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Why the Incredible Hulk is a Poor Role Model for Stress Management

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In a previous post, I made the argument that post-apocalyptic strategies for motivation like inducing the fight-or-flight response, our bodies’ emergency system reserved for life-or-death situations, is not the most efficient use of our psychological energy. It is akin to setting off the fire alarm in your house to wake up in the morning.

Despite its inefficiency, it is still our go-to response. Perhaps it’s a product of our culture, where being stressed and overworked is a sign of being important. We’re always rushing to meetings, trying to make deadlines, eating lunch while we work.

Perhaps it’s because we value the warrior mentality. We like the idea that we can push ourselves to the limit, overcoming Mother Nature, physical exhaustion, and psychological duress. This is the premise behind many reality TV shows. It’s what makes sports and war movies entertaining.

I, too, like the thrill of pushing myself to the limit. I take great pride in channeling my inner warrior on the court. Which I did last night in the deciding game in our tennis match. And it was worth it, because now my team advances to districts.

Even the role models for our children idealize using extreme psychological states for motivation. Take, for example, the Incredible Hulk. In the TV series (my favorite version), the Incredible Hulk got his powers from a Jekyll and Hyde-type experiment in which Dr. David Banner was trying to figure out how to summon superhuman strength after his wife died in a car accident. However, his attempt to capitalize on the fight-or-flight response lead to an accidental overexposure to gamma radiation. Afterwards, whenever he became angry, the ordinarily mild-mannered Banner turned into the gigantic green creature with superhuman strength that we know and love.

In addition to his less than desirable appearance, the other drawback to the radiation overdose is that his rage is uncontrollable and usually leads to random mass destruction. Luckily, most of the time his rage hits the target and the bad guys pay the price. But it is far from an effective strategy for what Banner had originally sought, which was the power to save lives.

Don’t get me wrong; I like the Incredible Hulk. I loved the TV show. I’ve even seen several of the movies. And, admittedly, a mentally stable person who is committed to self-care and psychological energy conservation probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting Marvel comic book hero. Certainly not someone you would put on a t-shirt.

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But in real life, having a superhero complex is detrimental to your well-being. I’ve spent my life trying to save my family, friends, romantic partners, and clients. Sometimes even random strangers who happen to attend a presentation. It’s pretty taxing. It has lead to numerous depressive and anxiety episodes. I don’t recommend it.

Despite my commitment to non-catostrophic motivational strategies, I’m still prone to pushing myself to the limit over things that are not life-or-death. Like playing tennis 7 days in a row in 100 degree weather for no good reason. Still, I am more selective about who I try to save, what fires I choose to put out, and what challenges are worth taking on. And it has really helped with my depression and anxiety.

So it turns out that giving up post-apocalyptic strategies has been a life-saver.

Self-Care, Part 2

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I had one of those days yesterday where it was hard to get out of bed. I was tired because I played 6 matches last week, and I stayed up until midnight writing a blog post the night before. I had a bunch of errands that I needed to do but nothing to look forward to as a reward for doing them. Eventually I did will myself to get up, and I took care of everything that I needed to do, but it took a lot of coaxing.

This was only a fraction of how bad it feels when I’m depressed. That’s why it’s so scary to think about going back there again. I know I’ve survived it and would probably survive it again, but it’s painful while it’s happening, trying to will yourself to get through every minute of every day.

Daylight savings time ends on October 25. I am nervous, because I can feel it already–the effects of the shorter days, the colder weather. Until a few hours ago, I hadn’t seen the sun in several days, which was contributing to my bad mood. In about a week we will be in the midst of the busiest time of the semester, which is always overwhelming, no matter how hard I try to manage my schedule.

I am trying especially hard this time to make self-care a priority. I’m trying not to let the drill sergeant yell at me unless absolutely necessary. I’m trying to say no to tennis when my body needs a rest. Trying to resist the urge to start writing a post at midnight. Trying to be realistic about what I can do and not compare myself to my colleagues, my family, or my friends.

I am making an effort to practice mindfulness, like I tell my clients to do. I’m making myself eat lunch away from my desk. I make sure I am registering every bite I take, rather than shoving the food into my mouth as quickly as possible. When I feel antsy and want to do several things at once, I take a deep breath, make myself stay in the present moment.

It’s really hard to make self-care a priority. Not only am I fighting my inner demons, but I’m also up against a culture that uses slogans like “I haven’t got time for the pain” and tells me to take drugs so that I can go to work when I’m sick. (I’ve always hated that commercial. I think it was for Dayquil.) And for all our preaching about self-care, mental health professionals aren’t much better at it in my experience, because we’re prone to putting other people’s needs before our own.

