Our Upcoming ACA Book on Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: Sneak Peek #2

River Rising 2020

Hey,

I hope you’re all okay and social distancing and mask wearing and hand-washing and staying healthy and well.

Today I’m working on Chapter 6 – The Cognitive Dimension in Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning (or something like that).

As always, please share your feedback. Or, if you have no feedback and like what you read, just share the post, because, as we all know, acts of kindness grow happiness.

Here’s an excerpt on working with hopelessness.

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Working with Hopelessness as it Emerges During Sessions

Clinicians can address hopelessness in two ways. First, when hopelessness emerges in the here-and-now, clinicians need to be ready to respond empathically and effectively. Client hopelessness manifests in different ways. Sometimes hopelessness statements have depressing content (e.g., “I’ve never been happy and I’ll never be happy”); other times hopelessness statements include irritability (e.g., “Counseling has never worked for me. I hate this charade. It won’t help.”). Either way, in-session hopelessness statements can be provocative and can trigger unhelpful responses from counselors. Preparing yourself to respond therapeutically is important.

Second, hopelessness among clients who are depressed and suicidal manifests as an ongoing, long-term cognitive style. As with most cognitive styles, hopelessness is linked to cognitive distortions wherein clients have difficulty (a) recalling past successes, (b) noticing signs of hope in the immediate moment, or (c) believing that their emotional state or life situation could ever improve. We address in-session hopelessness next and hopelessness as a longer-term cognitive distortion in the subsequent section.

Expressing Empathy

Imagine you’re working with a new client. You want to be encouraging, and so you make a statement about the potential for counseling to be helpful. Consider the following exchange:

Counselor: After getting to know you a bit, and hearing what’s been happening in your life, I want to share with you that I think counseling can help.

Client: I know you mean well, but this is a waste of time. My life sucks and I want to end it. Popping in to chat with you once a week won’t change that.

When clients make hopelessness statements, you may feel tempted to counter with a rational rebuttal. After all, if client hopelessness represents a pervasive depression-related cognitive distortion or impairment, then it makes sense to offer a contrasting rational and accurate way of thinking. Although instant rational rebuttals worked for Albert Ellis, for most counselors, immediately disputing your clients’ global, internal, and hopeless cognitions will create resistance. Instead, you should return to an empathic response.

Counselor: I hear you saying that, right now, you don’t think counseling can help. You feel completely hopeless, like your life sucks and is never going to change and you just want it to end.

Staying empathic—even though you know that later you’ll be targeting your client’s hopeless distorted thinking—requires accurately reflecting your clients’ hopelessness. You may even use a tiny bit of motivational interviewing amplification (i.e., using the phrase, “never going to change” could function as an amplification). What’s important to remember about this strategy is that mirroring your clients’ hopelessness will likely stand in stark contrast to what your clients have been experiencing in their lives. In most situations, if your clients have spoken about their depression and suicidality with friends or family, they will have heard responses that include reassurance or emotional minimization (e.g., “I’m sure things will get better” or “You’re a wonderful person, you shouldn’t think about suicide” or “Let’s talk about all the blessings you have in your life”).

Remaining steadily empathic with clients as they express hopelessness is an intentionally different and courageous way to do counseling. Staying empathic means that you’re sticking with your clients in their despair. You’re not running from it; you’re not minimizing it; you’re not brushing it aside as insignificant. Instead, you’re resonating with your clients’ terribly depressive and suicidal cognitive and emotional experiences.

If you choose the courageous and empathic approach to counseling, you need to do so with the conscious intention of coming alongside your clients in their misery. Following the empathic path can take you deep into depressive ways of thinking and emoting. This can affect you personally; you may begin adopting your clients’ impaired depressive thinking and then feel depressed yourself. Part of being conscious and intentional means you’re choosing to temporarily step alongside and into your clients’ depressive mindset. You need to be clear with yourself: “I’m stepping into the pit of depression with my client, but even as I’m doing this, my intention is to initiate Socratic questioning or cognitive restructuring or collaborative problem-solving when the time is right.”

