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Coping With Everyday Life

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What This Blog is About

This blog is devoted to discussing how to cope with everyday life, and your hosts (see menu listing of your four blog hosts) will post information from the world of psychology, counseling, and education. Our message revolves around three basic themes: First there is acceptance. There are certain basic truths in life that we simply must accept before we can decide how to act. Second is the notion of meeting challenges. Unfortunately, too often we avoid challenges that confront us because it’s the easy thing to do. Successful coping, however, requires us to take a more difficult road and meet life head on. Third, we must learn what things are under our control. We get in all sorts of difficulties when we try to control things we can’t. The truth is there are only two things we can control: Our own thoughts and our own actions.

We invite our readers to join in our discussion and share their own insights. This blog is not an advice column, but a forum in which to share ideas.

If you are interested in pursuing the psychology literature on any topic we cover, feel free to contact us by email at charlesbrooks@kings.edu. We also encourage you to visit our website (www.subtlesuicide.com) to learn about our published books on subtle suicide, dysfunctional giver/taker relationships, and research on how psychology applies to everyday life.

At first glance, Jack’s case may seem similar to the guest posting from October 8. In each case the principal figure is afflicted with cancer. A close look at these cases, however, reveals that when it comes to coping strategies, cases could not be more dissimilar. Our guest contributor chose a direct confrontational strategy that, while not one everyone would choose, nevertheless illustrates appropriate and effective coping. Jack’s case, however, shows the dire consequences that come from a lifetime of poor coping strategies involving chronic avoidance and denial.

THE CASE OF JACK THE AVOIDER

From childhood into adulthood, Jack consistently avoided openly expressing any negative emotions and actions (such as anger, jealousy, aggression, etc.), and from accepting responsibility. The older of two children, Jack came from a working-class family. He was always a physically large, overweight boy, and the other kids typically made fun of him. Consequently, he never developed much self-confidence and had pretty low self-esteem. He protected his fragile ego by “hibernating” and went through the motions of life below the radar screen as much as possible.

Jack’s family never had much money and his early family and home life was short on warmth and love. In fact, the primary source of acceptance, praise, and “love” in Jack’s family seemed to be food. There was always lots to eat, and the parents rewarded their kids for “eating well,” which really meant overeating. Whenever the kids came home from school, Mom was in the kitchen cooking, ready to welcome them with all sorts of treats.

Jack’s father, on the other hand, was a domineering, cold, and harsh parent. In fact, other kids and their parents who knew him called him, “Khrushchev” (Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, considered by many to be quite ruthless). His wife suspected he physically abused Jack when she was not around, but she had no direct evidence. In any event, dad was an intimidating figure and Jack decided very early in life that the best strategy was to stay out of his way as much as possible. Thus were planted the seeds of his avoidance forest.

In high school and college Jack was not popular, but he usually had a small group of peers to hang out with, although not as close buddies. For the most part, these were quiet years; Jack got acceptable grades, stayed out of trouble, kept mostly to himself, and stayed below the radar screen, just as he had done with Dad. He plugged along, but always avoided challenge and confrontation. He quietly did his work and stayed out of trouble.

After graduation from college Jack got a job, met a girl, got married, and began a family. Unfortunately, he continued to avoid facing the increasing challenges of his life. His wife, Brenda, ran the household and made most of the decisions, both domestic and financial. When children came along, Brenda became the disciplinarian and primary caretaker. Jack pretty much stayed in the background when it came to guiding and raising his kids. He seemed to love the kids, but getting too close was psychologically threatening to his fragile self-esteem.  His relationship with his kids mirrored his relationship with his father (not at all unusual): He could not get too close because he feared rejection and abandonment.

In his early work years Jack’s employment record was spotty. He was unsuccessful in a couple of jobs and had a failed business venture, but he eventually found a job that gave him some success and financial security. In spite of this success, however, he began turning to alcohol more and more. He spent long hours away from home socializing and drinking while Brenda was home managing the kids and the home. When she confronted him about his need to take on more responsibility and be more involved, he refused to discuss the situation. Many friends and work colleagues saw these same patterns of behavior. As Brenda recalls it, Jack worked very hard to avoid stress or confrontation with her or with anyone else; he would simply “bottle up” his feelings and retreat into silence or even leave the house and go to the local bar. The seeds of his childhood had sprouted into what psychologists call an “avoidant personality.”

