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Feeling less energized and motivated during colder months of the year isn’t unusual. Compared to warmer months, you’re likely spending less time outside, getting less exposure to sunlight, and therefore producing less Vitamin D, which has been associated with an increased risk of mood and other mental health difficulties. Chances are, you’re also less physically active (another potential gut punch to your mental health). Since you and your friends aren't as apt to make plans given the weather, you may also be less social than you typically are in the spring and summer. This can drag your mood down even further. Plus, the earlier it gets dark, the more of your waking hours you risk feeling fatigued.
For some people--an estimated 1.4 to 9.7 percent of Americans, depending on their geographic location—the low mood, low energy, and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed during winter months become so severe that they struggle to function at work, in relationships, or with basic activities of daily living (think: eating, showering, cooking, commuting, and cleaning). These individuals meet the criteria for Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). People who struggle with mood disorders, women, and those who do shift work are at higher risk of S.A.D. Older research suggests that people residing in more Northern latitudes are also at higher risk.
Whether you're struggling with a relatively mild case of the winter blues or the more severe symptoms of S.A.D., there are ways to manage what those colder, darker days and weeks can do to you. Here are some tips to maintain your well-being no matter how unpleasant the weather may be.
Create a Home Exercise RoutineIf it’s accessible to you, develop a home workout routine that raises your heart rate for at least 10 minutes most days of the week. This period of time has been found across several studies to confer mood-improving effects. You might consider tuning into a live online exercise class, a streamable workout session, or just crank your favorite tunes and dance until you start sweating. Walking up and down a set of stairs in your home or apartment and intense cleaning also count as exercise. You might also consider buying an at-home exercise machine (refurbished ones can be just as good as new, and a lot cheaper) and hopping onto it while you binge-watch a favorite show on a smartphone or tablet.
Invest in a Light BoxOne of the standard treatments for S.A.D. is exposure to bright light shortly after waking. Many therapeutic light boxes used for this purpose are available online without a prescription. Look for one that’s at least 10,000 lux—the level of light found to have a positive effect on mood and energy levels in folks suffering from S.A.D. Aim to position yourself in front of it for about 30 minutes each morning. Each device will have its own recommendations for how far or near you're supposed to sit or stand near it—or do one of your new home workout routines facing it—but typically the range is 12 to 24 inches from your face and body, and it's supposed to be angled 30 degrees upward. Note: Just as you wouldn't stare directly into the sun, do not stare directly into the light box.
If 10,000 lux is just too bright for your liking, light boxes calibrated to 2,500 lux have also been shown to improve mood. However, studies suggest you'll need to be exposed to these less intense alternatives for one to two hours (rather than just 30 minutes) to experience the same mood-enhancing effects as higher-intensity light boxes.
One cautionary consideration before you invest: If you've ever experienced a hypomanic or manic episode, hold off and speak with a mental health professional before exposing yourself to any bright lights for extended time periods. Though light therapy has been found to improve symptoms of bipolar disorders, it carries a risk of eliciting manic or hypomanic episodes in some cases.
Winter-fy Your WardrobePart of why we feel more down in the winter is that it can feel like so much effort just to get outside. We’re less inclined to leave our homes as a result. Then, when we're out of the house, we’re uncomfortable because of the cold. You can combat both of these problems by investing in some seriously comfy and warm winter gear—snow-proof boots, a well-insulated jacket, insulated pants, and a decent pair of water-resistant gloves. This can make a world of difference in your ability to participate in activities outside where you live and work—not to mention your enjoyment of the outdoors when you're exposed to it.
The more outdoor time you can get, in fact, the better able you’ll be to combat the winter blues. In winter months the sun's rays are less powerful. Plus, less of your skin is bared to absorb those rays. Some studies suggest that a minimum of two hours outside each day is needed for the winter sun to trigger the same level of Vitamin D production that a 30-minute stint in the summer sun can affect. But don't stress too much about making that goal every day. Every little bit counts. And feeling more comfortable in the cold goes a long way toward helping you feel a little bit happier despite inclement outdoor conditions.
Make More Plans Than You Want ToScheduling regular social activities is an absolute must during colder months. For many people, especially older adults, social isolation increases significantly during winter. Because you're probably less inclined to make social plans (due to feeling tired, not wanting to bear the brunt of the cold, or dreading the thought of wearing multiple layers), it may feel arduous at times. The last thing you may want to do is get out of your comfy sweatpants and commute to a mutually convenient meeting point. But for the good of your mental health, aim to see someone whose company you enjoy at least once a week, and try to connect via video or voice calls on other days.
Go GreenerThough the trees outside may be bare, that doesn’t mean your home or office has to follow suit. Proximity to plants has been found across many studies to help us relax, reduce stress, promote healing, improve our moods and also give our immune systems an extra boost (which is helpful for winter colds and flu). Plant soil has been found to release a specific mycobacterium that positively influences our moods, possibly by stimulating metabolism, immunity, and serotonin production. Outfit your living and working space with greenery to take the edge off that literal and emotional iciness winter weather can bring about. Consider these oxygen-boosting house plants or this list of foliage that can survive in darker rooms.
