It probably doesn’t come as news that porn use is more widespread than ever, and is being introduced to increasingly younger consumers. This is partially due to increased accessibility and anonymity, a cultural shift towards more open attitudes about sex and pornography more generally, and increased technology use.
What Drives Porn Use
Another reason for this increased use may be that we have seen feelings of loneliness and disconnection rise to record levels. Pornography provides an effective, short-term solution for this that, at first glance, appears to have little risk: it gives us a free boost of the happy brain chemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine and opiates that we typically get in close relationships. Dopamine levels increase to an incredible 200 percent during orgasm. Oxytocin (the “connection” drug) plays a vital role in bonding, creating memories, empathy, trust, and relationship building. It spikes during sex, when we hug or kiss or snuggle, or even just have a good conversation. It also increases sensitivity to naturally occurring opiates in the brain, which makes it very effective for bonding and soothing physical and emotional pain.
Of course, there’s a catch. You can’t really build a “healthy” relationship with pornography. It is a one-way street: dopamine-centred and novelty-seeking, and while a porn-induced orgasm will provide oxytocin and soothe pain, it won’t provide any of those healthy relationship building functions, or make us any less lonely. In fact, it may make us more lonely. This is one reason many people call pornography an addiction: it can create compulsive use that comes at a cost. As it provides effective temporary relief from implicit negative feelings, the brain will learn to direct us towards it compulsively.
How Does Pornography Impact Us
I could spend this post bashing pornography, and rattling off scary stats about how it breaks up marriages and has long term physical implications for the brain (it does, and it does), but I’m more interested in the human factors. Sex is great for bonding, and when used well, it builds intimacy, vulnerability and connection – the opposite of loneliness. Porn, on the other hand, based on vast amounts of research, actually tends to do the opposite: it builds shame and secrecy. It is typically a private experience and taps into some deep-seated urges that can feel very shameful. It’s possible that couples could use pornography in a healthy way, but research tells us that this is far more likely to be the rare exception than the rule.
This post is mostly aimed at men, mainly because I only work with men around these issues. Anyone can struggle with porn use, because it is so, so easy to come to rely on or use it, especially (though certainly not only) when we are feeling disconnected, shamed, or lonely. It’s a brilliant solution, really, but it tends not to solve the problem for future us.
What Can I Do About My Porn Use
Alongside You is running a porn recovery group this fall, for men who would like to be able to talk openly about the role of porn in their life, past and present, and receive support. We aren’t there to judge ourselves but to recognize and talk about some of the things that affect all of us, and, hopefully, feel like we can begin to enter a period of recovery from those impacts. If you or someone you know might be interested in attending, it’s low pressure and low cost (as always, talk to us if money is an issue), and is a great way to feel some meaningful and healthy connection with great people.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me directly here – I’m always happy to chat. If you would like support for yourself or a loved one, reach out to our reception, and they will help you find something that fits, whether it is at our offices or somewhere closer to home.
Writing these blog posts is one of the easiest parts of my job to put off until later. They require some unstructured thinking time (which is fertile ground for distraction), are unstructured themselves, and there always feels like there is something more important (read: easier and less personally exposing) I could be doing with that time.
Recently I read a fantastic article in the New York Times on exactly the process I’m describing. Most people call it procrastination. I really, really think you should read the article now because if you’re reading this one already, chances are you’re putting something else off.
If you don’t feel like doing that, the basic idea is that mainstream science has come to embrace an idea that makes intuitive sense to many of us: procrastination has much less to do with laziness, lack of self-control, and disorganization, and much more to do with emotions. For example, it is often the case that the task at hand will bring up a disquieting uncomfortable feeling that we often barely notice. Therefore, procrastination is about protection: we keep ourselves safe from feeling (for example) our own self-doubt or shame by doing something unrelated, whether it is productive or not. This has the effect of a short-term boost in good feelings (TV is fun!) but is often counterproductive in the long term. For example, these blog posts give me some anxiety, because I never know who is reading them and what I might be sending into the public eye that might not be good enough, or that I might even end up disagreeing with myself a year from now. So I often find something else to do.