Jack developed some health problems in his early forties, but he kept his symptoms to himself. He chose not to tell Brenda about his pains and not to get checked out by his physician. Once again, he avoided taking action, even though such avoidance could potentially threaten his very survival. Eventually, however, the cause of his pain, cancer, became obvious: He developed open, bleeding sores on his skin, and he needed Brenda’s help in caring for them. Brenda pleaded with him to go to the doctor but he stubbornly refused, even as his condition worsened. His denial and avoidant tendencies had reached irrational and life-threatening levels. Brenda took extreme action and had him involuntarily committed to a medical facility for diagnosis and treatment. Her actions, unfortunately, came too late. The physicians said his cancer was too advanced and he had only months to live, a prediction fulfilled in a few weeks.

Following Jack’s death, Brenda struggled both financially and psychologically. Looking back at Jack’s last years, Brenda said he showed very little compassion for himself or his family. He had become self-preoccupied, disconnected from other people, and basically had no sense of purpose or life goals. He did not care about his own life and took no steps to help himself in spite of pleas from Brenda, friends, and colleagues. Nothing seemed to matter to him except avoiding stress at all costs. He avoided basic responsibilities and negative emotions, especially ones that could produce confrontation with others. Jack’s lifetime of avoidance had led him into a black hole. And to top it all off, he didn’t give a damn!

Jack’s behavior had dire effects on others, especially his family. Brenda was left with little money and a mountain of bills. After Jack’s death, she struggled to support her kids and to come to grips with her own psychological issues. For the most part she was successful in both areas, although the personal area became more complicated because one of her boys developed Jack’s avoidant patterns, which only served to awaken lots of unresolved conflicts in Brenda. Eventually she voluntarily sought psychiatric hospitalization. Both inpatient and outpatient counseling helped her greatly, and she began to take effective control of her life.

Jack’s case illustrates a primary element inherent in ineffective coping: His life was devoted to avoidance of any sort of conflict. Such a strategy is doomed to fail because life involves conflict and pain, and continuous efforts to avoid cannot work in the long run if we are to thrive. Confronting and dealing with emotions and psychological pain are necessary steps if we are to become psychologically strong and healthy. Jack, however, refused to confront the demons that began to control him when he was very young. He was overly sensitive to rejection, criticism, embarrassment, and disapproval. Consequently, he chose to avoid conflict that put him at great psychological risk. Unfortunately, when we avoid conflict, problems grow stronger and become more complex, eventually taking us in a downward spiral from which it becomes difficult to escape. Jack never did escape.

 

CTS AND OTHER POST-ELECTION WOES

If you will grant us a little tongue-in-cheek moment, we would like to propose a new psychological condition, Clinton-Trump Syndrome (CTS). This condition manifests itself when one interacts with other people by imitating the candidates’ style observed in the presidential election of 2016. For instance, in their debates, commercials, and speeches, the candidates brought the presidential election to new depths of rudeness, vulgarity, disrespect, and intellectual inadequacy. In short, the candidates legitimized uncivilized behavior and established a new low for standards of acceptability about what is considered civil discourse.

Exposure to this type of behavior so frequently and over such a long period of time desensitized us and habituated us to insulting negativity and indecent language. We got used to it and, consequently, began to accept it as normal and a good way to interact with others. Unfortunately, this new “normal” is totally incompatible with effective coping, and anyone who imitates this behavior is coping poorly.

Will sophisticated conversation become a rarity and damage what we know to be good interpersonal coping strategies? Will CTS spread to high-school student government meetings, to town-hall gatherings, to casual conversation? Will social interactions degenerate into name-calling and insults? Already we hear news accounts of expressions of racial hatred appearing on high school bathroom walls, neighborhood garage doors, and various public places.

We face a real danger that discourtesy, intolerance, and incivility will become the standard way of conducting interpersonal interactions. In fact, one of us recently was mostly listening to a discussion between two other guys about legalizing marijuana. One of them really began to get belligerent and insulting, and the other one held up his hands and said, “Whoa! Time out! We are both entitled to our opinion. Let’s not make this a Clinton-Trump debate!” Interestingly, that comment defused the situation.

When it comes to providing a psychologically-healthy example of effective coping techniques in conversation with others, the verbal interaction between the candidates was a dismal failure. If you want to cope effectively, do not imitate their example.

Constructive, tolerant, and respectful communication is extremely important in relationships, and maintaining healthy relationships is essential to effective coping. Do not allow CTS to draw you into degrading exchanges and interactions with others. Maintain high standards and disengage from those who want to wallow in the CTS mud. You can’t control them but you can control whether you join them.