But I’m really committed to it this time. Consider this my public declaration to make myself accountable. If you see me publish a post at 1 a.m., remind me that I’m supposed to be in bed. If I’m being too hard on myself, feel free to call me on it. Remind me that I’m supposed to be kind to myself.

I’ll probably be annoyed with you, but that’s OK. You’ll never know, and it will be good for me.

One Year Progress Report

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Today is my blog’s one year birthday. Woo hoo! Who would have thought that I could write 159 posts? Before I started this blog, I never showed anyone a single paragraph of anything I had written. And I had to do all this research just to figure out what a blog was. So blogging for a year is truly an accomplishment.

In honor of this special day, I thought I would see how far I’ve come in my practice of self-acceptance. My first 4 posts covered some of the most common themes in my blog, so I thought I would give an update on where things stand in these areas.

1. Night Owl Syndrome. I have come to the conclusion that, although my mood is vastly improved when I abide by a “normal” sleep cycle, I cannot get up early unless I absolutely have to. Now that I’m working again, I’ve been going to bed earlier (12-1 a.m.) and waking up earlier (7:30 a.m.), with an occasional short nap thrown in when I have time. Even though I prefer to sleep more, I function pretty well on 6-7 hours.

The only problem is, knowing this will not make me wake up early when I’m on vacation again. But I’m not going to worry about that right now. I’m just going to enjoy being in a good mood.

2. Divorces. As of August 14, 2014, I am officially divorced and am finally at peace with it. We are on as good of terms as we can be. In fact, he just strung my racket last week and informed me that I had a nail in my tire. My first reaction when he pointed out the nail was fear about not having someone around to inform me of things like the condition of my tires.

But then I thought that perhaps it wasn’t an accident that my ex happened to be there when I dropped my racket off and that he happened to notice the nail in my tire. Maybe God was looking out for me, just like when my car broke down on the freeway over the summer. So I will try to have faith that He will continue to do so.

3. Massages and Stress Relief. I love my job, but it is stressful. The commute is hard on my body, and seeing back-to-back clients is mentally and emotionally taxing. I’ve started getting massages again, but unlike a year ago, I don’t obsess about how much they cost anymore. I accept that it’s something I have to do for my body. I also have a phone session with my therapist once a month, even if I think I don’t need it, because I feel better when I talk to her.

And this year, I’m going to try working from home one day a week to cut down on my driving and to preserve my time for blogging. I’m a little nervous about waking up early and being productive that day I work from home, and about fitting all my clients in the other 4 days, but we’ll see how it goes.

4. Knitting and Relationships. I still love a challenge. I still like complicated patterns and I am still drawn to complicated relationships. I am proud to say that I have been single for almost a year, and I am surprised to find that I enjoy my freedom. I’m actually a little afraid to start dating again, because I don’t yet trust myself to know when a relationship may not be worth the effort. So for now, I’ll limit my challenges to complicated patterns.

My latest project received the most likes of anything I have ever posted on Facebook. Not sure whether to take it as a compliment or an insult that my knitted top looks better than I do.

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Positively Selfish

One of the hazards of working in the helping professions is burnout. People who are drawn to helping others run the risk of giving too much of themselves. In my case, however, I run the risk of burnout in my personal relationships more so than I do at work.

There are a lot of advantages to working in a counseling center. Even though you don’t make as much money, you have access to a lot of resources that you don’t have in private practice. I have colleagues, the student health center, deans, RA’s, and peer counselors who share the load. The most stressful periods of my job are predictable and time-limited: they occur around the middle of the semester and end around finals week. There are boundaries that are built into our schedule, as well. Appointments are 50 minutes long at the most. We don’t schedule clients past 5 pm or on the weekends. Students go home for breaks. We don’t see students after they graduate.

My personal life is a different story. Many of the people I love have emotional needs that they expect me to fulfill. Appointments are not time-limited. I am on call 24-7. I usually cannot terminate these relationships, nor do I want to. I have a hard time saying no to whatever they ask of me. And in many cases, I do not feel I am getting back as much as I am putting into the relationship because their emotional resources are more limited than my own. Which is not their fault. It’s just unfortunate for me.

That is part of the reason why I want a hiatus from loving and caring for anyone or anything new. No dating. No pets. Just me and my plants. I’m burned out; I want a more solitary job in my personal life.

