The Millennial Challenge (Part 2)

This is a follow-up to our previous blog on the significant challenges facing Millennials. If you are faced with stress from family issues, career uncertainties, educational pressures, and/or the lack of social connectedness, there are certain personal qualities and skills that can help you navigate these times. From my observations as a psychologist of successful individuals from all age groups, there are some general qualities that can help you as a Millennial adult. As a general rule, the external supports you have through your peer group and family will help buffer your stress through this major life passage. We sometimes hear the statement that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Today, this view that it takes a village is as paramount for young adults as it has been for children.

The first personal quality that will help you is patience. In current times there are not as many quick or easy solutions to getting what you want in some major areas in life. Delayed gratification rather than immediate reinforcement will be needed for years to come. So, whether it’s a job, a relationship, or getting into a college or post-graduate program, you might have to be very patient for certain opportunities to develop. Any unrealistic expectations about how quickly your goals will be achieved will create additional frustrations, so a corollary of being patient is to keep all expectations reasonable.

A second factor in success is flexibility in how you approach your goals. If there is not a direct path to your goal you might need to consider a different approach. This is true for every generation, but seems even more important for the added challenges that Millennials face. For example, the daughter of one of my closest friends decided after two years in the Teach for America program that she still wanted to pursue a medical degree. Unfortunately, she did not have all the undergraduate science curriculum needed to get into medical school. She dedicated the next two years to taking all of the required science courses. She is now successfully completing her studies as an MD. This major shift in career plans required both her patience and flexibility for the four extra years it took to get into medical school. More students are taking genuine gap years to gain added experience that will help them advance their career or education.

Another quality that is more essential than ever before is being a reasonable risk taker. This does not mean being impulsive or reckless. This requires a willingness to take some risks in your decisions when you are not guaranteed the end result you are hoping for or expecting. This is especially true for those who have an entrepreneurial spirit to start a business or other venture where they are not working on a traditional career path. This is more common now than any other time in history. However, most successful entrepreneurs or even those willing to work in unproven business opportunities have some setbacks or false starts before their ventures develop fully. Sara Blakely, the billionaire owner of her startup company Spanx, said her greatest lesson in business life was learning from her father how to accept and cope with failure. Many start-up companies expect that those who come to work with them will also be willing to take a chance on future earnings or opportunities.

Most large established companies will also expect you to take risks by moving into new positions or taking on new responsibilities to grow within the company. The message here is that whether you work for yourself or for someone else, you are likely to be less stressed and more secure if you have some willingness to take reasonable risks when the results are not guaranteed. More importantly, you still have to cope when your efforts do not go as planned.

A fourth factor related to your successfully meeting any challenges that lie ahead is maintaining your perseverance in spite of any setbacks or failures. This is not limited to job/career choices but is also relevant in relationships. Just like job security is not carved in stone, our relationships might not last either. Persistence will clearly be a factor in your resilience to deal with any other possible setbacks in both careers and relationships. Again, this is where your social supports can be even more important than family supports when you face a significant life event.

The reason for discussing these four qualities (patience, flexibility, willingness to take risks, and perseverance) is not to paint a picture of doom and gloom. Yes, there will be some big challenges for you to be successful, independent, and happy with your life. However, the good news is that all of these personal factors can be developed more fully if you believe you are deficient in any of these areas. Many variables have affected your development of these personal characteristics, but you can have a big influence on the future growth of any of these qualities.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.

The Millennial Challenge (Part 1)

“Look around me, I can see my life before me
Running rings around the way it used to be
I am older now I have more than what I wanted
But I wish that I had started long before I did”

– “Wasted on the Way” by Crosby Stills & Nash (1982)

 

This blog is an introduction to additional issues and pressures for younger adults who are sometimes referred to as Millennials. This group, the biggest since the Baby Boom Generation, includes those roughly between ages of 22 and 37. If you think this information might help your family understand some of your issues, please share this with them. Also see this YouTube video for a humorous portrayal of being a Millennial.

We refer to this as a challenge because of the social, educational, economic, and family changes that have occurred over the past 30-40 years. When those who grew up in the Baby Boom Generation reached their late teens, they could decide whether to go to college, enter the job market, enter the military, or simply get married and start a family. Often the choices of these young adults led to a career/work/lifestyle path that was likely to be relatively stable and predictable. The economy was relatively strong and many got jobs (with or without a college degree) and could expect to work at the same company for many years until retirement. Their career/work path was set rather early in life. Most of the young adults of that generation were economically sound enough that they could leave the family home for an apartment or home of their own. Today these things are clearly not as stable and predictable for Millennials – you know who you are!