Along these same lines, there is a much more complex system of underworkings at play in our decisions than we think. We in the mental health field love to talk about the brain (how its fear center causes us to react in response to stress, for example), but according to good recent research, there are mini “brains” around areas such as our heart and gut that make them function as powerfully as our heads at times. Daniel Siegel is a big proponent of this, and you can also read more about this at Heart Math here.
To return to the article (here’s a link to it again!), it encourages self-compassion, which we counsellors also love. Having grace and compassion for our own mistakes is one of the best tools out there. The article offers three other, very simple tips for when you find yourself the victim of procrastination:
- Be curious. Take a breath and allow physical sensations, emotions, and mental processes to come and go, observing them like you were watching a new TV show. Notice what happens to the sensations, feelings and thoughts as you observe them. What are the feelings that might be bringing up unpleasant feelings?
- Hypothetically imagine the next step: “If I were the version of myself that wasn’t procrastinating right now, what would be the next thing I would do?” Just thinking about this might make you more likely to take action despite your feelings. Many pros agree that motivation often comes while doing something, and not before, so you might need to kickstart things a touch.
- Make temptations more inconvenient. Hide the TV remote, put a screen time blocker on your phone, etc., etc. This also increases the timeframe for you to become aware of what’s going on, and makes your reward for procrastinating less immediate.
I would add a few of my own tips as well:
- When you feel temptations arise, take a deep breath and allow yourself to be tempted, noticing the temptation to do something gratifying at the moment. This is called many names, but I learned the name urge surfing: you are riding the wave of your temptation and letting it run its course without trying to push it away or make it less intense. This fits really well with tip #1 from the article (Be curious!). Often, the urge will go away in 10-12 minutes, if not much less.
- If you must, try to give yourself more productive ways to procrastinate. For me, I take a few minutes and stretch. This often makes me feel a little better about myself physically, mentally, and emotionally, and makes me feel better equipped to take on the original task. You might also choose to journal about your inner experiences at the moment, which will help you understand and articulate them (this removes some of the power those impulses have).
- Building on #2, you could also call a trusted friend and chat about the fact that you’re putting something off. This will help in a number of ways. It will give you a sounding board for your thoughts and feelings, normalize your experiences, and make you feel generally supported (little motivates us as well as reminding ourselves of our supportive relationships).
Lastly (as I say with most of these articles), you can always feel free to talk to a professional helper, as they are often equipped with specific skill sets that can help you tackle something like the above, or help get you in position to tackle it. These include professional counsellors like us at Alongside You, but can also be something like a pastor, priest, social worker, or support group. Investing time in caring for yourself the right way has the best interest rate of any investment (by a huge margin). If you have questions about this process, please call our office, and you can even email me directly through my profile by clicking here – I will take the time to respond as best and as soon as I can.
Good luck, and now that I’ve written this, I’m off to do something fun.
An interesting piece about “The big myth about teenage anxiety” ran in the New York Times this week, authored by a fairly prominent psychiatrist – which you can find here.
The essence of Dr. Friedman’s editorial is that much of the research showing a rise in teen anxiety is not conclusive, which from a scientific perspective is unsurprising. Many of these studies rely on self-reports, which, though scientifically imperfect, offer an important window into human experience – something we as mental health professionals consider of paramount importance. A better understanding of what we deal with internally and externally on a daily basis (and the meaning we make of it) is essential to better understanding ourselves. Dr. Friedman also encourages readers to remember that phones are not necessarily to blame for anxiety, as much as it may seem that way. He points out that anxiety is normal, and that our brains are quite well-equipped to handle it.
The article is nuanced, and while I would hesitate to back up many of the things Dr. Friedman says, one important distinction he makes is between actual anxiety disorders and day-to-day anxiety and worry – something most teens are virtually guaranteed to experience. Social media and the internet have indeed made the social world more complex for teens to navigate – as many have noted, there is no “escape” from the reach of the internet anymore, and it is more than understandable that teens are often glued to their phones. Teens are under a lot of stress developmentally, socially and physically, and Dr. Friedman is careful to point out that there will and should be plenty of anxiety in teenage life.