The TakeawayThese are some helpful ways to mitigate the negative impacts of cold, dark seasons on our mood and mental health. They're not, however, a cure-all. If you find yourself significantly struggling to feel okay as fall turns to winter, reach out to a mental health professional for support and guidance. In some cases, medications may be recommended and in others, targeted psychotherapies such as CBT-SAD may be best.
Why You’re Sadder During Cold Months, and What to Do About It | Psychology Today
By Elijah Evans TLMHC
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Many people struggle with how to best provide support for their loved ones who are dealing with negative emotions. There are two major kinds of interpersonal support: Instrumental support and emotional support. Instrumental support is helping people by doing something tangible for them, such as providing information or completing tasks on their behalf. Emotional support, on the other hand, is validating the emotions the person is going through—letting them know their reactions make sense to you given the circumstances—without trying to change the way they feel. It is very common for people to offer instrumental support as soon as they learn the people they care about are unhappy, especially since it feels like they are doing something concrete to be of assistance. This approach often backfires because trying to solve the problems causing negative emotions tends to imply the message that a person’s negative emotions are unwelcome. If you find loved ones get upset with you when you’re only trying to help, I suggest starting with providing emotional support and proceeding to instrumental support only if it is specifically requested. My guess is you’ll find that most of the time, people just want to feel heard and understood rather than have their problems solved. Plus, if you’re not sure what a loved one needs from you, you can directly ask them what kind of support they are needing at the moment. In my experience, people are willing and able to express which kind of support they are seeking.
You are the only you. That’s not something we often consider, especially in the throes of depression; but if you are suicidal, please consider that thought and ask for help before your loved ones have nothing more than memories of your unique personality.
In 2020, nearly 46,000 people died of suicide in the United States, according to the CDC, and each and every one of them was a unique loss. To help fight this tragic epidemic, here are some additional tips, courtesy of SS Therapy and Consulting, Ltd.
Get the Help You Need and Deserve
If you need to talk to someone urgently, there are plenty of resources like SS Therapy and Consulting, Ltd. that are ready and able to assist you! Additionally, utilizing the services of a professional counselor or psychologist will give you a springboard off which to bounce your feelings and emotions. This individual can help guide you through the roughest waters and offer a host of resources for support. Therapy also addresses the most common conditions associated with suicidal ideation including eating disorders, bipolar disorder, body dysmorphia, substance abuse, posttraumatic stress syndrome, gender dysphoria, borderline personality disorder, and social anxiety.
Suicide is a nondiscriminatory cause of death. It affects people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. It attacks the rich, the poor, and the in between. While there is no definitive cause of suicide, primary risk factors include: depression, substance abuse disorders, chronic pain, family history of mental illness, having been physically or sexually abused, recent release from extended incarceration, and having access to firearms.
If you are depressed or suicidal, know that these feelings will pass. Remember that each morning when the sun comes up, it sheds light on a new day and brightens the path for tomorrow. It is not easy to recover from a depression great enough to trigger a suicide attempt, but certain lifestyle changes may help. If you feel unappreciated at home or at work, try to make changes to help. Some people experience less stress and anxiety from working at home. Be careful about isolating yourself though. It’s a delicate balance that only you can figure out.
Often when we’re struggling with depression, lost in our own racing thoughts, we forget that a more physical response might be just what we need. You don’t need to train for a marathon, but just doing a small amount of exercise greatly increases endorphins and can give you a reprieve from racing thoughts. There are plenty of free fitness apps available for your smartwatch or fitness tracker, a big help when it comes to tracking your progress and feeling proud of your efforts!
Even just getting out into nature can help your mental health. Research shows that not only can time in nature calm a racing mind, it can actually increase your cognitive abilities. The sights and smells benefit our senses, and it all combines to reduce anxiety and depression. Not to mention that you may be getting exercise at the same time.
Watch Your Diet
It’s no secret that the food we consume fuels our bodies. The same is true, too, for the mind. The foods we eat and the nutrients we take in directly affect our brain, and thus affect our mental health, notes Brook Lane. Complex carbohydrates are essential for brain function as are plant-based fats. Eating a diverse diet rich with colorful fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and unprocessed carbohydrates can help alleviate stress.
Surround Yourself With Things You Love
Many people consider suicide due to feelings of isolation. Being alone can easily trigger depression, so it’s important to surround yourself with the people and places that mean the most to you. Take some time each day to do something you enjoy, such as jogging, painting, singing, dancing, or gardening, the latter of which will also help you get a boost of vitamins from the sun.
It may sound silly, but simplifying and reducing the amount of clutter can actually help you feel better. A cluttered, disorganized home can greatly ramp up feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as trap “negative energy” that can affect you and everyone else in your household. So, go through your possessions, pare down what you don’t need, and keep what makes you happy. Through this process, try to make your surroundings as simple, cozy, and comfortable as possible. The difference will amaze you.
Let Go of Bad Habits
Substance abuse -- whether alcohol or drug -related -- is a key trigger in many suicide attempts. In fact, research shows a high correlation between the two. As difficult as it can be to let go of dangerous vices, it is possible to trade out harmful behaviors for helpful ones. Exercise is a common behavioral exchange. It even has the double benefit of being good for your body and mind.
