Emotional Resilience Blog from The Fear Course

The latest research, realisations and thinking in the world of emotional resilience, anxiety and fear reduction from around the world.

Why we make ourselves feel worse.

Why we make ourselves feel worse.

It is usually expected that as human beings we all want to feel positive and would prefer to avoid negative feelings. There is evidence to show that in the west at least, people do tend to prefer to up-regulate positive emotions, and we also tend to do things that down-regulate negative emotions. The most common ways of doing this tend to be by the use of devices such as listening to music that makes us happy, doing nice things, being with friends, having treats, having a bath, meditation, relaxing etc to create and hold onto positive feelings and negate negative feelings. This is called hedonic emotion regulation or doing things to increase pleasure and reduce negative emotions. It makes sense and why wouldn't anyone want to do this?

Well as it turns out there are times when we actually down-regulate or dampen positive emotions and up-regulate or increase our negative emotions. for example researchers have found that people with low self-esteem tend to find themselves worrying about being too positive or happy. This can often be accompanied by thoughts such as, 'if I get too happy someone will ruin it all and i'll be even worse off'.

It is often the same when we are feeling down. We can also down-regulate emotions out of feelings of guilt, like finding yourself laughing whilst grieving for example or dampening positive emotions around someone who is depressed or grieving.
It is common for therapeutic clients to up-regulate negative emotions when they are with their therapist. I have watched clients park their car, cross the road and enter the building and wait in reception looking fine, until they see me, then suddenly drop their shoulders and start crying. Another scenario is when playing the social game 'ain't it awful' This is where two or more people do the 'did you see the news last night about x or y disaster - ain't it awful' and actively increase the negative feelings whilst engaging in this type of conversation and then snapping out of it as they walk away.

People who are trying to prove a point about how badly they have been treated frequently up-regulate the negative emotions in front of the people they blame for their misfortune. Any parent of a teenager will recognise that one.

It has also been discovered that we often down-regulate or dampen positive emotions when we are about to meet and interact with strangers, especially in group situations. So if you enter a meeting room with people you don't know too well you are quite likely to reduce 'overly' positive emotions before you do so. We also tend to reduce positive emotions just before we have to engage in any confrontational engagement.

In my next post I will have a look at how cultural differences in our beliefs about emotion significantly alters the way we go about regulating or changing our feelings and also some recent surprising findings about which cultures find it harder to learn how to regulate or change things like anxiety or low feelings.

 

 


References

Gross, J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2, 271-299.

Parrott, W. (1993). Beyond hedonism: Motives for inhibiting good moods and for maintaining bad moods. In D. Wegner (Ed.), Handbook of mental control (pp. 278-305). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Tamir, M. (2009). What do people want to feel and why?: Pleasure and utility in emotion regulation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 101-105.

Wood, J., Heimpel, S., & Michela, J. (2003). Savoring versus dampening: Self-esteem differences in regulating positive affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 566-580.

 

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The happiness fallacy and the wisdom of sitting in it.

The happiness fallacy and the wisdom of sitting in it.

In the last few weeks I have been a bit 'flat'. Not happy but not depressed or anxious, just flat and down. The kind of feeling that things aren't going the way I want them too, that I'm not getting traction on the projects I am working on. This has been accompanied by strong sense of frustration and I have been questioning my direction and what I am doing. I suppose I would describe it as a downer or feeling low.


I'm normally a pretty high energy kind of person, motivated, productive and active in my field so the change has been quite marked. The interesting thing has been the reaction of my family, friends and colleagues. Many of them have, out of love and good intention, focussed on getting me 'out of it'. There have been a legion offers of cakes, trips out, motivational talks, sympathy, and a myriad other ways to help. I learned sometime ago not to run from these emotions, not to try to artificially fix them. When I have explained that 'it's ok i just need to sit in it for a while' most, who know me smile and realise I don't need to be fixed. For some others there is a shake of the head and bemusement as to why I wouldn't want to be pulled out of the trough I am in. Others who know me less well others ignore my "it's ok, I will be ok, sometimes you just need to be where you are' and switch into fixing it mode with a vengeance despite my protestations.

As I am frequently explaining, emotional resilience is not the absence of feeling, as is a common misperception, it is almost the opposite. It is the ability to feel, recognise those feelings and bounce back. There is another aspect to emotional resilience however and that is not being afraid of our emotions. Having the ability to recognise and observe the emotion without feeling the need to run away from the emotion or to fix it.