Family structure in addition to the economy has changed dramatically in the past 40 years making certain family stressors more prevalent now. For example, the divorce rate in the late 1960s was about 25% but went up closer to 50% from the 1970s to today. This means that roughly double the number of young adults had to cope with parents who no longer lived together. This has also increased the number of those who grew up primarily in a single-parent household or in a blended family with a step-parent. These factors can all add to the general sense of instability and insecurity about life in general and relationships in particular. This lack of stability and predictability could make everything a little more uncertain, and potentially lead to a feeling that there is not much control in your life.

Another major adjustment for Millennials has been exacerbated by the economic problems that started in 2007-2008. More young adults have to live with their parents for pure economic reasons. A survey in 2013 found that over 30% of Millennials live with their parents. This could create even greater adjustments for those younger adults who would prefer the independence and the privacy of living on their own, but are prevented from living separately because of financial factors. Many in their mid-20s through their 30s have student debt as well as lower earnings and savings that make home ownership extremely difficult without the financial help of parents. This economic dilemma is magnified for young adults who have children needing child care so both parents can work if necessary.

There has also been an increasing pressure in our school systems from high school on to increase academic testing to prove that performance is where it should be in your educational pursuits. This emphasis on competition can be quite challenging and is likely to be a persistent requirement for success by Millennials in our culture. So, students in college will now face more testing than ever before in order advance in their career.

With all of these factors in mind, if you are a Millennial you will need to be prepared to meet these challenges to not only be successful, but also to maintain a healthy sense of well-being. When I use the term “well-being” I am referring to much more than your physical health, although that is an important facet of well-being. I am referring to the much broader notion of well-being that encompasses

    • your social life with significant connections to others,
    • your satisfaction with school/work/career accomplishments, and
    • some general sense of happiness, life satisfaction, and positive emotions.

Developing resilient coping skills could help you prepare for this complicated set of challenges at this crucial period in your life. These coping skills can certainly buffer you from unnecessary stress, minimize any physical complications from the stress that you do encounter, and improve your performance in high-pressure situations.

The strategies covered on this site and in our books are in no way a cure all for the challenges ahead. Factors such as the economy in general, your financial resources, work and educational opportunities can all present certain obstacles for you. Aside from learning these methods, what else can improve your success? Our next blog post will cover some of the qualities that you can develop or strengthen to help you succeed in meeting the challenges of this generation.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.

How To Stop Panic Attacks

When stress gets out of control it can lead to a “panic attack.” These can be frightening experiences, especially when it happens for the first time. These are unforgettable experiences because there is a very heightened physiological reaction with considerable anxiety and sometimes even a fear of death while in a panic state. It is not unusual for someone with a first time panic attack to end up in the emergency room of a hospital because these can feel like a heart attack.

If you have ever had a panic or anxiety attack, we do have some good news: these can be treated successfully with a variety of techniques depending on the severity of the problem. Fortunately, for most people who have ever had a panic attack, these are infrequent episodes that are not likely to cause any major social or medical problems. A combination of the skills taught in the iCope books and possibly medications for those who have had several panic attacks will provide a successful approach to preventing and managing these intense experiences.

If you have had one or more panic attacks that ended up with a visit to an emergency room, it would be wise to get a medication evaluation from your family physician or a psychiatrist. There are some medications that can be quite helpful. One approach is to use a mild tranquilizer on what is called an “as needed basis.” In these instances, you only take the medication when you feel that a panic attack is pending. Even if you rarely need the medication, having it readily available provides a sense of security even if you never have to take the pills. A second approach with medication is to regularly use one of the anti-depressant medications that help keep the neurotransmitter serotonin at the right level, which tends to have a calming effect over time. This seems to help decrease panic attacks, especially if the person has generally high levels of emotional arousal. In some cases, your doctor might prescribe both types of medication.

The strategies that we will discuss in more detail below are the ones that go along with the iCope methods. These are the specific steps to use when you are trying to prevent or short-circuit a panic attack. However, if you take some of the preventive steps to increase your resilience to stress in general, this will help minimize any vulnerability to panic attacks. As you will see below, relaxation skills, rational self-talk, and proactive problem solving will all be helpful in controlling panic.

KEEP THE PANIC IN PERSPECTIVE

From a psychological perspective, it helps to remind yourself that even though these attacks can be very scary, they do not mean you are in a life and death situation. As indicated above, when someone has their first panic attack and does not understand what is happening, they often go to their doctor or an emergency room as a safe guard. If you have done this, and your doctors have reassured you that you are having a panic attack and not a major medical problem, then you will be better prepared to keep any future panic attacks in perspective.