Our blog co-host, Carlea, has some reassuring words from a teaching perspective. “I hope that we as a nation can rise above the base mudslinging that has made the country look foolish. During the campaign, in my work with students (our future!) I often asked them for their thoughts on the election. I used their feedback as a springboard for discussing the importance of using kind words and expressing ourselves in a positive way. We need to be at our best even when other people aren’t. Once again, the most important thing to do is realize what you can and can’t control. I can’t control anyone other than me, but I can help to build up citizens of good character.”

A basic premise of social psychology is that others will treat you not only as you treat them, but also in accordance with how you expect them to treat you. Think about it. If you begin conversations expecting others to be cold, disrespectful, and condescending toward you, then you are likely to act toward them in negative ways that will irritate them and insure that the behavior you expected from them will indeed occur. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy: You expect her to be cold and distant so you treat her rudely and, guess what?………She becomes cold and distant. Congratulations. You produced the behavior you expected. Now there’s an absolutely terrible way to foster successful interactions with others who might help you cope more effectively with everyday life.

And as if CTS is not enough of a poor election legacy, we have general post-election anxiety itself. Unless you live under a rock, you are no doubt aware of turmoil following the election.  Many folks have great fears, uncertainties, and concerns; others are bitter and resentful. We hear threats, complaints, criticisms, lies, speculations, etc, and many worry about what will come next.

What can you do about post-election stress? We know, you’re inundated with advice in the media, but let us throw our two-cents in. First of all, review the Preamble to this blog; then review the Core Principles of Coping that we posted on 11/17/16. Some additional steps:

–Accept the results. As President Obama reminded us, Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States.

–Keep contact info for your Congressional representatives handy. Email them regularly with your concerns. Be short, concise, and respectful. Remember, the minute they take office they have one goal: to be re-elected. Group signings (see “neighborhood group” below) are especially compelling.

–Do some homework on the Presidency, what he can and cannot do. Some of the limitations may give you some relief.

–Those with views dissimilar to yours are not your enemy. Don’t treat them as such.

–Rid yourself of cynicism about our country. It will devour you.

–Start a neighborhood discussion group. Make it as inclusive as possible, especially with respect to party affiliation. (Meeting only with those who hold similar views runs the risk of Groupthink, and reaching irrational decisions.) Hold weekly meetings and discuss with civility and respect how those with differing political views might find common ground and work together. No CTS sufferers allowed at meetings! Work together toward consensus in an atmosphere of respect, dignity, civility, and decency, always sprinkled with humility and kindness.

–Either keep CTS sufferers away from family celebrations, or banish them to a special room, preferably a sound-proofed one.

–Get outside yourself. Volunteer and bring your services to others. Make your experiences proactive, productive, and personally satisfying, and live the beauty that is America.

–Step-up and lead by example, not as an extremist, but as a caring citizen who is respectful and tolerant of divergent and opposing viewpoints.

–Finally, try this on for size: Reflect on what did not happen the day after the election. The President did not declare martial law and signal his intention to remain in office to protect the citizenry and the Constitution. Opposition generals did not mass troops and tanks around the Capital city for a coup attempt. Nope, there was none of that. Instead, the President and President-elect met in the Oval Office and expressed their respect for each other. And in a few weeks we will see a peaceful transfer of the reins of government from one administration to another. Let’s face it, we all love this country and we all won on November 8th.

Time to move on, but stay vigilant and focused.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CORE PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COPING

You can only control your thoughts and your actions. Don’t overreach.

Dependency is the enemy of self-empowerment.

Live in the present, not the past.

Be optimistic, but always realistic.

Do not be defined by your fears.

Learn to recognize, accept, and attack stress.

Emotions are not your enemy, so guide them, don’t manage them.

Positive actions are more powerful than positive thoughts.

Learn from both your wins and your losses.

Offer help to and accept the assistance of trustworthy others.

Your body is designed for movement, so keep it fit and trim.

 

We see these principles throughout the postings on this blog. We will also see them in an upcoming post giving our take on post-election coping. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WINTER BLUES…HOW “SAD”

Every September Lynn gives her psychiatrist’s office a call and asks for a renewal of her anti-depressant medication. She tells them she’s feeling fine and hasn’t taken any of the meds since last April. But winter is coming and she knows that come late October she will start to feel down as those winter blues set in. She wants to get a running start and start the meds so they will have already “kicked in” by November and she will cut off the depression. Her strategy is kind of like getting a flu shot before the flu season sets in.

