Jul 27

Fear Gives Us Useful Information, According to Experts

Fear, like all other emotions, is basically information. It offers us knowledge and understanding—if we choose to accept it—of our psychobiological status. Karl Albrecht, PhD, Psychology Today

Albrecht also points out that all our fears fall into five basic categories. Click on the link above for details.

  1. Extinction—the fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist.
  2. Mutilation—the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function.
  3. Loss of Autonomy—the fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control.
  4. Separation—the fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness; of becoming a non-person—not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else.
  5. Ego-death—the fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.

He makes the distinction between survival-value fears and learned fears. The former need to be heeded in order to stay as safe as we can possibly be.

Gavin de Becker, an expert on both fear and the psychology of danger and author of The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence (1997), teaches awareness of “pre-incident indicators (PINS) of violence.”

A key survival skill is the use of our intuition when frightened:

Every day, people engaged in the clever defiance of their own intuition become, in mid-thought, victims of violence and accidents. So when we wonder why we are victims so often, the answer is clear: It is because we are so good at it. A woman could offer no greater cooperation to her soon-to-be attacker than to spend her time telling herself, ‘But he seems like such a nice man.’ Yet this is exactly what many people do. A woman is waiting for an elevator, and when the doors open she sees a man inside who causes her apprehension. Since she is not usually afraid, it may be the late hour, his size, the way he looks at her, the rate of attacks in the neighborhood, an article she read a year ago—it doesn’t matter why. The point is, she gets a feeling of fear. How does she respond to nature’s strongest survival signal? She suppresses it, telling herself: ‘I’m not going to live like that, I’m not going to insult this guy by letting the door close in his face.’ When the fear doesn’t go away, she tells herself not to be so silly, and she gets into the elevator. Now, which is sillier: waiting a moment for the next elevator, or getting into a soundproofed steel chamber with a stranger she is afraid of?

Practice respecting one’s intuition, he says, not more denial, which he describes as “a save-now-pay-later scheme, a contract written entirely in small print, for in the long run, the denying person knows the truth on some level, and it causes a constant low-grade anxiety. Millions of people suffer that anxiety, and denial keeps them from taking action that could reduce the risks (and the worry).”

May 11

“The Upside of Stress”: It’s Actually Not All Bad All the Time

You may have already seen her 2013 TED talk on this subject, but now Kelly McGonigal‘s book The Upside of Stress is out.

The TED Talk:

A few selected quotes from the Talk:

[If the research is true] that would make believing stress is bad for you the 15th largest cause of death in the United States last year, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide.

So my goal as a health psychologist has changed. I no longer want to get rid of your stress. I want to make you better at stress.

Now I wouldn’t necessarily ask for more stressful experiences in my life, but this science has given me a whole new appreciation for stress. Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you strength and energy. And when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.

Erin Enders, Bustle, lists the seven ways “embracing stress can make you happier and healthier,” per McGonigal. (Click on the link for details.)

  1. You’ll find the strength to pursue your goals.
  2. You’ll grow as a person.
  3. You’ll learn how to thrive in difficult situations.
  4. You’ll be able to transform a threat into a challenge.
  5. You’ll have more emotional support.
  6. You’ll be a stronger person.
  7. …And eventually you’ll view stress as a resource.

McGonigal talks to Brigid Schulte, Washington Postabout shifting one’s “stress mindset”:

…People who are more stressed out, who worry more, surveys show, are also more likely to say their lives are meaningful.

For instance, last night, I got this email. It made me really sad and disappointed. It took me a few moments, but then I realized the disappointment and sadness were signs of how much I cared. And once you recognize that, it’s important to stay engaged, and to think about what action you can take that’s consistent with your goals and values.

Examples of specific suggestions that enable the needed shift:

    • Write or reflect on the connection between a specific stressor and something meaningful.
    • Take a “Bigger than Self”  perspective—find ways to recognize how common and/or human one’s situation is.
Jan 05

“The Willpower Instinct”: Kelly McGonigal’s Views On How to Harness It

The development of willpower–I will, I won’t and I want–may define what it means to be human. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct

What could be more needed and/or relevant in early January than Kelly McGonigal‘s The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (2011)?

And who could be more qualified to write such a book than the woman whose course at Stanford on “The Science of Willpower” regularly draws so much interest?

What is willpower? In an interview with Kate Torgovnick May (TED blog) McGonigal states:

I define willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to…There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big values rather than short-term needs or desires.

As compiled from various sources, below are some of her main points in The Willpower Instinct:

  • The three skills of self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matters most are what can fend off the three biggest challenges to willpower: temptation, self-criticism, and stress.
  • “If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.” Conversely, not paying attention is conducive to losing impulse control.
  • Want to increase your willpower? Exercise it like a muscle.
  • Your willpower will be at its peak when you wake up and decline throughout the day.
  • Sleeping enough and eating healthily helps.
  • Giving yourself small rewards also helps.
  • Guilt over setbacks does not—it often contributes to giving up, at least for a while.
  • Alarming people about the negative nature of their habits is often not beneficial.

An example of how the latter point might play out, per McGonigal:

A 2009 study found that death warnings trigger stress and fear in smokers—exactly what public health officials hope for. Unfortunately, this anxiety then triggers smokers’ default stress-relief strategy: smoking. Oops. It isn’t logical, but it makes sense based on what we know about how stress influences the brain. Stress triggers cravings and makes dopamine neurons even more excited by any temptation in sight. It doesn’t help that the smoker is—of course—staring at a pack of cigarettes as he reads the warning. So even as a smoker’s brain encodes the words ‘WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer’ and grapples with awareness of his own mortality, another part of his brain starts screaming, ‘Don’t worry, smoking a cigarette will make you feel better!’

What should you do when your own willpower flags? In a Psychology Today post McGonigal asserts that the following five “temptations” can actually be of use:

1. Reality Television—watch the kind that features people going after a goal. ‘Research shows that willpower can be contagious.’

2. A Snack. ‘One reason willpower runs out is because it’s energy-expensive. The brain uses more energy for self-control than for just about anything else. So if you’re running low on physical energy, you’ll be low in willpower energy.’

3. The Cute YouTube Video. ‘Research show that watching a humorous video restores depleted willpower and helps people get back on track with difficult tasks.’

4. An Afternoon Nap. Because sleep recharges your brain.

5. A Single Espresso. ‘Caffeine gets a bad rap, blamed for energy crashes and overcaffeinated jitters. But in its simplest form—straight up coffee or tea—and reasonable doses (depending on your own caffeine tolerance), caffeine can actually reduce stress.’