The next question is: “How long do you need to stay alongside your client in the depressive mindset?” The answer varies. Sometimes, just as soon as you step alongside your clients’ hopelessness, they will rally and say something like, “It’s not like I’m completely hopeless” or “Sometimes I feel a little hope here or there.” When your client makes a small, positive statement, your next job is to gently nurture the statement with a reflection (e.g., “I hear you saying that once in a while, a bit of hope comes into your mind”), and then explore (and possibly grow) the positive statement with a solution-focused question designed to facilitate elaboration of the exceptional thought (e.g., “What was different about a time when you were feeling hopeful?”). Then, for as long as you can manage, you should follow Murphy’s (2015) solution-focused model for working with client exceptions. This includes:

  1. Elicit exceptions. (You can do this be asking questions like “What was different. . .” and by using the motivational interviewing techniques of coming alongside or amplified reflection.)
  2. Elaborate exceptions. (You do this with questions like “What’s usually happening when you feel a bit of hope peek through the dark clouds?”)
  3. Expand exceptions. (You move exceptions to new contexts and try to increase frequency, “What might help you feel hope just a tiny bit more?”)
  4. Evaluate exceptions. (You do this by collaboratively monitoring the utility or positivity of the exception, “If you were able to create reminders for being hopeful to use throughout the day, would you find that a plus or minus in your life?”)
  5. Empowering exceptions. (You do this by giving clients credit for their exceptions and asking them what they did to make the exceptions happen, “How did you manage to get yourself to think a few positive thoughts when you were in that conflict with your supervisor?”).

In other cases, you’ll need to stick with your clients’ misery and hopelessness longer. However, because this is a strength-based model and because the evidence suggests that clients who are suicidal sometimes need their counselor to explicitly lead them toward positive solutions, you will need to watch for opportunities to turn or nudge or push your clients away from abject hopelessness.

 

A Sneak Peek at Our Upcoming Suicide Assessment and Treatment Book with the American Counseling Association

Spring Sunrise and Hay

Rita and I are spending chunks of our social distancing time writing. In particular, we’ve signed a contract to write a professional book with American Counseling Association Publications on suicide assessment and treatment planning. We’ll be weaving a wellness and strength-oriented focus into strategies for assessing and treating suicidality.

Today, I’m working on Chapter 6, titled: The Cognitive Dimension. We open the chapter with a nice Aaron Beck quotation, and then discuss key cognitive issues to address with clients who are suicidal. These issues include: (a) hopelessness, (b) problem-solving impairments, (c) maladaptive thinking, and (d) negative core beliefs.

Then we shift to specific interventions that can be used to address the preceding cognitive issues. In the following excerpt, we focus on collaborative problem solving and illustrate the collaborative problem-solving process using a case example. As always, feel free to offer feedback on this draft content.

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Collaborative Problem-Solving

Though not a suicide-specific intervention, problem-solving therapy is an evidence-based approach to counseling and psychotherapy (Nezu, Nezu, & D’Zurilla, 2013). Components of problem-solving are useful for assessing and intervening with clients who are suicidal. As Reinecke (2006) noted, “From a problem-solving perspective, suicide reflects a breakdown in adaptive, rational problem solving. The suicidal individual is not able to generate, evaluate, and implement effective solutions and anticipates that his or her attempts will prove fruitless” (p. 240).

Extended Case Example: Sophia – Problem-Solving

In Chapter 5 we emphasized that clinicians should initially focus on and show empathy for clients’ excruciating distress and suicidal thoughts. However, there often comes a moment when a pivot toward the positive can occur. Questions that help with this pivot include:

  • What helps, even a tiny bit?
  • When you’ve felt bad in the past, what helped the most?
  • How have you been able to cope with your suicidal thoughts?

In response to these questions, clients who are suicidal often display symptoms of hopelessness, mental constriction, problems with information processing, or selective memory retrieval. Statements like, “I’ve tried everything,” “Nothing helps,” and “I can’t remember ever feeling good,” represent cognitive impairments. Even though your clients may think they’ve tried everything, the truth is that no one could possibly try everything. Similarly, although it’s possible that “nothing” your client does helps very much, it’s doubtful that all their efforts to feel better have been equally ineffective. These statements indicate black-white or polarized thinking, as well as hopelessness and memory impairments (Beck et al., 1979; Reinecke, 2006; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2018).