If you are struggling to stay warm, find shelter, or put food on the table, please reach out to someone. Many organizations help individuals meet their basic needs and get resources that will help them improve their quality of life. Even if it does not feel like it, there are people who will miss you if you were not around. Your life is valuable, and you never know the positive impact you have on those around you. If you are considering suicide, please seek help. There can never be another you.
Article Credit: Mary Shannon of Seniorsmeet.org
Image Credit: Pexels
There are decisions people make in life that they sorely regret, and for good reason. In the summer of 2021, the news is full of sad stories about people who decided not to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it was available to them and who then became ill with the virus. In some cases, the people expressing these regrets are speaking out from hospital beds, and even worse, do so before their death. The partners of these individuals also speak out with their own regrets for not having insisted that their loved ones “roll up their sleeves.”
These life-or-death situations are clearly ones in which people second guess a consequential decision. However, there are also less extreme conditions in which the thought flips through your mind that you wish you could take something back that you did or said. Perhaps you stubbed your toe while trying to reach for a shoe on an upper shelf of your closet. Although you hoped the pain would subside, you’re still in pain several days later. You replay in your head what you could have done differently to avoid hurting yourself and wish you could relive the scene, this time being more careful.
Counterfactual Thinking and Reactions to LossThis tendency to wish for a do-over is called “counterfactual thinking,” which the University of Groningen's Maarten Eisma and colleagues (2021) define as “mental simulations about how the present situation may have evolved differently.” As an example, the Dutch authors note that “Following the death a child in a car accident, a parent for instance might think: 'If only I had paid more attention while driving, then my son would still be alive.'” Indeed, previous research that Eisma et al. cite suggests that 48 percent of adults who lost a child or partner in an accident still replay if-only scenarios for as long as seven years after the loss, the latest data point in the study. Presumably, these regrets could persist for one's entire life.
In cases other than the death or severe illness of someone you know, it’s possible that counterfactual thinking can actually work toward your benefit. According to the “opportunity principle,” reflecting on a past event is “functional only if the situation can be changed or is likely to occur in the future.” You can’t change the death of a loved one, but you can be more careful when you tiptoe onto a stepstool.
In a downward counterfactual, as you replay the situation, you feel lucky that it wasn’t worse. Perhaps you think about that stubbed toe and are grateful that you didn’t damage yourself more seriously. A downward counterfactual could apply to you or someone else as you contemplate their having recovered from COVID-19 instead of succumbing to its ravaging effects on the body.
Rumination over what might have been could also be involved in those who become ill with COVID-19 as well as, theoretically, their partners who blame themselves for not being more proactive. The University of Groningen study provides the closest empirical counterpart, having tested the role of counterfactual thinking in bereaved individuals studied longitudinally over a 6- and 12-month period. Proposing that people who engage in this type of unproductive thought process would show higher levels of depression and grief, the Dutch authors compared an online sample of 59 bereaved adults who showed these tendencies with 59 bereaved adults who did not.
The Four Types of Counterfactual ThinkingEisma et al. proposed that because counterfactual thinking can occur in an upward or downward fashion, people experiencing bereavement might show different reactions to loss based on which they tended to use. Their measure of counterfactual thinking (the Counterfactual Thinking for Negative Events Scale; CTNES) therefore divided upward from downward thinking as well as self-referenced, other-referenced, or nonreferenced (not referring to anyone in particular). Think now about a negative event in your life, and see which process most closely applies to you by rating yourself on a 1 (never) to 5 (very often) scale:
Upward self-referent counterfactual thinking: As you relive the event, do you see yourself as the cause of the negative outcome? An example of an item from this scale is: “I think about how much better things would be if I had acted differently.”
Upward other-referent counterfactual thinking: In reliving the event, perhaps you don’t think about yourself and how you could have acted differently but about someone else who caused the event to happen. This process is indicated by the item: “If only other people had acted differently, the situation would have turned out better.”
Upward nonreferent counterfactual thinking: When the event replays in your mind, do you just wish it had turned out differently without thinking specifically about your role or the role of someone else? An item tapping this thought process is: “I think about how much better things could have been.”
Downward nonreferent counterfactual thinking: Consistent with the idea that a downward if-only thought would focus on the fact that things could have been worth, an item reflecting this process is: “I think about how much worse things could have been.”
The Role of Counterfactual Thinking After a LossThe Dutch authors used the response by their participants to a question about whether they were thinking about the death of a loved one or not to categorize loss and no-loss groups. The subsequent comparisons of the mental health of these groups were based on their responses to a questionnaire assessing prolonged grief symptoms (e.g. “I feel I have trouble accepting the death,” and symptoms of depression (“I still enjoy the things I used to enjoy”—reverse coded).
Turning to the results, the scores on prolonged grief and depression of the bereaved were highest for those who engaged in upward self-referenced counterfactual thinking. The findings, according to the authors, suggest that “mentally ‘undoing death,’ in particular in relation to actions oneself could (not) have taken, is a problematic coping strategy that perpetuates post-loss mental health problems.”
