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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.

Vaccinations, psychological that is!

A recent study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, a top-tier refereed psychology journal, says the percent of adolescents reporting symptoms of major depression increased 52% between 2005 and 2017; the increase for young adults (18-25) was even greater at 63%. The study also found significant increases in general psychological distress, suicidal thoughts, and suicide-related outcomes in this young population. Interestingly, the study found no corresponding increase during the same time frame among older adults.

Obviously, there are multiple factors that could be responsible for these findings, but Jean Twenge, senior author of the study, thinks cultural trends, notably digital media, likely play a prominent role. This hypothesis is nothing new. For years, dating back to the early days of “surfing the net,” psychologists have presented data suggesting that exposure to social media can cause, or at least reinforce, psychological dysfunctions like social withdrawal, depression, loneliness, and deficient interpersonal skills

The growing presence on the internet of hate groups, cults, and terrorist networks, all trying to recruit vulnerable young people who are searching for an identity and understanding from others, has led many to call for government regulation of predatory social-media sites.

That’s fine, but let’s note that focusing on regulating the content of social media obscures something very important. Let’s take a medical analogy. When we’re concerned about the dangers of a harmful virus, the first course of action is usually not to try and change the virus itself, but instead to develop a vaccine to inoculate potential victims and make them immune to infection. Perhaps that’s the approach we need to take in dealing with harmful internet content: Vaccinate, psychologically, our young people. That is, we must not focus our efforts exclusively on internet content; we must also concentrate on making our young people psychologically resistant to internet messaging.

Who should deliver this vaccination? I hope it’s obvious that the answer is PARENTS. Not the school, not the church, not the coach, not the peer group, not the government. Sure, those agents can reinforce what the parents instill, but in the final analysis, delivering effective psychological vaccinations boils down to the parents.

Communication, love, trust, confidence, security, openness, honesty…When these conditions exist between parent and child, the temptations of the internet, peers, predator adults, and other nefarious elements of society are diminished. When young people are secure in their family identity, they have less need to turn to hate groups, cults, and others dedicated to indoctrination of their malleable minds for perverse purposes.

Predators design their messages for the young mind that is adrift, insecure, and frightened. The mind that knows it has a reliable and supportive home base always present when needed is relatively immune to the predator’s messages.

When kids know they are loved and valued, they are better able to exercise adult strategies of critical thinking about internet messages; better able to evaluate the reliability and validity of such messages; better able to discern if the message is geared to indoctrination, or to education. They are also better prepared emotionally to handle hateful, bullying messages from peers, and more likely to reach out to trusted adults for support and coping strategies to deal with such messages.

Yes, internet content must be regulated better. But, let’s not forget the other side of the equation: The human brain that is confronted with that content and faced with evaluating it. When it comes to immunizing the young mind against infectious internet messages, parents are certainly the key component to the vaccine. This analysis for the young mind, however, begs the question: “Who is going to vaccinate the adult mind against blindly accepting cunning, deceitful, and indoctrinating social-media messages?”

How about you? Have you been vaccinated?

Niacin for PTSD?

The NY Rescue Workers Detox Project began as a program to detoxify rescue workers who inhaled smoke and other impurities from World Trade Center destruction on Sept 11, 2001. The program was sponsored by the Church of Scientology, and based on the principles of that movement, specifically the “Purification Rundown,”  a controversial detoxification method.

The detox procedure involves high-dose dietary supplements and extended time in a sauna (up to five hours a day for five weeks). Sessions also include vigorous exercise on a treadmill. The idea, of course, is to get the toxins into the blood stream and induce sweating to help the body flush out the impurities. Exercise gets the toxins into the blood stream and the sauna helps sweat out the toxins.

At the end of the session participants eat healthy foods like raw veggies and low fat, low-salt snacks. Also, participants are put on mega doses of Niacin, and some other vitamins, to help in the flushing process. In the case of Niacin, participants begin at around 100 mg and go up to as much as 5,000 mg. According to the medical establishment, such high doses are dangerous and possibly toxic to the body.

