psychology notes.

This site was originally created in 2009 as a virtual repository for all of the various psychology and therapy-related things (quotes, articles, videos, music, pictures) I came across both online and in my work as a psychotherapist. It has morphed into something slightly different in the past four years, and is now perhaps slightly more outward facing, but is still at heart a place for me to collect and share things related to the life of the mind.

Disclaimer: Posting something to this site does not mean that I necessarily agree with or endorse the opinions being expressed therein. All text on this site is informational and for educational purposes only. This site is not meant to be a substitute for professional mental health or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified mental health provider with any questions regarding a medical condition or mental health issue. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this site.

And please, be kind to one another.

The task of therapy is not to eliminate suffering but to give a voice to it, to find a form in which it can be expressed. Expression is itself transformation; this is the message that art brings. The therapist then would be an artist of the soul, working with sufferers to enable them to find the proper container for their pain, the form in which it would be embodied.
Stephen K. Levine

by Katie Baker

Each point in a tennis match begins with a serve, and each serve begins with a ball thrown into the air. It’s probably the most overlooked move that a player will make over the course of a game: it looks so simple, seems so rote, and is usually followed by a far more captivating big serve or long rally. But while it may be basic, it’s also foundational. You can’t play a big match without that little lob.

David Foster Wallace detailed the motion in the opening paragraph of a 1996 Esquire piece. “The tossed ball rises,” he wrote, “and seems for a second to hang, waiting, cooperating, as balls always seem to do for great players.” Or do they? Another tennis story, this one by Tom Perrotta for The Atlantic 14 years later, opened with a far less orderly scene:

Her left arm jerks upward and the ball veers off to her right. Rather than swing, she extends her racket and catches the ball on the strings. Restart. Bounce it. Take a quick breath. Go.

This time, the ball flies forward and out of reach. She lets it drop, then gathers it up.

Wallace was writing about Michael Joyce, a player who at the time was ranked 79th in the world; in comparison, you’d think that Perrotta was describing, well, me. But his feature was actually about Ana Ivanovic, who won the French Open in 2008 and was, for a time, the no. 1 player in women’s tennis — until her confidence deteriorated, her mechanics unraveled, and she found herself unable to so much as toss the damn ball.

Ivanovic’s story was jarring, but it also wasn’t all that unique. The phenomenon of athletes suddenly and swiftly losing the high-level consistency that once defined them is one that can happen in places ranging from the putting green to the infield to the service line.

Golfers have called the uncontrollable forearm tremors that can torpedo their short game “the yips” for as long as even the old-timers can remember. Dart enthusiasts, crippled by a strange inability to let go, talk about their “dartitis” with despair. Professional baseball players who have been hurling pinpoint lasers since they were athletically precocious toddlers suddenly can’t execute a routine flip to first base. (Athletes aren’t the only ones who suffer these maladies, either; musicians have been known to have similar issues with curling fingers or shaky lips, and the term “writer’s cramp” is a cousin of all of this.)

These situations are not just a lost step or a bad look or the inevitable aging out of one’s prime. They are public, Richie Tenenbaum–style meltdowns; they are frustrating indignities; they are spasms and hitches and triple-pumps that are viscerally painful to watch. The worst part isn’t even always the jerky throws or twitchy strokes, it’s the subsequent look of helplessness — and, after awhile, hopelessness — in the bewildered players’ eyes.

“If you, let’s say, as a talent or as an an athlete, cannot hole a putt from half a meter away, which every grandpa or grandma could do, then this is hard to describe in words,” wrote one yips sufferer in a 2012 study compiled in The Sport Psychologist. “Thus, a competence that accompanied you all your athletic life is gone all of a sudden … It ranges between frustration, resignation, disappointment, anger. Well, it is the whole range of emotions from A to Z.”

The yips are often wrongly conflated with the inability to “perform in the clutch,” but what is most insidious about the condition is that it doesn’t just strike during high-pressure, big-game moments; it’s not what we think of as “choking.” More often, and more disastrously, it seeps down into the drab everyday bedrocks of a sport.

For a hotshot baseball catcher like the New York Mets’ Mackey Sasser, chucking the ball back to the pitcher after backstopping a ball or a strike was not exactly a high-stakes, put-it-all-on-the-line endeavor. Still, shortly after a collision at home plate left him with tender ankles, Sasser became increasingly incapable of performing the rote motion that he’d done without a second thought since he was a boy.