Pivoting to the Positive

Picking up from where we left off in Chapter 5, after exploring the distress linked to Sophia’s suicide ideation in the emotional dimension, the counselor (John) pivots to asking about the positive (“What helps?”) and then proceeds into a problem-solving assessment and intervention strategy. One clearly identified trigger for Sophia’s suicidal thinking is her parent’s fighting. She cannot directly do anything about their fights, but she can potentially do other things to shield herself from the downward cognitive and emotional spiral that parental fighting activates in her.

John: Let’s say your parents are fighting and you’re feeling suicidal. You’re in your room by yourself. What could you do that’s helpful in that moment? [The intent is to shift Sophia into active problem-solving.]

Sophia: I have a cat. His name is Douglas. Sometimes he makes me feel better. He’s diabetic, so I don’t think he’ll live much longer, but he’s comforting right now.

John: Nice. My memory’s not perfect, so is it okay with you if I write a list of all the things that help a little bit? Douglas helps you be in a better mood. What else is helpful?

Sophia: I like music. Blasting music makes me feel better. And I play the guitar, so sometimes that helps. And volleyball is a comfort, but I can’t play volleyball in my room.

John: Yeah. Great. Let me jot those down: music, guitar, volleyball, and being with your cat. And volleyball, but not in your room! I guess you can think about volleyball, right? And how about friends? Do you have friends who are positive supports in your life?

Although the fact that Douglas the cat has diabetes includes a depressive tone, the good news is that Sophia immediately engages in problem-solving. She’s able to identify Douglas and other things that help her feel better.

Throughout problem-solving, regularly repeating positive coping strategies back to the client is important. In this case, John summarizes Sophia’s positive ideas, and then asks about friends and social support—a very important dimension in overall suicide safety planning.

Sophia: Yeah, but we’re all busy. My friend Liz and I hang out quite a bit. I can walk into her house, and it will feel like my house. But we’re both in volleyball, so we’re both really busy. But our season will end soon. Hopefully that will help.

John: Ok, the list of things that seem to help, especially when you’re in a hard place with your parents fighting: Douglas the cat, music, guitar, and volleyball, and friends. Anything else to add?

Sophia:  I don’t think so.

Often, the next step in collaborative problem-solving is to ask clients for permission to add to the list, thus turning the process into a shared brain-storming session. At no time during the brainstorming should you criticize any client-generated alternatives, even if they’re dangerous or destructive. In contrast, clients will sometimes criticize your ideas. When clients criticize, just agree with a statement like, “Yeah, you’re probably right, but we’re just brainstorming. We can rank and rate these as good or bad ideas later.”

Overall, the goal is to use brainstorming to assess for and intervene with mental constriction. During brainstorming, Sophia and John generated 13 things Sophia could do to make herself feel better. Sophia’s ability to brainstorm in session is a positive indicator of her responsiveness to treatment.

 

2020 Dreams from My Mother

Mom in Chair

By most estimates, moms have had it rough this year. Day care centers are closed and moms are working from home; at the same time they’re homeschooling, keeping their children from watching porn on the internet, and sanitizing everything. And then there’s that former reality television star who perpetually gets himself in the news, rambling in front of cameras about treating the novel coronavirus with disinfectants in the body. In an optimal world, mothers would get celebrated way more than once a year. In a decent world, they’d be able to protect their children from exposure to Donald Trump.

Looking back 50 years or so, my own mother—she’s in a care facility now—was a mysteriously effective role model. She was more submissive than dominant, never hit me or raised her voice, didn’t directly boss anyone around, but indirectly gave my sisters and me VERY CLEAR guidance on what behaviors were expected in our home, and out in the world.

Rarely did my mother explicitly tell us how to behave. But once, when an African American family moved into our all-white neighborhood, she proactively, quietly, and firmly sat my sisters and me down and told us we would always treat them with respect. We did. When my mom got serious, we never questioned her authority.

One time, she was driving and a car squealed past us in a no-passing zone. She sighed, glanced over at me, and said, “I’ll be very disappointed if you ever drive like that.” For the next 5 decades, including my teen years, my friends and family have ridiculed me for my slow, conservative driving. I watch my speedometer, stop at yellow lights, and slow down at uncontrolled intersections. My mother said it once, I remembered what she said, and I still don’t want to disappoint her.