Several years after the 9/11 attack, an increasing number of first responders were entering the program. These individuals were suffering PTSD and had tried a number of interventions to improve their state of mind. Many found their way into the Scientology program out of desperation, and the Church claimed an improvement rate of 85%. Psychologists and psychiatrists were generally skeptical of such a high rate of improvement, especially given that there were no controlled experiments evaluating the procedure against a control group; plus, the Niacin aspect seemed really questionable.

But let’s back up and look at this issue with a critical eye. There seemed to be no doubt that a fair number of participants profited from their involvement in the project. To the extent the improvement was indeed due to the program, what could be going on?

Well, let’s forget about the Niacin for a minute and ask, “What precisely is involved in these sessions?” The answer is: vigorous exercise, an emphasis on improving diet, a daily time commitment to participation over a period of several weeks, and, perhaps most important, social interaction. Yes, these sessions were not in isolation; the sauna and exercise sessions took place with others, as did the eating at the end of the session.

So, we have a case of troubled first-responders who have been wrestling with PTSD for a considerable period of time. Even several years later, these folks continue to be frustrated, angry, discouraged, and full of self-blame. In the detox program, they find themselves committed to getting off their butts and engaging in healthy activities; and, they find themselves interacting with fellow sufferers in a support context. Why wouldn’t we expect many of them to show improvement?

Note that this analysis does not include the Niacin variable. And, in fact, its relevance could only be shown in a controlled study where, in a double-blind procedure, half of the participants in the program were given Niacin, the other half a placebo. To my knowledge, no such study was ever conducted.

In the absence of direct evidence implicating Niacin as a factor, I would be inclined to attribute the improvement to the other factors, especially because those other factors (such as, exercise and having positive interaction with other victims) are known to contribute to successful coping with stress.

 

Are Trauma Effects Permanent?

Have you ever heard anyone say something like, “I had a lot of stress and anxiety because of a traumatic event, but I got rid of it all with counseling. Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about it anymore.” Do you agree with them? If you’re troubled by excessive fear and anxiety because of some unpleasant experience, can you realistically expect to “get rid of those emotions”? Can you delete them from your mind? Don’t bet on it.

When Robyn was a first-year college student she became romantically involved with a senior student. The relationship began well and provided Robyn with security as she began the often-troubling college adventure. After a few months, however, things soured. The guy became overly controlling, and physically and emotionally abusive. Robyn began to feel traumatized and felt increasingly trapped by this a guy who seemed to exert absolute control over her.

Robyn nearly transferred at the end of her first semester, but she stuck it out and decided to wait until the end of the year. The guy graduated and basically disappeared from her life. Over the summer, Robyn opened up about the true nature of the relationship to her parents and some friends. With their help she decided to return to the same school because she liked her major, the professors, and many other aspects of her college life. Besides, her tormentor was gone.

Robyn had a successful” post-tormentor” college experience. She socialized and went to parties, but she avoided “getting serious” with anyone. She graduated with honors, and began what turned out to be a successful career with a small company. As far as she was concerned, the anxiety and stress of her first year in college was gone forever. She had moved on.

In her mid-30s she met Steve and became romantically involved. She began to believe that Steve was “the one,” except for one part of him that made her uncomfortable: he loved doing things for her. He always wanted to pick up the dinner check; he liked to do the driving; he wanted to be in charge of making plans, reservations, and other small day-to-day things.

One day Robyn confided to her old college friend: “He’s such a great guy but I’m getting really anxious about the way he wants to be in charge. He’s doing it because he loves me, but it’s starting to scare me. I don’t know why. I love this guy so much but……I’m feeling trapped, suffocated, overwhelmed. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to go into a complete panic and I start gasping for air.”

Her friend almost laughed: “My god, Robyn, don’t you see that he reminds you of that f***er in college who ran your life into the ground? Yeh, he means well, but he’s bringing back all the anxiety you suffered when that a**hole was running your life! I was there! That s**t nearly ruined your life. My God, you have to talk to Steve and let him know that you can’t have him doing everything for you, that he has to treat you like an equal or the relationship won’t work!”

