Psychology & Life

Psychology & Life

BURNOUT – 2

Mar 02
Causes and Remedies

The article on Burnout in the last issue of MAGNET (February 2019) described what Burnout is, the major themes in, manifestations of, and some of the factors that lead to Burnout. In this article, I shall describe its causes a little more in detail, and suggest preventive and remedial measures.

THE ROAD TO BURNOUT

It is to be noted here that Burnout is a phenomenon that is associated more with one’s work situation rather than personal issues. More especially, it is related to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job which leads to a feeling of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment, resulting in detachment from the work and the work environment.

The interpersonal stress at the workplace is compounded by unrealistically high job expectations. When one notices that effectiveness at work is diminishing, the desire for accomplishment keeps one trying harder and harder with single-minded intensity until one gets exhausted with the effort—and crashes.

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Fr Jose Parappully SDB

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Psychology & Life

BURNOUT

Feb 03
In this article, the author, an experienced clinical psychologist, explains a dangerous pitfall which affects especially those in the helping professions—such as, teachers, managers, counsellors, nurses, doctors, social workers and clergy.

Sr. Martha entered religious life with a high motivation to work for the poor, especially the sick. She was inspired by the life of her founder, who was deeply committed to the sick. Her religious superiors considered favorably her desire to be a nurse. She studied nursing with great passion, sparing little time for friends and relaxation.

After completing her studies, she was assigned to a large hospital managed by her congregation. She worked selflessly and with great compassion. The patients and hospital staff admired her commitment and became very fond of her. She continued to work zealously for a few years there.

Meanwhile, a number of administrative changes happened which affected the environment at the hospital. Martha could not work the way she had been doing. Her enthusiasm began to wane. She felt emotionally drained and physically exhausted. The compassionate nurse began to be irritated and careless. She did only the minimum work required. Other staff members, as well as her patients, began to complain about her. Martha herself would get sick and ask for leave from time to time. Finally, she lost interest all together in nursing and, to the surprise of many who knew her, Martha asked for a transfer to another ministry.

Sr. Martha had experienced what in scientific literature has come to be known as “Burnout” – a phenomenon that affects those in the helping professions – such as teachers, managers, counsellors, nurses, doctors, social workers and clergy.

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Fr Jose Parappully SDB

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Psychology & Life

MANAGING STRESS – 3

Jan 05

Managing stress, just as causation of stress, is a philosophical issue. It relates to our priorities and worldviews.

Managing stress is all about taking charge: taking charge of our thoughts, our emotions, our schedules, our environment, and the way we deal with situations and perceived threats.

Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when we can, changing our reaction when we can’t, taking care of ourselves, and making time for rest and relaxation.

The S-AMRT Approach
I am suggesting a 4-S approach to managing stress: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Self-Renewal and Self-Transformation or the (S-AMRT) Approach.

1. Self-Awareness
We need to be aware of what is happening to us and in us.
• Become aware of our daily routine, especially in regard to work and the effect that routine is having on our life and relationships and discern if this routine is one that enhances our wellbeing or saps our energies unnecessarily.

• Become aware of the kind of situations and reactions that trigger negative emotions and distress.

• Become aware of changes in our reaction patterns: of incipient fatigue, headaches, insomnia, gastro-intestine problems, and other bodily troubles. Such awareness lets us know that something is wrong and that we need to do something to correct things, to have a change of course.

• When we attempt a change of course, we need to become aware of our successful and unsuccessful modes of coping with stress. We then get rid of the unsuccessful ones and put more effort and energy into the successful ones.

2. Self-Management
We need to learn to manage our lives better. This we do by bringing about some helpful changes in our attitudinal and behavioural patterns.

• Developing more flexible attitudes towards self and work is a good place to start.

• We need to learn to manage our energy; know how much of it to spend and where and when and how.

• Time-management is a great help here. We need to set priorities, and learn to delegate tasks. We need to discern which are the tasks that need our personal attention and time investment, and which can be done by others.

• Learning to ask for help is another stress-buster. Too often we try to manage things on our own, and get frustrated. Frustration triggers a stress response. A simple way to avoid this needless stress is to ask someone for help — for advice as well as hands-on help.

• We need to be realistic in our job expectations. We need to make our job expectations our own and not somebody else’s. Trying to be and do what someone else wants us to be or do is a sure-fire recipe for continued frustration and burnout.
• We also need to set realistic goals and standards of performance. Setting standards far above our capacity to achieve them will lead to frustration and to stress.

• Occasionally dilute ordinary work with tasks of a different kind. If am a counsellor or manager, for example, I can set aside sometime each week to teach or play with some poor children, volunteer at a local charity and so on.

3. Self-Renewal
There are many ways we can renew ourselves and feel energised.
• Increasing physical fitness and overall wellbeing through vigorous exercise makes us less vulnerable to the negative effects of stress. Proper diet too assists in this.

• It is important that we have time to rest and relax.

Relaxation deactivates the sympathetic nervous system involved in increased stress levels and activates the parasympathetic system that decreases blood pressure, slows down heart beat and breathing rate and facilitates healing for the mind and body. Techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep abdominal breathing, visualization of serene environments, or even simply sitting or lying restfully with eyes closed thinking of nothing in particular activate the body’s relaxation response.

• Creative and meaningful relationships serve as sources of energy mobilization and provide opportunities for healthy relaxation.

4. Self-Transformation
This is accomplished especially by cognitive restructuring and changing our self-concept, the way we see ourselves, our environment, and conduct ourselves.
• We can bring about self-transformation through cognitive restructuring, that is, changing our perceptions and thought patterns. Changing our perceptions and interpretations, for example, of threatening situations or obstacles we face can help us both to find relief from stress as well as prevent stress.

