Dicing with Boredom. . . & Coping Styles

If you’re constantly channel surfing and find yourself watching the same old stuff, over and over again, stuck on facebook or twitter for hours on end, and the fridge door is opening and closing at night so much that the neighbours think you’ve having a disco in the kitchen, chances are YOU ARE BORED!

None of these activities are intrinsically ‘bad’, it’s just that sticking to the same habitual patterns of of ”boredom relief‘ is hardly likely to relieve boredom. It’s important to take a reality check from time to time and ask ‘Am I hungry or bored?’ or ‘Do I really want to watch the 1930s movie in ‘brown & white’ or am I bored? Am I networking or ‘net-jerking’? To relieve boredom we usually go through the same rituals, such as eating, drinking or watching TV simply because they are our tried, tested and trusted ways of relieving boredom. There’s also an element of emotion-focused coping. This means that we use food or TV to replace the negative emotions associated with boredom. However, emotion-focused coping should only really be a short-term solution. It’s a quick fix but it doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem, that is, boredom. Instead, it just deals with the symptoms.

There’s an old saying that variety is the spice and this sounds like I’m ‘stating the bleedin’ obvious’, but you’re only bored because you aren’t doing anything that you’re really interested in at that moment! So rather than stick to the quick-fixes, here’s a little technique that helps make up your mind to do something different. I’ve borrowed the idea from the book The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. It’s the story of a therapist who decides to live his life according to the roll of dice, with alarming consequences. However, we are only going to subject our boredom to chance!

Here’s how:

Make a list from 1 to 21 of the things you could be doing to relieve the boredom, that doesn’t include food, drink or TV (or any other of your rituals). The reason it’s 21 things is because that’s the combinations of a numbers on a pair of dice (1 & 1, 1 & 2, 1 & 3. . .and so on up to 5 & 6 and 6 & 6). A third of the things should include things you have been putting off such as  ‘decluttering your wardrobe’. A third should be personal challenges that you never seem to make time for such as ‘learn a new language’. The remainder are things you like doing to relax such as ‘go for a walk’ or ‘read a book’, and so on.

So, the next time you feel board and find your fingers zapping the remote control or opening and closing the fridge door, reach for a pair of dice and your list. Roll the dice and add up the dots and do whatever number is on your list. No excuses, no second roll. Just do it. The afterwards review your thoughts and feelings? Did it do the trick and relieve your boredom? If not, then roll again and try something else.

Negative emotions can effectively put us on a sort of remote control. We are controlled by the negative emotions and act in habitual, quick-fix ways to relieve the symptoms. The dice technique is a fun techniques for pattern-breaking, to get us to consider other options. However, it is no substitute for making informed choices and adopting a control-focused coping style, that is, we seek to tackle the problem at its cause, not just mop up the symptoms.

So next time, you’re faced with an unpleasant emotion, instead of reaching for the cake slice or the remote control ask yourself what’s behind it, and what you can do to tackle it at source.

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Stress, Damned Stress & Perceptions of Stress

Participating in a phone-in this morning (BBC Five Live with Nicky Campbell) on stress I was struck by the enormous range in capacity that people have when coping with stressful lives. This is perhaps not surprising since all human abilities show a complete spectrum of skill level. It’s also true that perception plays an important part in how we cope.

Inevitably, an discussion on stress becomes like a poker game of the  ‘I’ll see your disaster and raise you a catastrophe‘ variety. However, stress is not a level playing field. Our ways of reacting to stress and coping with stress depend to a great extent on learning, such as how parents, family and friends cope with stress and whether we have inherited a pessimistic or optimistic outlook on life. It’s also our unique pattern of life events has also pre-disposed us to view stress in different ways.

The main thing that emerged from the phone-in was that sometimes it only look a brief respite from overwhelming stress to make things seem more manageable. It’s often the little things in life that make us happy and make difficult times more bearable. So, people might say that they need a ‘bloody good holiday’ when sometimes a cup of tea and a chat would do the trick.

It’s important to recognise that we all need a bit of stress in our lives to get us performing at our best. The good stress is called eustress.  We talk about an ‘adrenaline rush’ that carries us through difficult times. The problem is that there is a tipping point. A little bit of stress improves performance but high levels of stress have a detrimental effect. The ‘bad’ stress is distress.

One of the things that we can do for ourselves is to build in little breaks throughout the day and take time out (away from our stressors) and just take some long, slow deep breaths. This cuts against the stress cycle and can take the edge off things. We instinctively do it every time we brace ourselves for a difficult task and ‘take a deep breath’. We do this to take the edge of our stress and get it back with in productive limits.