At first, the problem was that his ankles hurt and he had to adjust his throwing motion. But adjusting meant thinking, and thinking meant overthinking, and soon he was double-, triple-, sometimes quadruple-clutching the ball. When he finally would release it, his form looked more like that of a college kid trying to get that perfect high-off-the-fingertips Ping-Pong ball arc in a game of basement Beirut than it did a career MLB catcher returning the ball to the mound. (As Sasser’s problems worsened, pitchers started walking toward him to meet halfway.)

In the same game, Sasser might cut off a base-stealer at second with the speed and precision that Mike Piazza never did have … before going on to botch a simple, rudimentary toss. The juxtaposition made me think of a passage from Chad Harbach’s college baseball novel The Art of Fielding, in which one of the main characters, a quiet star shortstop named Henry, stops being able to deliver the ball to first base. “Instead of rifle shots fired at a target,” writes Harbach of Henry’s newly mangled throws, “they felt like doves released from a box.”

In the book, several major league scouts come to watch Henry perform and, observing the condition his game is in, begin naming his troubled predecessors. “Blass,” one says, referring to Steve Blass, whose pitching problems in the 1970s wound up being forever referred to as Steve Blass Disease. “Sasser,” he continues, as in Mets catcher Mackey. “Wohlers. Knoblauch. Sax.” It’s a litany of major leaguers who contracted a case of the yips. (And, in Chuck Knoblauch’s case, of major leaguers whose yips caused him to accidentally hit Keith Olbermann’s mom in the face with a throw, shattering her glasses.)

The school’s president, sitting next to the scouts, asks what became of those guys.

“Do they ever recover?” Affenlight asked. “The players with this disease?”

“Steve Sax did. Of the big names, he might be the only one. Knoblauch moved from second to the outfield where the longer throw gave him less trouble. Ankiel moved to the outfield too.”

“But a longer throw is harder,” Affenlight pointed out.

Dwight shrugged. “Sometimes harder is easier.”

Earlier this month, the Wisconsin football program announced that it would “shut down” quarterback Joel Stave indefinitely. According to a report by Fox Sports, “coaches noticed something wrong … he could no longer throw a simple pass. He could uncork a 40-yard bomb, no problem, but time and again, he would short-hop a basic 10-yard pass in drills.”

Stave himself tried to put the feeling into words. “I’ll be throwing it good, throwing it good and then all of a sudden I feel like I hang on to it too long,” he said. “One will sail, one will slip and then you start thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to hang on to it longer.’”

In The Art of Fielding, a character named Pella grows fed up with all the attention paid to Henry’s predicament. “Being occasionally unable to throw a baseball from one place to another with perfect accuracy didn’t exactly qualify as tragic,” she silently fumes. “Everyone’s problems were silly in the long run, silly when compared with global warming … silly when compared to the brute fact of death, but Henry’s problem was just plain silly.”

There’s nothing silly, though, about the horror of someone’s body and mind turning on him or her all at once. In an essay about Tracy Austin and athletic supremacy, David Foster Wallace argued that “the predicament of a dedicated athletic prodigy washed up at twenty-one differs in nothing more than degree from that of a dedicated CPA and family man dying at sixty-two.”

What makes the yips so wholly dispiriting is the negative-feedback death spiral they create: It’s not all in the brain, but the physical manifestations sure do have a way of exacerbating anxiety. It’s not all in the muscles, but once you get the thought on your mind, here come the uncontrollable seizes and jerks.

Charles Barkley’s beyond-awful golf swing makes for a rollicking YouTube viewing, sure, but it’s also kind of distressing to see just how powerless such a big and bold man can be against the murky vagaries of the spirit and flesh. Mackey Sasser’s problems didn’t stop when he left professional baseball; even as a college coach, he could barely throw batting practice.

But there are ways to move on. Some righty golfers are told to start putting left-handed; the more novice you get, the safer you are from the yips. (Recall the grandma and grandpa above who could sink the hypothetical putt.) Mackey Sasser, thanks to the psychological and physical treatment he recently underwent (as detailed in the ESPN 30 for 30 short), was able to learn how to quiet his mind and control his fears.

And Ana Ivanovic, who once explained that “if you start thinking about how you come down the stairs and think about how each muscle is working, you can’t go down the stairs,” beat Caroline Wozniacki in the finals of a tournament just this week. One postgame report noted that in a second-set tiebreak, Ivanovic “played almost flawlessly.”

by Rachel Grate

The benefits of writing go far beyond building up your vocabulary. 

