sandygautam

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Sandeep Gautam is a psychology and cognitive neuroscience enthusiast, whose basic grounding is in computer science.

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Stress causes negative emotions – are you NUTS?

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Stress has been defined in many ways – one conceptualization that I find powerful and useful is the NUTS framework developed by Dr. Sonia Lupien. As per it, stress results when one or more of the following four ingredients are present in a situation.

NOVELTY Something new you have not experienced before
UNPREDICTABILITY Something you had no way of knowing it would occur
THREAT TO THE EGO Your competence as a person is called into question
SENSE OF CONTROL You feel you have little or no control over the situation
English: Emotions Q-sort

English: Emotions Q-sort (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These conditions need not be aversive for the situation or event to feel stressful. For example, a person who is recently promoted may feel stress because of the new responsibilities that are novel and maybe he has no real option of declining the promotion, so he has little control too in the matter. Or consider the birth of a new born. So both positive and negative life events may lead to stress and maybe its more about how you are appraising stressful event.

If you are appraising a Novel event as a disruption of schedule/ comfort you will probably feel disgust; if you are appraising the same event as an opportunity to explore new stuff, you will most probably feel surprise / wonder. Its also conceivable that those high in the personality trait of Openness to experience may have more positive appraisals.

Similarly, an unpredictable situation may result in sadness if the unpredictability of rewards/ stimuli is attributed to deficits in self. If however, the unpredictability of situation is attributed to luck or external circumstances one may be more at ease and feel joy or happiness (note that ‘hap’ means luck). Its likely that those who are more Extraverted have a more positive appraisal.

A threat to ego or self may lead to feelings of fear and anxiety if the threat is considered unmanageable. On the other hand if the threat is considered manageable, it will result in the emotion of courage and facing the issue rather than running away. Those high in emotional stability (vs Neuroticism) are likely to show more positive appraisals.

Lastly, when one is in a situation that provides little options of control, one may feel anger if one is in a dominating frame of mind and needs control. On the other hand, one may feel love or compassion if one is ready to voluntarily give up control and submit oneself in the service of other. Agreeableness may mediate the relation with positive appraisals.

So as Kelly McGonigal has pointed out stress by itself is not bad; its how you appraise stressful circumstances that may be the key to suffering and wilting or rejoicing and flourishing.

The different shades of Hope

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Hope is one of the 24 character strengths as identified by VIA.  Its also known as optimism, future-mindedness and future orientation. It is defined by VIA as ‘expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about.’

There are three variants of this strength, as found in the psychological literature:

Is the glass half empty or half full? The pess...

Is the glass half empty or half full? The pessimist would pick half empty, while the optimist would choose half full. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(dispositional) Optimism is a general feeling that good things will happen to oneself. It’s a generalized expectancy about the future and is not tied to any specific task or goal in particular. It is a general feeling of confidence and is related to the outcome expectancy that energizes behavior while pursuing a challenge or solving a problem and results in persistence. Pessimists on the other hand are doubtful and hesitant in goal pursuit and this gets exacerbated in times of adversity. While optimists are confident of their ability to handle adversity one way or the other, pessimists tend to catastrophize.

Optimists are more likely to feel excitement and eagerness when confronted with adversity and have overall positive affect; while pessimists are more likely to feel negative emotions like guilt, despair, anger, anxiety and sadness when confronted with adversity.Optimists are confident in their ability to handle adversity and thus expend effort and energy in facing the adversity, while pessimists may indulge in wishful thinking – that getting distracted perhaps or closing their eyes – will make the adversity disappear and may stop expending effort.

Optimists are likely to use problem-focused coping (aimed at doing something about the stressor itself to blunt its impact) when in control; and use positive reframing, or accept the reality of situation, when not in control. Even in situations not under control, optimists use emotion focused coping (aimed at soothing distress) like seeing the silver lining in the cloud and learning from the bad situation. Pessimists are likely to use denial or distance themselves from the situation or use substance abuse as a means of escape.  Optimists engage with the situations while pessimist try to avoid the situations/ stressors.

Optimism has many psychological health benefits too; for eg. it helps you fight postpartum depression, and leads to lowered distress in wide ranging health conditions from lowering of pre and postoperative coronary surgery distress, to less suffering from cancer, or less distress in a caregiver caring for a person with cancer.Pessimism or hopelessness, on the other hand, rather than depression, is a stronger predictor of suicide.

Optimism is also related to behaviors that lead to more health promoting behaviors and that reduce health risks. Optimists also have better physical health and immunity and even longevity. Optimists are more likeable and thus have better social circles and networks as they use a positive problem focused approach to relationships too.