Great advice. Robyn didn’t realize that the emotional residue from her trauma of years ago wasn’t gone; it was merely dormant, latent, lying just below the surface of her conscious mind ready to pounce when prompted. Steve’s well-intentioned actions served as that prompt, and the visceral fears and anxieties of being emotionally enslaved by her college boyfriend were reawakened in Robyn’s consciousness.

Robyn took her friend’s advice and she and Steve talked everything over. They discovered new things about each other, saw the need to allow each other to be autonomous and independent partners in the relationship, and moved their bond to a deeper level of understanding. The friend was Robyn’s Maid-of-Honor a year later.

Traumatic experiences change you for the long run; the effects of trauma, to one degree or another, are permanent. You can’t expect to eliminate those effects so they’ll never bother you again. The effects may be subtle, but they are there nevertheless. That being the case, you will not do yourself any favors by deceiving yourself into believing that you will never again be affected by residual effects of the trauma, even though it occurred long ago. Carrying such a belief is a form of denial, a type of “expunging the record,” so to speak, and moving on as if the event never occurred. That may work with an adolescent shoplifting conviction that is expunged from the Court records, but it won’t work with the emotional baggage of a traumatic event; the event did occur, and that will be your reality for the rest of your life. You can’t delete it.

Given that reality, what is your best strategy? First, accept that the event occurred and that it makes you permanently vulnerable in ways you were not before the event. Second, just like Robyn did with Steve, follow a coping plan that allows you to integrate the event appropriately into your current reality. Finally, practice actions that are counter to the core fear. Once Robyn talked things over with Steve, she was able to behave independently without fear of rejection. Her actions allowed her to symbolically wrap the core conflict up in a box and put it on a back shelf in her mind to gather dust.

Just remember, the reality of the event is there; it doesn’t disappear, but is put off to the side so it doesn’t dominate your life. Accept that you are permanently vulnerable to some future event that can remind you of the original trauma, re-awaken the original anxiety, and require you to re-package it and store it away once again. Being aware of that vulnerability will make you better able to cope with these new challenges based on old anxieties.

So, skip the fantasy-like belief that, “I will never again be bothered by that crisis!” Be realistic and admit that the event leaves you vulnerable, not to dominate you or to define your life and who you are, but possibly require you to deal once again with core emotions associated with the event. That realistic awareness will help you be better prepared to face future crises that might awaken the earlier emotions.

Listen to a 35-year old woman in psychotherapy: “It has taken me years to come to grips with the fact that I was sexually abused by my father when I was 8-years old. I spent my youth denying it, pushing it back in my mind, refusing to think about it so the memory would go away. But it never went away, and it almost destroyed my life and my relationships with men. I have finally accepted the reality of it; yes, it happened; I am a victim. But that doesn’t make me deserving of any special treatment. I can’t wear it on my sleeve like a note that says, ‘Treat me gently because I was sexually abused as a child.’ No, I can’t expect anyone to pad the corners of my world for me. It happened but it will not dominate me because it was not my fault and I should not feel any personal shame for it. I have finally tucked it away in a closet in my mind. It’s there and if something should happen to open that closet door, I’m ready to deal with it.”

 

PTSD: Are You Vulnerable?

A major source of anxiety for many of us occurs after experiencing some traumatic event. Normally, we think of horrendous events like rape, physical attacks, divorce, combat, car accidents, anything resulting in severe injury or property loss, etc. There are also, however, more subtle traumas in life, like serving on a death penalty jury, watching live events unfold on TV, flunking a driver’s test, being criticized by your boss, being “unfriended” on social media, etc. Theoretically, anything that gets you all stressed out and feeling anxious can potentially lead to post traumatic stress difficulties, what is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Here’s the question: Are you likely to develop PTSD after you experience anxiety-arousing situations? Just the thought of developing a psychological “disorder” is enough to plunge you into anxiety, right? Well, relax because not everyone is vulnerable to PTSD, and even if you are, there are many techniques to help you deal with this type of anxiety.

