well as a lack of personal time. The holiday season can increase both financial stress and time pressure. But there are some steps that you can take to help manage these stressors. Happy holidays involve developing a set of realistic goals for the season that includes time for relaxation and for low-key celebration with good friends and family.
The American Psychological Association suggests a number of simple strategies:
Set realistic expectations. Start by creating a realistic budget and remind your children that the holidays aren't about expensive gifts. No celebration will be perfect. Be flexible.
Take time for yourself. If you take care of yourself, you will be better able to care for others in your life. Try to get exercise during the holidays. Take a long walk. Enjoy the holiday music. Enjoy your favorite foods, but in moderation.
Volunteer. With the recession, many charitable organizations face new challenges. Find a local charity, such as a soup kitchen or a shelter, and organize your family to volunteer together. Helping others can be a source of resilience for you and for them.
Prioritize and remember what is really important. Material things can be a part of the holidays, but commercialism can overshadow the true sentiment of the holiday season. Remind yourself that your relationships with your family and friends are what really matters.
Seek support. Talk about the stress and the disappointments you may be feeling. If you're feeling extremely blue and talking with others isn't helping that much, consider talking with a professional such as a psychologist to help you develop coping strategies and better manage your stress.

For additional information on stress and lifestyle and behavior, visit the American Psychological Association website: and read the blog

Being an Effective Communicator

In the last blog, we began to talk about communication skills. Communication is one of the basic elements in resilience. Effective communication is one of the keys to building resilience and maintaining balance in your life. If we do not communicate clearly and directly with others, we will not understand and we will not be understood. If people are to talk with you and share information, especially if they are to say things that may be difficult to say or for you to hear, they need to know that they are connecting with you. They need encouragement. If you meet their attempts to communicate with silence, or if you assume the attitude of interrogator, you will not put other people at ease and you will not encourage them to tell you what you need to know.
To be effective in understanding another's perspective and helping them through a difficult time, you need to do things which show interest and genuine concern. In the last blog, we discussed four of these: Using neutral expressions, such as "I see," "Go on," "I understand," etc., nodding your head or smiling, echoing back or simply rephrasing what the person has said and asking good questions of people, questions that are open-ended and that encourage people to talk.
Here are two more ways of encouraging people to talk and improving your effectiveness as a communicator:
Get down to details. If, for example, on a medical crisis you are trying to find out what is happening, be specific. One of the major blocks to communicating in a crisis is the inability of people to describe exactly what was said or done by another person. Being able to accurately describe what happened is often essential to being able to understand a very tense and complex situation.
Being specific requires that you focus on observable actions of others without making value judgments or interpretations of what they meant. As a society, we love to talk in generalities. We often accuse people of behaving in a certain way because of a motive or a value that we believe is hidden behind their behavior. It can be important to look at people's motives, but at this point in the process, that is not your goal. Your goal is to try to understand what is happening and what people did and said.
Reflect back to others what they are saying. This is a technique frequently used by counselors. It is a very effective way of helping people hear themselves and understand what they are saying. Very often, people need to say things out loud, and they need to hear other people's reactions.
When you reflect back what a person is saying, you are not simply trying to say the same thing with different words. It is not a slick use of language that you are trying to achieve. You say back to the person what his or her statement meant to you. This gives the person you are talking with an opportunity to hear themselves, to hear your impressions of what they are saying and to correct you if the impression that they are giving is not accurate. It is also another way of letting people know that you care about what they are saying and that they matter to you.
Here is an example. Your friend may make a general statement that you respond to with a specific statement. For example, she may say, "I can't eat anything I like since I was diagnosed with diabetes." And you may respond by saying, "You like certain vegetables? You mean you can't even eat those now?" Sometimes your specific statement may be humorous and may encourage your friend to look more realistically at the situation that she is confronting and to not exaggerate or generalize.
The reverse may also be true. Your friend may list the things that she hates about her new diet, and you may respond by making a general statement, like, "It sounds like there's not much on your diet that you really like."
What your friend is saying may also bring to mind an example that you believe reflects what she is trying to say. For example, your friend is saying that she has been hesitant to go out to restaurants since she was diagnosed with diabetes. You recall that she turned down an invitation from you and your family to try a new restaurant that had just opened. You may want to mention this as an example.

Can We Change Our Thinking?

In my work as a clinical psychologist, I frequently see people who are convinced that they cannot change their thinking. Indeed, such change involves hard work. We have all developed patterns of thinking that have reached the level of habit. It is almost automatic. Unfortunately, many of these ways of thinking are traps.
They are traps in the sense that they often do not lead us to a solution to the problem that we are confronting. Instead, they encourage us to avoid situations, to give up before we need to and to apply simplistic solutions to complicated problems. From a pragmatic point of view, they do not work.
The first step in changing thinking patterns is to recognize the ones that we have, and especially to focus on the ones that we have that don't work. We have discussed in some detail in a previous blog "Catastrophic Thinking," the tendency to assume the worst and spend much of our time thinking and planning about how we are going to deal with the terrible events that we are quite sure are going to befall us before any of them even occur. Catastrophic thinking is defined simply as ruminating about irrational worst-case outcomes. Needless to say, it can increase anxiety and prevent people from taking action in a situation where action is required. This can be especially true in a crisis situation.
Catastrophic thinking, like other thinking traps, needs to be disputed. In order to do this, you must first identify the thinking for what it is.
Here are three other patterns of faulty thinking:
Confirmation bias. This involves accepting only information and data that support your current beliefs and values. This is the classic "don't bother me with the facts." You don't have to look very far to find this type of thinking rampant in our society. Just look at some of the debates that have occurred over the last few years regarding global warming and evolution.
A second faulty pattern of thinking that can be a thinking trap is "all or none" thinking in which events are seen as either black or white. There is no gray. No flexibility. Indeed, these patterns of thinking encourage rigidity and not resilience.
A third pattern is over-generalization. This is a tendency to see a single temporary event as a general permanent state of affairs. Eric Byrne years ago talked about this as one of the classic dirty-fighting tactics that couples use in an argument. They often accuse each other of "never" or "always" when that simply is not an accurate description of what has occurred. We all know that no one can be that consistent. Like other thinking traps, they do not work very well. In an argument with someone, they simply are a way of putting yourself one-up and the other person one-down. What is the outcome? The other person simply gets angry or hurt and tries to rebalance the contest, which is what it has turned into by now, by saying something equally outrageous.
A faulty thinking pattern, like any old habit, does not die easily. A first step in changing it is to recognize it for what it is and to commit ourselves to try very hard not to make use of it. This may be especially difficult when we are feeling angry or upset. It is at these times that our strong feelings may lead us back to these old patterns.