Without a stern word, my mother taught us to love our neighbors (even when they were annoying), showed us how to treat everyone with kindness and respect (even when they didn’t deserve it), and modeled how we could be generous with our time and energy by focusing on the needs and interests of others.

Once, when the family was out watching Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a sex scene started. Immediately, my mom elbowed my dad, and I was ushered from the theater. My mom didn’t want me to see or hear things that might lead me down the wrong path. She would cover my eyes and ears (literally) to stop me from being exposed to negative influences.

All this leads me to wonder how my mother would handle the disastrous role-model-in-chief. Mr. Trump is a mother’s nightmare, spewing out perverted values on a daily basis.

My mother’s first strategy would be to not let me hear whatever terrible ideas Trump gets out of his brain and into his mouth. She would have blocked me from watching news pieces about Mr. Trump’s playboy models, paid off porn stars, shitholes, Pocahontas, pussy-grabbing, gold star families, and references to women as pigs.

As much as my mother would have hated Mr. Trump’s sexist and racist words, she would be even more apoplectic about his poor character. If we saw or heard Mr. Trump counterattacking his critics, she would have sat us down, and talked about how an eye for an eye will leave us all blind.

If my mother caught us reading Trump’s tweets, she would have gathered us around the kitchen table for a spelling lesson. She would explain, “there’s no such word as unpresidented,” the phrase “twitter massages” makes no sense, “smocking guns” is just wrong, “the Prince of Whales” is from Wales, and journalists cannot win the “Noble prize.” She would never allow us to utter the word covfefe in our house.

My mother would be deeply offended by Mr. Trump’s incessant lying. If she were parenting us right now, every day she’d find a way to show us how we should admit our mistakes, take personal responsibility, and resist the temptation to blame others. She would talk about truth-telling. She would explain that Mr. Trump being President is a tragic mistake and that we should all work very hard to make sure this tragic mistake ends, so this malevolent man cannot continue to abuse women, minorities, and the American people.

But, for parents like my mother, Mr. Trump offers small advantages. As a teaching device, horrendous role models work quite well. In the end, and with one sentence, my mother would steal away all of Trump’s past and future influence. She would say, “I’ll be very disappointed if you ever act like that man.”

And we wouldn’t.

 

Happy Habits . . . Episodes 7 and 8

Big Turkey

Hi All,

As the turkeys were strutting around our house in Absarokee, Rita and I finished the final two episodes of Happy Habits for Hard Times. Please share these and the other Happy Habits episodes with people who you think might be interested. https://coehs.umt.edu/happy_habits_series_2020/default.php

Here’s Episode 7: Stop, Look, and Listenhttps://coehs.umt.edu/happy_habits_series_2020/hhs_module_seven.php

Here’s Episode 8: Persistence, Resilience, and Joyhttps://coehs.umt.edu/happy_habits_series_2020/hhs_module_eight.php

Our BIG thanks for inspiration and assistance on this project to Adrea Lawrence, Dean of the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education of the University of Montana, Eric Vorkoeper and Breanna Niekamp, both of UMOnline.

Have a fabulous weekend.

Happiness Homework: Emotional Journaling

Tippet Rise

After taking a detour away from my happiness class and toward the Happy Habits series, I’m circling back to this week’s assignment for my Art and Science of Happiness course at the University of Montana

Emotional Journaling

What if there was a simple procedure that could help you obtain the following benefits?