What does this all mean? Well, you would want to remind yourself of certain things if you are experiencing a panic attack, or beginning to sense that a possible attack might occur soon. You want to remind yourself that although scary, “there are things I can do to short circuit the panic.” Even if you do experience a panic attack, these are typically short time-limited experiences that often end within 30-60 minutes. Our bodies literally get exhausted and the panic eventually has to stop, even if you do nothing about it. Try to remind yourself that a panic attack will typically be a short-term event.

FOCUS ON YOUR BREATHING TO RELAX

When a panic attack begins, our breathing changes. We start to breath faster and take shorter shallow breaths. This creates a cycle that can lead to hyperventilation where the faster you breathe, the less oxygen you actually get into your body. As soon as you feel stress increasing and begin to fear a pending panic attack, one simple thing to do is to focus on your breathing. Just as described in the iCope books, take a few slow deep breaths and hold them for a while before breathing out slowly. A good pace is 4-5 seconds to breathe in and 4-5 seconds to breathe out. After that, purposely slow your breathing and try to take slow deep breaths until you feel calmer and more in control of your arousal. This will begin to short circuit the production of adrenalin and other stress hormones and allow you to relax. For added practice when you are NOT trying to control a panic attack, try to use the 5-minute mindful meditation exercises, which can also help as a preventive strategy.

TALK CALMLY AND RATIONALLY TO YOURSELF

Actively talk to yourself in order to reassure yourself that you will be okay. If you have had any prior successes with short circuiting panic, this is the time to focus on that previous success. Say positive things like:

I’ve handled these in the past and I can get through this.

I am not in danger and my goal is to just slow down the high arousal.

 Let me focus on slowing my breathing. This is something I can control.

This might take a little time, and even though I hate this, I can manage it.

Avoid any catastrophizing, which exaggerates your panic and will only generate more adrenaline and stress. If you say things like “I’m going to die,” or “this scary feeling will never end, you will actually fuel more anxiety. If you happen to have a prescription for a mild anti-anxiety medication, remind yourself that you have this backup “insurance” available. However, whenever possible, try to stop the panic if you can without the medication. This will build your confidence should you ever be in a situation without medications.

MAINTAIN YOUR SENSE OF CONTROL

Psychologically a panic attack is challenging because it makes us feel out of control. The more out of control you feel, the worse the panic will be. In order to combat this, you want to have some ways to remind yourself that you do have some control of physical and emotional arousal. Your first defense will be remembering to change your breathing. If you can change this, you have direct evidence that you have some control of the situation. Your next step is to think about what steps you can take to gain even more control. Think of options you can use to take more control when panic is building. For example, some people find that being active like going for a walk in or around your home, office, or school can actually help you feel better. Simply getting up and going to get a drink of water might be helpful. If you are driving, and if it is safe to pull off the road, do that and focus on your breathing or listen to some music in the car until you feel back in control. The main point here is to generate some proactive problem solving steps and think of behavioral ways that you believe will help restore a sense of control. Then, when you begin to have any signs of panic building, use those steps to give yourself more control of the situation. This will be a much better approach than waiting until you are in a panic attack to do your problem solving at that time.

SUMMARY

When you feel panic building or find yourself in the midst of a panic attack, try to do the following:

1. Keep your physical and emotional reactions in perspective. Remind yourself mentally that you know what to do to manage your panic attacks. Expect that this will be a time limited situation lasting on the average of less than an hour.

2. Take a few slow deep breaths. Remember, a good pace is 4-5 seconds to breathe in and 4-5 seconds to breathe out.

3. Adjust your regular breathing pattern into a pace where you take slow deep breaths rather than rapid shallow breaths.

4. Use positive and rational self-talk about what you are doing to manage the situation. Remind yourself of any prior successes in handling panic and look at this as a practice exercise to get more skilled at short circuiting panic. You will get better with practice.

5. Avoid feeling out of control. Maintain your awareness of all of the things you can do to keep the panic under control. Remember to use your problem solving alternatives like taking a walk, getting a drink of water, talking to a friend, or even taking your medication if needed.

If you continue to have difficulty with panic attacks after trying these strategies and you have not already done so, contact your doctor or a therapist through your health plan or EAP. Most psychologists are familiar with treating panic with various strategies, but they cannot prescribe medications. You can also read the book iCope: Building Resilience Through Stress Management, which can help you learn to manage stress more effectively and indirectly prevent panic.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.