• According to psychologist Richard Lazarus, simply changing the way we see events—as outside our control or within our control—may be the biggest factor in staying on top of stress. Believing we have control over events in our life has great leverage in management of stress. According to Lazarus, control is tantamount to health and lack of control is source of distress and disease. Even when we can’t control an event or situation, we can control our reaction to it. We can change our perception about it, and how we think about it.

• It is not only our perceptions of reality that we can change. It is possible sometimes to change the reality, or the stressor itself. It is true the real world is not always what we would want it to be. However, there are situations where we can change the reality. For example, our stress may be coming from an overcrowded day. We can eliminate or at least reduce the stress by creating lighter work schedules. Prioritising and delegating are two important ways to reduce work stress.

• How we appraise events (stressors) is influenced by our self-concept, how we see ourselves. Building a positive sense of self, strengthening our belief in ourselves and our capacity to be in control and achieve desired results can reduce our vulnerability to stress.

• There is less chance of being stressed out when our everyday work and activities are consistent with what we value and which provide meaning, purpose and satisfaction. It is not hard work that leads to burnout, but meaninglessness in what we do. There has to be a fit between our interests and the work we do. It is important to engage in work that suits us best, work that we find meaningful and fulfilling.

Importantly, the environment in which we work has to be one that is conducive to a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. If the environment is not such, then we have to do the transformative work to change it. If we cannot change it, we may have to move into another more conducive environment.

• Living ethically, making our private lives congruent with the values we espouse publicly, and pursuing goals consistent with those values, also reduces the stress that results from guilt and fear of exposure. Behaviour that is at cross-purposes with our values and ideals cannot help but increase our stress level.

• Learning to live in peace with those who inhabit our relational world is also important. There are many interpersonal conflicts (major stressors) that we can easily avoid with a little effort. “Such an approach” psychologist Hans Selye, a father-figure in stress research, observed, “not only insures peace of mind but also earns the goodwill, respect, and even love of our neighbours, the highest degree of security and the most noble status symbol to which the human being can aspire.”

For reflection.

• Which of the stress-busters described here are ones you have tried and found helpful?

• Which others would you like to make part of your stress-busting programme?


Fr Jose Parappully SDB

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Psychology & LifeUncategorized

SOURCES OF STRESS – 2

Dec 03

In last month’s article, the author explained the meaning of stress, its symptoms and links to health and sickness, and the so-called “fight or flight” syndrome. This second instalment looks at four factors that can induce stress. Check and see what seems to contribute to stress in your life.

When my friend Thomas told me he was stressed out and asked for help, I had told him it was no wonder he was stressed out since he was a perfectionist. But that was not all that I had said in response. Over a cup of coffee, I gave him a lesson on stress! Among the things I highlighted were the four major sources of stress.

  1. INAUTHENTICITY

The biggest source of stress in our lives is perhaps inauthenticity. The discrepancy between who we profess to be in public and who we actually are away from the public gaze can be source of chronic stress. For example, Jerry presents in public the façade of a happy family man and a faithful husband, and often talks about the importance of integrity in professional, family and marital life. But secretly he is involved in an extramarital affair. The effort to hide the truth from his wife and colleagues and the fear and anxiety that his affair might become known will keep him on a high level of stress.

Inauthenticity can manifest in different ways. For example, Rose is entrusted with the management of finances in her institution but is secretly siphoning away monies.  Andrew, who holds a leadership role, is involved in an illicit land deal. Both will be in a state of high alert, trying to hide their unethical behaviours. This state of high alert will result in chronic state of stress, unless they have become totally immune to the pricks of conscience and believe there is nothing unethical about their behaviours.

 

  1. TYPE-A PERSONALITY

Stress often accompanies what has come to be known as Type A Behaviour Pattern (TABP) or Type A Personality (TAP).

 According to psychologist Ray Rosenman, Type A Behaviour is an action-emotion complex that includes both behavioural and emotional dispositions. Behavioural dispositions include aggressiveness, competitiveness, and impatience and accelerated pace of activities. Emotional processes include irritation, covert hostility, and easily aroused anger.

Type A personalities are go-getters. They lead a life of frenetic activity and are driven by a compulsive need to achieve, and averse to taking time to relax. They are restless and remain on a high adrenaline rush. They like to be in total control of the environment. Any perceived threat to control or success evokes in them anxiety-provoking thoughts which in turn trigger physical and emotional reactions typical of the stress reaction.

Type A personalities are easily angered by others, readily blame others, take offence quickly and manifest cynical hostility—all of which are sources of stress.

The Type A behavioural and emotional pattern is closely linked to both physical and psychological disorders. From a physical perspective, Type A personalities are more vulnerable both to coronary heart disease (CHD) and coronary artery disease (CAD). From a psychological perspective, they tend to trigger interpersonal conflicts and become irritant to those around them.

  1. WORK AND ITS ENVIRONMENT

 

The nature of work and the quality of the work environment have significant bearing on levels of stress experienced.  When workers experience powerlessness in regard to decision-making, little social support from managers or fellow workers, imbalances between effort or reward, job insecurity, role ambiguity in terms of what is expected of them, or an unpleasant work environment, they are likely to experience high levels of stress which also tend to be chronic.

A Norwegian study presented at an International Conference on Work Environment and Cardiovascular Disease a few years ago, showed that even just the rumour of a factory’s closure caused enough stress, so much so that workers’ pulse and blood pressure spiked, making them vulnerable to cardiovascular diseases.  Findings from the Stockholm Heart Epidemiology Programme Study found that participants who reported having pressure or facing competition at work faced a risk of myocardial infarction six times greater than normal during the following twenty-four hours.