  • A reduced need to go see a physician
  • Improved immune functioning
  • Fewer physical ailments or symptoms
  • Less distress
  • Less negative affect
  • Less depression
  • Improved GPA
  • Less absenteeism from work

According to social psychologist and prominent researcher, James Pennebaker, a simple procedure to provide you with these benefits is right at your fingertips. Literally. All you have to do is write about hard, difficult, or traumatic experiences. Here’s an example (summarized) of his instructions:

For the next three days write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life. When writing, really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. You might want to tie your writing into your relationships with others or to your past/present/future, or to who you’ve been, who you are, and who you’d like to be in the future. You can write about the same topic every day or a new one every day. Keep your writing confidential. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, etc., just write for 15-30 minutes straight. (adapted from Pennebaker, 1997)

I’ve been impressed with Pennebaker’s research for three decades. However, I also think it’s important to remember that Pennebaker is a social psychologist; he isn’t a clinical or counseling psychologist, a clinical mental health counselor, or a clinical social worker. As a consequence, I’m not asking you to leap right into his assignment without support. In fact, most researchers, including Pennebaker, believe you can gain the same benefits by talking about painful emotional experiences with a counselor or psychotherapist. One additional caveat: Pennebaker has also found that when writing or talking about traumatic experiences, often people feel distressed or emotionally worse to start, but over time they begin feeling even better than they did at the beginning.

To do this assignment, I just want you to think about Pennebaker’s method and his claims, and then tell me (a) what you think of his idea, (b) whether you would ever like to try his technique, and (c) if you would prefer writing or talking about your emotionally difficult events.

If you eventually decide to try Pennebaker’s method, be sure to remember that you could feel worse first, and that having someone you trust to confide in about how you’re feeling through the process might be a good idea.

If you want to dive into Pennebaker’s method, you should use one of his books as a guide. Here’s one example: https://www.abebooks.com/Opening-Writing-Down-Expressive-Improves-Health/22531442075/bd?cm_mmc=ggl-_-US_Shopp_Trade-_-new-_-naa&gclid=CjwKCAjw4pT1BRBUEiwAm5QuR4ZmBWoiw2FhWHexwZiPtAnyDc9frTptZr9dimZhEWcsE4HUl70gzxoCd60QAvD_BwE

Thanks and happy Sunday.

John S-F

 

 

Happy Habits for Hard Times: Gratitude and Inspiration

Snow Angel

Episode 6 of the Happy Habits for Hard Times series was posted yesterday on the College of Education of the University of Montana’s website.

But it’s probably still relevant today.

The written portion of episode 6 is below.

You can get to the video via this link: https://coehs.umt.edu/happy_habits_series_2020/hhs_module_six.php

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You are what you focus on. When you remember what you’re grateful for and notice what inspires you, your day will be much better.

Humans tend to repeat behaviors that work out well for them and tend to stop doing things that don’t turn out well. Usually, when you get rewarded for something, you keep doing it. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but today’s topic is all about introducing two new behaviors that we hope you’ll find rewarding.

As you know from previous episodes, there are behaviors (strategies) you can engage in that are likely to boost your mood. In this episode of Happy Habits, we elaborate on two strategies, but we’re confident you can think of more on your own. We are also aware that for some strange reason, even though these behaviors are rewarding, it’s still hard to get started doing them. That’s a topic for another day. For now, trust us and try these. There’s a reasonable chance that when you do them, you’ll feel better, and you’ll want to keep doing them.

Happiness Habit: Expressing Gratitude

Although it’s true that nearly everyone experiences gratitude, most of us don’t intentionally create time and space to express it. Expressing gratitude is a smart thing to do. It reminds you that you have positive things you are grateful for, it feels good to say “Thanks” and often, you make someone else feel good. Expressing gratitude makes for a nice, positive loop.

Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be tempting to think we have little to be grateful for. While this may be true, it won’t help to dwell on the negative and feel sorry for yourself. Someone once said, “Oh, you think you have nothing to be thankful for? Take your pulse.” Now is a good time to use your brain to force yourself to think and behave with positivity.

Try the following steps:

  1. Identify someone toward whom you feel or have felt appreciation and gratitude. You may have plenty of options. It’s helpful to choose someone toward whom you believe you haven’t yet expressed enough gratitude.
  2. Write a gratitude note to that person. Include in the note why you feel gratitude toward to the person. Include specifics as needed, as well as words that best express your sincere heartfelt feelings toward the person.
  3. Find a way to express your feelings directly to your gratitude target. You can read the note in person, over the phone, or send it in whatever way you find best.

Your plan is to express gratitude. That means you need to drop any expectations for how the recipient of your gratitude should or will respond. Don’t focus on their response, instead, focus on doing the best job you can expressing the gratitude that you sincerely feel.