Optimism is moderately inheritable (25%), especially given its association with inheritable traits like neuroticism and extraversion, and is thus prtly in your genes. Also, it has been suggested that optimism develops as a result of early childhood experiences be it a secure attachment or development of ‘basic trust’ as per Erikson’s stages. However, optimism can be developed. Cognitive behavioral therapies intend to do so by changing the underlying thought patterns.

And that brings us to optimistic explanatory styles. While dispositional optimism is all about expectancies for the future, optimistic explanatory style grounds those expectancies into how we habitually interpret past success and failures.

One has an optimistic explanatory style when one makes stable, personal and global attributions for good events and learns to make temporary and specific attributions for negative past experiences. Pessimistic explanatory style on the other hand is when one makes stable and global, personal attributions for negative past events and experiences. Optimists have a flexible explanatory style, while that of pessimists is more rigid.

I will do a separate post on learned optimism and CBT which is related to this concept of optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles. bI will focus more on dispositional optimism and Hope.

Hope as per the framework used by Snyder has three components: the goals that are clearly conceptualized, important to self and direct one’s future orientation;  agency or a belief in one’s ability to  take the first step and reach the goals despite inevitable obstacles, and pathways or the ability to come up with alternate paths and strategies to achieve the goal, if obstacles are encountered.

Hopeful people have learning goals and are mastery oriented, while those low in hope have performance goals and have a helpless orientation. Having hope means that one can think of many alternate paths to achieve the goal and is thus focussed on success and having learning goals. High hope also entails much enthusiasm and energy while pursuing goals and leads to positive affectivity; while being low in hope correlates with negative affectivity characterized by worry, negative thoughts and dissatisfaction with self.

There is another conceptualization of hope especially in medical settings. Hope, as per Herth, has three components: The cognitive–temporal dimension taps into “the perception that the desired outcome is realistically probable,” whereas the affective–behavioral dimension refers to “a feeling of confidence with the initiation of plans” to achieve the desired goals.  Affiliative–contextual dimension refers to the “recognition of the interconnectedness between self and others and between self and spirit”. As such, this dimension can also be thought of as an interpersonal connectedness and spiritual dimension. Essentially, it contains items related to perceived social support, perceived spiritual support, and a sense of meaning and belongingness. Thus the concept of hope can be elaborated to include a social/ spiritual dimension too.

Hope is measured using Adult hope Scale, Life Orientation test , Herth Hope scale etc. Hope/Optimism as measured by these scales has been found to correlate with important life outcomes.

Optimism and pessimism, or hope and hopelessness, are moderately correlated, but different constructs. Thus someone high in optimism may not necessarily be low in pessimism; more practically, the correlates of life outcomes due to high optimism may not be same as those for low pessimism. Optimism is more strongly related to extraversion and positive affect and pessimism is more strongly related to neuroticism and negative affect.

Hope is correlated with perceived competence, self-esteem and perceived purpose in life; low hope is also correlated with depression and anxiety. The low hope anxiety relationship is mediated by inability to learn from failure and the non realization of utility of efforts/ new strategies to achieve valued outocmes. High hope is also related to higher creativity and problem solving abilities thus leading to higher academic performance.

Hope is also social; high hope people are socially competent,enjoy getting to know others, getting to know their interests, and more frequently interact with others. Low-Hope people on the other hand ruminate, get frustrated and are aggressive in their goal pursuit and struggle interpersonally.

Hope builds resilience. The agency component of hope buffers against future depression / anxiety symptoms.

Hope and perseverance are closely related and many interventions increase both; hope is correlated to perseverance as well as bravery in individuals.

Some of the interventions that have found emperical validity and have resonted with me are :

  • Best possible self
  • One door closes, another door opens
  • Hope letter
  • WOOP exercise

Hope this was useful!

The Strengths Workout: Hope for the new year

I have always wanted to write a book; however I am very irregular with even my blog posts and think that I lack the self-discipline to write regularly or write for a longer project. I want to test both these assumptions.

Moreover, I have been consciously moving away from theoretical stuff to more hands-on and applied issues. Writing a book typically appeared an intellectual pastime to me- where I could demonstrate my ostensibly expert/superior knowledge of a subject; lately however, I have started to veer more towards writing more of a book that is grounded in personal experience and uses theory as a guide to help other practitioners.

As you might be aware, I am deeply fascinated by strengths especially the VIA framework as developed by Peterson and Seligman. I am doing some work with school children around these strengths and hope to reach out to many more school children in this new year. While I apply the well tested interventions of positive psychology with these kids, I will also be experimenting with them myself and be on this collective strengths workout. I hope you join me on this journey.