Workaholism and stress are related. Workaholics generally tend to be too intense and their intensity can make them remain at high levels of neuro-muscular arousal for long hours and thus impair the body’s normal functioning.

According to Dr. Marilyn Machlowitz, one of the leading authorities on workaholism,

workaholics tend to be intense and energetic, tend to sleep less than most people, have difficulty taking vacations or time off, spend most of their waking time working, frequently eat while they work, and worry about making the most of their time. They schedule appointments too tightly, and are generally impatient with most people.  They tend to be perfectionists–seeking flawless performance from self and others.

No wonder they have been shown to have a much higher rate of heart attack than “Type B” personalities—those who are not excessively competitive and are relatively easy-going.

Workaholism is often a way of dealing with the anxiety that arises from our feelings of inadequacy, especially in personal relationships. When we find relating to people difficult, we compensate by emphasising accomplishment.  Work becomes an easy defence against the vulnerabilities involved in close relationships. We seek to meet our need for love and affirmation through accomplishment.

Workaholism is sometimes a defence also against listening to our inner voices. Overwork serves as a narcotic that numbs our inner turmoil, an escape from the uncomfortable feelings inside.  If we are always busy doing something, there is little chance for these feelings to come to the surface and demand to be heard. We drown out our inner voices though overwork.

 

  1. INTER-PERSONAL CONFLICT

Today psychological theory and research attest to the important role relationships play in promoting health and happiness. In an earlier column I had referred to the Harvard Grant Study, which found loving relationships to be the most significant variable that affects health and happiness. Unresolved interpersonal conflict undermines loving relationships and is a major stress inducer.

Conflicts evoke anger, blame, overt and covert hostility – all of which are stress inducers. Inter-personal conflicts keep the body in a state of neuromuscular hyperarousal – the same physiological state that results from stress. This in turn leads to physical and psychological impairment.

One major dynamic that maintains inter-personal conflict is unwillingness to forgive.  Forgiveness is a decision to let go of a hurt or offence someone has caused us, so that we are no longer psychologically held or dominated by what has happened and are able to move on. Lack of forgiveness keeps us brooding resentfully over perceived or real hurts or offences. We pay a price for such resentful brooding.

Dr. Herbert Benson, Director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard University and the author of the ground-breaking Relaxation Response, made a profound observation about the health hazards of unforgiveness: “There’s a physiology of forgiveness. When you do not forgive, it will chew you up!”

On the other hand, forgiveness serves as a major resource for dealing with life’s inevitable hurts, frustrations and offences and leads to a calmer and more peaceful way of living.

The sources of stress described in this article themselves point to what we can do to prevent and recover from stress. However, in the next issue I shall describe some specific helpful strategies.

For Reflection

What are your experiences around the sources of stress described in this article? What insights do they provide you for dealing with stress?


Fr Jose Parappully SDB

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Psychology & Life

STRESS AND WELLBEING -1

NOV 12

In this article, the author explains one of the main causes for emotional and physical distress: stress. We need to understand what it is, what causes it, and how to deal with it. We cannot live in a world without stress, but we can learn to understand its causes and negative impact, and pick up healthy ways of managing it.

“I am so stressed out. I feel exhausted. Can you give some advice?” my friend Thomas told me. “No wonder you are exhausted,” I said. “You are working too hard. And you are a perfectionist!”

Stress is commonplace in today’s society. Modern life is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands. For many of us, stress is so commonplace that it has become a way of life. And it takes its silent toll on us, physically and emotionally.

Stress has a significantly negative effect on our wellbeing.Stress affects our health in many ways, because it affects nearly every system in the body. It is said that stress today contributes to 90% of all diseases. Stress is said to be linked to the six leading causes of death—heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. Today it is most likely that more people will die from stress-related illness than from infection, accidents, violence or warfare.

It is not only physical health that stress affects. Stress takes a heavy emotional toll too, with consequent negative impact on relationships and peace of mind. Stress, for example, affects marital relationships in significant negative ways and is often a major contributor to increasing divorce rates.

However, stress is not always bad. Some level of stress is essential for optimum performance. In small doses, it can help us perform under pressure and motivate us to do our best. Stress is elevation in our arousal state. If we are not sufficiently aroused in our energy and enthusiasm level, we cannot perform well. At optimum level, stress helps us stay focused, energetic, and alert.

WHAT IS STRESS?

The pioneer in stress research and the one who popularised the term is Nobel Prize nominee Hans Selye. He conceptualised stress as existing in the individual’s body as a specific set of biological conditions that occur as a response to an event or situation that is making demands on it. He defined stress as “the nonspecific result of any demand upon the body, be the effect mental or somatic.” Calling it “nonspecific” is simply to say that the response pattern is always biochemically the same regardless of the nature of the stressor. Bodies respond to all types of threat situations in a similar way

The “Fight or Flight” Response

Stress is basically the system in a state of arousal. The body’s reaction to a stressor is a remnant of the evolutionary adaptive mechanism developed by our ancestors. Our cave-dwelling ancestor had two options upon finding himself face-to-face with a growling tiger ready to pounce on him: he could fight off the attack, or he could run for dear life. To do either, his body had to be able to prime itself—within seconds—to do more than was normally expected of it. This was termed the “fight or flight” response, a term first used by the biologist Walter Cannon in1929. “Stress response” is another name for the same. The stress response is the body’s way of preparing us to deal with a perceived threat, and in that way protecting us

According to Cannon, during the “fight or flight,” the body’s stress response is triggered  and minifests itself in  the  following ways:

  • Stored sugar and fats are released into the bloodstream to provide quick energy;
  • The heart pumps faster to provide more blood to the muscles;
  • The breathing rate is increased to provide more oxygen to the blood;
  • Blood-clotting mechanisms are activated to protect against possible injury;
  • Muscles tense in preparation for action;
  • Digestion ceases so that more blood is available to the brain and muscles;
  • Perspiration increases to help reduce body temperature;
  • The pupils of the eyes dilate and the senses of smell and hearing become more acute.

