How Much Do You Handle?
The level of demand that can be easily tolerated varies over time, and from person to person.
The level of demand that can be easily tolerated varies over time, and from person to person.
Psychologists have a thing for mice. We love to test those little guys. We put them in water, in mazes, in cages, and on lush, grassy fields.
Our bodies are made up of traits that are good for our survival and the survival of our species. Every part of us has a function, a purpose. For example, the function of eyes is to see. The function of taste buds is to determine the nutritional value of food and avoid eating poisons.
Our emotions evolved right alongside our bodies. What is the function of emotions? To answer this, think about good ol’ Uncle Caveman. How did fear keep him alive? That’s easy, when he saw a Sabertooth tiger, Uncle Caveman got scared and ran away! Fear gave him the adrenaline, energy, and focus he needed to stay alive.
How did anger keep Uncle Caveman alive? It helped him bargain for his interests better. When another tribe tried to move into his cave, anger created the right motivation for Uncle Caveman to keep his cave (good thing too, what with all those Sabertooth tigers running around). Anger helped Uncle Caveman protect his interests.
What about shame? Shame is a very social emotion, more so than other feelings. When Uncle Caveman did something that disgusted, disappointed, or angered his tribe, he felt shame. Being part of a tribe was critical to Uncle Caveman’s staying alive. The formula is: Alone = Death, Part of Tribe = Survival. Shame helped Uncle Caveman act in pro-social ways so his tribe would not kick him out. (So he had to stop tagging the wooly mammoths).
Sadness for Uncle Caveman was caused by a loss of some sort. I hope one of his children wasn’t eaten by a Sabretooth tiger, but I can’t promise that. Say it happened. Well, sadness did two important things for Uncle Caveman’s survival, and the survival of his tribe. 1) He never forgot that Sabertooth tigers can kill. He told everyone he knew. And he never again asked a Sabertooth tiger to babysit his kids. 2) It made him yearn for his child, and for connection to others. Guess what, this story ends well. Uncle Caveman’s baby actually was hiding that whole time, and since sadness had motivated Uncle Caveman to search for his kid…they lived happily ever after.
Emotions helped Uncle Caveman make decisions that helped him stay alive. The function of emotions is to help us make good decisions, so we don’t get hurt, used, ignored, or run down.
Evolution is a SLOW process. In fact, our bodies are very alike to our cavemen ancestors. Sure, we know a lot more. And we use Facebook and soap. But our bodies—and our brains—are not so different from good old Uncle Caveman!
Emotions evolved in humans like everything else; what was adaptive to the species remained. Emotions are critical to our decision making! That’s why therapists tell people to “understand your emotions.” If you did that better, you’d made better decisions. I promise.
If we all had perfectly tuned emotions, life would be good. But, we are individuals within a species, and we each have different characteristics. That applies to our eye color, height, IQ, athletic ability, and—of course—emotional experiences.
Many mental disorders are characterized by too much—or not enough—of certain emotions. Depression is too much sadness. Anxiety Disorders are too much fear. Personality Disorders may be too much shame and anger. When you notice your feelings remain far beyond their function (remember, they help you make good decisions), they can seriously interfere with your life. If your emotions have outlived their usefulness, talk to a trusted adult (p.s., Sabertooth tigers are not good confidantes). It’s time you had some help.
First Law of (e)Motion: Every emotion tends to remain in that state of emotion, unless an external force is applied to it. If you want your emotion to change, you have to do something to change it. Or else, it stays the same.
A lot of teens tell me that when such-and-such happens, they’ll be happy. When they graduate. When the semester is over. When parents stop worrying about them. When they lose 10 pounds. And, actually, the teens are sort of right. These events act on emotions in a postive way. The problem is, the events don’t sustain happiness. What’s worse, they are often not within a teen’s control (how do you “make” parents stop worrying about you?).
You can apply external force to your emotions, all by yourself. You don’t have to wait for life to affect you. Just understand and follow the next couple laws of (e)Motion.
Second Law of (e)Motion: The relationship between feelings, ideas, and behaviors is (Feelings = Ideas x Behaviors). Your thoughts and behaviors create how you feel, even if you’re not trying to create any feelings.