This process of “undoing” a negative event may, paradoxically, be adaptive at first. You could reinforce your sense of predictability about the world in terms of the principle of fairness. You could even, the authors suggest, feel some relief. However, over time, in view of an “immutable reality,” this process can lead to greater distress as you refuse to accept this unchangeable fact. It’s also possible that the self-blame involved in this form of if-only thinking means that you keep beating yourself up for doing, or not doing, something that could have prevented the loss.
What to Do If You’re an If-Only ThinkerAs you can see from these findings, the constant self-blame involved in upward self-referent counterfactual thinking will prevent you from either accepting the loss or forgiving yourself for your role in it. The implications of the study are that, in order to cope with a negative event, particularly one with serious and unchangeable consequences, you will recover better if you can turn off what you might call the “movie in your mind.” Constantly replaying the scene with a different ending than the one that occurred not only becomes nonproductive but can actually prolong your grief and sadness.
If you tend to engage in this type of second-guessing often, and not just in relation to major events, you can potentially benefit from what’s known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In this approach, as described by Celia Kennedy and colleagues from Australia’s University of Wollongong (2020), people are helped “to reduce their commitment to the counterfactual past, accept their current reality (i.e., accept uncomfortable emotions and tolerate uncertainty), connect with their values, and engage with their current life.”
As impossible as it might seem, even the events that you can’t reverse but wish you could can become a part of a different story you tell yourself. Rather than continuing to fantasize about life without that event, you can learn to tolerate your feelings of distress without taking that next step to self-blame and unproductive re-imagining. Although not specifically addressed in these articles about loss, you might also think about ways to turn your experience into an object lesson for someone else. For example, if you were in that unfortunate COVID-19 situation, you could join a pro-vaccine effort in your community so that others don’t suffer what you and your partner did.
To sum up, managing your feeling after a loss or negative event of some type requires that you turn off your second-guessing as you accept its reality. Moving toward more productive ways of thinking can help restore and promote your ability to achieve fulfillment even when that fulfillment becomes tested.
Are You Constantly Second-Guessing Yourself? | Psychology Today
Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, returning to a more normal routine can be nerve-wracking after all the
changes society has recently undergone. These four recommendations can help remove stress and give you the
confidence to re-enter the world and achieve your goals.
1. Be Aware of Your Mental Health
Rashes, fevers, and coughing are all indicators that there is something wrong with your physical health.
Unfortunately, mental health illnesses do not always have such obvious symptoms. Therefore, one of the best things
you can do for yourself is to pursue a healthy state of mind.
Reach out to SS Therapy and Consulting to find a therapist to help you overcome mental and emotional struggles,
such as depression, anxiety, co-parenting and low self-esteem. These professionals can help you work through
problems and even address issues you did not know existed. With their help, you can be more emotionally and
mentally capable to take on the challenges of life.
2. Take Control of Your Finances
If finances are a source of stress, you are not alone. One report states that 64% of adults find finances to be a stress-
causing factor in their lives. Getting your spending and saving under control is key to removing this tension.
Create or revisit your monthly budget. Use a spreadsheet or a template to list incomes and all monthly expenses.
This helps ensure you do not overspend and have money to pay your bills, purchase necessities, and put into
If you struggle to pay your bills each month, research different ways to save money, such as cutting back on
streaming services, consolidating auto and home insurance, and cooking more meals at home instead of going out.
Refinancing your house is another great option to save money. Doing this decreases the equity in your home;
thereby, allowing you a smaller monthly mortgage payment and freeing up cash for other expenses.
3. Pursue a New Career
Whether you dislike your current job or enjoy it but have a dream job in the back of your mind, changing careers can
make you a more confident, happy, and passionate person. If you are ready to switch professions, start networking
and looking online for job openings and requirements.
Depending on the prerequisites, you may have to go back to school. Even if it is not required, further education can
enhance your resume, give you more job prospects and simply provide a more thorough understanding of the line of
work. For example, a business degree may not be essential, but having one gives you knowledge applicable to many
different positions, such as management, accounting, or marketing.
If scheduling is a concern, many universities offer online programs, giving you much more flexibility than
traditional classrooms. You can often take courses at night or other off-hours, making it easier to fit them into your
4. Organize Your Home
While maintaining a tidy home can be challenging, there are numerous benefits to staying organized. As with a
budget, a clean home can reduce the amount of stress in your life because you know exactly where everything is.
Additionally, it saves you time and energy. Instead of spending 30 minutes searching for your keys, a dustpan, or
other household items, you can locate them right away. Plus, developing a system to keep your stuff organized gives
you a feeling of fulfillment.
While starting a new routine can be difficult, it does not have to be overwhelming. Follow these four
recommendations to give you confidence in all your upcoming ventures when re-entering the world.
Image via Pexels
Justin Bennett of healthyfit.info
I will be the first one to admit: I’m terrible at setting boundaries. If there is anything I have learned from the pandemic, it’s that I’m very good at allowing work to creep into every available moment and part of my life. Without the structured separation of work and home, I find it incredibly challenging to turn things off and to say no.
This isn’t new, for me, but it certainly has been magnified over the past year and a half. Part of that is my own inability to set and uphold boundaries. But there’s another aspect to boundaries that isn’t discussed as often: what happens when other people don’t help us to uphold them.
