Speaking of Psychology: Simple steps to well-being

Episode 12

 

Creating our own happiness can be stressful. But psychologist and clinician Pamela Hays, PhD, says implementing change in our lives doesn't have to be stressful. Author of the book, “Creating Well-Being: Four Steps to a Happier, Healthier Life,” Hays discusses those four steps in this episode, as well as how life’s daily demands can keep us from becoming our best selves.

About the expert: Pamela Hays, PhD

Pamela Hays, PhD Pamela Hays, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice in her hometown of Soldotna, Alaska. Her research has included work with Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people living in the United States and with Arab Muslim women living in North Africa. She is the author of “Addressing Cultural Complexities in Practice: Assessment, Diagnosis, and Therapy,” and “Connecting Across Cultures: The Helper's Toolkit.” She is coeditor of the book “Culturally Responsive Cognitive—Behavioral Therapy.”

Hays holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Hawaii and served as a National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. She worked as a core faculty member of the graduate psychology program at Antioch University Seattle, where she continues to teach once a year.

Transcript

Audrey Hamilton: Have you ever wondered what it takes to make a change in your life – a real change? For many people, the simple idea of change is a stressor and with the day-to-day demands of life it can become overwhelming. In this episode, author and clinical psychologist Dr. Pamela Hays discusses how she helps her own patients tackle their stressors and take that first step toward happiness. I’m Audrey Hamilton and this is “Speaking of Psychology.”

Dr. Pamela Hays is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alaska. She is also the author of several books, including her latest called “Creating Well-Being: Four Steps to a Happier, Healthier Life,” which is published by the American Psychological Association. Dr. Hays’ research has included work with Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian people living in the United States, and with Arab and Muslim women living in North Africa. Since 2000 she has been providing psychotherapy to adults, children, couples and families in the Kenai Peninsula area of Alaska. Welcome, Dr. Hays.

Pamela Hays: Thank you.

Audrey Hamilton: Your book is called “Four Steps to a Happier, Healthier Life.” Can you tell us briefly what those four steps are?

Pamela Hays: The first step is about getting inspired. I find that when people come to see me and my practice they’re usually pretty low and even taking a very small step can just feel like a lot. When you have a lot – when problems feel really overwhelming, it can just seem pointless to even take a small step, so the first thing I do is help people get inspired. I have a number of ways of doing that. One of the main ways is to help people begin to focus on what their core values are, and then also, what they enjoy doing and what builds them up. 

The second step is assessing the stress in your life, and that includes paying attention to your body’s messages about how stress affects you. It also includes figuring out what are stressors in your life. And then, from there, step three involves paying attention to your thinking and how your thinking may be affecting your stress level, and then beginning to change that thinking, to change your thoughts so that you’re not so distressed. The fourth step is moving into action. Changing your behavior or changing some things in your environment. 

So, just to quickly summarize, the first step is getting inspired. The second step is assessing your stress level and figuring out the stressors in your life. The third step is changing your thought patterns to help you decrease your stress, and the fourth step is taking action. 

Audrey Hamilton: And, talking about stress, you mentioned that it can create a significant disconnect between your body and mind, leaving you feeling run-down, physically, mentally. How can mindfulness help? And, first of all, tell us a little bit about what mindfulness is. 

Pamela Hays: Mindfulness basically means just paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It’s a simple idea, but it’s a pretty powerful experience when you do it. One of the simplest ways to do it is to quickly focus on your – well, I’ll take the word “quickly” out – just focus on your breath. And as you focus on your breath, notice the feeling of the air moving in through your nostrils as you breathe in, and then notice the feeling of the air moving out through your nostrils as you breathe out. If you do that for even a few seconds, you start to notice that your body begins to calm itself a little bit. And as you go into this, sort of, more calming state, and you begin to let go of the judgments – that constant cognitive dialogue we have in our heads – it tends to open us up to the world. It opens us up to ourselves, helps us be more compassionate, and compassion feels much better than judgmentalism. It’s more enjoyable to feel compassion, and it’s easier. When we’re in this present moment, it also slows us down so we’re less reactive to events that are occurring around us. We’re able to act more thoughtfully in ways that are helpful than out of emotion and ways that may work against us. 

