Earlier this week I was contacted by a student in Arkansas to answer a few insightful questions on the media, photoshopping, and body image. She asked me what we can do to mitigate its impact upon us. And as I started writing out a list of how we can be better consumers of media, I came to realize I was actually writing out a list of things I do as an individual, but also as someone fairly well-versed in psychology. Often I’m asked by friends, and others outside of the field if psychologists use their own “tricks” on themselves. And the frank answer is often, yes.
Indeed therapists are humans who have spent an extensive amount of time studying human behavior and managing interactions. And just as we make the same mistakes as others, we are also rejected, put down, and told we are not good enough by any number of people who cross our paths. And certainly we are hurt. But I would argue that in fact, a PhD in psychology makes a difference. Even if the course of study wasn't psychology itself, just the process of spending nearly a decade of life juggling numerous demands while underpaid and overworked makes for a type of resiliency and fighting spirit that one can only attribute to such an experience.
So what are some of the things that psychologists do differently? How do they cope when life gives them lemons? While I certainly can’t speak for all psychologists, I’ll take a stab at what we’ve been taught and how we use it effectively (we hope) in our own lives.
1) Thoughts are just mental events.
Cognitive behavioral theorists, mindfulness therapies, acceptance and commitment therapies, all have a version of this statement. Thoughts are just that. They are thoughts and they do not indicate reality. We have thousands of thoughts each day. But who is to say what’s real and if what we are thinking is really true?
2) There are shades of grey (no, not the kinky book).
Another winner from cognitive behavioral therapy is the list of what we call “cognitive thinking errors.” Each time I’m shuffling through handouts in my office and stumble upon my thinking errors sheets I’m astounded at how often I make these errors. They range from forecasting or fortunate telling (“of course he hates me, because I can read minds”) to black and white thinking (“she is either madly in love with me or despises me, because there can’t be an in between”).
Put together the idea that not all thoughts are real and that our thoughts are very prone to making errors helps to quiet the mental flood that can overcome our minds. That said, we also know that part of any emotionally difficult period is allowing ourselves to experience it. This leads to the next point.
3) We are not afraid to scream and shout, and let it all out.
I jest here with my Britney Spears reference, but in all seriousness therapists are constantly in the process of encouraging clients to express the full range of emotion from shame and guilt to anger and despair. We also know that tears are ok and part of the healing process. Too often I’ve seen students walked over to counseling centers because of a seriously concerning behavior. The behavior? Crying.
Crying makes many of us uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do with it, so we try to comfort the person, or tell them to stop crying. We might even try to cheer them up in the moment or make them laugh. This is all good-intentioned, but only keeps the problem bottled up. I’m reminded of the scene in the Princess Diaries where the lead character, Mia has an emotional meltdown and her mother tells her to cry it out. This is in fact not only a wonderful mother-daughter moment, but is therapeutically on point.
4) Writing it out helps.
Journaling is one of the most effective therapeutic interventions. It allows one to process emotions, articulate what’s really going on, and evaluate situations and feelings. Many of my clients have journaled or expressed themselves in the written form in one way or another prior to me recommending it. This blog has often provided me a means of writing about challenging current events. It allows me to interface with others on important topics, and has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life. For those who fear their deepest thoughts being found later by others, I recommend they write and then toss it is into a paper shredder or fire if it feels more symbolic and healing. Simply the act of putting pen to paper can have profoundly beneficial effects.
5) We know all the alternative therapies.
That’s right, music therapy, shopping therapy, aromatherapy, dance therapy. Ok I might have made up a few of those. But no one can put together an impromptu spa day and self-created manicures quite like someone who has mastered the art of frugal fabulousness as a graduate student. We know that sometimes when life gives us lemons, the occasion may call for anything from scented candles, soft music and a bubble bath, to losing our impulse control at our local Sephora store. Potentially superficial? Absolutely. Does it matter? No.
6) Distraction techniques can be critical.
While we understand that in trying times crying it out and expressing our emotions is important, we also know that sometimes we need to keep the dam from breaking. Keeping busy, running errands and being out of the house is sometimes just what we need. Creating a semblance of normalcy when things are in fact, anything but normal can be helpful.
As psychologists we are often trained in crisis management and suicide prevention. Statistics show that suicide attempts typically happen shortly after a triggering event such as a breakup of a relationship, death, or job loss. As such, we know that the safety plan doesn’t have to be for the next week or month. It’s just about survival, which means getting past the next few days. So if we got didn’t get the job we’d hoped for, or the dream house we bid on, we know it’s about making a plan for the next 72 hours until the initial shock wears off.
7) Reaching out matters.
Psychology studies show time and again the importance of social support buffering. In previous posts, I’ve called it the “rockstar” variable of mental health research, as it leads to better health outcomes and decreases the impact of adversity. So when life gives therapists lemons, we often pick up the phone. We might call our best friend a few states away or Skype to see the face that always comforted us when we were lost. As psychologists we understand the incredible importance of community, and know we never have to go it alone.
8) We know laughter makes the best medicine.