The thing about a trough is that you must have had a crest before it and there will inevitably be a another crest on it's way. Such cycles are not just a part of life but they have a reason for being. I am in an emotional trough because of patterns of thought which, if I allow them to be and observe, point to the fact that things aren't quite going as I wish. Listening to that message is important as it usually heralds change. Sitting in it and observing it means that I am starting to see what are called the emergent properties or patterns in the reality I am currently in. These emergent properties are showing me the way to the next change. I am starting to see my 'where next'.

There is a happiness fallacy that we need to be happy all the time and downers or troughs are to be avoided at all costs. As long as the downer doesn't turn into negative rumination about the emotion which can lead to feelings of hopelessness and become habituated as depression, as long as you just sit in it and observe, a process known as decentering, you turn the situation into a positive and productive episode. In years gone by, I would have pulled myself out of it or gone into a depressive episode.

I am already starting to see the patterns or the emergent properties in this trough. It is just an emotion, nothing to run from or avoid. The emotion is there for a reason and if you watch carefully, that reason or reasons will become apparent, leading the way to new ways of doing things, new things to do and new ways to be. It's called learning and growth. So I am very happy to be down!

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This Weeks Fear Course Podcast

This Weeks Fear Course Podcast

You can find a round up of articles and blogs on this weeks podcast;

 

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You think too much....

You think too much....

One of the things that appears to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to know we are thinking, what is known as meta-cognition.

Connected to this meta-cognitive ability is our capacity for reflecting on things that have happened. This ability to remember at will, and in effect go over things again, lie at the heart of one of our learning systems. Because we can go back and 're-live' a situation, we can also come to conclusions about an event and then plan what to do the next time something like this event occurs again. So image you have just had a conversation with the boss about a job he or she gave you and the boss got angry during the conversation. Under normal circumstances when we are well balanced and have things in perspective we should be able to go over the events again and work out what went wrong, even to the extent to realising that maybe we should have handled things a bit differently and it's not surprising the boss got angry, or what ever conclusion we come to.

This ability to reflect on things is a vital part of our reflexive learning processes (exploring the relationships between cause and effect). If you reflect, come to a conclusion and make a plan, and maybe even put it into action, you have engaged in learning.

This is normal and you will move on. What can occur for many people however is that they get stuck in a cycle between reflecting on what happened, or worse still on what hasn't but could happen (a projection) and coming to a conclusion. So the individual goes from reflection, to conclusion to reflection and so on, without breaking out of the reflective process and never reaching a final conclusion. This can occur in some individuals many many times where they find it hard to let go of the reflective phase of the process. This rumination particularly occurs when there are negative emotions present in the scenario and is the hallmark of depression and episodes of anxiety.

So given the situation above, the individual would keep coming back to the conversation with the boss in their head and start to feel the uncomfortable feelings of embarrassment, anger, anxiety or whatever. The emotion then blocks the progression of thinking (to conclusion) and the individual goes back to reflection and so starts another (vicious) cycle of reflection or rumination.

The problem with rumination is that every cycle of reflection can intensify the negative emotion and make the next cycle of reflection even more likely and emotionally worse.
These ruminative traps are more likely when we are feeling anxious, depressed or even stressed. OCD is also based on this process, but has become more of a habit or trait for the individual. Rumination keeps us stuck in the emotion.

Like the conclusion of my blog yesterday, going and doing/focussing on something else is the way out of this cycle, and getting some help from stress, depression or anxiety of course.

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Does 'venting' anger actually help? The research.

Does 'venting' anger actually help? The research.

There is a common belief that as far as emotions are concerned, it is better for us to let it all out, rather than keeping it bottled up inside. The 'better out than in' philosophy of emotion regulation pervades many areas of therapy as well as common understanding. But is it true of every emotion, and in particular is it true of anger?
The idea of 'letting it all out' goes back at least as far as the ancient greeks with what they called catharsis. Catharsis, or a cathartic release means letting it all out and is considered to be therapeutic by many people. The modern idea of catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis, which literally translated means a cleansing or purging. According to catharsis theory, acting aggressively or even viewing aggression is an effective way to purge angry and aggressive feelings.

Many books and self-help gurus suggest that people vent their anger either as it arises or vent their anger by punching pillows or some other inanimate object to rid themselves of the emotion as well as the negative effects (stress) of the emotion. The question is, does venting really help with emotions like anger?