Lynn suffers from SAD, an acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder, or Seasonal Adjustment Disorder. This depression hits people in the winter when there is reduced sunlight. To combat her depression, Lynn has chosen psychiatric medication. If the plan works for Lynn, so be it. It’s hard to argue with success. For those who would like to forgo medication, however, there are alternatives to dealing with SAD.

Some professionals say SAD results from reduced sunlight, which causes biochemical imbalances in the brain. Thus, you can treat SAD with exposure to artificial light during the winter by sitting in front of a special lamp for an hour or so each day before sunrise. The idea is to keep your brain bathed in light, maintain an appropriate biochemical balance, and consequently be blessed with a good mood. These special lamps, by the way, can be purchased for several hundred dollars. Obtaining a good “brain tan” is not cheap!

Still another approach to SAD is in line with themes we try to develop in this blog. This approach emphasizes autonomous action and taking control of your behavior during the winter months. If such a treatment brings relief, some may feel that it is preferable to depending on a drug.

Before considering this non-drug option, however, let’s note some of the stressors that the winter months bring. SAD comes along when the weather is reminding you of the long winter months ahead (at least for many parts of the country). These months can be a tough time because you’re cooped up in the house (quite a bit if you live in the North). It gets dark earlier and it’s tough to take those enjoyable strolls around the neighborhood after dinner; might as well stay in the house and gain weight (which further depresses you when you look at the scale in January).

You’re more likely to get sick during the winter. The flu season kicks in around November, just when daylight savings time ends. Now darkness comes earlier each evening. When winter comes you also worry about road conditions. And how about all those school delays and cancellations that lead to angst about what to do with the kids? More winter joy!

Some researchers say increased darkness may have an adverse effect on the immune system.  A weakened immune system during the winter, of course, could explain why you seem to get sick more often, and why flu season corresponds with the cold, dark winter months. So on top of all those other winter stressors, you worry about getting sick. And then you do get sick, and now you’re more likely to feel depressed. Talk about “the perfect storm”!

But, hey, maybe SAD need not be such a big deal, at least if you approach winter the right way. First of all it would help if you used some coping techniques to reduce some of the anxiety you’re feeling. Here’s a Christmas example offered by Host Carlea: “A couple of weeks after Halloween I noticed my neighbor’s house was already fully decked out for Christmas. I almost let myself suffer some anxiety about being decoratively-challenged and embarrassingly late for Christmas, but I caught myself. ‘Wait a minute. Just because neighbor is 6 weeks ahead of the curve, I don’t have to be; my house can wait a few weeks for the decorations.’

“But I couldn’t stop my brain from kicking into overdrive trying to determine how many days before the holiday invitations come in and the holiday cards go out; how many gifts do I need to pick out, wrap, and deliver; how many cookies do I have to bake (and refrain from eating); how many surprise guests will appear with tidings of good cheer; how many deadlines do I have to meet during this most wonderful time of the year; how many bills will I be able to pay; how many times will I have to clean the house … Well, you get the idea. I was suddenly flooded with stress.

“Then I allowed myself the opportunity to stop, breathe, and refocus. I could try to positively reframe those palpitation-inducing thoughts (e.g., “How lucky I am to have such good relationships in my life that hordes of people will come visit!”). But I, like you, can also remember the power of the word “no.” Just because an invitation to an event is received doesn’t mean you have to attend; just because you’ve always given presents to the child-age cousins in the family doesn’t mean you have to this year. Saying “no” frees you up to be the better version of you during the occasions when you say yes. You won’t be as tired, cranky, or Scrooge-like. Instead, you will be able to fully focus on the things that matter – special time with those you hold dear.”

Great advice! Take control. Of course, one thing we can’t control is winter weather. How do we deal with that? First of all let’s ask if there is even a relationship between our moods and the weather. We’ll give that question a definite “yes” answer. Researchers at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics found that mood and thinking ability both increased with warmer, pleasant temperatures and higher air pressure (high air pressure is generally associated with sunny, pleasant weather.)

But it’s not that simple. The researchers also found that when assigned to work on tasks outside on warm, sunny days, the mood of the research participants definitely increased; for those assigned to complete the tasks inside, however, even when pleasant weather conditions prevailed outside, mood was lower. So the positive effect of weather depended on where the person was working during those nice weather conditions. Working outside was definitely better than working inside. Isn’t this exactly what happens every Spring? Warm April days come after weeks of cold weather that has driven us inside. And now, almost overnight, there is opportunity for outdoor activities. So we get outside and do more and we feel great!