I was telling my therapist the other day how this makes me feel selfish. She told me that I’m being honest with myself–more authentic. That we need another word that conveys positive selfishness. Which is kind of sad, really. What does it say about our culture that there would be no word for a healthy focus on oneself?

She nominated the word selful. Full of oneself, but in a good way. More like being whole. But it doesn’t roll off the tongue the way selfish and selfless do. Plus it looks weird. So I am open to suggestions.

Swashbucklers Anonymous

My name is Christy Barongan and I am a swashbuckler.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m reading The Art of Empathy in an attempt to help me with my hyperempath problem. I finished the chapter on empathic love, and it is so true of me that it freaked me out. I almost had a panic attack and had to take a nap afterwards.

In this chapter she lists 4 impediments in a potential mate: 1) a lack of emotional skills, 2) an active addiction, 3) unhealed childhood trauma, and 4) the presence of a toxic ex-mate. These impediments are practically criteria for a relationship for me. I like challenges, but come on! This is ridiculous! Reading this list drove home the fact that most my relationships had little chance of succeeding from the start.

Ironically, reading this chapter also helped me to not beat myself up about my relationship choices. I am drawn to people with these problems for the same reason that I chose to be a psychologist. I want to help people. I believe everyone is capable of turning their life around, and I am confident that I can help them do it. I never back down from a challenge, and I never give up. These are all qualities that I’m proud of.

However, I am beginning to realize that every challenge has a cost. Even if I do something I enjoy, like play tennis, write a blog post, or talk to my brother, it drains me mentally and physically. Which is OK. I love doing these things, so it’s worth it. But in the past, having the ability to help someone was reason enough to do it. Whether I wanted to do it or not was irrelevant because my wants and needs didn’t count. And I never paid attention to the impact that giving so much of myself had on my well-being.

In a way, that’s one of the benefits of being prone to depression and anxiety and of having allergies, GERD, and asthma. Now I have to pay close attention to everything I do and how it will affect me. I have to be intentional about all of my choices. It’s a pain, but it forces me to take care of myself.

Also, when I choose to do something challenging, most of the time I’m not too attached to the outcome–except in relationships. I’d like to move up to 4.0 in tennis, but if I don’t, I’ll just keep trying. Same with writing a best seller. I know the odds aren’t in my favor, but I enjoy the process, and if it never happens I won’t be devastated. I don’t even take it personally when I can’t help a client get better.

If I had the same attitude in relationships–that I gave my best effort, and that’s all I can do–then perhaps I wouldn’t feel like such a failure in them.

It also helps that McLaren calls people like me swashbucklers rather than codependents or love addicts. She describes swashbucklers as people on a heroic journey filled with impossible tasks and mythical beasts. Sort of like relationship warriors. But like Odysseus at the end of his adventures, I think I’m ready to come home.

Maybe I can use my superhero skills to save myself.  After all, who is better qualified to help me than me? I don’t even have to do it alone. I could create a support group for hyperempaths. A 12 step program for swashbucklers, if you will. I think it could be a big hit.

So if you’re interested in participating, let me know.

Fear of Sadness

Most people find it difficult to tolerate negative feelings like sadness.  This task is even more difficult when you suffer from depression, because any time your sadness feels too intense or lasts too long, you worry that the depression is coming back.  And if you’ve ever been depressed, you know how terrifying the prospect is of going back to that dark place.

Your loved ones also become hypersensitive to your sadness, which just exacerbates your fears.  If you’re feeling down, they ask you if you’re taking your meds, or if maybe your meds need to be adjusted.  Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for meds.  I’ve tried to go off them several times, and each time I got depressed again.  But it’s unfortunate that once you’ve been depressed, every feeling has to be scrutinized for potential pathology.

There’s also this added sense of failure associated with relapse.  Like you should have been able to prevent it this time, since you’ve been there before.  And even though you recovered before, you fear that if it happens again, you won’t be so lucky the next time.

And even if you do recover, you fear that the wait will be agony.  I fear depression much more than anxiety because when I’m anxious I can take an Ativan and I feel better immediately.  But antidepressants don’t work that way, so there’s not much I can do to feel better right away when I’m depressed.

Whenever I am afraid I’m becoming depressed, I journal about my fears, my sense of failure, and my pain.  And when I look back at these entries, I realize how strong I am.  There are a lot of things that suck about depression, but I have no doubt that it has made me a stronger person, even while it tries to convince me that I’m weak.

But how do I know when I’m sad versus depressed?  To be honest, I don’t always know.  Sometimes I feel depressed for a day.  Sometimes I feel sad for what feels like an eternity.  The line is not as clear-cut as we’d like to think.  But regardless of whether it’s sadness or depression, the best I can do is to control what I can control.  This includes therapy, meds, stress management, and self-care.

