resilience

How do you want to feel?

Feelings come and go–they can change from moment to moment with what we’re experiencing. A feeling can be triggered by a thought, a behavior, or an interaction with the environment or another person. I often find myself in conversations with people about how others influence or impact their emotions. Sometimes interactions with others are pleasant, and increase our happiness and overall satisfaction. Other times, social situations can make us feel bothered, offended, irritated, angered, frustrated, annoyed, and/or a host of other things. Even at times when we might be completely content or happy, another person can enter our experience with a different feeling or energy that can completely and immediately shift our mood. And often, when our mood shifts, we approach the rest of our day differently. We can go from being positive and productive to becoming grumpy and withdrawn, because of what another person said, did, or felt.

A lot of times these interactions are unavoidable since we can’t control the types of emotional stimuli emitted from others, and in our day to day lives, most of us are always receiving some type of external stimuli. What is in our control is the way we respond to what we’re given.  We can decide if the feeling we’ve received from somewhere/someone else will remain or dominate, or if we’d like to return to our original or another feeling state.

We all know someone who spends a lot of time complaining or venting about what they don’t like or how things are going wrong, and at times, we may be that person. As individuals, we each perceive many different things as wrong or not likeable. We all feel angry, sad, disappointed, or frustrated at times, so it’s likely that we’ve held both of these positions, the complainer and the listener, at some point or another. Sharing our feelings with others is an important part of relating. We feel connected, validated, and understood, when sharing something that can be held, mirrored, or reflected by another. This is a good thing.

However, it gets complicated sometimes. Other people’s emotions aren’t always welcomed or wanted. They can sometimes feel intrusive or burdensome, leaving us with a feeling that interrupts our previous level of functioning or being, or with a feeling that we simply just don’t want. Everybody knows the old saying, “misery loves company.” And though it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going around intentionally trying to make you miserable because they’re miserable, it doesn’t change that frequently, that is the outcome. As said before, it feels good to be listened to, understood, and connected with. When our pain, sufferings, and idiosyncratic irritations are heard, it makes our perceptions valid and real.

But what do you do when your coworker comes and complains to you about how much they hate your boss, listing every wrong the boss has ever done towards them, engendering angry and resentful feelings in you towards the boss too? What about when your significant other comes home in a bad mood, and lets the bad mood influence how they relate to you? Or when that reckless driver cuts you off on your morning commute? There’s no question that most of us would have some type of negative emotion or reaction to any of these scenarios. These are all examples of uninvited emotional experiences unexpectedly entering your space, which is usually not cool and makes people angry. I’ve heard people describe events like this as ruining their entire day. Not all of us will have our whole day ruined by one of these unfortunate, unavoidable situations, but plenty of us would give considerable time and energy to feeling bad, sad, or mad. And that’s fine. We should all have space to feel our feelings and move through or process them as we choose. But I think we should also give ourselves options. We have some ability to choose how we feel. How about asking yourself, “how do I want to feel?”

Also, “Is this emotion useful or necessary?” and “How do I actually feel?” Not everyone is well versed in identifying and naming feelings. Sometimes we react before taking the time to really think and determine for ourselves what we feel. Looking inside to assess your own emotions is an important step, since lots of what we feel and experience comes from outside of us. Sometimes our emotions aren’t even really ours. Through transfers of energy, projective identification, displacement, and other energetic or psychological processes, certain feelings can be put into us by others. Do you want to hold onto a negative emotion that was transferred to you by someone else? If the feeling can be used, then maybe it’s worth keeping, but if not, why hold on to it?

Of course this is much easier said than done. Deciding to change your mood, and actually doing it can be extremely difficult. Yet, rewarding. It takes effort and focus to get back to a space of contentment when you’ve been thrown from it, but the effort can be worthwhile. Most of us don’t want to feel bad and usually we’re overall better people when we’re feeling good. We’re more productive, engaged, polite, social, and present in our lives when we’re in a good mood. So, how do you want to feel?

Here’s a short list of tools I’ve found helpful when making the choice to feel good:

1. Immediate intentionality. As soon as you notice an unpleasant or unwanted emotion interfering, make time or find space to reflect, meditate, pray, connect, or any practice that can center your thoughts on the feeling what you want. Be intentional and stay focused on what you want.

2. Change your behavior. Sometimes thoughts/feelings influence our actions/behaviors, but our actions and behaviors can also influence our thoughts and feelings. Start with your behavior and see if your emotions follow (i.e. smile, listen to music, exercise, do anything you enjoy)

3. Focus on gratitude. Studies show that thinking of things that you’re happy about and thankful for leads to good health and increased joy.

Feel free to share any tips or tools you use to stay in your mood of choice!

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What are you afraid of?

fear

What are you afraid of? The dark? Clowns? Flying? Death? Halloween is well past us and the Ebola scare seems to have died down, but it seems there is always something looming around the corner. Fear is something we’ve all experienced, with extreme variance from person to person. It can manifest and be experienced in so many different ways, whether it’s welcomed or unconscious.