No matter the quality of your prose, the act of writing itself leads to strong physical and mental health benefits, like long-term improvements in mood, stress levels and depressive symptoms. In a 2005 study on the emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing, researchers found that just 15 to 20 minutes of writing three to five times over the course of the four-month study was enough to make a difference. 

By writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events, participants were significantly more likely to have fewer illnesses and be less affected by trauma. Participants ultimately spent less time in the hospital, enjoyed lower blood pressure and had better liver functionality than their counterparts. 

It turns out writing can make physical wounds heal faster as well. In 2013, New Zealand researchers monitored the recovery of wounds from medically necessary biopsies on 49 healthy adults. The adults wrote about their thoughts and feelings for just 20 minutes, three days in a row, two weeks before the biopsy. Eleven days later, 76% of the group that wrote had fully healed. Fifty-eight percent of the control group had not recovered. The study concluded that writing about distressing events helped participants make sense of the events and reduce distress.

Even those who suffer from specific diseases can improve their health through writing. Studies have shown that people with asthma who write have fewer attacks than those who don’t; AIDS patients who write have higher T-cell counts. Cancer patients who write have more optimistic perspectives and improved quality of life.

So what is it about writing that makes it so great for you?

James W. Pennebaker has been conducting research on writing to heal for years at the University of Texas at Austin. “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Pennebaker writes. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function.” 

Why? Pennebaker believes this act of expressive writing allows people to take a step back and evaluate their lives. Instead of obsessing unhealthily over an event, they can focus on moving forward. By doing so, stress levels go down and health correspondingly goes up. 

You don’t have to be a serious novelist or constantly reflecting on your life’s most traumatic moments to get these great benefits. Even blogging or journaling is enough to see results. One study found that blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to the effect from running or listening to music.

From long-term health improvements to short-term benefits like sleeping better, it’s official: Writers are doing something right. 

"There is no settling down without some settling for. There is no long-term relationship not just putting up with your partner’s flaws, but accepting them and then pretending they aren’t there. We like to call it, in my house, ‘paying the price of admission’."

Dan Savage on love, long-terms relationships, and the myth of “The One”

Here are five one-minute activities from One Minute Mindfulness that you can practice every day to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

1.  Consider one small act of kindness you can do for someone.

For instance, in a minute, you can send a sweet email or give a compliment, Altman writes. If you don’t see anyone that day, he suggests being kind to yourself. It also helps to take a minute and remember a kind gesture from someone else that really made a difference in your life.

2.  Bring a dose of creativity to your workday.

Work no doubt takes up a large portion of our days. And no doubt the tasks can quickly become tedious. Fortunately, being mindful “can help you tap into a deeper sense of purpose and turn on the lamp of creativity,” Altman writes. He suggests striving to do one small creative thing at work or saying an affirmation, such as “The treasure of creativity is available to me at all times,” or “I let go of expectation and let creativity come to me.”

3. Find pleasantness at work.

Altman notes that this is one of the most profound practices. “Pleasantness is an anchor that helps us center by locating the peace that is ever-present, even when it is hidden.” You can find pleasantness in a song, a sound, a scent or a blade of grass, he says. All you have to do is scan your surroundings. Altman also suggests bringing a pleasant object to work – such as a photo of a loved one – or having something portable with you at all times.

4.  Calm anxious thoughts with a pebble.

Altman compares an anxious mind to a raging river. But it’s possible to find a safe place underneath the turbulent waves. You can do this by repeating a neutral word. Choose a word that doesn’t bring up any memories, associations or feelings, he says. He gives the following examples: one, peace, calm, neutral. “The pebble’s purpose is to distance you from the turbulence and settle you into the deep, still water, where you can see all around clearly,” he writes. When other thoughts pop up, just view them as shiny fish swimming past.

5.  Gaze at the sky and moon.

According to Altman, gazing at the sky and moon allows us to embrace wholeness and fosters pure awareness. He cited a quote from British philosopher and Zen practitioner Alan Watts on our interdependency with nature: “You’re breathing. The wind is blowing. The trees are waving. Your nerves are tingling. The individual and the universe are inseparable, but the curious thing is, very few people are aware of it. Everything in nature depends on everything else. So it’s interconnected…When you look out of your eyes at nature happening out there, you’re looking at you.”