Each fortnight I will be focusing on one of the 24 character strengths – reading books and articles related to that strength, digesting that and posting about that on my blogs- The Mouse Trap/ Flourish Mentoring; creating awareness about the strength on the social media; hopefully intervening with a larger group of school children around that strength, making that strength a focus of my life for the fortnight, making a collection of songs, movies, videos related to that strength and so on.

All this will also become rich material for a book that I will be writing in parallel, the book directed at positive psychology practitioners, especially people in school based settings who wish to work towards the socio-emotional development of children, but do not know where to start. If I am lucky enough to find a publisher, nothing like it; else I plan to release it myself (I still haven’t made a decision as to whether I will be releasing the book for free (and ebook) or it will be a very low priced paperback version).

If I manage to keep the average schedule of working on a strength per fortnight, then keeping aside 2 weeks of vacations too, I should have a book by the end of the year- however it will not be possible to have a useful book unless you all accompany me on this strengths workout. I would humbly request everyone to be generous with their time and suggestions- reading the posts and related material, thinking about the strength, experimenting with the interventions themselves and sharing their experiences with the world-at-large. Also dont forget to provide the moral support and encouragement.

For those of you who are new to the strengths framework, I strongly recommend that they take a free VIA adult/ youth survey be creating an account at viacharacter.org and reach out to me in case you need help with interpreting your free report. For starters focus on your top 5 strengths which are your signature strengths and try to see how you can enhance them even further and leverage them more in your daily life.

This VIA framework is quite a bit different from the Gallup’s Clifton Strengthsfinder 2.0 framework (please note that I am also a Gallup certified strengths coach) and both faremworks have their utilities, but for working with school children I am increasingly leaning towards VIA and will be focusing on that only for this project.

New year is a time for all round hope, so I have picked hope as the strength of the fortnight. More posts specifically on the topic of hope will follow. I truly hope that you are as excited about this project as I am and will joyfully accompany me on this strengths workout!

A tale of two diseases

I have Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). I am also bipolar.

Now which of the above statements shocked/ surprised you more? If I am guessing correctly the latter statement about my being bipolar came across as more of a shock/ surprise/ concern. Now what does that say about your own reactions to mental illness and your own involvement in perpetuating the stigma against mental illness?

Both of the above are chronic diseases to an extent. My OSA (snoring in popular parlance) cannot be treated by surgery, so the only viable option I have is to use a CPAP machine while sleeping to get a good night’s sleep. Bipolar disorder as we all know can only be contained, and I take my medicines regularly to ensure that there are no relapse into either a manic or a depressive episode.

Both, if un-diagnosed and untreated can cause havoc. OSA which was un-diagnosed/ untreated for about a couple of years or so in my case led to excessive daytime drowsiness, less alertness and lowered productively etc; if untreated OSA can cause increased risk of injury to self and others while driving as you may actually get into micro sleeps while driving. Even if not that dramatic, on a daily basis the quality of your sleep and waking life can become very diminished.  The downsides of having a manic or depressive episodes are well known- at least to readers of this blog. However, what may be less well known is that even in the throes of psychotic extremes, the risk to others from violence by bipolar people is very little and if anything they may be subjected to violence than otherwise.

When treated, that is when I use my CPAP machine regularly I have no problems at all due to my OSA either in my work life or in my personal life – I am as refreshed in morning as ever. Rather I believe I might be getting better sleep than the average person. When treated, that is when I regularly use medicine, and take other precautions like having regular sleep cycles etc for my bipolar, I am totally episode free- rather I believe I have an advantage when it comes to managing my energy and mood.

However, given all the above, which disclosure do you think has drastically lowered my chances of employment (if I was seeking employment, which I am thankfully not:-)); which disclosure would have led to discrimination in the workplace or at least got me some amused and funny looks? About which of these are my friends and acquaintances likely to gossip more? Why as a society we are still not that accepting of mental illness and stigmatize those who have it?