The crux of the matter then is not eliminating or avoiding anxiety (avoidance, of course, will actually make the anxiety seem stronger than it is), but focusing on what we can learn to do in the face of anxiety. Teens can learn that anxiety is normal, learn to notice bodily sensations that arise, learn to stay grounded, and even learn to appreciate their anxiety for protecting them.
Many parents are highly distressed when they learn their teen or child is struggling with anxiety, and I would encourage those parents to remember how normal that is. Your job is not to eliminate or protect from that anxiety, but rather to be with your child as far as they will let you, and creating as best you can a space of rest from it. There are many anxiety management techniques that can be learned to reduce day-to-day anxiety, but one of the best things to have is a secure relationship within which you do not need to be anxious. I can’t stress enough the impact of having someone with whom you feel safe to just be you, warts and all.
It’s no secret that I (along with many others here at Alongside You) am a big fan of attachment parenting, an idea propagated by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and brain researcher Daniel Siegel, among many others. I am also a big fan of parents taking care of themselves before they worry too much about taking care of their children, for several reasons. So I should mention that your anxiety about your kids’ anxiety is incredibly valuable: it tells you how important it is to you that your kids are safe and happy. This is wonderful, and you also should get to know that perfectly normal anxiety really well within your own safe relationships, because your kids will use you as a compass point to manage their own anxiety. If you have a good relationship with your anxieties, you will be very much ahead of the game in helping your child or teen with theirs. Normalizing our own experience of anxiety reduces it in our kids, and also shows them that they’re not alone.
Parenting is a tough job, and if you’re reading this, one that I imagine you take seriously. Best of luck, and as always, feel free to ask lots of questions and seek lots of support. If we can be a support to you, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re all in this together.
For a long time, a friend of mine (we’ll call her “Shirley”), genuinely hated a coworker of hers. Shirley wasn’t just bothered by this coworker, she genuinely couldn’t bring herself to think about them without being filled with a bitter anger, which ruined her evening on more than one occasion.
Notice that I don’t say Shirley didn’t have a “good” reason to hate this coworker – the person had deeply hurt her, and the organization that employed them both had failed to act appropriately in this situation, which made Shirley feel invisible, unsafe, and very, very angry. She had carried this anger for over a year, and it was taking a toll on her mentally, emotionally and physically.
For most of us, there has been a person in our life against whom we’ve carried a grudge of some kind. People hurt each other – it’s the price we pay for being able to have satisfying relationships; and, regrettably, these hurts are not always resolved. Shirley had been hurt, and like most of us, the very last thing she wanted to hear from a friend was that she needed to forgive and move on (this is not great advice, but is given more commonly than one might think).
For some people “forgiveness” is a bit of a dirty word; that is, how can we forgive someone who clearly doesn’t deserve it, especially if they don’t seem to understand the pain they’ve caused – or even seem to care? A better question to ask, perhaps, is, “What is forgiveness? And why should I forgive?”
Forgiving is not the same as forgetting (nor do these two things necessarily need to come as a pair). Forgetting is putting the hurt completely out of our minds, forever. Forgiveness is much more complex. Everett Worthington is a psychologist who has devoted much of his career to studying forgiveness, and he breaks the word into two main categories: ‘decisional,’ and ‘emotional’. Decisional forgiveness involves a cognitive decision to let go of the negative feelings we hold towards the person who has hurt us, whereas emotional forgiveness takes that a step further, replacing those negative feelings with positive ones like compassion and empathy. The person we are forgiving does not even need to be part of the process. We can forgive a deceased or estranged loved one that has no chance of ever receiving or reciprocating our gesture. We can also forgive someone as part of a relational gesture, regardless of whether or not the person chooses to, or is able to receive it.
It’s also possible that we might offer emotional forgiveness and have the person that hurt us accept it with genuine humility and remorse, which for everyone I’ve ever known, is a powerful experience. There is a famous scene in Les Misérables where a priest shows kindness to Jean Valjean, a man who hours before stole thousands of dollars worth of his property and knocked him unconscious after being shown kindness and trust. Valjean is completely and utterly undeserving. This scene brought tears to my eyes; there is something about undeserved forgiveness that can break down the most hardened exterior.