There’s a key word here: ACTIVITY. Is it possible that you might develop mood swings in the winter months because you change your routine and give in to the darkness? All those worries about the dangers imposed by night driving, bad-weather driving, flying home for the holidays, becoming snowbound in an airport, getting the flu, or a host of other self-imposed concerns resulting from a negative psychological response to the winter season just tie you up in knots. So you curl up on the couch and give up. You’re less likely to go out to dinner and parties, host social events at home, or engage in outdoor hobbies and recreation.

So here’s our non-pharmaceutical take on SAD (and we said the same thing in Brooks & Church, The Psychology of Everyday Life, published in 2009): The key to maintaining a good mood during the dark months is to maintain a steady “diet” of activity, just like during the summer months. You should schedule special events and activities that you’ll look forward to. Sure, you have to bundle up in January to take that walk, but doing so is better than sitting on your butt.

We know a serious outside walker who is also a serious winter hater! Still, she never lets the winter weather defeat her when it comes to walking outside. During the winter she bundles up in layers of sweat clothes, scarves, and windbreakers. Then, armed with her music device and earphones, out she goes. Her only concession to winter weather is the route she takes. If there is snow on the ground, many of her summer walking paths are just not accessible, so she changes the route accordingly. She always returns home about an hour later moaning and groaning about the evils of winter. But she is invigorated and feels good physically and mentally after these winter walks.

We think the fundamental idea behind SAD is flawed. As winter approaches and the days get shorter, if you want to believe that you are doomed to get depressed because of reduced sunlight, that’s your choice. But remember: Darkness is not going to make you depressed; it’s what you do during the darkness that makes the difference. The winter months should be viewed as a challenging time to continue with those activities that give you pleasure and a sense of control in your life, not as a time to hibernate! What you do is under your control; the weather is not!

One of our former students says: “I have a tendency to get depressed during the winter months, so I force myself onto the treadmill, or even into doing outdoor exercise. And when I go outside, I find myself invigorated. It really is invigorating to take a walk in the dark, when it’s cold, and the snow crunches. It also makes me feel like a warrior woman when I do something like that. Frostbite warnings are no match for me!”

We couldn’t say it better. If you have a tendency to get down in the dumps during those long winter months and want to purchase one of the expensive lamps to bathe your brain in artificial sunlight, fine; that’s up to you. And, if you want to start taking anti-depressant medication in September………..well, that’s your choice, too. We believe, however, you will be much better “inoculated” against winter psychological dangers if you continue your regular exercise and other activity routines during the winter. Spit in winter’s face!

Also, it helps to take on new things. Remember, the winter months bring special challenges to many people. Do things for others. Get involved in charity projects during the holiday season. Volunteer at a homeless shelter during the coldest time of the year. Do things; hit the road; get out there and be with people. And before you know it, you’ll be venturing outside to be bathed in that warm April sunshine!

 

 

ELECTION ANXIETY?

Broadcast media is playing up the notion that many people are suffering stress over the presidential election. Psychologists are being invited into studios to offer their opinions and advice about dealing with this election anxiety. While there is no doubt many folks are worried that their candidate will lose and the consequences will be catastrophic, some media reports would have us believe that half the population is suffering significant stress over the election. That’s probably a little overplayed!

But if you are someone who is really getting stressed out and anxious about the election, what can you do to calm your nerves? Of course, regular readers of The Coping Blog know how to deal with stress, and a number of our previous blogs are relevant to the election issue. Still, let’s review some steps that may be helpful.

First of all, give yourself a little pat on the back. Your anxiety and stress show that you care, that you are involved in a fundamental part of our democratic process. Good for you!

Remember, your anxiety is a natural emotional state that can be a positive motivator for you. It need not be your enemy. Use your stress to motivate you to take actions that empower you.

Go into “critical-thinking mode” and ask yourself some fundamental questions: Are you making a mountain out of a molehill? Are you thinking irrationally or unrealistically? (“The future of humanity hinges on this election.”) Are you over-generalizing and being manipulated? (“Our entire electoral system is corrupt.”)

Granted, what has been said during this election can make it tough determining what may be an irrational fear, but the fact remains, you must approach your problem with some critical thinking. It may help to remember that we are a country of laws and not a Hollywood movie script. Think your fears through. Sure, literally anything can happen, but what is the risk of your concerns becoming real? Answering that last question can be helped along by consulting knowledgeable professionals and seeking out valid and reliable information.

Look for logical inconsistencies between words and actions from those whose pronouncements cause you worry. For instance, if someone tells you they are taking part in a rigged election, ask yourself why they would participate. Would you participate in an activity you believed was rigged against you?