Some immediate consequences I can think of:

  1. readers of The Mouse Trap will no longer take my interest in psychology as non-partisan. They will think of me as being interested in psychology only due to my being bipolar (to set the record straight I became interested in psychology in 1996 during my IIT delhi days, while my first episode happened while I worked with Hughes in 2001).  Also when I take a position like association of biploar with creativity, I will be considered biased; however nobody will say that a ‘normal’ person advocating otherwise is biased due to his being ‘normal’.
  2. Some will start to see signs of craziness in my old/ new posts and wonder whether when I was writing them I was in a normal frame of mind or episodic. Its usually my style to try and combine seemingly disparate research ideas and that is especially prone to this analysis.
  3. I will start getting sympathy, but like anyone living with say OSA or diabetes etc I think one should just ignore the fact about my being bipolar and not let it redefine my relationship with you. I am much more than a person with bipolar or OSA, and I prefer it that way.
  4. there will be some embarrassment for my near and dear ones.

Why did I not disclose for so many years?

  1. because I feared discrimination (and funny looks) at the workplace. It might have been imaginary but I was not strong enough to experiment. Now that I am self employed the stakes are much lower and I don’t care.
  2. I myself was grappling with my being bipolar. For initial some years it was hard to accept; later I struggled with accepting medication as necessary ; but now for quite some years I am at peace and thankfully episode free.
  3. As I believe it never affected adversely my performance at work , I did not deemed it necessary to inform my employers etc as I thought ,and still think, its none of their business.

Why did I decide to disclose publicly about this?

  1. I have no delusions (pun intended) that I am Deepika Padukone that my talking about a mental health issue is going to raise awareness drastically; still I want to do my bit to fight stigma and the journey starts with oneself. I had a decent career in software despite my being biploar and being biploar hasn’t stopped me from taking risks and experimenting with a second career; hopefully that can inspire or provide mental support to a person or two.
  2. Some immediate triggers- a mouse trap reader on facebook privately messaged me asking if I only have theoretical knowledge about psychosis etc or if I had some personal experiences too. I think it was a legitimate question that deserves a legitimate answer.
  3. Another immediate trigger- I came across a tweet by https://twitter.com/akhileshlinky about his year end ‘confession’ about being bipolar and I though heck why not ‘come out’ yourself.
  4. but really, it doesn’t matter to me one way or other – the only upside of sharing more publicly is that it can help combat stigma.

 

What I expect from you?

  1. don’t define me exclusively as being biploar.
  2. reflect on your own attitudes about mental illness and try to overcome that implicit bias
  3. resist discrimination and stigma

Lastly, thanks are due to my family and friends who have been prone to this ‘secret’ over the years and who have provided the necessary support and encouragement.

The books that shaped my 2016

‘Love of learning’ in VIA and ‘Learner’ in Gallup, is one of my top strengths, and it typically manifests as either participating in a lot of MOOC‘s or reading a lot of books. I’m trying to move more towards learning by doing, and moving more towards applied concerns, but I guess some reflection on the books I read in 2016 and which left a mark on me are in order.

I read a total of 16 books completely in 2016 as per goodreads, and I had set a challenge of reading at least 25 books in the year, so I did fall short of target.

Not all books I read made a lasting impact and here are the ones that did.

First off, I read Poke, from start to finish, on the very first day of the year and here is my review that I posted on goodreads.

Started the new year in a meta way by reading this book about starting and initiating, and found it such an interesting read that finished it in one setting. A really good book to hone up your ‘Activator’ strength. Motivated to start and ship ( and fail, and succeed) multiple projects this year.

And that set the tone for the year, where I did start multiple times, and fail and fail fast, and maybe ship once or twice too.

 

Next up was Leadership, again a short book finished in a short time with an equally short review:
Leadership: What Every Leader Needs to KnowLeadership: What Every Leader Needs to Know by John C. Maxwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

a good short read about why and how to increase your influence

View all my reviews

 

A book I had looked forward with great anticipation was Peak and I was not disappointed. I have already posted a detailed review of Peak on this blog.
While Peak was focused on how you can use the principles of deliberate practice for achieving excellence, the book Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia, was about the other set of outliers, those who experience abnormal thoughts and perceptions and how we can better appreciate the ‘psychotic’ condition.

Understanding Psychosis and SchizophreniaUnderstanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia by Anne Cooke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A radically different , and much needed approach to understanding the ‘psychotic’ experiences. This books brings a humane as well as a much more science informed (which doesn’t mean a medical model ) approach to the whole topic and is an essential reading for all involved !

View all my reviews

 

One book that made a deep impression on me and that I found very practical and useful was Life coaching.
Life Coaching: A Cognitive-Behavioural ApproachLife Coaching: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach by Michael Neenan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

a superb book and must read for all coaches; its CBT approach complements the positive psychology focus that I am more steeped in. Draws from practical experience and with coaching sessions examples is easy to relate to! highly recomnended!!