Naturally, fear is a necessary and primal instinct for survival–it keeps us alive. When faced with something dangerous or threatening, fear activates the fight or flight response in hopes of giving us the best chances to survive. Imagine hiking on a trail and coming across a huge, black bear. What do you do? You become afraid, meaning you have a neurological response that communicates to your body that it needs to react. The neurological response becomes physiological, and you might start to sweat, feel your heart rate increase, and notice your breathing become more shallow. These sensations in your body alert you that it’s time to take action. Do you run? Scream? Freeze? Play dead? All of these are actions in response to fear.

What’s interesting about fear is that it can be utilized to keep us alive, but can also be used to keep us problematically, and sometimes strategically stuck. Some fears are innate, having always existed in us, while others are learned, from personal experience, family, media, or other external sources. Some fears are rational and legitimate reactions to threats to our lives, while others simply, are not. How do you know the difference between the two? When should fear be reacted to and when should you consider letting it go? It might help to ask yourself a few questions, like: What is it that you are afraid of? Why? Are you actually in danger? Has the feared stimulus ever, in fact, harmed you? Where did the fear come from? Is this fear actually yours or did it come from someone/somewhere else? Is this fear serving you? Is this fear hindering or limiting you?

Asking yourself these questions could be an important step in understanding the role of fear in your life. How is fear impacting your daily decisions and interactions? As stated earlier, experiences of fear vary drastically from person to person. Some people develop specific phobias, or irrational fears of specific objects or situations. Some common phobias are fear of closed spaces (claustrophobia), fear of spiders (arachnophobia), and fear of heights (acrophobia). These are the types of phobias that often come up in conversation, are shared among friends, and sometimes even joked about. These kinds of fears, of certain objects or situations may be easier to admit and accept because they are personal, and mostly experienced internally. If you’re afraid of heights, you’re likely to respond by avoiding high places. It is unlikely that this fear will significantly affect anyone, but you. However, there are other fears that are not only personal, but interpersonal. When your phobia is Muslims (Islamophobia), gay people (homophobia), or Black Men, your fear does not only affect you. Perhaps this fear is unconscious and learned from media or family history. And perhaps you employ the method of avoidance, similar to the person who is afraid of heights, by not interacting with this group of people. Perhaps this keeps your fear at bay and minimizes the potential harm that might result from an interaction with your feared stimulus.

But what happens when the feared stimulus is unavoidable? Imagine walking down the street and there is a Black man approaching. What do you do? You become afraid, meaning you have a neurological response that communicates to your body that it needs to react. As your brain and body communicate, you start to take action. Do you clutch your purse? Call the police? Cross the street? Start a fight? Kill him? All of these are potential actions in response to fear. And therein lies the real danger. The taboo of admitting these types of fears leads to general acceptance of rote reactions to perceived threats that are just that: perceptions–things that may or may not even be real. We’ve been learning to be afraid for so long, that our minds and bodies have mastered the ability to justify our false, irrational, and illogical panic. So long that the biological response has become automatic. Many of us have taken little to no time to really examine our fear and what underlies it. Consequently, our unexamined fear lies stagnant, in wait, until it is triggered. And when triggered, we react. Our reaction might be subtle, maybe avoidance or covert disdain. Other times, our reactions are aggressive or violent. Either way, this is a problem. When (imagined) perceptions lead to real interactions fueled by fear, the likely outcome will almost always be harmful.

black fear
The above example involves an interpersonal interaction between individuals, but this way of relating is not limited to person-to-person. This pattern is expanded and exacerbated when, through common experience, entire groups learn to fear a specific stimuli. In this way fear is built into systems, institutions, cultures, and entire societies. When fear is consumed by masses, the responses to the fear become even more engrained and normalized, and ultimately more problematic and harmful.

Living a life ruled by fear has perilous consequences. Some people miss opportunities of a lifetime because they’re afraid. We’ve seen interactions based in unconscious fear turn deadly. What would happen if you took the time to examine the origins of your fears? Ask yourself the questions listed earlier and see what you learn. Moreover, see what you can unlearn. Some fears don’t really belong to you. Release them. Allow for space to find things that aren’t yours and let them go. With this letting go will come a perspective change. Perceptions will likely better match reality and bring about more authentic interactions. Letting go of fear will also reduce stress and produce more contentment. On the other side of fear there is courage. Along with courage comes freedom. There, you might also find more empathy and understanding. We can all move in limitless freedom and courage, if we allow ourselves and each other. Don’t let fear keep you from the places you need to go or things you’re destined to do. Utilize fear when it is necessary–when there is an actual threat to your life. Otherwise, just live.

Images taken from dailyhit and tumblr

Resilience, growth, and mental health

Psychology for the people is a space for thinking about how our individual thoughts and feelings, along with our relationships and interactions are shaped by our society. This involves exploring how our individual and collective conscious and unconscious minds have been impacted by our environments, history, culture, families, perceptions, etc. Through a reflective process of my own personal development, my work as a psychologist, and my participation and observation of the communities I belong to, I hope to start dialogues and conversations about some common issues being faced and ways to begin working through them. The posts will focus on communities of color, with an emphasis on African-Americans and children, as these are the areas of which I am informed and passionate about. Through acknowledgement and increased awareness of our struggles and the fostering of resilience and psychological healing, we can change, grow, and experience true mental health.