Do not depend on unchecked websites. There are “joeblow.com” sites all over the place, and they will tell you the Apollo program was filmed in a studio, that one-third of Wells Fargo Bank’s Board of Directors are ISIS sympathizers, and that George Bush planned the Sept. 11 attacks. Your critical thinking skills will allow you to say, “Wait a minute. Such conspiracies would require thousands of participants. Would there not be one Snowden in the bunch?”

Determine what aspects of your concerns are under your control. For instance, decide which candidate you are voting for and be done with it, even if your state typically votes opposite your perspective.

Check out your TV remote and focus on three wonderful buttons that are under your control: “Power”; “Channel Selection” (Who would have thought it? Choosing Food Network or ESPN over CNN or FoxNews could have an impact on your mental health!); and finally don’t forget that magnificently- empowering button representing the second (after the telephone) most significant technological advance in the history of humanity, the “MUTE” button! Use it to your advantage!

If you have misguided, at best, or ignorant, at worst, friends and acquaintances who support the candidate you do not, it helps to remember that they are entitled to their opinion, and you must respect that right. You do not, however, have to listen to them, and you have the right to tell them you do not want to talk about the election. If they persist, disengage from them. Take this opportunity to block, hide, or unfriend people from your social media accounts. And remember that those who talk loudest and longest about the wisdom and correctness of their opinion are those who feel inadequate and insecure about the wisdom and correctness of their opinion. Psychologists call it “reaction formation.”

It might be helpful to shift your focus from the national level to your local elections. Many important issues exist at the local level, and candidates for city councils, clerkships, mayoralties, etc., are not usually attacking each other with the poisonous, childish vitriol we have witnessed from the presidential candidates. Focusing on local contests can help maintain your confidence in the election process and, on a grander level, America. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” You and your neighbors, “We, the People,” are the ultimate foundation of our government.

Get outside yourself to help maintain a healthy perspective on your life as an American. Nurture your social conscience by reaching out to others and engaging in volunteer activities.

As with any regimen attacking stress, maintain a healthy diet and exercise daily. Your body and brain must be kept vibrant and energetic. Keep both moving!

Finally, regularly review the posts at thecopingblog.com!

 

 

“UNFRIENDING” AS EFFECTIVE COPING

            Several years ago, sometime between when Facebook lowered the age to join to include adolescents and when adolescents decided they were cooler than Facebook, I (Carlea) facilitated a group with a few “tween” and teenage girls. One of the girls, Alyssa (all names are fictitious), was describing an issue she was having with a peer, Sarah, from another town. Sarah was consistently posting degrading, hurtful, and offensive comments on Alyssa’s wall. Even though this was in a time before smart phones and social media outlets were as ubiquitous as they are today, Alyssa felt trapped, helpless, and a disheartened. A typically quiet member of our group innocently offered, “Why don’t you just block her?” This simple suggestion changed Alyssa’s perspective on the situation as she suddenly realized she had an option that would allow her to regain power and control over the situation.  

            The next time the group met, Alyssa proudly reported that she blocked Sarah and felt a lot better after doing so. But her comment led to some other observations from our group. Christina asked Alyssa if she had any guilt about blocking her supposed-friend (the current word for this dynamic is “frenemy”). Alyssa thought about it for a moment and said it never occurred to her that she should feel guilty about blocking Sarah. “Why do you think I might have felt guilty? Sarah was being nasty so I stopped it.” Christina replied that she probably would have experienced some guilt, and would probably have taken a less extreme step and just “hidden” Sarah from her newsfeed.  Christina continued, “What if Sarah noticed and called you out on it? What would you do?” 

            As we discussed these issues it became apparent to the group that everyone has different thresholds for emotions. Whatever the threshold, however, the key is to search for options that will provide a sense of empowerment, and remember that there are often several solutions to issues. The key is first to realize you always have a choice and then you should do what makes you comfortable. There are seldom universal solutions. Alyssa chose to “block” Sarah; Christina would have chosen to “hide” her.  

            Bullying is not the only time blocking may be appropriate. For some people the barrage of “special events” photos that are posted to social media (e.g., new baby, first day of school, family outings, holidays) can be overwhelming, especially when grieving a loss. You may choose to avoid social media when those posting “triggers” are around. You may choose to block (or hide) the friends or family who routinely share pictures that you find upsetting. The thing to remember in all of this, of course, is that you have the power. 