Forgiveness is pretty much always hard, no matter your situation. It doesn’t always go the way we hope it might. But one thing is certain: the resentment you are carrying is most likely hurting you a lot more than it is hurting the other person.
Resentment takes a toll on us; it takes energy to harbour a grudge (like carrying around a weighted pack). We are not required to forgive, but it is healthy for us in almost every conceivable way. Research shows that it improves heart health, immune system function, your gastrointestinal system, brain functioning and perhaps biggest of all, it reduces stress. Much research suggests that it also reduces rumination, which has been reliably linked to depression, anxiety, anger-related disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychologically related physical disorders.
For this reason, we can choose to view forgiveness as something we are doing for ourselves, rather than the offender. We can decide to try to let go of a grudge without actually feeling any different – and that is OK.
Try this: hold your arms out in front of you, with your hands clasped tightly together, as though you were clasping your resentment between them. Hold this for a minute (Not exhausted? Try two minutes), and then let your arms drop and relax. What did you notice? This is what happens internally when we let go of a grudge – we are releasing tension. Try it while actually picturing a minor grudge you are holding, and see if it makes you feel any different towards that grudge.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge that things are not that easy. In many ways, we cannot just decide to forgive, and all hurts are definitely not created equal. However, if you recognize that you might be carrying a grudge (big or small) that is actually hurting you more than it’s helping, and you feel you can’t get over it, there are lots of options to help yourself with it:
- Try cognitively deciding you want to commit to forgiving, even if you don’t feel like it, as a gift to yourself. If you want to take this a step further, try Everett Worthington’s evidence-based REACH forgiveness worksheets (available here for free). Many people have found these exercises very helpful.
- Talk through what you are experiencing with a trained therapist. Even just putting words to your experience and having them heard and understood can be very relieving, and therapists are trained to help you recognize and navigate challenging circumstances.
- Read stories of people who have forgiven under seemingly impossible circumstances, and try to be curious about your reactions to these stories. Do you agree with them? Do they make you angry? Humbled? Chances are, reading others’ experiences with hurt and forgiveness will help you feel less alone, and even just the experience hearing those stories can shift some of the weight. If you are part of a faith community or come from a faith background, try talking to a spiritual leader about what your faith says about forgiveness, and question what you find.
Most of all, remember to give yourself some grace as you wade through this process; forgiveness is both one of the most difficult and most rewarding things a person can go through. If you have any question regards on forgiving and forgiveness, feel free to contact us.
Akhtar & Barlow have a few good articles out. This 2018 meta-analysis provides evidence for reduced depression, stress, anger, and hostility, as well as increased positive affect, related to forgiveness:
Akhtar, S., & Barlow, J. (2018). Forgiveness therapy for the promotion of mental well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 19(1), 107-122. doi:10.1177/1524838016637079
Akhtar, S., Dolan, A., & Barlow, J. (2017). Understanding the relationship between state forgiveness and psychological wellbeing: A qualitative study. Journal of Religion and Health, 56(2), 450-463. doi.org:10.1007/s10943-016-0188-9
Baldry, A. C., Cinquegrana, V., Regalia, C. & Crapolicchio, E. (2017). The complex link between forgiveness, PTSD symptoms and well-being in female victims of intimate partner stalking. Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, 9, 230-242. doi:10.1108/JACPR-08-2016-0247
Orcutt, H. K., Pickett, S. M., & Pope, E. B. (2005). Experiential avoidance and forgiveness as mediators in the relation between traumatic interpersonal events and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(7), 1003-1029. doi:10.1521/jscp.2005.24.7.1003
My Love-Hate Relationship With Mindfulness… and why you should really, really consider practicing it
Mindfulness has been a buzzword in the health community of late. I’m hoping that after reading this, you’ll have a basic idea of what it is and why it helps.