These biological and somatic phenomena can help us deal with an emergency. However, when the body remains always in this emergency mode of high arousal, it affects our physical and emotional health. Normally, when the threat perception recedes, so too do  bodily arousal and the phenomena described above. However, when the arousal does not recede, that is, if the threat perception becomes chronic, we are in trouble. The Parasympathetic Nervous system (PNS) or the relaxation response does not kick in, keeping the body in a chronic state of high arousal. Under constant stress, the body is no longer able to adapt and exhaustion ensues. The body wears out. The constant state of high arousal leads to immune system deterioration with consequent negative impact on physical and mental functioning.

STRESS AND ILLNESS

Wellbeing and illness are both significantly influenced by the immune system in the body. Stress appears to impact the immune system negatively, lowering its capacity to ward off disease.

For example, it has been found that students reported more infectious illness during high-stress examination period than during the low-stress pre-examinations periods. Psychological stress has also been found to be associated with an increased risk of common cold, a risk that is related to increased rates of infection. A vast majority of hospital visits are related to stress-born diseases.

More recent research has highlighted the role of stress in major illnesses. As mentioned earlier, stress is today considered to be linked to the leading causes of death, such as heart disease and cancer. Stress is a major cause of suicide.

Stress leads to sleeplessness, which in turn leads to increases in blood pressure, cortisol and glucose levels, depressed mood, and  impaired cognitive functions.

Stress contributes to disease also because it leads to behaviours that have a deleterious effect on health.. Stress increases alcohol consumption and drug abuse and intake of food and drinks, as these help decrease tension or discomfort. However, they also make the body more vulnerable to disease.

SYMPTOMS OF STRESS

Our body is designed to give us warnings of stress overload. But we may not pay attention. Rather we may see these warning signs as obstacles on our achievement path and seek to remove them rather than address the realities of which they are warnings. These include physical warning signs such as inability to shake of a lingering cold, frequent headaches, feelings of fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders and sleeplessness and such emotional and behavioural signs as angry outbursts, obvious impatience or irritability, anxiety.

Psychologists have presented warning signs or symptoms of stress under four categories: cognitive, emotional, physical and behaviours:

Cognitive symptoms of stress: Memory problems, inability to concentrate, poor judgment, seeing only the negative, anxious or racing thoughts, constant worrying.

Emotional symptoms of stress: Moodiness, irritability or short temper, agitation, inability to relax, feeling overwhelmed, sense of loneliness and isolation, depression or general unhappiness.

Physical symptoms of stress: Aches and pains, diarrhoea or constipation, nausea, dizziness, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, loss of sex drive, frequent colds.

Behavioural symptoms of stress: Eating more or less, sleeping too much or too little, isolating oneself from others, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, use of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax, nervous habits (e.g., nail biting, pacing).

It is important to note here that these signs and symptoms of stress can also be caused by other psychological and medical problems, and not just though stress.

Next month, I shall describe the major stressors (what causes stress) and stress busters (remedies for stress).

Quesitons for Reflections:

  • What symptoms of stress are you experiencing? How are you handling these symptoms?
  • Are you aware of the sources of your stress? What do you plan to do to eliminate these?

Fr Jose Parappully SDB

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Psychology & Life

CREATIVITY AND WELLBEING

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Creativity contributes to emotional health and wellbeing. Psychologists in general are agreed on this. To quote one, Dean Simonton, professor at the University of California, Davis, specializing in the study of creativity, considers creativity not only “a sign of mental health and emotional well-being” but also one of the “very special ways human beings can display optimal functioning.” Creativity has been associated with psychological richness and cognitive complexity and enhanced well-being—both physically and psychologically.

Who are creative geniuses? Creative individuals are men and women who are able to think out of the box, who do not follow convention, and who are prepared to take risks and venture into the unknown … and come up with valuable novel ideas, theories or products that enrich society.

WHAT IS CREATIVITY?

Psychologists have reached a general agreement that creativity involves the production of “novel, useful products.” Robert Sternberg, professor of Human Development at Cornell University and author of many works on creativity, describes it as the production of “something original and worthwhile.” Simonton describes it as “the capacity to produce ideas that are both original and adaptive”—that is, ideas that are both new and useful.

The original and novel item produced may be intangible, such as an idea, a scientific theory, even  a joke, or a physical object such as an invention, or a literary or artistic work, such as a painting or a piece of music.

Creativity involves divergent rather than convergent thinking. Convergent thinking involves aiming for a single, correct solution to a problem; divergent thinking involves generation of multiple possible answers to a set problem.

According to Simonton, creativity requires “primary process” thinking, as opposed to ‘secondary process” thinking. Primary process thought is more primitive than “secondary process” thought.  While secondary process is devoted to conscious, logical, and realistic reasoning, primary process is replete with fantasy, imagination, irrationality, and unconscious motives.