Here are some of the things we know. If you have a history of psychiatric disorders in your family, you are likely more prone to PTSD. That increased vulnerability also exists if you experienced harsh childhood trauma like sexual abuse, or extreme psychological abuse like parental abandonment or rejection. Just as physical injuries leave the body vulnerable to later injury, so, too, do early psychological scars leave one vulnerable to later stress.

Some people have oversensitive nervous systems. Do you respond more intensely to loud noises, pain, and unexpected events? Do you easily become uncomfortable in new and strange environments? If so, not surprisingly, you are probably at higher risk of having PTSD following a traumatic event.

Are you one of those with a somewhat unrealistic view of the world? Have you lived a relatively sheltered, stress-free life? Do you believe adversity and danger primarily affects others, not you? If so, you’re probably ill-prepared for processing stress and trauma, and being able to confront and meet challenges. If a trauma occurs, you are likely to react with catastrophic thinking such as, “My world has ended,” a type of thinking that encourages anxiety problems and, by the way, PTSD.

“OK, great,” you say, “I fit a lot of those profiles. What can I do to make PTSD less likely in my life?”

Well, if you have an extensive and supportive social network, you will be much better equipped to handle trauma than are those who are isolated and feel lonely. Obviously, you have to be prepared to face the trauma squarely, not avoid it, but if you have the psychological support of others, you’re in a lot better shape.

If you have training about what to do when faced with trauma, you will fare better than those who don’t. Soldiers undergo extensive training before they are sent into combat; school children have drills to help them deal with emergency situations; some women take courses in self-defense to prepare themselves in case of personal attack. These and other types of preparation can give you a sense of control over the unexpected, and help you when the unexpected happens.

One thing for sure, when trauma strikes, PTSD is not inevitable. You can cope effectively with the excessive stress and anxiety and go on with your life. The coping principles we develop in this blog all come into play when you need to confront anxiety. In the context of PTSD, it is important for you not to accept any message that says exposure to a traumatic event will automatically make you fall apart. If you’re prepared, and have the confidence that comes with feeling empowered, you won’t disintegrate in the face of adversity. Consider the following exchange:

Interviewer: “Why are you so stressed?”

You: “I’m worried that since suffering that stressful event, I’m going to develop PTSD.”

What could be worse than developing a stress disorder because you’re worrying about developing a stress disorder? You have set the stage for a self-fulfilling prophesy.

And then there’s the problem with the “PTSD” label itself, because it includes the word “disorder.” Having to deal with stress is one thing; having to deal with a psychological disorder is more frightening because “disorder” and “mental illness” go hand in hand for most people.

The progression of thinking is simple: “A disorder is an illness; if I get a disorder, I have an illness. I suffered some trauma. If I get PTSD, I will be mentally ill.” This sort of thinking will make it easier for you to suffer excessive stress following trauma, putting you in a vicious cycle leading once again to a self-fulfilling prophesy: Suffering trauma causes you to worry about developing mental illness, which brings you more stress, which causes you to worry about having a mental disorder, which increases your stress, which…..well, you get the idea.

In the context of everyday life stresses, when you think of PTSD, why don’t you just delete the “D” and think of “post-traumatic stress”? If you suffer a traumatic event, let’s say your 13-year old son is arrested for shoplifting, you may indeed have some bad dreams, experience trouble falling asleep, have difficulty concentrating at work, finding yourself losing your temper more easily, experiencing anxiety when sonny-boy is late getting home, etc., etc. Those symptoms, however, do not mean you have a psychological disorder or that you’re mentally ill; they mean you’re understandably stressed, and you must confront those aspects of the situation causing you stress that are under your control.

When thinking of PTSD, just keep things in the context of our important themes: If you are professionally diagnosed, do not choose to “live your diagnosis” and use it to form your personal pity party; focus on what you can control; determine what you need to accept; formulate a plan of action; and keep lines of communication open with your support group.

Seeds of Dependency

Recently (3.3.19) we posted about the dynamics of being overly dependent on someone else. The issue can be considered in a variety of contexts and relationships, but the context that seems obvious for most of us is the parent-child relationship. Narrowing our focus, most people seem to zero in on the teen years when kids begin experimenting with independence, spreading their wings, so to speak, and generating a lot of conflict with parents.