Resilience Factor: Self-Esteem

Although the term “self-esteem” is a very general term, most of us have a pretty good idea of the concept. As you would expect, it is better to have generally positive self-esteem, which can help us in many ways, including our thoughts/opinions about ourselves, our emotions, our behavior, and our social life. As you would expect, all of these areas can be affected in a negative way by low self-esteem. This is important because low self-esteem will cause greater stress, and improved self-esteem will enhance your overall resilience to the negative effects of stress.

COGNITIVE FACTORS IN SELF-ESTEEM

Three psychological or mental habits can erode self-esteem: negative labeling, rejecting positive feedback, and making unfavorable comparisonsIf you regularly give yourself negative labelsuch as “loser,” “unattractive,” or “failure,” this will definitely affect your self-esteem. If you hold on to those labels, new life experiences like doing poorly in a particular class /job assignment or having a relationship end will then strongly reinforce the label or self-image. Holding onto a negative label forces you into an all-or none view of yourself. If you hold onto any negative labels, you need to begin challenging the basis of those specific beliefs as soon as possible. As discussed in a prior blog, you can use rational self-talk to counter various negative labels as an “irrational or unhealthy belief.

The second psychological habit is rejecting positive feedback, which can be a mental habit as well as a behavioral habit. Individuals with low self-esteem psychologically filter out positive comments or feedback because it does not fit with their perception of themselves. Behaviorally these individuals react to positive feedback or compliments by discounting them, saying things like “oh, I was just lucky,” or it wasn’t that big of a deal.” If this is the case for you, you want to start accepting positive messages. It’s much better when complimented to say something like “thank you, I appreciate that,” or “it was nice of you to say that.” Try to practice both mentally and behaviorally accepting positive messages from others to enhance self-esteem.

The third mental habit that is damaging to self-esteem is making unfavorable comparisons between yourself and others. From a rational perspective, it is important to recognize that all of us can find others who are “better” with respect to certain qualities. Think about Labron James, Lyndsey Von, etc. Who could compare themselves favorably to these elite athletes in terms of their skills in their sport? However, comparing yourself to others is not the best measure of your self-esteem. It would be irrational to think that you could compare favorably to everyone else on all or even most of your personal qualities, not just athletic skill. Each of us has to do our own inventory of our strengths and begin to value those areas in which we are satisfied, proud, and genuinely positive. None of us can be perfect, but each of us must learn to recognize our qualities that are positive and strive to correct those that fall short.

BEHAVIORAL FACTORS IN SELF-ESTEEM

The cognitive factors discussed above focus on belief systems and mental habits that can damage self-esteem. Behavioral factors focus on things you are doing or not doing that make you disappointed with yourself. Although none of us is perfect, it does not mean that we cannot improve in certain behavioral ways if this is important to our self-esteem. For example, if you have very few hobbies or extracurricular activities, and this limits your confidence or social contacts, you could identify some behavioral changes that could improve this. You could learn a new skill (e.g., playing chess, bowling, shooting pool, taking a dance, yoga, or acting class, etc.) that might open new social opportunities. If you are not very athletic and if playing a sport would improve your self-esteem, participating in a sport by taking lessons for an individual sport (e.g., tennis, golf, karate) or taking a chance on a team sport in school or at your company (e.g., softball teams, bowling leagues, or biking or ski clubs) could be a positive step. However, you do not even have to participate in a sport to deal with any lack of athletic skills if that is what affects your self-esteem. You could accept the fact that you are not athletic using cognitive coping skills, and focus on doing something that is more meaningful and positive to you. You could become a volunteer at a community organization, learn to play a musical instrument, or join an after-school club or work group even though these have nothing to do with athletic skills. Many community organizations like Habitat for Humanity can provide great opportunities for your involvement. The main behavioral point here is to do positive and meaningful things that enhance your self-esteem. Resilience is often directly related to finding and establishing these meaningful activities throughout our lifetime.

SOCIAL FACTORS IN SELF-ESTEEM

In addition to the cognitive and behavioral factors that can enhance or hinder your self-esteem, social factors also play a key role in your self-esteem. Being accepted by others is likely to enhance both social skills and self-esteem. Although it is irrational to strive to be loved and accepted by everyone, it is imperative to find and nurture some healthy social relationships. Learning the skills for positive well-balanced relationships is a key task to start developing as early in life as possible. It is important to keep in mind that the quality of friendships, not quantity is most important. It would be better to have one or two really close friends and a handful of good relationships than to be elected “prom queen” or “captain of the football team.”