            You might ask, “Well wait a minute, isn’t blocking someone really just avoiding an issue?” That’s a valid and fair question, especially in the context of the themes we try to develop in this blog. But the answer is no! Something like blocking in the context we discuss above is not avoidance because you are actually taking a very proactive and empowering step; you are taking charge of an issue that is bothering you, and in essence taking charge to control that issue. Exercising power and control when appropriate is the gold standard of coping when confronted with the types of challenges noted. In fact, not trying to empower yourself will prevent you from coping effectively with the challenge.  So, when it comes to social media and those who just bring you bad vibes, go ahead and hide or block them; you will ultimately feel a sense of control when you scroll through your newsfeed. Think of it as a virtual “decluttering.” 

            One thing we have not mentioned is whether you feel you should speak to the person you chose to block, hide, or completely unfriend. Would doing so help you feel even more empowered, or wouldn’t it matter to you? This is an individual issue with no universal answer, but we would be interested in hearing readers’ responses. 

            Finally, there’s another side to this unfriending coin, one we also hope readers will comment on: How would you react if someone blocked you from their feed? Would you feel guilty, immediately thinking you must have done something to offend that person? Would you be angry, offended that someone would dare unfriend you? Would you want to broach the action with the individual or just let it slide? Let us hear from you! Remember, there’s no “right” way to handle the situation – there’s just the right way for you.

 

Today’s guest writer shares some thought-provoking beliefs about the journey that is life. Although the specific coping actions he takes may not be for you, the philosophy behind his actions is consistent with themes we try to develop in this blog. His powerful comments are certainly a model for us all to consider.

THE CHALLENGE OF CANCER, SHARED BY A COPING ROLE MODEL

September 28, 2016

My wife and I moved recently to Cocoa Beach, Florida from the Tampa Bay area. We try to make it a point every day to go for a walk to the beach to see the sunrise and greet the new day. That is where we met Charlie Brooks.

After a period of weeks of passing by one another on the beach, he cautiously inquired of the lemon-size growth on the right side of my neck. By now, I am pretty comfortable giving an explanation to those who ask. I said, “It’s a tumor.” I explained my condition further and described a little of how I deal with it.

So how do I cope with stage-four cancer? A good place to start is “one day at a time.”

A little background:

For almost eight years now, I have been dealing with the fact that I have cancer. 2008 was a most difficult and stressful time in my life. After eighteen years of marriage, my wife walked out and began divorce proceedings. Estranged from my young daughters, without friends or family nearby, I felt abandoned in a place I no longer wanted to be. I trudged thru those tumultuous days one at a time, but to be honest, I really was not coping very well with everyday life. 

In December 2008, I came down with the flu or what I would describe as flu-like symptoms (the apartment I moved into weeks before had a very bad mold and mildew problem and may have contributed to my illness). Both my glands on my neck swelled and were very sore. After several weeks I regained my health but the gland on my right side of my neck never returned to its normal size. I did research on what might be the cause and how to self-treat it, but for the most part I ignored it believing it would go away in time (like everything else, this too shall pass).

As a spiritual person (I had served as a minister for twelve years), I had been praying that something has to change in my life. I was mentally and physically tired. This change would either have to come from beyond my control or from within myself. I made some changes in my life to help cope. I returned to congregational worship on Sundays. I spent time at the local library searching their music collection, listening to music and reading books. I also set up a Facebook account.

In March 2009, I received an email from a former girlfriend of whom I had not had contact with since I was a teenager (answer to prayer?). What was really strange is that I had not reached out to her and she had no idea where I was in my life. We spent hours on the phone rekindling our relationship which began some 32 years earlier. I made the decision to relocate to Florida where she was living. Four months later we were married and have been inseparable ever since. She has been my sunshine helping me cope with everyday life.

The growth on my neck.

It took some time to settle in, to become employed and to obtain health insurance. During that time, the growth continued to develop. In 2011, I decided to go to an ear, nose and throat doctor (Otolaryngologist), who also performs head and neck surgery. I had several tests run, the results of which revealed I had non-small cell carcinoma (squamous cell). “It is malignant,” he said. My heart dropped. These were words I never thought I would hear concerning my life. So now what? Where do we go from here?

The doctor explained his next steps to treat the cancer. The protocol involved another test, then undergoing surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Regarding the surgery, he said he may have to remove a portion of my tongue, my voice box, and part of my jaw bone which would require reconstructive surgery. He added, “You will also have to learn to eat and speak again. Even so, you are looking at a possible five-year life expectancy.” He actually gave the odds of life expectancy but I no longer remember what he said. I do not believe they were in my favor. I left his office devastated by the results and distraught over his medical recommendations (his bedside manner was lacking to say the least).