The fact is, however, parent-children conflict over dependent vs independent actions begins quite early in life, as early as the toddler stage (after walking begins, around 12 months), and it is an area that has been researched by psychologists, notably the classic studies by Ainsworth.

There are a couple of paradigms for studying this behavior. One is to have a mother and her child in a room, and they are playing with some toys. Suddenly mom says she has to leave for a minute, but will be right back. How does the child react when mom leaves? How about when she returns? The degree to which the child shows a lot of distress over mom’s absence will be sensitive to the level of dependency on mom.

In another paradigm, Mom and child are in a strange room with only a chair and an interesting-looking toy off in a corner, several yards from the chair. Mom and child enter the room and she sits down, holding her child’s hand. It doesn’t take long for the child to see the toy off in the corner, and mom answers any questions by telling the child that it’s OK to go play with it.

The question is: Will the child leave mom’s side to venture into new territory (independent action) and play with the toy, or will the child cling to mom’s side and beg her help to get the toy (dependent action)?

Some children are very hesitant to leave mom’s side, showing a behavior pattern that psychologists call “anxious attachment.” For whatever reason, the child acts like mom is not trustworthy as a caregiver, and seems to say, “I’m hanging on to her because she might leave me.”

Other children show confidence in leaving mom’s side to go investigate the toy and play with it, a behavior pattern called “secure attachment.” This child appears to trust mom and consider her a reliable caregiver, saying, “No worry here, I’ll go check out this toy because mom will be here if I need help.”

Extensive study of these patterns has shown that they can easily persist into adulthood and have a profound effect on relationships with others. That really shouldn’t surprise you. Consider Rick, 28 and in a serious relationship with Alison 27. Rick has a history of anxious attachment as a child, and this pattern shows itself in his adult relations.

For instance, when Alison wants to do things with her girlfriends and without Rick, he gets all bent out of shape, thinking she really doesn’t want to be with him. His childhood anxiety with mom is reawakened, and Rick gets all clingy, wanting to be present whenever Alison does something. Alison will tire of this dependency in a hurry, reinforcing Rick’s lack of trust in others, and the pattern will likely repeat itself in his future relationships.

But consider Angie, 27, who is in a relationship with Don, 28. Angie has a history of secure attachment as a child, and it gives her a confident feeling in her relationships. Her current “squeeze,” Don, wants to hang out with the guys tomorrow night. “Sounds OK to me,” says Angie. “Thanks for the heads up. I’ll give Nancy a call and see if she wants to get together.”

Angie is securely attached to Don; she trusts him and trusts the relationship. She is willing to let Don be Don, without being threatened and anxious that it means he will desert her.

Note that Angie’s behavior in no way guarantees the success of the relationship. All it means is that she and her partner are likely to get more satisfaction from the relationship than is the case with Rick.

These days it’s not hard to find adults showing inappropriate dependent behavior. How many young adults, for instance, are living with their parents? Are they demonstrating anxious attachment? Is this a behavior pattern you would want your kids to show? What about a husband or wife who seems incapable of doing anything without the spouse present? Is this pattern conducive to good coping?

We’ve all heard the term “helicopter parents,” and they are especially prevalent when the kids are in college. Are these parents fostering independence in their kids? What’s the motivation behind helicoptering? Are these parents themselves anxiously attached, and perpetuating a dependent family legacy?

 

 

 

Helping Others

An important of coping is being able to assist others in need. How do you handle things when someone reaches out to you for advice, or just wants to get a sympathetic ear? Being a listener can be challenging because you are likely to be concerned about saying the wrong thing and making things worse. With that thought in mind, let’s look at some general points when talking with others who are distressed:

“Listen” to what others tell you; don’t just “hear” them. Be uncritical to show them you understand what they are going through.

Remember, it’s not about you, but about them. “Here’s what I would do if I were you,” is not a helpful comment. You are not about “being them,” so don’t go there.

Demonstrate in your actions how important they are to you and what they mean to you. Offer to give them a ride, pick up their kids, stop by for a visit with some “food or goodies,” etc.