CHARACTERISTICS OF CREATIVE PEOPLE

There are some typical qualities that characterize creative individuals. According to Simonton, creative people tend to be autonomous, independent, courageous and even bohemian (meaning: living a very carefree life, with little regard for social expectations and conventions). They are willing to let go off the tried and the tested. They have wide interests and show great openness to new experiences. They have the capacity to take risks, to try new ways of living and working. They think freely, and are less conventional in their thinking. They trust their own judgment and follow their internal convictions. They are flexible in their attitudes and behaviour. They have a greater tolerance for ambiguity and a greater acceptance of the many paradoxical facets of human nature. They are curious and open to experimentation and exploratory play.

any creative individuals are good at multi-tasking. They work on several issues simultaneously. They work on an issue for a while and then allow it lie to dormant for a while and move on to actively focus on another issue. Meanwhile, the earlier issue is incubating in the unconscious which begins to fabricate connections and possibilities until suddenly from nowhere a creative solution or a discovery emerges. This process of active engagement and incubation aids the creative process.

CREATIVITY AND ENVIRONMENT

Although we are inclined to consider creative activity to be an individual matter, Simonton points out that it often takes place in a social context. Creativity has its roots in a supportive yet demanding home environment. Creative people usually have parents who set high standards of achievement. At the same time, they are also quite permissive, allowing their children much freedom to experiment and take risks.

Most creative persons also have a supportive and highly skilled mentor in their chosen field of interest. They often work in fields unexplored by others. Exceptionally creative people devote almost all of their time and energy into their area of interest. Here is it is relevant to recall the words of the great physicist Albert Einstein: “Genius is ninety percent perspiration and ten percent inspiration.”

CREATIVITY IN THE FORMATION SETTING

The role of challenging situations in fostering creativity has implications, especially for the formation setting. For creativity to blossom and mature in the candidates to priesthood or religious life, the environment of the formation house or seminary has to be challenging. Candidates have to face situations that demand effort and enterprise. They have to be pushed farther and higher than they think they are capable of. Lack of challenge produces mediocrity. More than half (52%) of the formators who participated in sociologist Paul Parathazham’s study on religious formation acknowledged that current formation programmes are not demanding enough. Almost half (49%) felt the formation environment is too sheltered. Forty-one per cent stated that there is too much emphasis on conformity. Clearly, the bar has to be raised in terms of standards candidates are expected to reach.

Another important aspect of creativity which also has special relevance for priestly and religious formation is that divergent experiences facilitate creativity. Exposure to a variety of experiences expands the mind, taking us out of the rigid confines of a limited and narrow life. Such exposure not only allows creative juices to flow, but also broadens our perspectives and brings flexibility in thinking and attitudes. Unfortunately, the current formation process, in many cases, prefers regimentation and conformity. Thinking that is divergent from, and especially opposed to, traditional beliefs and practices, is not usually encouraged in the formation setting. Experiences available to formees are also, in many cases, very limited.

CREATIVITY AND ADVERSITY

Another aspect to be kept in mind, especially in the context of formation of priests and religious, is that creativity is promoted by adversity. Some of the most creative people ion the world were reared in unusually adverse childhood situations. Psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who explore optimum human performance, have found that creativity is fostered by “challenging experiences that help strengthen a person’s capacity to persevere in the face of obstacles.” Ellen Winner, a psychologist who has studied the profiles of artists and innovators, has pointed out that the experience of childhood stress and trauma is a major characteristic of highly creative people. Two other noteworthy characteristics of these persons, according to Winner, are these: “They are rebellious. They have the desire to alter the status quo.” Neither of these characteristics, unfortunately, are generally appreciated or fostered in formation settings.

A really inspiring true story of creativity in the midst of adversity is that of Steve Jobs. He is considered an icon of creativity in the world of information technology because of his creations—Apple Computers, the iPod, the iPhone and the I-Pad, devises which have revolutionized ways people work and communicate. But many may not know that he was dismissed from the company which he had founded. He would later say that this was the best thing that happened to him. It forced him to start from scratch, and invent new things. Soon after, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which doctors thought inoperable. Against such odds, the man went on to become one of the world’s most admired creative geniuses, exceeding existing benchmarks of performance by miles. Jobs shared stories of adversity and creativity in a much appreciated Commencement speech at Stanford University some years ago. He has left a great legacy for Apple Computers and an inspiring personal story of creativity emerging from adversity.

Creative geniuses often pay a steep price—but they make a huge difference to people’s lives.

For reflection:

  • Who are the really creative people you know? What makes them creative?
  • How can the environment of our families and formation houses be more supportive of the creative process?

 

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Psychology & Life

Is Your Life Meaningful?

AUGUST 9

Meaning matters—for our emotional and even physical well-being. How do we find it? The author shares relevant insights from psychology—including a study of parents whose children were murdered.  Could they construct a meaningful life after such horrendous tragedy?

“I don’t find any meaning in my life. I wonder why I am living like this—just drearily surviving from day to day. Sometimes I wish I were dead,” said the 28-year old Kamala during a personal meeting during a seminar.

 

Kamala is not the only one who feels this way. There are many like her who find it difficult to experience a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Quite a few of these gradually sink into clinical depression and think of ending their life—and even attempt to do so.

Recent research on health and happiness show that a sense of meaning in life is one of the major contributors to emotional and physical wellbeing. Emotionally healthy persons find life a meaningful adventure. They have something that gives meaning and significance to their life, such as a belief system, a dream, a commitment. According to the pioneering personality psychologist, Gordon Allport, “one of the key challenges to maturity is to invest daily life with meaning—to find or create opportunities to make our lives matter.”

Dreams and goals matter—especially intrinsic goals

To make our lives matter, we need to have dreams, something we feel passionate about and pursue with interest. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist…


Fr. Jose Parappully SDB

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Psychology & Life

WHO AM I REALLY?