Relatedly, there are those times when everything that could go wrong does go wrong. At those times, we know to throw up our hands and laugh. Over the years, I’ve been blessed by female friends who could double as stand up comediennes. From getting ridiculous video messages to some of the sassiest texts proclaiming the things we wish we could say out loud, the term LOL is one that I’m so grateful to say I experience on a regular basis. When situations seem hopeless or I have no control, I’ve learned to feel my feelings and then laugh hysterically.
8) We like to move it, move it.
When no amount of laughter seems possible, movement is one of the best ways of manually triggering healthy endorphins into your system. Everyday at work during lunch I go for a walk. Sometimes it’s leisurely and I gaze up at the sky, close my eyes and listen to the birds chirping. Other times it’s quick while I’m chatting with a friend on the phone. Depending on how much time I have I might walk from 20 minutes to 40 minutes each day midday. After work I’ll go to a yoga class and repeat this on the weekends.
I used to run, but currently don’t. I don’t stress out about it because much as I tell my clients, we are all in different life phases which prescribe our circumstances. I used to run when I lived walking distance of two beautiful lakes on a safe campus. As a fellow I currently live far from such luxuries but know it’s just a matter of time before this changes. Berating myself for this doesn’t help the situation. This leads directly to my next point.
9) Letting go of unrealistic expectations and being kind to ourselves matters.
One of the best theoretical shifts in my opinion that the field is seeing is integration of mindfulness therapies. Mindfulness therapies are simple at their core, which in many ways is how they can be so difficult to embody. They involve letting go, acceptance, kindness, patience, and trust among other values. Think for a moment about being kinder to yourself. What does that look like? For me, it’s typically silencing my inner critic—the person that doesn’t know how to sit still and do absolutely nothing without feeling that I should be working on something.
10) Silence is golden.
Likewise, many therapists will practice some form of silent retreat. It may be meditation, prayer, or just sitting in stillness. Learning to stop when things are moving at a million miles a minute is one of the most helpful skills one can cultivate. There are times when I’m overwhelmed and turn off my phone, computer, and anything with a screen. I’ll light a candle in complete silence and do whatever feels right. Sometimes it is praying, other times it is meditating. I might wind up journaling or even reading a book for leisure. Sound pollution is something that impacts us on such a deep level, and yet we are typically unconscious of the constant buzzing of chatter and sounds in the backdrop of our lives.
11) Feeding our esteem needs is important.
This actually gets to much of what prompted this article in the first place. When I was asked how to be a smarter consumer of media, I thought about all that I’ve learned about how magazines negatively impact women’s self-esteem. I thought about the articles that explain how to do my hair, nails, makeup, and revamp my entire Spring wardrobe and how they make me feel that whatever I’m already doing is clearly not enough.
And so in truth, I limit my exposure. Certainly, I get curious about how to ensure I will never age a day in my life with “all natural” methods. But my rule is simple. If I’m by the beach or pool I buy something with substance like a yoga magazine or O, The Oprah Magazine. When I’m traveling by airplane (typically 2-3 times per year) I can buy absolutely anything I want from People to Allure and Glamour.
Most importantly, I surround myself with people I can be myself around regardless of what I look like. While I love beauty-related topics and learning about the occasional “latest look,” I don’t befriend individuals whose interests are limited to this. If someone is only ever talking about who’s hot and who’s not, that’s my cue to leave.
Further, as a therapist who commonly works with students who present with self-esteem concerns, I practice what I preach. If I tell a client not to sell themselves short, then this is what happens in my own life. I’m often telling women the importance of being valued and respected in their relationships. I tell them to know what they are worth and never to settle for their partners. They either know quality or they don’t. Simple as that. Hence, what I advocate for my own clients is nothing short of what I advocate for in my own life.
12) We fight exceedingly well.
The issue of advocacy raises another important point. This is related to how therapists communicate and well, fight when they have to. Being versed in communication, therapists know name-calling never wins the fight. It only leads to defensiveness and escalation. We know sometimes walking away is better than saying something we’ll later regret and never be able to take back. We also understand the conditions under which tensions arise-everything from sleep deprivation to a tough day at work.
13) Striving is thriving.
By the time one has completed a doctorate degree in psychology, one has likely been exposed to hundreds of studies in a variety of disciplines within the field. From conformity studies to those on children and attachments, we recall snippets of information from countless sources. Much of it we forget, and yet every so often at a seemingly random moment in time we will vaguely recall a detail and its potential impact upon our lives.
I took an entire course on the neurobiology of sleep and while I still have the text, I mostly recall one key point. Sleep is critical. It impacts anxiety, depression, immune functioning, memory consolidation and you need lots of it. Napping is also good in 10 to 15 minute increments, because after that point you hit sleep inertia. And so yes, I go to bed earlier than most folks’ grandparents and instead of downing coffee or soda to wake up, I’ll attempt to get a quick nap in or listen to a progressive muscle relaxation audio. The point being, we try. We strive to integrate the things we’ve been taught that work simply because we also want to live happy, fulfilling lives. There are so many accessible ways of enhancing and optimizing our lives that it doesn’t make sense not to try them.
At the end of the day, therapists are people. We do things we later regret, have heartbreaks and really bad days at work. Sometimes we wallow and ruminate, and other times we are proactive and seek out solutions to our woes. We know what triggers us and when to log off of Facebook. The good news is even when things aren’t going so well, psychologists have many recipes in their cookbook for when life hands them lemons.
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