Do not label them (“Jane is bipolar, so I should offer to babysit her kids.”) The labels will stereotype them in your mind and bias your interactions with them.

Use caution when discussing medications. You may recognize that medications given for anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues only help to reduce symptoms, but you should not force that view on others. If they are dissatisfied with their meds, encourage them to talk to their provider. Focus your talks with others on their life conflicts, not on their medications.

If you are interacting with someone who has been in professional counseling for over six months, but who feels improvement has been minimal, raise the possibility of seeking another counselor.

Help others keep their expectations realistic.

Here are a couple of conversations that illustrate some basic principles to follow when talking with others. The idea here is not to memorize these examples and follow them to the letter; doing so would sound rather stiff and robotic. The point is to see the general strategies that psychologists have found to be effective when talking with others.

Comment:       “There’s nothing for me to live for any longer. I don’t care whether I live or die.”

Response:        “All of us need to change our purposes and goals as life goes by. You had meaning in life before; I bet you can do it again and find some purpose in what you do. What do you think is holding you back?”

Notice how the response does not criticize the commenter, but suggests a proactive strategy, and asks a question designed to distract the pessimist from self-destructive thoughts.

Comment:        “I’ve tried therapy, I’ve tried medication. None of it works. I might as well give up. My life isn’t ever going to be worth anything again.”

Response:        “Maybe you haven’t had a counselor or medication that is effective for you. You haven’t tried them all, right? Is there any harm in looking for a new counselor? Also, one thing for sure, people in counseling need to work at it to see positive change. Are you motivated to help yourself? Have you really given things a chance to work?”

The response points out that the commenter has not exhausted his/her search. Also note how both replies serve to re-direct the complainer from self-blame and self-pity, and re-examine his/her efforts in a more realistic way.

One important thing to note about both these examples is how they rely on posing questions. If you’re like most people, when you are talking to someone who is troubled, you will be tempted to express your opinions, forgetting that it’s not about you, it’s about the other person. Conversations with troubled folks will be much effective if you take yourself out of the equation and pose questions that encourage them to consider proactive options.

Think positively! But what else?

You’ve heard it many times, and stated in different ways: “You need to keep up a positive attitude if you’re going to succeed”; “Use the power of positive thinking when you’re faced with difficult challenges”; “If you have a positive outlook on life, you’ll be much happier”; “Focus on the positives and you’ll feel much better.”

Attitude, positive thinking, optimistic outlook, upbeat focus…you’re told that all of these positive mindsets will make your life much easier to manage. We don’t disagree that a can-do, confident, and proactive viewpoint can help with whatever is facing you and increase your odds of success. But is it that simple? Maybe not.

First of all, your optimism must be realistic. We have touched on that theme often in this blog. You can’t surround your attitudes with fantasy, illusions, and imaginary outcomes. You will head quickly toward failure, frustration, disappointment, and self-blame. Secondly, your positive thoughts and attitudes must be accompanied by actions. When unaccompanied by concrete, real actions, even positive thoughts vanish in the wind.

When based on positive thinking, actions bring thoughts into reality and allow you to see yourself behaving in productive ways. The best example of this process is when you serve others. Doing so is likely to give you feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness, emotions that are signals you are coping effectively through personal empowerment, and that you are giving substance to your optimism.

Notice the distinction here between “seeking” happiness, and “finding” happiness. “Seeking” makes you the main ingredient of the happiness recipe and lulls you into a kind of personal enabling where you see yourself as virtuous and righteous. In a coping context, this orientation is selfish, pompous, smug, and likely to fail.

“Finding,” however, allows happiness to emerge from your altruistic actions, and brings you feelings of humility, gratitude, and personal appreciation of your efforts as sincere, open, and authentic. This coping orientation will help you feel you are participating with life in ways that will give you confidence to face your stresses and challenges.

Here’s the coping lesson: Don’t look for happiness and other wonderful emotions and feelings. Rather, allow yourself to find them by acting in ways that don’t make you the center of attention. Depressed, anxious, adrift, lost, unfulfilled, frustrated? Stop cooking with life recipes that make you the main ingredient.