The reality is that boundary-setting is not a solo endeavor. Brené Brown, in her book Rising Strong, notes, “Setting boundaries means getting clear on what behaviors are okay and what’s not okay. Integrity is key to this commitment because it’s how we set those boundaries and ultimately hold ourselves and others accountable for respecting them” (p. 123). I love this definition. But what happens if I’m surrounded by people who simply don’t or won’t respect my boundaries?
As we start to bring people back to the office, for those of us who have been privileged to work at home all this time, it is critical that we look at what it means to uphold other people’s boundaries. And let’s be clear: Respecting people’s boundaries doesn’t mean that they get to opt out of work responsibilities or tasks they just don’t want to do. It may mean hard conversations about next steps for those who don’t want to return to the office, if that is going to be a requirement. But in my experience, engagement at work always starts with setting and communicating clear expectations on both organizational and interpersonal levels.
And this is a moment to reset some expectations. What does it mean to re-engage with people in a shared space? What commitments should be made to one another for how we will show up, do work, and honor one another’s truths? And why does it matter?
Why Do Boundaries Matter?One of the positive things to come from this pandemic is that a lot of people have started to ask deep, important questions about meaning and purpose and the value of work. In fact, over the past few weeks, the media has hit a bit of a frenzy over the idea that a whole bunch of people are quitting their jobs. NPR called it “the great resignation.” Business Insider describes it as “rage quitting.” Others have described it as a sign of a healthy economy. Perhaps. What is true is that a lot of people — many, but not exclusively, in the lowest wage positions — are reconsidering their relationship with work. And that isn’t something that any of us should dismiss or ignore.
Indeed, the recent Microsoft Work Trends Index survey found that while 61 percent of business leaders report that they are “thriving” at the moment, the exact same percentage of frontline workers say that they are “struggling” or merely “surviving.” Further, “One in five global survey respondents say their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance. Fifty-four percent feel overworked. Thirty-nine percent feel exhausted.” Anecdotally, from those I have talked to in recent months, I would put those numbers far, far higher.
Pre-COVID, Sarah Green Carmichael wrote in the Harvard Business Review about our tendency to “overwork,” and the very real health outcomes that result from it, “including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease.” And, despite what we might think, working long hours doesn’t result in greater productivity. In fact, it results in the opposite (and, notably, at least one study found that managers can’t tell the difference between those who worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to).
Many of us feel like we just spent the past year and a half working around the clock for seven days a week. Sometimes, you just do what you have to do. But that isn’t a productivity level that can be sustained. Managers should note that at the same moment that we seem to be coming out of this crisis, and talking about going back to the office, most of us are facing real feelings of burnout. What will that mean for our new return-to-office environments?
An Individual and Organizational ResponsibilityI have written here previously (again, pre-COVID) about the individual responsibility to define one’s own work-life balance in an “always on” world, and I believe the concept still holds true. We are each responsible for our own paths and the choices that we make. Sure, in an ideal world, our organizations and our managers would create supportive, caring cultures that see and uplift people as fully-formed humans, with needs and challenges and lives that impact the ways in which they show up to work each day.
We know that doesn’t happen. But instead of banging your head against the wall wondering why not, it’s on you as the owner of that fully-formed life to make the decisions that best serve you. Sometimes, that looks like leaving your role or your organization for one that better aligns with who you are. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean that I get to say I only will work from 10-2 when the expectation is that I work from 8-5. Choices have consequences, always. And if my life needs part-time work then I always have the ability to seek out a part-time job.
At the same time, we all can and must do a better job of upholding and respecting one another’s boundaries. Especially as we look towards returning to the office and being in community with one another again, and knowing that we are facing a crisis of employee burnout. Because, no matter how many boundaries I may set for myself, if you don’t respect them, if you bully or shame me for holding them, it doesn’t matter. Organizational culture is created by the people who exist within those organizations, by their words and their behaviors. Cultures aren’t created in a vacuum. And boundaries can only exist if everyone sees them and helps to maintain them. And that starts with the very top of the organization.
Questions to Uphold BoundariesIf you are a manager, don’t just tell people to take care of themselves, to find balance, and to set boundaries. Regularly ask questions of your people and yourself:
Negative societal consequencesThe dangerous societal consequences of growing public belief in conspiracy theories are well documented, from decreased civic engagement, to lower support for important issues such as global warming, to outright science denial, prejudice, and racism. In a recent study covering five different countries, we found that higher endorsement of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 (such as the idea that the virus was intentionally created in a military lab) is also strongly associated with lower intentions to get vaccinated and comply with public health guidelines.
Tracing digital footprintsAlthough tons of research has been conducted on why people believe in conspiracy theories, what research so far hasn't looked at is what language conspiracy theorists use online to entice their followers. Are there unique psycho-linguistic features in how actual conspiracy theorists express themselves online that we can discern from data? Most research uses surveys to ask the general public about the degree to which they endorse a particular conspiracy theory. Instead, we decided not to ask any questions and take our research online by observing the actual language that the top conspiracy theorists and their followers use on social media.