And most importantly, for me, it means practicing self-acceptance–of my sadness, my depression, and everything else that makes me who I am, for better or worse.

46 Lessons Learned from Blogging

Since the original intent of my blog was to help other people, I thought I’d provide a cheat sheet of the lesson in each post (except for the random ones).  That way, you don’t have to go back and read the whole blog if you don’t want to.  But hopefully you will!

1.  Night Owl Syndrome:  Prejudice against night owls is a form of discrimination that has been perpetuated in part by Ben Franklin.

2.  Massages:  Massages are not as relaxing when you obsess the entire time about how much they cost.

3.  Knitting and Relationships:  Challenge yourself every now and then, but you don’t have to knit a dress.

4.  Positive and Negative Feedback:  It’s easier to believe erroneous negative feedback than it is to accept legitimate positive feedback.

5.  Karaoke Pusher:  Singing in front of other people is a good way to let go of fear.

6.  You Know You’re Filipino If…:  Things that embarrassed you as a kid will make great anecdotes when you get older.

7.  The Courage to be Vulnerable:  Sharing your vulnerabilities with others makes people feel closer to you.

8.  The Unathletic Athlete:  Even if you were picked last in gym class, you can still grow up to be an athlete.

9.  Tennis Courtships:  Someone needs to come up with a website that can help tennis players find a doubles partner.

10.  The Uses of Prayer:  Sometimes God answers your prayers by giving you opportunities rather than results.

11.  Boundaries:  Being Asian makes setting boundaries even more difficult than it already is.

12.  Massages, Part 2:  Don’t drink coffee before a massage–even decaf.

13.  Boundaries, Part 2:  Blogging is a good way to let people know that you don’t want to be told that you’re fat.

14.  Children:  Play with your inner child every now and then.

15.  Can Love Conquer All?  No, but it’s still worth the risk.

16.  Body Image:  Small gains are better than nothing.

17.  Hard Core Fan:  It takes dedication to root for a losing team.

18.  Warriorism:  When things get tough, channel your inner warrior.

19.  Self-Portrait:  You can learn a lot about yourself from doodles.

20.  Solitude:  Sometimes when you think you’re alone, you’re really not.

21.  Self-Acceptance:  We all have different parts of ourselves, many of whom don’t get along.

22.  Meet the Drill Sergeant:  Save your inner drill sergeant for emergencies.

23.  The Inner Critic:  Defy your inner critic every change you get.

24.  Thanksgiving:  Miracles really do happen.

25.  Perfectionism:  Blogging about mistakes can help you accept them.

26.  Stress Management:  Sometimes stress management can be stressful.

27. Self-Care:  Blogging is a good way to put yourself first.

28. Grief:  The best thing we can do for someone who is grieving is to be willing to listen to them talk about their pain.

29.  Yes and No:  Learn to say yes to what you want and no to what you don’t want.

30.  Blogging is My New Boyfriend:  You can’t fail if you never stop trying.

31.  Friendship:  Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

32.  Empathy:  If you’re high in empathy, choose your friends and partners wisely.

33.  Breakups:  If you’re relationship is ending, try to leave with love rather than hate.

34.  In Times of War:  Make choices you can live with, regardless of the outcome.

35.  Angels:  If you ask people to send you angels when you’re struggling, they will–and it works.

36.  Forgiveness:  For people with a harsh inner critic like me, self-forgiveness is the hardest part.

37.  Gratitude:  Practicing gratitude may not turn your depression into happiness, but do it, anyway.

38.  Love:  Our love may never be perfect, but I think God is OK with that.

39.  Forgetting:  Forgiveness is a process.

40.  Moms:  Moms are often unsung heroes, so thank them every chance you get.

41.  New Year’s Resolutions:  Restating your resolutions every year is not a sign of failure; it demonstrates that you are choosing to live intentionally.

42.  In My Head:  I thought I was weird for thinking so much, but it turns out that it means I’m a writer!

43.  Bipolar and Brilliant:  You can be brilliant and mentally ill, but you can also be dumb and refuse to take your medication.

44.  Night Owl Syndrome, Part 2:  It takes practice to let go of unnecessary guilt.

45.  Competitive Latch-Hooking:  Sometimes the sibling that was your mortal enemy in childhood becomes your most loyal blog follower as an adult.

46.  Honesty and Trust:  Surround yourself with honest people; it takes less energy than being paranoid.