If the person loves hearing about your gratitude, cool. If the person is uncomfortable, or not positive, or silent, that’s okay. Your goal should be within your control—meaning: all you can control is your end of the communication and not how the communication is received.

If you get inspired, feel free to repeat this gratitude experiment a second or third time. You may find that gratitude begets gratitude.

Happy Habit: Notice Something Inspiring

Inspiring things are always happening. People are caring for the infirmed and elderly, risking their own health. People are volunteering, donating, and doing what they can. The word inspire comes from the Middle English enspire, from the Old French inspirer, and from the Latin inspirare ‘breathe or blow into’ from in- ‘into’ + spirare ‘breathe.’ The word was originally related to a divine or supernatural being, in a sense, ‘impart a truth or idea to someone’.

You can go pretty much anywhere on the internet right now and find inspiring stories. But instead, if possible, we want you to go live, in real time. We want you to watch for and then closely observe something inspiring that’s happening in your daily life.

The inspiring action that you notice may be small or it may be big. It might give you a tiny lift, or be jaw-droppingly inspiring. The key is that it involves intentionally watching for that which will inspire. Keep all your sensory modalities open for inspiration. Then, if you’re up for it, jot down what inspired you, or share it with someone else. What was it like to intentionally pay attention to things that might inspire you? The key is attitude. For whatever time you devote to this exercise, you’re focused on noticing positive actions and events. You’ve given yourself a little respite from the bad news lurking in every corner right now.

Inspiration can lift you up. Try it out. See what it can do for you.

Happy Habits for Hard Times: Your Best Possible Self

Burned Tree

They say that failure is good for the soul, or maybe they say it’s good for developing character. I don’t know who “they” are, but they forgot to say that failure is good for learning. I think that’s the best thing.

My favorite football season of all time was my senior year in high school, when my team when 0 – 10. That’s right. We lost every game, and we lost most of them very badly. The next year, my team, Mount Hood Community College, went 10 – 0. It was great; almost as good as the year before.

I don’t LOVE failure, because I’m not that weird. But I do like failure. I like it because of the learning that comes along with failure.

Today, Episode 5 of the Happy Habits series goes live. You can click on it below. The topic is: Your Best Possible self. Keep in mind that only by failing and improving ourselves can we begin to approach the best possible version of ourselves.

Onward!

Other People Matter, And You Matter Too

Bill-Withers-GettyImages-71302174

As I type here on my blog, I can hear Rita playing Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game in the background. Joni is singing to me:

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time

I’m reminded of how repetitive life can be and am catapulted backward and forward in time.

Back in the spring of 1976, at Mount Hood Community College, I signed up for Basic Piano, but never made it very far, and dropped the class. I still feel sad for that.

Somehow, someone (I’m not sure if it was Andy Stokes or a guy named Bo from the baseball team), taught me to play a few chords from Bill Wither’s Lean on Me. Every once in a while, I feel the impulse to circle back and play those chords, and pretend I can sign.

This morning I’m circling back again, to those few chords, to Lean on Me, and to the Happy Habits series Rita and I are producing with the University of Montana. And so here’s my tribute to Bill Withers, the past, the future, and the present: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0Nju66rif4&feature=youtu.be

And here’s the link to the video and written material that Rita and I produced for UM: https://coehs.umt.edu/happy_habits_series_2020/hhs_module_four.php

Have a fabulous Friday and weekend.

The Three-Step Emotional Change Technique

chicken-head950

Newsflash: I’m asking for a favor. UMOnline (of the University of Montana) is partnering with Rita and me to produce the free Happy Habits for Hard Times video series. Yesterday’s episode was “The Three-Step Emotional Change Technique” (described below). In appreciation for their technical and motivational support, I want to push some traffic to UMOnline. Here’s their link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ji_q-T_SwZE and here’s a link to the series:  https://coehs.umt.edu/happy_habits_series_2020/default.php. Please click, like, subscribe, and share. Our main goal is to help people cope effectively during these immensely difficult times.

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When I first started doing counseling and psychotherapy, I planned to do health psychology or behavioral medicine with people suffering from medical problems. I envisioned working with patients with high blood pressure, asthma, pain, and other physical ailments—all of which can be treated through psychological methods.