Your ideas are in fact powerful messages to your physiology. They create neurochemical events that generate feelings. When you sit in class thinking, over and over: “This is so boring,” you are refiring the emotion of irritability. If you tell yourself how awkward you are at a party, you create anxiety. If you focus on all the things you “need” but don’t have (e.g., better clothes, better body, higher grades, cooler friends, nicer parents), you sustain sadness.
Behavior also plays a role in creating emotions.
You don’t even have to try to create emotions. You’re already doing it. You probably do it most of the time. Like now, how are you feeling and what are you thinking/doing to sustain that feeling? If you want to create happiness, follow the Third Law of (e)Motion…
Third Law of (e)Motion: For every idea and behavior, there is an opposite and equal idea and behavior. When you act and think opposite to how you feel, you will change your feeling.
Emotions won’t hurt you. They can be unpleasant. So what: they don’t last forever! If you can successfully tolerate and manage your feelings in the moment, you’ve mastered the Laws of (e)Motions!
When we’re upset, we often think and act in ways that make things worse. The master of (e)Motion does this: act and think contrary to how you feel. Do the opposite thing. If you don’t feel like going to the gym…go to the gym! If you are afraid to ask for help…ask for help! If you are thinking about all your flaws…think about all the great things about you!
When you think and behave opposite to how you feel, you change your emotion. It really can be that simple. You are not at the mercy of your feelings. Apply force with your thoughts and behaviors, and start to feel better.
Newton’s 3 Laws of (e)Motion
Disclaimer: Isaac Newton didn’t actually write or say any of this.
According to a 2007 Columbia University study, about 1 in 70 preschoolers take psychiatric medications—including stimulants, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antianxiety drugs. It is not possible to say—without knowing these children personally—if medications are appropriate. But we do know that psychiatric drugs are not approved by the FDA for children under 6. There is simply not enough information to know how very young brains and body will respond—over time—to these medications.
As a child psychologist, I have worked with hundreds of children on psychiatric medications. In many cases, medications were necessary for the children’s safety and well-being. Almost every parent I’ve worked with has agreed to their child’s taking medication because they really believed it was the best way to get back on track. Few parents are excited about medications, but look instead to outweigh the downsides of out-of-control behaviors, moods, and urges.
But, here’s the thing. Medication is not the only option. It should never be the first option. The fields of child psychiatry and child psychology have solid, evidence-based research that shows the effectiveness of non-invasive treatments—therapy, sensory integration, parent/teacher education, and coaching.
If you’re wondering if your toddler is “abnormal,” see a child psychologist. This doctor should spend time with your child, you, and get a detailed history of the problem. Child psychologists can conduct standardized measures that have been validated to use on very young children. Mental illness is hard to characterize in preschoolers. You need an expert. There’s a national shortage of child psychologists and child psychiatrists, but it is worth the wait to see one. There is nothing less at stake than the health and welfare of the one you love most—your child.
This CNN article by Kelley King Heyworth is a thorough dialogue about the dilemma of putting toddlers on psychiatric medications.
I recently read an article written by Cari Nierenberg. In the article, psychologists review why people “choke” under pressure. Nierenberg writes, “There are two main theories about why people choke: One is that thoughts and worries distract your attention from the task at hand, and you don’t access your talents. A second explanation suggests that pressure causes individuals to think too much about all the skills involved and this messes up their execution.” Click to read Nierenberg’s article: Don’t choke! Why we buckle under pressure
We know that preparing and practicing for high-stress situations can improve performance. Coaching is a good way to do this. Everyone is familiar with the idea of athletic coaches. Some people have heard of life coaches–and maybe this brings up an image of a swami or some other existentially-focused person. At Plum Tree, coaching is none of these things. Instead, Dr. Weller uses action-oriented, straightforward, practical, and solutions-focused approaches to help adolescents meet their goals.
Coaching is an appropriate alternative to individual therapy for adolescents who are functioning well overall, but have problems in one area (e.g., poor academic progress, test anxiety, ADHD, low self-esteem). Coaching targets are usually smaller and step-oriented than in therapy. There is a narrower scope in dialogue and topics, reserved for things directly related to goal-completion. Solution-focused conversations and activities are common. While therapy has some homework, coaching has lots of homework. Coaching is usually not indicated for children under 12. Plum Tree offers two kinds of coaching: ADHD Coaching and Individual Coaching.