I returned home, sat down with my wife, and explained to her what the doctor said. That night was pretty much a blur as far as remembering our feelings, emotions and words. As for me, I now had some medical answers for my condition. What was left to do was to decide how to proceed.

I gave myself a few days to mull over the doctor’s words and allow things to settle in my mind. I held off telling my daughters, family, and employers until I could come to a resolution. Life at this point hadn’t really changed. My wife loved me. I was working, and doing all the things I did prior to learning of my prognosis. But internally, I was grieving and going through a grief process. I sought to compartmentalize the cancer, dealing with my thoughts and feelings a little at a time. Even now, this seems to be, in part, how I cope with my condition. It is not something I think about all the time. The bottom line was and is acceptance of the fact that I have been diagnosed with a malignant form of cancer.

Decision Time

It was really the decision-making process that helped form my ability to cope with cancer. Knowing what I have is not enough to put my mind at ease. What do I do about it and to what degree or cost am I willing to subject myself, my wife and family to in order to gain some sense of well-being? Thus began a journey of researching and discovering my options from Western to Eastern medicine. This was not just a medical experience, but a very personal human event.

Having been a minister for twelve years, generally working with congregations with older members, I witnessed first-hand the results of cancer-treatments in different parts of the country. Part of ministry is meeting people at their most critical times of their lives and being of service to them. However, for the most part, I was less than thrilled with their outcomes. This was not about their faith experience, but the physical struggles they experienced during and after treatment, not to mention the great cost of medical expenses incurred by those families.

Many would confide in me that if their cancer returned, they would not undergo the treatment again. I thought to myself, “If this is the best this country has to offer, I’ll pass.” I developed a mind-set then and still refer back to it to help cope with everyday life and that is, there is a difference between quality of life vs. quantity of life (live well vs. live long). I believe it is within our nature to strive for both, but when our failing physical health becomes a factor in determining length of life, the quality of life becomes primary. I should also state at this time, that my mother had died of pancreatic cancer. She began to undergo chemotherapy but discontinued the treatment due to the side effects. The treatment would not be a cure and she had only months to live. I remember one of her last words she spoke to me. She said, she never thought her life would end this way.   

With the full support of my wife, I decided I would not pursue nor undergo surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. I did attempt to have only the tumor removed without undergoing the other treatments, but no doctor I contacted would consider doing so due to liability. 

I emailed the doctor I originally received my diagnosis from and informed him I had chosen not to undergo cancer treatment. I received an email from him, telling me, “Good luck, you’ll be dead within three months.” I did not respond and it only made me more determined to pursue other forms of treatment.

I should note that this response is not just tied to western medicine physicians. One alternative medicine doctor suggested to me that I should quit work and spend my days meditating near a pond and contemplate life. He may have meant well, but to me, that was the same as saying, why don’t you just resign yourself to the fact that you are going to die. Just curl up and wait to die.

Over the years since being first diagnosed, I have undergone several forms of alternative medicine treatments (cost is always a factor, as health insurance does not cover alternative medicine). There are many different forms of treatments available outside the U.S., but the cost, time away from work, travel, and treatment, make these unattainable for most.    

I take a daily regimen of supplements (thanks to my wife), exercise and try to keep stress in my life at a minimal. Up until a few months ago, I was working sixty-three hours a week. I have reduced the number of hours to forty per week in order to pursue other personal interests. Whether or not any or all of this has contributed to beating the statistical odds, I do not know. What I do know is I am still here and living as normal a life as I did prior to the diagnosis. In fact, in a very real sense, I feel more alive than I did then. I do not take life for granted, but enjoy each and every moment of life and the good measure of health I have been blessed with on this day.

Some thoughts for me on my coping with everyday life –

1. Faith in God. I know not what tomorrow holds, but I know who holds tomorrow. God knows my life and nothing comes to me that does not first go through Him. I’m not seeking a miracle healing, though I desire to be healed in this life, but if healing doesn’t come, God is still God, and I will return to Him.

2. Connections between people and not possessions are what matters most.

3. Having an attitude of gratitude, thanksgiving, appreciation and forgiveness.

4. There is a song by Randy Stonehill. The lyrics state, “I’m gonna celebrate this heartbeat, cause it just might be my last. Every day is a gift from the Lord on high, and they all go by so fast.”

5. The only difference between my life and another is that I may know what I will die from. I say may because not even this is a guarantee.

6. The only things I have control over are my thoughts – what I believe — and my actions – what I do and how I respond based upon what I believe. Beyond that, things are beyond my control. It is enough.