The language patterns of conspiracy theoristsIn our new study, we first identified the top conspiracy theorists on Twitter via a simple popularity metric: their number of followers. After all, more followers means greater influence. Even though it's public information, we can't divulge the identities of the conspiracy theorists in question for ethical reasons but you can find a table with redacted Twitter profiles here. Of course, we needed to be able to compare the language used by conspiracy theorists to another group. So our comparison or control group consisted of the top popular science influencers. This is interesting insofar we can now compare how two opposing narratives unfold on social media: science versus conspiracy. In total, we were able to scrape over 16,000 tweets from the influencers and over 160,000 tweets from a random sample of about 1,600 of their followers. Lots of data to look at!
So what were we looking for?
We used a psychological tool known as the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) dictionary. This dictionary was created by psychologist James Pannebaker who famously said "The words we use in daily life reflect who we are and the social relationships we are in." The dictionary associates words with particular psychological language themes. For example, a category called "cognitive processes" has subcategories that include "certainty" and associated words would include things like "truth." Similarly, the category "negative emotion" has subcategories called "anger" with associated words like "hate." Emotions such as "anxiety" would be associated with words like "nervous" and "afraid." The dictionary also clocks words that are about groups, for example, "we" and "us" versus "they" and "them." We used these categories to see if there are consistent patterns.
The figure below visualizes a snapshot of the social network of the top conspiracy theorists and popular science influencers and their respective following. You can already see that they form relatively polarized "echo chambers" with few linkages between the conspiracy and science influencers. Might they therefore also differ in the language that they use online?
The social network of the top conspiracy (red) and science (blue) influencers and their followers.
We found some notable differences. For example, as compared to scientists, conspiracy theorists scored much higher on their use of negative emotion, especially anger and anxiety, and this pattern was also present among their followers, especially around words that signal anxiety. Conspiracy theorists were not necessarily more likely to use "certain" or "causal" language than scientists but their followers were more focused on past events. Interestingly, conspiracy theorists and their followers were especially likely to focus on language themes related to power, death, and religion, as well as a focus on other groups.
This makes sense: Many conspiracy theories revolve around the death of prominent individuals from Princess Diana, Osama Bin Laden, and John F. Kennedy to rapper Tupac Shakur. Conspiracy theories also frequently involve plots among powerful elites such as Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and international organizations such as the World Health Organization and United Nations who are seen as part of a "New World Order." The main purpose of conspiracy theories is of course to spread anger and fear, especially about the motives of other groups in society, including ethnic minorities, who are often the target of conspiracy theories.
In the figure below, we show a word cloud visualizing the most commonly used nouns and adjectives for the top 10 conspiracy and science influencers. Bigger and bolder representation indicates that the words appeared more frequently in the text. There are clear differences between the two groups, whereas scientists focus on science and topics such as “people,” “time,” “future,” “space,” “world,” “good,” and “earth,” conspiracy theorists focus on “followers,” “trailer” (of conspiracy movies), “Trump,” “Infowars,” “Russia,” “UFOs,” and “report.”
In short, next time you have a conversation and you're lured into a theme of fear, anxiety, and narratives about death and powerful "other" groups, you might be dealing with a conspiracy theorist.
The Language of Conspiracy Theorists | Psychology Today
What children of divorce want most and need most is to maintain strong and healthy relationships with both of their parents. Children have an innate desire to love, and be loved, by their mother and father.
Some parents, however, for a variety of unhealthy reasons, become determined to make their children love them at the exclusion of the other parent. Parental alienation is the maneuvering or manipulation of a child by one parent (alienating parent) to fear, disrespect, and hate his or her other parent (rejected parent) in an effort to disrupt the child’s relationship with that parent. This can lead to long-term or even permanent estrangement of the child from the rejected parent. Parental alienation is unhealthy and traumatic for the child.
Research shows that parental alienation occurs in 11-15% of divorces involving children (Fidler and Bala, 2010). As such, it is a relatively frequent phenomenon that attorneys and judges must face.
Let us be clear from the outset: Reasonable estrangement due to a parent’s real problems is different from alienation. For example, it is reasonable for a child to not want to see a parent if that parent is an alcoholic who regularly drinks around the child. This is not alienation. This is a reasonable reaction by a concerned child.
Common Tactics of Parental Alienation
Parental alienation involves a set of maneuvers and behaviors by the alienating parent. These often include:
• Bad-mouthing the other parent
• Capitalizing on and exaggerating complaints by the child about the other parent
• Limiting phone calls, video calls, texts, and emails between the child and other parent
• Creating the narrative that the other parent is mean, inadequate, and/or dangerous
• Promulgating the belief that the child is a victim of the other parent and must be protected
• Threatening to withdraw affection from the child if the other parent is not rejected
• Belittling and limiting contact with the extended family members of the other parent
• Falsely accusing the other parent of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse of the child or of the alienating parent
Red Flags for Parental Alienation
It is often difficult to determine if parental alienation is occurring. It is perplexing because the maneuvers of alienation are often hidden and actively denied by the suspected parent. The child is often a pawn who is largely unaware of the inappropriateness and unhealthiness of the phenomenon.
There are a number of red flags for identifying the presence of parental alienation. These include:
• Extreme denigration of the rejected parent by the child
• Weak or inadequate reasons for the denigration by the child
• Absence of ambivalence and guilt in the child
• The rejected parent is seen as “all bad.”