But life has a funny way of delivering a karate chop to our best laid plans. Instead of medical referrals, a parade of young people arrived in my office in blisteringly bad moods. They told me I was ugly, that I should fuck-off, and that there was no way in hell they would ever talk to me; sometimes they even threatened to destroy my office or physically attack me.

I also got one referral for a guy in his mid-50s who wanted to work on his high blood pressure. Turns out, the blood pressure treatment process was numbingly boring. To my surprise, I much preferred being pelted with insults by the nasty kids.

Early in the process I realized, these weren’t nasty kids, but instead, these were kids in nasty moods because of their difficult life circumstances. None of their insults or anger or sadness were about me, and so I modified Harold Mosak’s (1985) pushbutton technique, turning it into a simple, three-step emotional change technique to help my young clients deal with their bad moods. Using my creative naming skills, I called it the “Three-step emotional change trick.” I ended up liking the technique so well that I did it in my office, with myself, with parents, during professional workshops, and with classrooms full of 4th and 5th graders. Mostly it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. Here’s how it goes.

Introduction

Before teaching the three steps, I introduced the idea that bad moods were normal and offered a taste of emotional education. I asked, “Have you ever been in a bad mood?” Obviously, all the kids nodded, flipped me off, or said things like, “No duh.” My response was something like, “Yeah, me too.”

Then I’d ask, “Have you ever had somebody come up to you and tell you to cheer up?” All the kids said, “Yes!” and then followed up with how stupid they thought it was when someone told them to cheer up. I would agree and commiserate with them on how ridiculous it was for anyone to ever think that saying “Cheer up” would do anything but piss the person off even more.

At some point, I’d say, “I’ll never tell you to cheer up. Don’t worry about that. If you’re in a bad mood, I figure you’ve got a good reason to be in a bad mood, and so I’ll just respect your mood and let it be.”

Then I’d swoop in with my sales pitch. “But hey. Have you ever been in a bad mood and get stuck there and have it last longer than you wanted it to?”

Nearly always there was a head nod; I’d join in and admit to the same. “Damn those bad moods. Sometimes they last and last and hang around way longer than they need to.”

“If it’s okay with you,” I’d say, “I’d like to teach you this thing I call the three-step emotional change trick. It’s a way for you to change your mood, but only when you want to change your mood, and not when somebody tells you to cheer up. This trick is a way for you to be the captain of your own emotional ship.”

Maybe my memory is warped, but I can’t remember any young person ever refusing to let me teach them the three-steps. I think most people find their moods challenging, and so if you’re selling a technique or trick to give them more control, pretty much everyone wants to learn it. That’s why I’m sharing it with you now.

Step one is to feel the feeling. Feelings come around for a reason. Hardly ever do they come out of nowhere. We need to notice them, feel them, and contemplate their meaning. The big questions here are: How can you honor and feel your feelings? What can you do to respect your own feelings and listen to the underlying message? Over the years, I’ve heard many answers. Here are a few. But you can generate your own list.

  • Frowning or crying if you feel sad
  • Grimacing and making various angry faces into a mirror if you feel angry
  • Drawing an angry, ugly picture
  • Punching or kicking a large pillow (no real violence though)
  • Going outside and yelling (or screaming into a pillow)
  • Scribbling on a note pad with a black marker
  • Writing a nasty note to someone (but not delivering it)
  • Using your words, and talking to someone about what you’re feeling

Step two is to think a new thought or do something different. This step is all about intentionally doing or thinking something that might change or improve you mood. The big question here is: What can you think or do that will put you in a better mood?

I discovered that kids and adults have amazing mood-changing strategies. Here’s a sampling:

  • Tell a funny story (for example, yesterday in math, my friend Todd farted)
  • Tell a joke (What do you call it when 100 rabbits standing in a row all take one step backwards? A receding hareline).
  • Tell a better joke (Why did the ant crawl up the elephant’s leg for the second time? It got pissed off the first time.)
  • Get some exercise
  • Smile into a mirror
  • Watch funny internet cat videos
  • Talk to someone you trust
  • Put a cat (or a chicken or a duck) on your head
  • Chew a big wad of gum

I’m sure you get the idea. Nobody knows better than you what might put you in a good mood . . . so, when you’re ready, you should use your own self-knowledge to move into a better mood.

