September 24, 2009

Feeling Friendless

Lonely Walk Home
by Michael Pickett

Living in a large, popular city, I see quite a few people coping with transition. One of the common requests for an initial appointment will go something like, "I'm new in town," or "I've lived here about a year now," followed by their complaint, typically something to do with depression or anxiety.
Many clients, particularly those beyond their mid-20's, are shocked, at a loss, or somewhat ashamed when they realize they are struggling in the friendship department.
Maybe they were used to making friends easily. Or they remember that reaching out to make friends never was easy but they somehow stumbled into a group of chums.
And now they find themselves feeling friendless. They start to feel the panic rise. How do I do this? Where do I start? What's wrong with me that I haven't found friends yet?

At some point in therapy, it becomes apparent to me that they are struggling to establish friends. It might take us awhile to reach the stage where we decide the client needs to target socializing. It's seldom a problem area people feel comfortable bringing up. People feel awkward admitting their lack of affiliation. The worry about the stigma of appearing friendless. The fear of being judged as a social dud.  
In therapy we explore the client's friendship history. How did they make friends in the past? Did it feel easy or was it a struggle? What types of friendships did they enjoy? Close confidantes or more distant acquaintances? Feel a part of a close knit group or often like an outsider looking in?
We often talk about the ease of making friends in high school and college, in particular. Life surrounded by hundreds or thousands of same-age, similarly situated peers. Mostly single, working part-time jobs, flexible schedules, with a variety of clubs and avenues available to study, exercise and socialize. To make friends. Dorm life is a friendship building tool at the ready. Close to campus apartment living is another. Potential friends all around, within arms reach, even.
Sometimes friends come in a bundle. A sports team. A choir group. A work team. Or we start to date someone and they have a big group of friends. Gradually they become our friends, too. Though not always easily. This wriggling into and feeling accepted by a pre-existing set of friends can feel awkward for many. Especially when those friendships go back to their days in the nursery. It's a situation ripe for feeling odd-person-out.
Which brings me to relationship break-ups and divorce. These are transitions where friendships are often lost. Partners exit and take their friends with them. You see this in a large group of couples. After the break up, maintaining friendships with those remaining in the couples club is a logistical nightmare. Seeing and hearing about The Ex can be too painful. Too close a reminder of what is lost. Learning about their new dating interests. Ouch.
Sometimes the friends appear to take sides. Or they don't know what to do and in their uncertainty, fail to reach out. This can really hurt the person left behind. Loss on top of loss can leave someone with profound self doubt, feeling sad and lonely.
It is well documented in the research literature that socializing on a regular basis is associated with positive physical health and emotional wellbeing. Feeling connected and cared about, laughing and going places together, keeping busy, exercising together, having someone to confide in: These are all benefits of friendships. It is no wonder, then, that finding oneself in a suddenly-friendless situation is associated with the onset or exacerbation of depression, anxiety, or a number of psychological conditions.
So how does one go about finding friends, exactly? Stay tuned. In my next post we'll talk about the goal of meeting new people and making friends.

Sandy Andrews, PhD  is a Clinical Psychologist / Therapist who provides CBT in Austin, Texas  

September 13, 2009

this is your brain on stress

The New York Times reported on a Portugese study which demonstrated that persistent stress changes the structural makeup of the brain. And not in a particularly helpful way.

According to Dias-Ferreira and his colleagues at the University of Minho, brains under chronic stress show an increase in the neurological pathways associated with doing familliar, repetitive, rote kinds of responses, even in the absence of success.

Think of the end of an intense and tiring work week. You find yourself channel surfing, up and down, dozens of times, even though you know nothing is on.

Circling around the kitchen, searching various cabinets, fridge and freezer for a salty/sugary/creamy treat, coming up empty each time.

Then there's the supervisor who schedules yet another staff meeting where the same, tired ideas are passed around, the same ineffectual instructions are issued. Where everyone leaves muttering, "Why do we think it's going to work this time?"

According to the article, brains under longterm stress also show a decrease in neurological connections in "regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors."

A shortage of problem solving circuitry, in other words. The light bulb burns out. We stop thinking creatively. We shrink away from new and different ways to respond. Instead we retreat into old, familliar and comfortable habits.

We get ourselves into a big, fat, rut. (Pass the Oreo cookies, please?)

The good news is, relaxation helps undo these stress induced changes. Taking brisk walks. A friendly game of hoops. Talking it out with supportive listeners. Thinking positively. Deep breathing. Contemplating nature. Getting away for the weekend. Creative outlets. Good nutrition. A full night's sleep, or two, or three. Exercise. Meditation. Yoga.

So turn off the TV. Stop circling the kitchen. Do something different. Step outside and take several rounds of full inhales and full, emptying exhales. Gaze at the stars. Resolve to get to bed earlier and engage in a healthier self care routine. Talk more respectfully and assertively to loved ones and co-workers. Eventually (four weeks, in the case of the rats in the study) your brain can revive and new connections can branch out.

Recharged, you might just find that the light bulb flickers back to life.