Western culture is full of busy-ness – depression and anxiety are more common than they’ve ever been. Typically, I like to simplify depression and anxiety somewhat, down to past and future. Anxiety is the uneasiness and even fear of some future threat – generally, one that isn’t exactly easy to define. We might be really anxious about an upcoming presentation, but have a harder time nailing down where that comes from – perhaps it might come from baggage that we carry around from some intense public shame that we’ve felt in the past, and the risk of putting ourselves out there again heightens us to a degree that feels like it doesn’t even make sense (our bodies remember shame a lot more acutely than our minds do). Anxiety is often designed to warn us and protect us against the threat of more hurt like this.
Depression, often, is oriented in the reverse direction – maybe our past experiences have coloured our world in a way that joy is difficult to experience, and it’s hard to believe that we will experience anything different going forward. Depression tends to affect the innate and beautiful sense of curiosity and wonder that comes with being a human being (think of a young child you know interacting with the world around them).
Please understand that these are simplistic definitions, designed to give a basic idea of where mindfulness comes in. Often, depression and anxiety can keep our thoughts in the future or past, which is exhausting. Constant worry or feeling down can lead us to do a number of things that are very adaptive and reasonable in the moment (such as distracting ourselves from a painful experience), but they are exhausting in the long run. Mindfulness brings us to the present. It gives our brain a short break from the constant worry and just brings us into right…now. Young children (for example) are generally really good at being present in the moment.
Being mindful can help ease stress
Mindful meditation might involve focusing on our breath, the food we’re eating, the physical sensations in our bodies, or the sounds outside. It is inviting ourselves to experience the present moment for what it is – without judgment. I have a lot of tension on my shoulders, for example. I carry it with me everywhere, and I really hate having it around. But when I’m mindful, I’m not focusing on how much I wish it weren’t there. I’m just noticing it and training myself to be OK with it, just for a minute. Or, I’m noticing the sounds of the traffic outside, and I’m not thinking any thoughts at all – just experiencing the present for whatever it is. This is really hard – especially at first, and even more so when we are experiencing physical or emotional discomfort.
If you’d like to know the why behind things, I’d like to tell you about the work of two people I admire (who are just like you and me, and also happen to have a long list of impressive credentials that I won’t outline here) named Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dan Siegel. They’ve spent a lot of time researching and exploring mindfulness, and their work is very impressive.
Benefits of mindfulness
One of the main things mindfulness does is increase left forebrain function. This increased brain activity fosters that beautiful curiosity I was talking about. If we can notice and be curious when we’re stressed, we’ve already won. We start seeing ourselves from an outside perspective, with more grace and compassion (have you ever wished you could see yourself the way you see somebody you care about?). We can learn to calmly respond to things that otherwise would have sent us into a frenzy.
I could talk forever about this, but I’ll just give you a quick list of the amazing benefits you can find in mindfulness:
- Direct help with physical symptoms such as chronic inflammation and pain
- Reduced anxiety, stress, and depression
- Improved immune system function and mood
- Healthier coping – an increased ability to bounce back after one of the hard experiences that are so common in life
Sounds too good to be true, right? It is sort of. It’s not a pill – it takes the effort to be mindful. I hate it, actually. In many ways being regularly mindful is a primary component of my job, and I still suck at it. But, I’m getting slowly better – then worse – then better again. But even a little bit helps – if you can manage even 20 seconds a day, you will notice a difference.
If you want to read more about this, the works of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dan Siegel are a great place to start. Jon Kabat-Zinn has a website and a variety of videos on YouTube that are really interesting. I’ve provided a few links below to get you started.
If you want to get started with a mindfulness practice of your own, there are quite literally endless free resources online in both video and audio format, but I recommend the Headspace app. It teaches you the basics and gives you easy, situation-specific guided meditations.
If you want more information on how to actually do the thing, here’s a Harvard blog that covers the basics pretty well:
Here’s Jon Kabat-Zinn on making what you already do in the morning into a mindful practice (this way, you don’t even need to learn to do anything new!):
Lastly, if you want to fact check my claims, I have a resource list of academic papers I’d be happy to share with you. Here’s one I really like (you may need access to an academic database to read it):
Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., . . . Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
I hope this has been helpful for you. Sometimes we love what helps, sometimes it’s aggravating; one thing is for sure – mindfulness helps us keep calm, be present, and cope. If I, or anyone else on the team at Alongside You can be helpful in working through this with you, please contact us and give us a call.