• Total alignment with the alienating parent, who is seen as “all good.”
• Claims of “independent thinking” by the child and the alienating parent
• Child’s animosity is spread to extended family members, friends, and others of the rejected parent
Roadblocks in Identifying Parental Alienation
Being able to identify parental alienation in a family has frequent roadblocks. The alienating parent’s attorney often believes his or her client will stonewall the use of a psychological evaluation. The rejected parent’s attorney believes his or her client and does not even consider the possibility that he or she has real problems—and thus it is not alienation. The guardian ad litem (GAL) believes the child, because the child’s statements are powerful and compelling, and does not consider the possibility that parental alienation is lurking and operating behind the scenes.
Many attorneys and judges do not understand the phenomenon of parental alienation. Some deny its presence because it is not a DSM-5 diagnosis. Others turn a blind eye because it is difficult to prove in a court room. Others believe that parental alienation is overblown and exaggerated as a real problem.
Initial Steps to Take
Tackling a case of parental alienation requires having the right attorney. It calls for an attorney who is psychologically minded, verbal, aggressive, and focused on the child’s best interest. In a parental alienation case, there is no room for indecisiveness, lack of clarity, or passivity.
The rejected parent’s attorney should file a motion for a psychological evaluation for both parents and the child. Even if the motion is denied, the rejected parent should pursue a psychological evaluation so that the parental alienation can be exposed.
Documenting examples of the parental alienation is vital. Keeping text messages, emails, pictures, and recordings can help put together the narrative of the parental alienation.
Asking the alienating parent to stop certain maneuvers and behaviors is important. If you do not speak up and ask for change, it will appear that you are condoning the harmful and hurtful process. Put your requests for change in writing.
Parental alienation is a powerfully disruptive and pernicious phenomenon. It must be identified and exposed. It must be attacked and defeated when possible. It can be done.
How to Recognize Parental Alienation | Psychology Today
My husband and I have been in the process of purchasing a home. This new house will be an improvement from our previous dwelling in several ways. We'll finally have luxuries that were out of our reach in the past with greater square footage, an expansive yard for our children to explore, and a close-knit neighborhood, to list a few.
Yet, with all of the wonderful upgrades to look forward to, I have found myself ruminating on the fireplace we decided to go without. And the floorplan with just a little more room that we passed up. And the lot with a slighter bigger yard. I stopped for a moment and recognized that while my standard of living was about to improve, I was stuck on what I wasn't getting. What was going on and how could I get out of this destructive pattern?
Negativity BiasUnfortunately, we humans are susceptible to what psychologists call negativity bias. Our brains are wired to focus on the negative aspects of life compared to the positive. Of course, this bias served our early ancestors well when paying keen attention to risk and danger was a matter of life or death. This attunement kept them safe and thus more likely to pass this trait on to their posterity.
Loss AversionWe also experience loss aversion where we weigh losses nearly twice as much as gains. For example, if you were to lose $100, your pain would be as intense as the joy of finding $200. So while I was looking forward to a covered patio, would I be able to let go of the perks of my old house and neighborhood? Would our new house be enough of an upgrade to improve my level of happiness?
The Hedonic TreadmillLife events often affect well-being short term. Lottery winners are happier temporarily, then return to their previous levels.
The third strike against us is a constant battle with the hedonic treadmill. Psychologists have found that life events that change our level of happiness, typically only affect wellbeing short term. Lottery winners are happier temporarily, then return to their previous levels. Those who lose their job often feel initial sadness, but usually bounce back to their normal state.
There are some exceptions to the hedonic adaptation such as a chronic illness, which may have long-term effects on wellbeing, but many times we overestimate the effects of life events on our happiness. As Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman said,
People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.
Humans are notorious for both intensity and duration biases when it comes to predicting their emotional states. Intensity bias is predicting an emotional response that is larger than the actual response, such as students overestimating their immediate reaction to a poor test grade. Duration bias is overestimating how long an event will affect our emotional state. For example, football fans may overestimate how long the feeling of elation after a team victory will last.
Defending Against Happiness PitfallsHow then can we defend against negativity bias, loss aversion, and the hedonic treadmill? The first step is being aware of these pitfalls. Each time we find ourselves focusing on what we’re giving up, we can take a minute to appreciate the privileges that we do have. Practicing gratitude is one of the most underappreciated tools we have to defend against negativity. The more we engage in optimistic thinking, the more automatic it will become. Our brains are malleable and capable of creating new patterns that can help fend off unhelpful biases.
We can be mentally present during everyday pleasures as we savor a cup of coffee or pause to experience a breathtaking sunrise. As David Kessler said in his latest book, “Finding meaning is not extraordinary, it’s ordinary. It happens all the time, all over the world.”
Experiences often impact our happiness more than things. As psychologist Thomas Gilovich said, "We remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions." We can use our relationships, hobbies, and compassion to bolster happiness and stave off negativity. We can take time to share our new dining room table with a family in need. We can allow our paints and canvases to occasionally clutter up our space. We can use that fresh grass to toss a football around with our little ones.
We can use our relationships, hobbies, and compassion to bolster happiness and stave off negativity.