View all my reviews

 

Another book that left a deep mark and was very informative, motivating and useful to the work I do with children was Helping Children Succeed.
Helping Children Succeed: What Works and WhyHelping Children Succeed: What Works and Why by Paul Tough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent book for all parents, teachers, educators and policy makers …freely available here: http://www.paultough.com/helping/web/ …the online version has many embedded resources like videos etc and makes for a unique reading experience.

The only gripe is that Paul Tough, equates grit/ resilience with non-cognitive skills and makes a case that they cannot be taught in the traditional sense of the word; however many other character strengths like gratitude , forgiveness, kindness can be inculcated by giving daily homework assignments etc.

View all my reviews

 

A book that was OK types, but very useful from a coaching perspective was Triggers.
Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to BeTriggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be by Marshall Goldsmith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Marshall Goldsmith is more towards the Coaching for Compliance camp; while I lean towards Coaching with Compassion (as defined by Richard Boyatzis) ; still this is a pretty good read for anyone interested in adult behavioral change.

View all my reviews

 

I also managed to read Coping a book focused on applying positive psychology principles to how to cope in life. It is an edited collection of articles from leading psychologists and was very useful.
Coping: The Psychology Of What WorksCoping: The Psychology Of What Works by C.R. Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was written when positive psychology had still not come of age; but this book on how to cope has a distinctly positive psychology spin to it. It has chapters on hope, optimism, mastery thinking and benefit finding – all dear to the positive psychology movement. Written by eminent authors in their fields, this easy to read collection of articles around the theme of coping is a good read for those related to the field of mental health/ counseling/ positive psychology.

View all my reviews

 

Another book that like Poke, gave me the confidence to be creative in my endeavors was Creative Confidence. I juts love this book.
Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us AllCreative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a gem of a book! For anyone who thinks of himself as a not-so-creative person, this book is a must-read (and must-do) to instill the much required confidence to be creative. For someone who already thinks that he has creative streaks, this book will fuel his/her creativity by providing rich tools and thinking grounded in the design thinking philosophy.
Read this book once, or twice, but more important —this is a book to do and try things, so try the suggested activities and tips a hundred times till you gain enough confidence. I wish this book was more widely read and I had chanced on it earlier!

View all my reviews

 

Another book that I partly re-read this year, because I hadn’t finished earlier was A First Rate Madness. This book and the Understanding Psychosis… book shows my fascination with the neurodiverse mind.
A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental IllnessA First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness by S. Nassir Ghaemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting perspective that mental abnormality and illness may confer some really cool benefits when it comes to leadership. Books like this will hopefully reduce stigma associated with mental illness. A brave effort indeed by Ghaemi to retrospectively diagnose many leaders with mental health and illness and make his case. Not a typical psychology book, but more of psychobiography of prominent leaders. A good read nevertheless.

View all my reviews

 

Regular readers of The Mouse Trap will notice my leaning towards philosophical issues like existentialism for some time. One such book that made me reflect deeply about meaning was Meaning in Life.
Meaning in Life and Why It MattersMeaning in Life and Why It Matters by Susan R. Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very clear, accessible and important treatise on meaningfulness and its importance in life. Susan Wolf writes very clearly and makes some important contributions; which are followed by equally lucid commentaries by other philosophers and psychologists and then her response that tries to tie everything together.
Wish more philosophy books were as clear and engaging as this was. Gave me new ideas and those are subject for another day/ blog-post!

View all my reviews

 

To make progress towards my 2016 challenge I picked this book which is a comparatively short read, but I wasn’t decided and though I finished this in a couple of days, I just gained a lot of perspective from this book.
The Mind of an ApeThe Mind of an Ape by David Premack
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fascinating insight into the chimpanzee mind. I had read ‘original intelligence’ by David and Ann Premack quite a few years back and had admired the book a lot, so had great expectations from this book, and this book delivered, and how!
If you are fascinated by how experiments are done with animals (in this case chimpanzees) then this book is a must read. It will be especially helpful to those interested in comparative cognition and language abilities.

View all my reviews

 

The last book which I read in 2016 and which has made me ponder a lot is 80,000 hours- its supposed to resolve your mid life crises, but might have triggered one in me—-just kidding!!
80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good by Benjamin Todd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

a wonderful guide to choosing the right career, especially relevant to those who want to have a social impact or ‘make a difference’. The advice is research backed, grounded in psychology principles, and while being value laden to an extent, is also very pragmatic.
If only all self-help advice and non-profit functioning was as rigorous as the 80,000 hrs looks to be!

View all my reviews

 

What a way to end the year!! Which books did you read in this year and which made a lasting impression on you?

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