I am in the midst of reading a book called, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. I really like it, and especially relate to the content in Chapter 6, entitled “What the Hell: How Feeling Bad Leads to Giving In.” The general premise of this chapter is that when we are stressed, our brain is easily susceptible to giving into temptations. It goes like this, when we are feeling bad, our brain wants us to feel better. The paradox is that sometimes, what we do does not make us feel better in the long run. These activities include “gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the internet, and watching TV or movies for more than two hours.” The book specifies that those activities produce the brain chemical dopamine, and that dopamine does not cause happiness; rather dopamine is more of a motivator than a chemical that causes happiness. Dopamine motivates us to do those previously listed things in an attempt to feel good, but usually after we have indulged, we feel bad again.
The book points out that “the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby.” These “real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin,…rather than releasing dopamine and relying on the promise of reward.”
As a child, adolescent, and family therapist in Washington, D.C., this got me thinking. Many of my clients are heavily involved in extracurricular activities, with sports being the most prominent and then most likely a “creative hobby.” Some are religious and most have friends and for the most part, they do get outside. So, if the stressed kids I see are already doing what is the most effective for stress relief, what gives?
In my work, one thing that seems to keep coming up is autonomy. I have written about the book, The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson previously–I keep bringing their book up, because autonomy and control are the main factors affecting the kids that we treat in the DC metro area. In short, even though the kids I see are already doing these stress busting activities, they are also doing things that they are not freely choosing to do or that they actually value.
One of my favorite questions to ask my clients is a variation of “If your parents/friends/teachers/etc. did not care if you studied/played/practiced/got good grades, would you still be doing what you are doing now?” This question helps to draw a distinction between who really values the activities–them, their parents, their friends, or someone else? For example, the kid who gets straight A’s, but is overly stressed in school and whose parents expect straight A’s seems to typically answer that they would be satisfied with getting B’s and A’s. They are only getting straight A’s at their parents’ behest, not because it is something they value themselves. And, I find that is the reason they are stressed, even while playing travel soccer and running for at least 2 hours a day. They are stressed because they are having to live up to someone else’s values and expectations–They are not intrinsically motivated, but are attempting to avoid the scorn that comes with not meeting expectations. It does not matter how much exercise they get, it will not erase the stress of living up to someone else’s expectations.
The same could also go for participation in sports. I have worked with kids who are just not as into the sports as their parents expect them to be. This expectation is actually the cause of their stress. Again, to find out what really matters to people, ask this question—If someone else wasn’t making you do this or wasn’t expecting you to do this thing, would you still do it? If they say no, they are not doing it because they intrinsically want to, they are doing it because they are being compliant, avoiding something, or being coerced. All are a setup for stress, despite your best stress busting/coping skills. This is where the environment matters, this is not always something you can therapize yourself out of.
And yet, most of life is just that, doing things that you do not want to do. The psychologist Chris McCurry talks about life being “80% scut work.” I believe it was the philosopher Bertrand Russell who said that the only thing you really learn in school is how to do things you do not want to do. This ability to do things you do not want to is vital in the way our lives and our society are set up. All of this is not to say that kids should not have to do things they do not want to do–It is to ask adults, where do we draw the line? And in drawing that line, can we be collaborative? Who knows, you may actually find that your child’s values are not far removed from your own. If so, how do you compromise, how do they compromise? How do your kids make choices? These are all much more valuable lessons in life than just being compliant or avoidant.