MAY 5

“Who am I really?” This is a question all of us ask ourselves sometime in our life. Some of us find an answer, others continue to keep asking the question. Jesus was asked this question, and He asked his close friends who they thought He was.

Emotionally healthy persons tend to have clear and convincing answers to the question “Who am I?”

In psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s developmental schema, “identity formation” is the crucial task to be accomplished during adolescence. But we can struggle with issues of identity all through life.

Personality psychologist Dan McAdams presented identity as an evolving story that integrates a reconstructed past, a perceived present, and an anticipated future into a coherent and vitalising life myth. Our personal life myth “is a special kind of story that each of us naturally constructs to bring together the different parts of ourselves and our lives into a purposeful and meaningful whole.” In other words, when we achieve identity, we are able to bring together all of our past experiences, current realities and future goals and aspirations to create a picture of who we are and who we want to be.

Erikson described three significant ways in which identity formation can fail. These are identity foreclosure, identity confusion and negative identity. It is useful to understand these failures.

FORECLOSED IDENTITY

Identity foreclosure is a premature (without much reflection or soul-searching) resolution of the identity issue. We can slip easily into a role expected of us by family or community. We may not in any way identify with this role or find it meaningful. But the internalisation of the expectation of others, a process which is often unconscious, pushes us into identity foreclosure. A sense of dissatisfaction and lack of fulfilment, often with no knowledge of its source, is the result.

This was the case of Fr. Conrad. He grew up in a very religious family. His father had wanted to be a priest. But family circumstances demanded that he put aside that dream. However, he wanted to relive that dream though his son. In both subtle and overt ways, he encouraged Conrad to pursue an ecclesiastical career, even though what
Conrad really wanted was to pursue a career in finance. Five years after his ordination Conrad left the priesthood and joined an insurance company and later moved into a banking career.

NEGATIVE IDENTITY

A negative identity develops when we conform to an image of us that is contrary to family or cultural ideals but which is projected on to us by the same family or community. For example, the family may not approve the way we are living or of our life choices and label us as the “black sheep” of the family. In such a situation we may strive hard to prove the family right by living up to that negative label, adopting and engaging more and more in behaviours that are socially disapproved. Or, while in school, a teacher might ridicule us describing us as “good for nothing.” We might then adopt behaviours that fit the label and really turn out to be a good for nothing. We sabotage our own welfare and happiness and hurt ourselves by going out of our way to prove our detractors right.

Negative identity can develop also from idealisation of or identification with someone devalued by family or community but who we idealise. For example, in our childhood or youth we may have idealised an uncle or an aunt whom we loved very much and wanted to be like. It happened that this beloved uncle or aunt was also an alcoholic. As we grow up we may also identify with our uncle’s or aunt’s alcoholism and ourselves become alcoholic.

IDENTITY CONFUSION

Identity confusion occurs when we are unable to make up our minds as to who we are or who we want to be. We are unable to make a commitment to any single view of ourselves. This may be because we are caught up in conflicting values or lack the confidence to make meaningful and lasting decisions. Young religious who are unable to decide if they want to make their perpetual profession or not, provide a relevant example. They keep postponing a decision.

ACHIEVED IDENTITY

A healthy and positive resolution of the task of identity formation leads to identity achievement. The pathway to identity achievement is through role experimentation. Erikson termed this period of free experimentation of various roles and identities before a final identity is achieved psycho-social moratorium. Before we make a final choice of what we want to be, we need to look carefully at and even experiment with various options by living them out for a period—in fantasy or reality. We have to do some real soul-searching about who we want to be and what we want to do, and then make definitive choices.

According to Erikson, identity achievement moves us toward becoming and functioning as well-adjusted adults, with a fine balance of love and work—forming healthy relationships and engaging in meaningful and constructive activities. We become creative and productive, and contribute to the welfare of society.

IDENTITY AND FORMATION

It is quite likely that many candidates to religious and priestly life, especially those who joined as adolescents, are in identity foreclosed status. They may not have given enough attention to role experimentation. One of the important tasks of formation is to provide them opportunities for such experimentation, and not just to help them confirm the choices they have made, perhaps prematurely.

Sometimes we come across priests and religious who do not seem to have any opinion of their own. In answering questions, or when asked for an opinion, they tend to quote a document or the words of a superior. Lack of an opinion of our own or over-reliance on the opinion or expertise of others is often a symptom of a lack of a strong sense of identity.

LIFE-LONG PROCESS

Although Erikson postulated that identity formation is something that happens in adolescence, recent theory and research show that individuals engage in a lifelong process of identity formation. Thus, even if we have had a strong sense of achieved identity for a considerable period of our lives, we can still shift back into identity confusion, often triggered by new and unexpected experiences or developments in our lives. Such falling back is a positive thing, because we can now do further soul-searching and re-confirm our identity or choose a new one and move toward a deeper level of identity achievement. For example, a priest or religious who falls in love in mid-life, may move into identity confusion, even if he or she had achieved a clear sense of identity earlier. Such falling in love leads him or her to ask some fundamental questions about who they want to be. A decision made after struggling with these questions can strengthen and consolidate one’s identity or help choose a new identity that seems more in keeping with one’s deepest desires.

KNOW YOUR DEEP LONGINGS

We develop a deeper sense of our identity when we take time to confront ourselves. Such deeper sense of identity does not come from the external realities or the roles we play. It comes from recognising our deepest desires and longings and the dynamics operating behind our conscious selves.

Such an encounter with our deeper self occurs only in the depths of solitude. One of the areas candidates to religious life and priesthood have to be trained in is precisely this. They have to be trained to immerse themselves in and be comfortable with consciously and deliberately chosen solitude, especially in this age of instant communications and easily available media distractions, so that they can encounter themselves in greater depth and honesty. Creating an ambience conducive to such solitude is an important task of religious and priestly formation.