Sometimes shyness or social anxiety will be a barrier to establishing these needed social relationships. If this is the case, you would want to find safe non-threatening activities or good environments to spend your time around others who have similar interests. If you avoid too many social opportunities, you will not be able to make the social connections that can then lead to positive relationships. As mentioned above, getting involved in making some behavioral changes in your lifestyle will involve getting into these social environments and overcoming some of the social anxiety you might feel. Take small steps if necessary to build your confidence to expand healthy social networks.

In summary, our self-esteem is very important to your overall well-being in many ways. For resilience to stress, avoid the mental traps and irrational beliefs that limit your confidence and self-esteem. Take charge of the things about which you are dissatisfied and change your behavior whenever possible with reasonable goals and expectations of what you can change and what “imperfections” you need to accept about yourself. Since your social life will be an important factor in self-esteem, work to improve your own skills and develop the willingness to take the reasonable but necessary risks to expand your social network to a level that is right for you. These cognitive, behavioral, and social skills will be extremely helpful in many arenas throughout your lifetime. Improved self-esteem will definitely improve your overall resilience to whatever stressors you might encounter.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.

Using Rational Self-Talk to Defuse Stress

In a prior blog (Thoughts that Cause Stress) I discussed how certain mental habits and specific beliefs can actually increase our stress in very powerful ways. For the past 50 years psychologists have researched the best ways to change these stress-inducing mental habits and beliefs. These methods, which are sometimes called “cognitive restructuring,” require a few steps. The first step is simply becoming more aware of which habits and beliefs are causing you the most stress. You can improve your awareness by periodically reviewing the prior blog’s description of the major habits and beliefs that are likely culprits in increasing your stress.

When you become more sensitive to the fact that your thoughts and beliefs about a stressful event can magnify your reaction, you can begin to diffuse any irrational or negative thinking. These types of thinking patterns which are probably going on throughout your daily activities are likely to be somewhat automatic and unconscious. However, you can become more aware of them by asking yourself some basic questions whenever you notice that your stress level increasing in certain situations. For example, when an event occurs that increases your stress noticeably, ask yourself what you are thinking about the situation. What am I telling myself? Is this stressor triggering any of my irrational beliefs? Are some of my stress producing mental habits such as catastrophizing or focusing on the negative kicking in?

Blank Stress Analysis Charts can help you become even more aware of your stress producing self‑talk, which in turn will allow you to change it.

Make several copies of the charts, and whenever you notice a significant stress reaction, record your thoughts and your reactions in the left column. You then try to challenge the stress‑producing irrational thoughts with more rational self‑talk. As you get in the habit of noticing any of your irrational or negative thinking, you will be able to begin to learn a new language. This language produces less stress because it keeps things in perspective ‑ it keeps us more rational. This new language is represented on the right hand column of the chart. Here, truthful thoughts and statements about the stressful event are likely to be more rational and positive. Many of these statements directly challenge and dispute any irrational thoughts that were identified. This does not mean that tragic, painful, or upsetting situations will feel good. However, what it does mean is that the event will not be made any more stressful than it has to be.

The key goal here is learning a new way of thinking ‑ essentially learning a new language. Our old language that magnifies stress can be so strong that it will take a lot of patience and practice to learn the new one. Just as if you were learning a foreign language you would go through stages where the translation process is awkward and cumbersome. You have to consciously think of the correct way to say something and then translate from one language to the other. This is also true with learning how to talk rationally to yourself. Over time, you will begin to speak fluently with a rational dialog if you continue to practice. However, anyone who has taken a foreign language in school will recall that when it was not used regularly we could barely speak that language. You will need to use the language of rational self‑talk regularly in order to be successful in developing this coping skill.

A QUICK REVIEW

Here are a few general reminders about talking rationally to yourself. When you notice uncomfortable stress, take a few seconds to think as rationally and positively as you can.

  • What is making me so stressed?
  • It is probably not as bad as I think.
  • I’ve handled situations like this before.
  • I can calm myself and feel better later.

If these thoughts are not controlling your stress effectively, try to get more practice using the disputing and challenging skills on the Stress Analysis Charts. Make your statements specific to the exact stressor you are facing. Again, the goal is to keep things in perspective so that your stress is not exaggerated unnecessarily. Remember you are still going to feel some emotional reaction, especially if this is a significant event. This skill can become a powerful psychological tool that can be used anywhere, anytime.

You now have a major technique for mentally or psychologically controlling your stress. Remember these general principles of the cognitive methods covered in this blog:

  • Talk calmly to yourself when a stressor occurs.
  • Try to keep the stressful event in perspective.
  • Reassure yourself of your improved abilities to manage stress.
  • Avoid catastrophizing, maintaining unreasonable expectations, and focusing on the negative.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.