Brad Bushman from Iowa state university conducted a series of research studies where he looked at this very issue. He looked at 600 people (300 men and 300 women) in whom he provoked anger by getting another participant to unfairly criticise some work they had done. They finished the wholly negative evaluation of their work by saying "this is the worst (piece of work) I have ever seen"!

After reading the evaluation, the participants rated how much they wanted to perform each of 10 activities on a list. Included in this list of activities was "hitting a punching bag." Other activities were relatively passive, included playing solitaire, reading a short story, watching a comedy, and playing a computer game. Ratings were made on a 10-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 10 (extremely).

One third of the subjects where then allowed to punch a punch bag (and if they wanted, see a picture of the person who had criticised their work so unfairly), one third were distracted and one third did nothing.

In short the participants who were allowed to vent their anger actually became significantly angrier and more aggressive than the people who were either distracted or did nothing.

There are largely two different strategies people use when they get angry. They either turn the issue or person they are angry about over and over in their heads, thinking about it and feeling the emotions, or they distract themselves with something else. Bushman found that people who tended to ruminate or pick over the issue and think about the other person also got angrier as time went on compared to those who were given a distraction or even those who were given nothing to do.

Considering that the definition of emotional resilience is the ability to be able to bounce back to a productive emotional state as quickly as possible, rumination and venting, at least as far as anger is concerned, are not helpful strategies. You are far better distracting yourself and getting on with something else. Churning stuff over and over only makes the situation worse. 

I will talk a bit more about the effects of rumination on other emotions like anxiety and depression in my next blog.

Reference

Bushman, B.J. (2002) Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding. Pers Soc Psychol Bull June 2002 vol. 28 no. 6 724-731 doi: 10.1177/0146167202289002

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Why your goals decide whether you are calm and confident or anxious and/or depressed.

Why your goals decide whether you are calm and confident or anxious and/or depressed.

As you will notice from my previous couple of blogs here, here and here, goals are considered to be pretty important in the management and removal of anxiety, fear, depression and also in increasing confidence. In today's blog I want to have a look at the role of goals in anxiety reduction and how to use them to positive effect.

So why are goals so important when people have problems like anxiety, fear and depression?

One of the things you may have noticed if you have have suffered from high levels of anxiety or any level of depression is that largely ones goals disappear during an anxiety or depressive based episode. A lot of research has focussed on this phenomenon. Largely the findings of these studies have found that this loss of goal based focus contributes to and exacerbates the issue for the sufferer. The reason why a loss of goal based behaviour is such a big problem for suffered of anxiety and depression is that goal based focus tends to be existential. So if you are focussed on a project or task you are not focussed on internal feelings. Conversely if your focus and goals disappear then your world contracts to the internal, just at a time when the internal world is full of negative emotions and thought. This then is the start of the depressive or anxiety based spiral.

How can goals help?

Most therapies for anxiety and depression will include the incremental development of some form of goal-setting and action to help alleviate the disorder, basically the idea is to move the focus from internal emotions to external action, and provide meaningful activity. As the focus on goal based action increases the symptoms of anxiety and depression tend to decrease. There is ample research based evidence to underpin this assertion and as a result such strategies usually form some part at least in the management and alleviation of these disorders.

Will any goal do?

However as you will notice from previous blogs, not all goals are equal in helping, and indeed some goal based strategies can actually make the situation worse. Goals which increase personal and social competition, for example, can for some personality types, exacerbate anxiety and lead to depression. Goals which increase altruism and compassion for others generally have been shown to reduce anxiety, however there are exceptions to this.

As a general rule of thumb, any goal which gets you focussing on outside action will help, as long as it is not self-referential and competitive, or focussing on the negative affect of others, particularly in the area in which you are having problems. So if you are suffering from grief for example, helping other people who are grieving, could make your situation worse.

Find something something you are interested in and then find a way to help others in that thing. Set some goals around it so that you will get a sense of achievement when you are finished. The ideal is to set a big goal that is out of reach, then break it down into a series of smaller goals each of which is a step towards the big goal you have. Take it one step at a time. And remember anything is better than nothing.   