Step three is to spread the good mood. Spreading the good mood is based on the fact that moods are contagious. In fact, although COVID-19 is very contagious, moods might be even more contagious. I’d say things like this to my young clients:

“I want to tell you another interesting thing about moods. They’re contagious. Do you know what contagious means? It means you can catch them from being around other people who are in bad moods or good moods. Like when you got here. I noticed your mom was in a bad mood too. It made me wonder, did you catch the bad mood from her or did she catch it from you? Anyway, now you seem to be in a much better mood. And so I was wondering, do you think you can make your mom “catch” your good mood?”

How do you share good moods? Keep in mind that saying “Cheer up” is off-limits. Here’s a short list of what I’ve heard from kids and adults.

  • Do someone a favor
  • Smile
  • Hold the door for a stranger
  • Offer a random act of kindness
  • Offer a real or virtual hug
  • Listen to someone who wants or needs to talk
  • Tell someone, “I love you” (you can even do this while social distancing)

Step four might be the best and most important step in the three-step emotional change trick. With kids, when I move on to step four, they always interrupt:

“Wait. You said there were only three steps!”

“Yes. That’s true. That’s what I said. What’s interesting about the three-step emotional change trick is that it has four steps. It has for steps because emotions are complicated and surprising. And so there are four steps. This last step is for you to teach someone else the three steps.”

The other surprising thing about the three-step emotional change trick is that nobody ever complains that it has four steps. For whatever reason, the complexity of emotions seems to overshadow the need to count accurately. In fact, as you read this, you may have discovered an additional step. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that the three-step emotional change trick actually has five steps. If you’ve got a fifth step, please share!

 

Introducing the Happy Habits for Hard Times Video and Resource Series

John and Rita in Field

I know lots of you think of Rita and I as sophisticated intellectual types.

Okay, maybe not. But if you ever did think of us as sophisticates, our new video series, offered in collaboration with the University of Montana College of Education and UMOnline, will help extinguish those thoughts.

Not long ago, our Dean asked us if we could regularly share some insights on Coping with COVID-19 with the College of Education. Around the same time, a long-time friend asked if we could create brief written materials, and possibly videos, to support and educate nursing home staff. Because we were hoping to find a way to contribute in a positive way to counter the adverse psychological effects of the pandemic, we said yes. Rita and I are now working with some very cool people at the University of Montana (UMOnline) to create video and written educational materials.

You should be forewarned, these educational materials ARE NOT sophisticated. They’re home-made, sometimes goofy, and often embarrassing efforts to share basic information on how to cope with pandemic-distress through evidence-based “happiness” strategies.

To stay with the theme of things not being exactly as they seem, not only are Rita and I shockingly unsophisticated, the evidence-based happiness strategies we’re sharing aren’t really about the emotional state of happiness. In fact, IMHO, the whole “happiness” movement in psychology and in the U.S., is basically a bait and switch program, because happiness sounds way sexier than what we’re really promoting: well-being through intelligent and virtuous living. As Rita has been known to say—embarrassingly and in front of entire classrooms—well-being through intelligent and virtuous living makes you think you, “don’t get to have any sex or fun.” She’s right, we’re not advocating abstinence. Instead, we’re trying to convince people that well-being through intelligent and virtuous living is totally hot. You can guess how that’s going.

In the end, if you tune into the videos or read our materials, you’ll find home-made, blue collar, salt of the Earth, pull yourself up by your bootstraps stuff. As our Montana rancher friends might say, “It ain’t young and pretty.” But then again, neither are we, and neither is COVID-19.

If you know someone who might benefit from viewing the videos or reading the materials, please share. They’re free. They’re designed exclusively as an effort to be helpful.

On this blog, I’ll be posting twice-weekly sneak-peeks for each happy habit module, but the main easy-access staging page for the whole series is here:

https://staging.coehs.umt.edu/happy_habits_series_2020/default.php

I’m wishing you all the best as you cope with this historical time and the unique challenges we’re all facing.

 

 

 

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