For Reflection

  • Have I struggled with issues of identity? If yes, in what way?
  • What is my current identity status: foreclosed, negative, confused, or achieved? What makes me conclude this?
  • Am I in touch with my deepest longings?
  • Do I see the value of solitude and use it to know myself more in depth?

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Psychology & Life

RESILIENCE

11

Thriving Despite Adversity

Mr. Rajan’s story in the previous column was not just about hope; it was also about resilience – the capacity to thrive despite adversity, to bounce back from setbacks, from trauma and tragedy and being able to live at even greater levels of wellbeing and satisfaction than before, that is, to flourish.

Resilient people, like the proverbial phoenix, are able to rise up literally from the ashes of their destructive or painful experience and thrive again.

The remarkable restoration and growth of the city of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and the resulting fires which gutted almost the entire city, and the ability of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to rise again from the ashes of nuclear devastation are classic examples of resilience.

So also is the remarkable story of Steve Jobs, an icon in the IT industry. Co-founder of Apple, he was the creative genius behind the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. But many may not know that he was dismissed from the company which he had founded. The experience did not break him, rather it forced him to reinvent himself. He would later say that this was the best thing that happened to him. It forced him to start again from scratch and invent new things.

Soon after, Steve Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which doctors thought inoperable. Against such odds, the man went on to become one of the world’s most admired creative geniuses, exceeding existing benchmarks of performance by miles.

Steve Jobs did not allow setbacks to dishearten him, rather he used them as stepping stones to climb greater heights. He was resilient.[1]

RESILIENCE IS NOT JUST RECOVERY

Resilience is not just about rising from the ashes. It is also about the capacity to maintain high levels of resistance to stressful events. According to psychologist Bonanno, an expert in the study of resilience, it enables us to endure upheavals remarkably well, with no apparent disruption in our ability to function and to move on to new challenges with apparent ease.

According to Bonanno, in contrast to recovery, which connotes a breakdown in normal functioning following trauma or loss, leading to high levels of distress or even psychopathology and then gradually returning to pre-event levels, resilience reflects the ability to maintain a stable equilibrium in the face of adversity.

When we are resilient, even when we experience a potentially highly disruptive event, we are able to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning. We show resilience through our capacity to respond flexibly and adaptively to adverse situations.

As resilient persons we are not broken by suffering; rather, we experience difficulties and obstacles as opportunities to grow. We not only bounce back from setbacks, we also grow and develop through these experiences just as Steve Jobs and many great artists, were able to do.

CONTRIBUTORS TO RESILIENCE

What leads to resilience?

Psychologists have identified certain areas of competence that lay the foundation for resilience. These are some of the contributors to health and happiness described in previous columns. Among these are: secure attachments; interpersonal competence, including the ability to recruit help; cognitive competence to plan; emotional competencies, especially the capacity to regulate emotions, delay gratification, and maintain high levels of hope, optimism and self-esteem; grateful living, and having meaning and purpose in life.

According to some psychologists, having meaning and purpose in life is the core competency that contributes to resilience. As Nietzsche is said to have observed, “If you have a WHY to live for, you can live any HOW.” That is, if we have a meaningful purpose in life, we can face and triumph over any adversity.

Viktor Frankl used Nietzsche’s words as inspiration to survive the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. He kept constantly before him a reason to get out of the camp alive—to  re-join with his wife. As a result, he alone of his batch of inmates survived to tell his story and become a celebrity after the war, while all the others perished in the camp.

A strong sense of purpose helps us face adverse circumstances more positively. According to psychologists McKnight and Kashdan, purpose in life facilitates “psychological flexibility”; serves “as the motivating force to overcome obstacles”; “leads to more productive cognitive, behavioural, and physiological activity” and “lower stress levels and greater satisfaction with life.”

Faith and attendance at religious services have been found to foster resilience. The world views provided by faith contribute to purposefulness and meaningfulness, offer support in difficult times, and the strength to triumph over adversity.

As Emmons, a psychologist who researches the impact of religion and spirituality on wellbeing, has observed, “Religion and spirituality can provide a unifying philosophy of life and serve as an integrating and stabilising force in the face of constant environmental and cultural pressures that push for fragmentation, particularly in post-modern cultures.”

MENTORS AND ROLE MODELS

Every research that has explored the variables that have contributed to resilience, especially to flourishing after a dysfunctional childhood, has found one common variable that has led to positive outcome. This was the presence of an empathic other, usually a loving aunt or uncle or a dedicated and sensitive teacher, who became a mentor and a role model and whose care and support made up for deficiencies and enabled the individual to find meaning and purpose in life and triumph over tragedy.

One sensitive and caring individual can make a profound difference in the life of another, no matter how dismal or dysfunctional his or her life experiences might have been. Each of us can become that empathic other and transform lives.

Resilience literature shows that many of the characteristics of emotionally healthy persons, some of which we have considered in previous columns, are subsumed under resilience. Resilience can thus be considered a master contributor to health and happiness.

For reflection

  • How resilient are you? 
  • How do you generally handle adversities? 
  • Have you been able to thrive after some tragedy? If yes, what helped you? 
  • What is the level of meaningfulness you experience in your life? How can you enhance meaningfulness in life? 
  • Can you recall an empathic other who has touched your life profoundly?

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[1] You can read Steve Job’s Commencement Speech at Stanford University in which he shared stories of adversity and resilience at : http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html


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Psychology & Life

Hope, Health and Happiness

03

In this article, the author explains how a hopeful and optimistic attitude promotes happiness and even better physical health.