References

Ableson, J.L. etal (2014) Brief cognitive intervention can modulate neuroendocrine stress responses to the Trier Social Stress Test: Buffering effects of a compassionate goal orientation. Psychoneuroendocrinology Volume 44, June 2014, Pages 60–70

Alpers, G.W. (2010) Avoiding treatment failures in specific phobias in M.W. Otto, S.G. Hofmann (Eds.), Avoiding Treatment Failures in the Anxiety Disorders, Springer, New York, NY (2010), pp. 209–227

Craske et al., (2009) What is an anxiety disorder Depression and Anxiety, 26 (2009), pp. 1066–1085 http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/da.20633

Kashdan et al., (2008) Social anxiety and disinhibition: an analysis of curiosity and social rank appraisals, approach-avoidance conflicts, and disruptive risk-taking behaviour Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22 (2008), pp. 925–939 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2007.09.009

Pittig, A. et al (2014) The cost of fear: Avoidant decision making in a spider gambling task. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. March 2014, Vol. 28. Pp 326-334

Shidlovski, D., & Hassin, R. (2011). When Pooping Babies Become More Appealing: The Effects of Nonconscious Goal Pursuit on Experienced Emotions Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611417135 - See more at: http://www.fearcourse.com/?p=315&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=235#sthash.sKZoN2sf.dpufhttp://www.fearcourse.com/?p=315&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=235

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If you are avoiding doing something does setting a goal really help?

If you are avoiding doing something does setting a goal really help?

Are you avoiding doing something? Do you have a goal that you are not really moving on? Anxiety is more than likely the main reason why you are not achieving your goals, but does goal setting actually help?

One of the main criteria for the diagnosis of anxiety and anxiety related disorders is avoidance. Not only does anxiety and fear create the conditions where we avoid the thing we are anxious about but that avoidance is also part of the process of worsening the anxiety and keeping it at the heightened sensitivity levels that it tends to reach.

One of the problems with anxiety based avoidance, like a fear of failure for example, is that the individual often creates a psudo-logical rationale to explain and maintain the avoidance often whilst at the same time understanding that the fear is irrational.

What this means is that we can have (at least) two opposing rationales working at the same time. The psudo-rationale which explains why the fear exists and in effect validates the fear and the cognitive logical rationale which understands that the anxiety is irrational. At the same time we have a couple of systems, both the cognitive (thinking) and the emotional (pathological) which are driving the avoidance feelings and behaviour.

So what has this got to do with setting goals? Well we can set quite logical and rationale goals and even feel motivated to achieve them, however these intentions can be undermined by both conscious and unconscious anxiety based avoidance behaviour.

A number of recent studies in this area have focussed on the role of reward (and loss) in the achievement of goals, particularly in an environment where anxiety based avoidance is prevalent.

In effect the decision to actually pursue a goal involves a series of factors including:

  • the value or the importance of the goal relative to other goals and activities currently in action,
  • the level of anxiety based avoidance being experienced, either consciously or unconsciously, and
  • the worth to the individual of the reward likely to be obtained from achievement of the goal, and
  • the likelihood or probability of that reward being realised.

Now when you think about it, this whole scenario is about decision making. Do I decide to pursue this line of action or that? For example, do I write that report I keep meaning to write or just check Facebook first? They are all decisions. Unfortunately anxiety can significantly sway our decisions.

A study published this month looks at the issue of anxiety based avoidance versus reward in goal setting. What they found was that not only was anxiety based avoidance a strong and persistent factor in failure to achieve goals, people with such anxiety based avoidance made decisions that limited their success and gave them less advantageous outcomes in the long run, especially when compared to people without anxiety. What they found was that people who suffer from anxiety based avoidance tend to also to suffer from greater long-term costs and lower rewards than those without anxiety.

However there is some good news. The study found that repeated exposure to the decision making process inherent in focussing on a goal did slowly improve matters.

So if you want to write a book, for example and you keep putting it off, keeping the goal in mind and regularly and frequently facing that goal and most importantly having to keep making the decision to take action or not, should (eventually) help to break down the barriers to action.

The moral of this is keep your goals alive, keep facing them and eventually you will make more advantageous decisions. Either that or visit the Fear Course - it's much quicker!

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References

Alpers, G.W. (2010) Avoiding treatment failures in specific phobias in M.W. Otto, S.G. Hofmann (Eds.), Avoiding Treatment Failures in the Anxiety Disorders, Springer, New York, NY (2010), pp. 209–227

Craske et al., (2009) What is an anxiety disorder Depression and Anxiety, 26 (2009), pp. 1066–1085 http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/da.20633

Kashdan et al., (2008) Social anxiety and disinhibition: an analysis of curiosity and social rank appraisals, approach-avoidance conflicts, and disruptive risk-taking behaviour Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22 (2008), pp. 925–939 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2007.09.009

Pittig, A. et al (2014) The cost of fear: Avoidant decision making in a spider gambling task. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. March 2014, Vol. 28. Pp 326-334

 

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