The other way, too, is that it tends to open us up to more positive possibilities. We’re not just focusing completely on the negative, because when any of us gets stressed, we tend to skew toward the negative. We tend to see the negative. We forget about the positive – we don’t even perceive it. But mindfulness brings us back from worrying about the future or fretting about the past, to just what’s here now, and that helps us recognize, “Oh, OK, maybe there are some other possibilities for moving forward.”

Audrey Hamilton: You’ve been practicing for a while; what sort of stressors do you see clients dealing with these days? It seems as if everyone is so busy and they never have time to unwind. What do you tell people to do if they’re feeling overwhelmed?

Pamela Hays:  You know, most of the time the kinds of things I work with people on are the same things that I hear clinicians in other parts of the U.S. are working with people on. And I noticed one day in particular, I’d had about six people in a row, and every one of them was talking about the pain or anger or frustration or worry about a relationship. And I started thinking, “was this just a coincidence today?” And so I decided to look back at my records for the last week and for the last month, and it was amazing. Something like 98 percent of everybody I had seen had really been about a relationship, either a parent with a teen that they didn’t know what to do with, or a teen that was really frustrated with relationships at school, or somebody with a supervisor at work that was giving them a hard time and they were feeling badly about. More often couples, some going through a divorce, or someone being pulled into an affair and feeling guilty, and so I was really struck by this.

And along the way, I found this quote from the Dalai Lama that I think sums it all up. It was, “the greatest source of human suffering is disconnection from one another.” And I think that is something I come back to frequently, that when people feel disconnected from others, that brings up the biggest pain. So a lot of what I do is help people with that. 

The other piece I would say, in sort of modern-day today, is that people are so overwhelmed with everything they have to do, and everything they feel they have to do, believe they have to do. And social media, constant incoming stimuli from diverse sources. It can just feel overwhelming. And, so that seems to be a more, I’d say, a more recent development that affects a lot of people.  

Audrey Hamilton: I think it’s interesting, this idea of thought traps, this idea that we have to do something or we should do something, and how that affects our motivations. Basically they just don’t do it. So, can you talk about thought traps and how they impact us? 

Pamela Hays: There are some real common ones that most of us engage in when we’re under stress. One of them – and, well, just to explain the idea, the idea of the thought stressor is something you tell yourself, you go over and over, or a particular interpretation you tend to make about someone’s behavior or events around you that really brings you down and makes you feel much more stressful. There are certain things in life that just bring stress, because we’re humans. I mean, if you have a loss, someone you deeply care about dies, or you go through a divorce, something like that. I mean, that’s stressful, and there’s a certain amount of that you can’t take away. If you did, you wouldn’t be human.

But there’s another layer of it that we pile on ourselves, with the, “Oh, woe is me, what if this happens?” “But, oh no, what if that happens?” and “Oh, then maybe they, maybe they really don’t like me” and so I help people figure out what those things are that they’re saying to themselves. And to give you an idea, some of the really typical ones – “what-ifs” are a big one. “What-ifs” are about the future: “What if this happens?” “But then, what if that happens?” “But then, OK, what if this happens?” “If-onlys” are about the past, similarly: “Oh, if only I hadn’t said that,” “If only I hadn’t done that,” “If only they hadn’t done that, or said that, it wouldn’t have worked out.” So both of those, whether they’re the “what-ifs” or the “if-onlys”, tend to just take us down. They tend to make us more stressed, and the more stressed we are, the less likely we are to take action to make change. 

There are a number of other ones, things like “shoulds” are a really common one. When you say “should” to yourself – “Oh, I really should be losing weight,” “oh, I really should clean the house,” “I really should,” or “I have to” or “I must” are some of the variations on it – they tend to increase anxiety, which then tend to decrease our motivation to do anything about it. If you change that to something that’s a little gentler, to “you know, I’d really like to clean the house today, but my teenager really needs me to take her to the doctor, and I can’t do both and I need to recognize that.” You recognize there’s still a problem – the house needs cleaning – but you can’t do it today. There’s no point in beating yourself up about it. 

Audrey Hamilton: Thank you very much Dr. Hays. It was very interesting. Thanks for joining us. 

Pamela Hays: You’re welcome. Thank you. 

Audrey Hamilton: To buy Dr. Hays’ book and to hear more podcasts, please visit our website. With the American Psychological Association’s “Speaking of Psychology,” I’m Audrey Hamilton.