As you start gazing, Altman suggests noticing your breath and if any tension or emotions are present. Then look out to the vast sky, paying attention, moment to moment, he says. You also can think of a specific problem or challenge you’ve been having and “release it to the spaciousness of the sky as you gaze. Whatever your challenge, let it be part of the big perspective and the big wisdom that exist in nature, free from the small you that holds on to it.”

Don’t let the minutes whiz by. Open your eyes, and notice the beauty surrounding you. Just one minute can make a difference in your days.

(Learn more about Donald Altman and One Minute Mindfulness)

You arrived weighed down with gifts. You should depart empty handed.
John Patrick Shanley

by Alex Williams

It was like one of those magical blind-date scenes out of a Hollywood rom-com, without the “rom.” I met Brian, a New York screenwriter, a few years ago through work, which led to dinner with our wives and friend chemistry that was instant and obvious.

We liked the same songs off Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde,” the same lines from “Chinatown.” By the time the green curry shrimp had arrived, we were finishing each other’s sentences. Our wives were forced to cut in: “Hey, guys, want to come up for air?”

As Brian and his wife wandered off toward the No. 2 train afterward, it crossed my mind that he was the kind of guy who might have ended up a groomsman at my wedding if we had met in college.

That was four years ago. We’ve seen each other four times since. We are “friends,” but not quite friends. We keep trying to get over the hump, but life gets in the way.

Our story is not unusual. In your 30s and 40s, plenty of new people enter your life, through work, children’s play dates and, of course, Facebook. But actual close friends — the kind you make in college, the kind you call in a crisis — those are in shorter supply.

As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading. Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.

No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now.

But often, people realize how much they have neglected to restock their pool of friends only when they encounter a big life event, like a move, say, or a divorce.

That thought struck Lisa Degliantoni, an educational fund-raising executive in Chicago, a few months ago when she was planning her 39th birthday party. After a move from New York to Evanston, Ill., she realized that she had 857 Facebook friends and 509 Twitter followers, but still did not know if she could fill her party’s invitation list. “I did an inventory of the phases of my life where I’ve managed to make the most friends, and it was definitely high school and my first job,” she said.

After a divorce in his 40s, Robert Glover, a psychotherapist in Bellevue, Wash., realized that his roster of friends had quietly atrophied for years as he focused on career and family. “All of a sudden, with your wife out of the picture, you realize you’re lonely,” said Dr. Glover, now 56. “I’d go to salsa lessons. Instead of trying to pick up the women, I’d introduce myself to the men: ‘Hey, let’s go get a drink.’ ”

In studies of peer groups, Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California, observed that people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had.

Basically, she suggests, this is because people have an internal alarm clock that goes off at big life events, like turning 30. It reminds them that time horizons are shrinking, so it is a point to pull back on exploration and concentrate on the here and now. “You tend to focus on what is most emotionally important to you,” she said, “so you’re not interested in going to that cocktail party, you’re interested in spending time with your kids.”

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added…

(read the full article here)


"Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."

(illustration by Brianna Ashby, from Bright Wall/Dark Room magazine)

Psychotherapist and author Adam Phillips on Pleasure & Frustration:

One of the obstacles is the demand that we be happy and enjoy your lives. I think it’s a huge distraction and it’s very undermining, I think. In the old days, whenever that was, there was an internal injunction to be good. Now the injunction is to be happy or to be enjoying yourself. And the reason this is a distraction is because life is also painful…in other words—and it’s a very simple thing and it’s very obvious and this starts in childhood—which is that if somebody can satisfy you, they can also frustrate you. This is ineluctable. It’s structural. It’s never going to change. This means that everybody has to deal with ambivalence—they’re going to have to deal with the fact that they love and hate the person they love and hate.

What we’re continuously being sold are possibilities for pleasure, in one way or another, as though all we want to do is get rid of the pain and increase the pleasure. I think this is a very impoverished view of what a life is, even though every life must involve trying to do something with the pain and having the pleasure. But there’s a difference between evacuating pain and frustration, and modifying it. And what we’re starved of now is frustration.

It’s as though we’re phobic of frustration, so the moment there is a feeling of frustration, it’s got to be filled with something. It’s a bit like the mother who overfeeds her child. She does that to stop the child from having appetite, because the appetite is so frightening. Now it seems to me there’s an attempt to foreclose appetite, to foreclose people’s capacity to think about what is really missing in their lives, what they might want and what they might do about getting it. Fantasies of satisfaction are saboteurs of pleasure.”