One thing we can do for others is to listen without feeling the need to trump their stress with tales of your own. Sometimes people just want to be heard. So do something nice for someone and just listen for a few minutes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fighter pilot listening to someone talk about a difficult boss. Just because you have experienced more stress than they can possibly imagine, that doesn’t take anything away from their own distress. In fact, there’s nothing worse than being told ‘you problems are nothing’. It only adds to the stress.

Sometimes people feel guilty for feeling tired and stressed out especially when others are depending on them. However, it’s not self-centred to need a break: it’s human and it makes good sense. Think of aeroplane emergencies. People are told to put on their own masks before they help their children. In short, you look after yourself first so that you are better equipped to take care of others.

Overall, the thing about stress is that we can learn to cope in ways that are more productive and that starts with taking a more strategic approach and building in relaxation to your schedule (however brief) whether or not you think you need it. So practising a few breathing exercises, getting some fresh air, having a cop of tea and a chat.  The secret is to work out what works for you (and your circumstances) and then practice it, almost religiously, everyday. The more we practice the more deeply conditioned the response becomes. In short, these little safety valves become habits. Getting into the habit of improving your response to stress on a day-to-day basis can automatically help you be better prepared when faced with tough situations.

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Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It

Is ‘addictive personality’ really just a coping style?

The concept of addiction seems to be ever-extending.  It’s all part of the tendency to view everything according to an ‘illness model’ that sees any excessive behaviour as an addiction, from drugs and alcohol, to eating, to shopping , to gambling,to computer games, to social networking, to texting, and even having sex. However, it’s clear that not all of these behaviours are physical addictions but more psychological compulsions.

Clearly, hard drugs do create a physical, biological dependency but can we really apply the same to texting, social networking or eating too much cake? Are some so-called addictions really indicators of psychological problems rather than symptoms of an underlying disease process? Does it really help to treat psychological problems as if they are physical illnesses or does it harm us by taking away the responsibility for our actions and emotions?

It’s first interesting to observe that different cultures are addicted to different things, so in part ‘addiction’ has a cultural or social component. From a social psychology perspective, what we are increasingly labelling ‘addictive personality‘ is arguably learned behaviour rather than anything biologically determined. Of course we can argue that we have inherited an ‘addictive personality’ but it is equally valid to argue that some behaviours, such as over-eating, are part of wider family and social patterns. In short, we learn our eating patterns by copying others. After all, our first models of what is normal and how to cope with the world come from our families.

Another way of viewing addictive personality is look at it in terms of coping. From an early age we are taught how to replace negative emotions with positive ones. As children, gifts of sweets of food help ‘heal’ a disappointment or offer an ‘antidote’ to sadness, and sometimes even physical hurt. Fall off your bike and a chocolate bar will make it better’. As adults we tend to use the same approach, for example with comfort eating: a nice slice of cheesecake is thought to cure all manner of emotional ills. This is known as emotion-focused coping. We focus on replacing the unpleasant emotions rather than getting to the root of the problem (control-focused coping). So if we are sad or bored; we eat. When we gain weight and feel even more sad, we eat again to get rid of the unpleasant emotion, and on it goes. It’s the same as people who go out and spend on their credit cards to cheer themselves up from the dismay of the size of their credit card bill! This approach never gets to the ‘why’!

It’s easy to see how an over-reliance on emotion-focused coping can be described as an ‘addictive personality’. Instead of dealing with the  issues  that cause the unpleasant emotions we blot them out by drinking, eating cake or having sex. Replacing negative emotions with pleasant ones is not an ‘addictive personality’ it’s a short-term fix, coping strategy. It’s a psychological problem not a physical one. For a longer term fix, we need to address the underlying issues and look take a control-focused or solution-focused approach. What can we do to change the factors that cause the negative emotions?

This is not to deny that some people experience incredibly stressful events in their lives and a little bit of emotion-focused coping can provide blessed relief for a short time. However, it’s never a long term solution, and neither is owning a label (‘addictive personality’) that prevents people from even bothering to try any more!

If we scratch the surface, all forms of addiction have a psychological component.  If we focused on long-term coping strategies instead of unhelpful labels and quick-fixes, would ‘addictive personality’ cease to exist? Can we get unhooked from our dependency on the ‘illness model’ to address the underlying psychological reactions to the root causes of our problems?

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Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It