When I envision my upcoming house, I can focus on the unexceptional countertops, or I can envision them being used to break bread with a new family. I can contemplate on the empty corner where the fireplace should be, or I can imagine my children and their friends snuggled there, giggling through a silly book. I can feel the loss of choosing a relatively small lot of land, but that yard may be where I embrace a brokenhearted friend. I may not have the means for high-end furniture, but maybe that space will be used as a refuge for someone who’s just been rejected by their family.
I may want all the comfort material goods can give, but it is my relationships with others that give them meaning. There is no purpose to a living space without life.
'My Life Is Improving, Why Am I Not Happier?' | Psychology Today
There are many ordinary situations in life that can trigger the fear that something bad is about to happen. Perhaps you’re about to sit down at the computer and take a look at your online statements. Something odd strikes you as you examine a series of recent transactions. You know you returned an expensive household item that stopped working, but you don’t see the credit as appearing on the statement. Without that return being processed, you might go over your credit limit. All of a sudden, you can feel your heart start to pound and you're having trouble breathing. You start to imagine that now, on top of the financial implications of all of this, something is going wrong with your body. The rational idea that the return just hasn’t gone through seems like a remote if not impossible explanation.
If, in reading this scenario, you can vividly imagine that this could happen to you, it’s possible that you have what researchers call a “looming” cognitive style. George Mason psychologist John Riskind, in a 2016 review of his long research career dedicated to this topic, defines this way of viewing the world as a key contributor to maladaptive levels of anxiety. In other words, by taking what is an ambiguous situation and see it as hurtling to the most dire possible outcome, you will invariably become anxious. Your bodily reactions intensify as your mind races to this worst-case scenario.
What differentiates the looming cognitive style from other approaches to anxiety that emphasize dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs is that when things seem to “loom,” your sense of threat starts to hurtle out of control, rapidly escalating. Although it might be somewhat adaptive to try to avoid an actual threat coming your way, when the threat is an imaginary one, your panicky reaction is anything but.
A large body of research based on the looming cognitive style continues to support its role in contributing to anxiety disorders, maintaining further that this cognitive style has trait-like qualities. In a review of 61 previously-published studies whose samples ranged from over 1,000 to over 7,000, National University of Singapore’s Gerard Yeo and colleagues (2020) concluded that the looming cognitive style is “a transdiagnostic vulnerability factor for various anxiety subtypes.”
People with this vulnerability, in the words of the authors, see “excessive or chronic perceptions of threats as rapidly approaching and gaining in magnitude, proximity, or probability.” You don’t want to be caught “flatfooted,” the Singapore team point out, when the danger is real. But when the danger escalates in your mind and your mind only, you’ll become incapacitated by this sense of oncoming doom.
Riskind’s Looming Cognitive Style Questionnaire, which you can see online, provides a way for you to test just how much you are susceptible to these unwarranted exaggerations of threat. Here is one item from this scale, which begins with these instructions:
Read the following scenario, and then “try to vividly imagine it… Concentrate on it and imagine it in as much vivid detail as possible. Then ask yourself the questions that follow, using 5-point scales of from lowest to highest:
Suppose that you are in front of a large audience of strangers. You are speaking about a topic on which you do not know a lot. Some of the people look bored or disinterested, while others look upset. It seems that you could get a very negative audience reaction.
You can see from this questionnaire item that people high in the looming cognitive style view the possibility of bad outcomes as growing and growing even though nothing is really changing about the situation. It’s not like this audience is about to throw things at you because they don’t seem interested or seem upset. It’s that you’re seeing these outcomes as very real possibilities.
In an earlier paper by Koc University’s Ayşe Altan-Atalay (2018), what adds to the negative effects on mental health of the looming cognitive style is “negative mood regulation expectancies,” or the conviction that you can’t control your mood state. Returning to the example of the speaking situation in the Riskind questionnaire, the threat builds and builds in your mind, and as it does, you’re convinced it will get out of control.
The questionnaire measure of this mood regulation ability used in the Altan-Atalay study involved items (reverse scored) such as “When I am upset, telling myself it will pass will calm me down.” As the Turkish authors predicted, the 326 university students (average age 22 years old) who were high in the looming cognitive style and negative mood regulation expectancies also showed the highest level of anxiety on a standard questionnaire measure of this mental state.
Having established the importance of both of these qualities to increasing people’s risk of anxiety and anxiety disorders, the next question becomes what to do about it if you’re someone high in both the looming cognitive style and the belief that you can't control your reactions as you see things getting worse and worse?
As Altan-Atalay point out, reducing “the intensity and uncontrollability of looming scenarios may increase the individuals' beliefs in the usefulness of their coping resources.” When you feel your internal perception of threat rising, according to this view, you can conquer your anxiety by recognizing that the threat really hasn’t changed and that, furthermore, you don’t have to let those feelings overwhelm you.
To sum up, imagining the worst when the worst is a reality in and of itself may be an advisable strategy. However, if you’re constantly letting those looming feelings of doom get in the way of your everyday life, finding more productive outlets of your imagination may just provide an important key to fulfillment.
Do You Tend to Imagine the Worst Out of Every Situation? | Psychology Today
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.