Through careful planning and years of hard work, Rajan, 47, had built up a thriving textile business.  He had just invested a good amount of money to improve his facilities when an accidental fire destroyed all that he had built up. He was devastated.

The fire gutted his business, but not his spirit. Recovering from the shock, he was determined to rebuild his business. He was confident he could do it. Instead of brooding and lamenting over his loss, he set about finding ways and means. He first approached the insurance company. He was told it would take some time before he would be reimbursed.

He then approached a bank for loans. It refused. He went to another … and another, and kept going from bank to bank. They all refused. He realized he was not going to get the loans he needed. But he did not give up. He knew he would find a way.

And that way was selling his large house and surrounding land and moving into a small apartment with his family. With the money from the sale, he started his business again on a very small scale. Meanwhile he received remuneration from the insurance company. Slowly the business expanded and today ten years later, his business ventures are thriving.

Rajan lived with hope. He believed he would succeed and he worked hard to make his dream come true.

Hope is the conviction of having a meaningful future despite obstacles and also choosing the path to make that future real.

Persons high on hope have visions of who they want to be and what they want to accomplish in life and are able to motivate themselves; they feel resourceful accomplishing their objectives.

Hope and optimism go together. Optimism provides us with a faith that the future is going to be bright, that we can accomplish our goals, whatever they may be. When in a tight spot, we reassure ourselves that things will get better.

Hope includes practical pathways to realize the bright future we envisage. We persist in seeking goals despite setbacks and obstacles. We are also flexible enough to find different ways to get to our goals or to switch goals, if needed.

Two types of thinking

This is the understanding of hope provided by C. R. Snyder, the leading psychologist exploring hope. Snyder and his colleagues have come up with what they call the “Hope Theory.” The theory holds that hope involves two types of thinking: agency thinking and pathway thinking.

Agency thinking refers to an individual’s determination to achieve his or her goals despite possible obstacles; pathway thinking refers to the ways in which an individual believes she or he can achieve these personal goals.

Agency thinking reflects the self-referential thoughts of success in one’s endeavor. High-hope persons embrace such self-talk phrases as “I can do this” and “I am not going to be stopped.”

Pathways thinking involves generating an effective route to a desired goal. When that route does not bear the desired fruit, high-hope persons are able to create alternate routes and persist until desired outcomes are realized. Hope calls for will power, says Snyder.

Not wishful thinking

Hope, thus, is not mere wishful thinking, an illusion. It is real. It involves having goals and working towards realization of those goals, despite obstacles. Hope calls for determination and commitment. Hope was aptly expressed in Barack Obama’s famous election slogan. “Yes, We Can!” But then he had an army of committed volunteers working hard to make the dream come true.

The twin dimensions of hope presented by Snyder and colleagues – agency thinking and pathway thinking – are illustrated in the beautiful Gospel story of healing of the woman with the hemorrhages (Mark, 5, 24-35). This woman, who had been suffering from chronic hemorrhages over a period of years, had spent her life savings on doctors in hope of healing, but with little positive outcome. Yet, she did not give up. She persisted in her hope that she would be healed. She took an alternate pathway to healing. She believed that if she could touch Jesus’s garment she would be healed. In spite of the hurdles before her, she made her way to Jesus and touched the hem of his garment. And she was healed.

Benefits of hope

A large body of research shows that hope promotes health and happiness. Hope buffers people against a number of physical and mental problems and helps people heal faster and easier. Individuals who maintain high levels of hope when battling illness significantly enhance their chances of recovery. They remain appropriately energized and focused on what they need to do in order to recuperate. Persons with high hope also engage in more preventative behaviors (i.e., physical exercise) than those with low hope.

Research shows that optimistic persons are less prone to depression, anxiety and anger, and more likely to experience life satisfaction, positive physical and mental health, self-esteem, ability to adapt and cope in various situations and longer life.

One research that followed 1,300 men in their 60s over a ten-year period found that the more optimistic men were about half as likely to develop heart disease as the more pessimistic men.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana assessed the cardiovascular health of more than 5,100 adults aged 45 to 84. They had participants complete surveys about their mental health, levels of optimism and physical health. It was found that the most optimistic participants were twice more likely to be in far better cardiovascular health than their pessimistic counterparts. Optimists had also significantly lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

Studies have also shown that a health care professional’s positive expectations that raise the patient’s level of hope can have a concrete impact on the health of the patient.

Why placebo works

Hope is a major ingredient in “placebo’ studies. In such studies one group of people are made to believe that they are being given a very effective treatment (when in reality they are not), while another group is actually given an effective treatment. Results often show that both groups benefit. It was the belief (hope) that they would benefit that led to improvement in the first group.

In general, people who possess hope and think optimistically have a greater sense of wellbeing, in addition to the improved health outcomes outlined above. Hope evokes positive emotions and reduces negative ones. Hope has been found to release endorphins which create a pleasurable mood and a feeling of wellbeing.

Hope is a high motivator and facilitates success in one’s endavours. Hope has been found to relate to higher achievement test scores among students. Athletes with high as compared with low hope perform significantly better in their events.

Living hopefully, thus, leads to health and happiness as well as success in life. It would be worthwhile for us to cultivate hope which calls for fighting a pessimistic outlook on life and developing optimistic attitudes and working persistently toward goal realization.

INTROSPECTION

  • Do I generally have an optimistic or pessimistic outlook on life?
  • Do I easily give up when I face obstacles, or do I persist in my efforts until I succeed?
  • Do I tend to persist with unsuccessful pathways or to create new pathways that will lead to success?

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