College Debt Worries Start Much Too Young

Student-loan-debt1When I came of age in the mid-1970s, worry about college debt was nonexistent, because, of course, college costs were much, much lower. I was told when I was a kid that I would have to pay every penny of college costs by myself, but I didn’t really think much about how that would happen. I worked throughout high school and saved a fair amount. I continued to work part time during college and worked full time during breaks. I lived on ramen and tuna (it was also much cheaper then!) and figured it out. I did have to drop out for a year because I was broke, but otherwise made it through in five years with only a few hundred dollars in a loan at the end that I paid off in a short amount of time. (It was at 11.9% interest and from my parents, so I couldn’t shirk on that debt!) Through it all I don’t remember worrying more than a normal amount about tuition bills, and usually just right before the start of each semester.

Certainly, things are much different now in terms of college costs. But as a psychotherapist, I am also seeing a big difference in how this awareness of college expenses is affecting today’s children — and at very young ages.

I am now regularly seeing middle school-aged pre-teens with very high levels of stated anxiety about how they are going to pay for college. Yes, middle school.

They have chronic insomnia from worrying about studying enough and getting a good grade in algebra in 8th grade so they can get into the advanced algebra class in 9th grade so they can get into the AP trig classes in 11th and 12th grades so they can put all these good grades and advanced classes on their college applications and get into a good college and get a good scholarship. Whew! All because they worry about how expensive college will be. They are four or five years from even stepping foot onto a college campus as a student and they are actively, consciously worrying about this pyramid of plans.

This makes them put huge pressure on themselves to not even get one B on one minor quiz. I was an over-achiever in high school, but I certainly didn’t sweat a B and not for those reasons.

I see many high-achieving teens coming in with insomnia, worry, panic attacks on test days, headaches, stomachaches, over-focus on grades and fear of failure issues. Times sure have changed! When I was in high school it was “super un-cool” to get good grades or care about your college career.

Today peer pressure exists related to competition for grades, college application spots and scholarships starting even in junior high. Where we applied for college in the fall of our senior year, students now start junior year with the application process underway and college tours often completed. Students now know exactly what GPA and ACT score it will take to get into which university, and they know what all their classmates scores are and where they are applying. I had no such awareness when I was 16 and I’m not sure anyone even talked about these details.

Now, I certainly can’t fix the high cost of college tuition, but clearly this level of anxiety is not healthy for kids. The self-criticism they are experiencing internally with each B grade is setting them up for emotional difficulties that might be labeled as “anxiety” or “depression.” (False labels, but that’s another topic!)

Parents need to address this issue directly, it appears, to reassure their children that either money will be saved for them for college or that it will be addressed at the appropriate time. Teaching kids some mindfulness meditation and self-calming skills would also be in order. Parents need to make it very clear that they love and accept their children regardless of grades, college acceptance or career choice. Parents can certainly not over-focus on grades themselves by constantly checking the on-line grade reporting apps.

We need to get kids’ minds off worry and back into learning for learning’s sake. And back into being kids, not over-pressured junior adults.

Book Review: “Feeling Loved” by Jeanne Segal, PhD

41iNFKQs-QL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I just finished a very readable and helpful new book by Jeanne Segal, PhD, “Feeling Loved: The Science of Nurturing Meaningful Connections and Building Lasting Happiness.” (2015, BenBella Books)

Her simple, but powerful thesis: “Feeling loved depends on our ability to communicate emotionally.” (p. 18)

I see problems with emotional awareness, expression, and attunement all the time in therapy. It is especially noticeable with couples and families. Even when in a relationship it is possible to feel lonely, ignored, and misunderstood if your partner lacks the ability to attune to and respond to your emotions or if you lack the ability to properly express your real emotions.

Segal makes an important distinction when discussing her daughter’s suicide death. “Our daughter’s death made me recognize the gap that can exist between being loved and feeling loved. Morgan Leslie was deeply loved by her family and by all who knew her, but I don’t believe she felt loved.“ (p. 10)

“You can tend to someone and provide and care for them, but if you don’t slow down enough or know how to create an emotional connection, you won’t experience feeling loved. Someone can go out of their way to meet your every physical and intellectual need, yet completely miss opportunities to notice and respond to your emotional needs. If they don’t look at you, they may miss the fact that you’re feeling sad. If they don’t hear the frustration or fear in your voice, they may respond in ways that make you angrier or more fearful. When this happens, you realize that you’re well cared for, but you don’t feel loved. Without the facial, body language, and other nonverbal signals that convey emotional understanding and connection, you won’t feel loved and be emotionally fulfill.” (pp. 23-24)

Segal’s work is based on attachment theory, a concept that is essential to me in my work as a psychotherapist. Attachment theory is a very well-researched and well-accepted concept that explains that humans learn relationship patterns starting at birth based on consistent emotional attunement, responsiveness, and empathy of primary caregivers.

A “secure attachment pattern” teaches a child to accept care and develop a sense of connection with others. This helps the child learn a positive model of how another person feels about him and an abiding belief in self-esteem. It predicts that a person will likely grow into someone who has healthy, loving relationships with others and with himself.

Secure attachment also gives a person the experience of trusting relationships, which underlies future behaviors involving empathy and control of aggression.

In contrast, if a parent is emotionally unavailable and unable to develop a strong, nurturing bond with an infant, that child can develop deep-seated fears that he is inadequate and unlovable. “Insecure attachment” in childhood leads to fear and emotional reactivity when a person perceives he will be abandoned or rejected, even later in life.

Those who have insecure attachment often do not learn skills, such as emotional awareness, emotional regulation, self-acceptance, or self-compassion, which are key to self-attachment and good emotional health. In severe cases, because they fail to learn healthy emotional giving and receiving, they fail to learn social reciprocity skills and appear with flat affect and lack of emotionality.

With lack of attachment, a person fails, in some measure, to learn to speak the language of emotions — the unspoken, heart-felt way that humans seek and achieve a deep sense of belonging and acceptance. If you fail to learn this language, you may struggle to connect to your emotions, losing self-acceptance and self-understanding. You may also struggle to connect with others, thereby losing the potential healing power of attachment and emotional connection with others.

With the loss of both connection to self and others, this can cause of an important source of human suffering – loneliness.

Attachment even has implications for the development of neural connections in the brain during infancy.

As Segal notes: “[W]hen an infant feels loved, he or she undergoes profoundly positive effects in brain development. These studies also support the idea that feeling loved has beneficial impacts on our physiology, making us more resilient and nourishing our nervous and immune systems so we can better face life’s challenges. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that much of the loneliness, sadness, anger, and anxiety we feel are reflections of the emptiness we experience when we don’t feel loved.” (p. 2)

Seal’s book is based on current neurobiological research on the power of oxytocin, the “love hormone;” polyvagal theory; and the threat response. But it is eminently readable for the general public and is loaded with short case studies to illustrate her points.

I especially liked her emphasis on the need to slow down in order to feel loved.

“When we get too busy or too preoccupied to accommodate the slower pace required for emotional communication, we lose the hormonal rush that makes us feel loved. If we are always on the go, planning the next step, multitasking, or just too exhausted to notice, we will miss opportunities to feel loved or to make others feel loved.” (p. 31)

She offers a meditation for improving emotional awareness, a toolkit for change, and chapters on work and family relationships.

I’m looking forward to the book that is next up on my nightstand — Segal’s book “The Language of Emotional Intelligence: The Five Essential Tools for Building Powerful and Effective Relationships” (2008, McGraw Hill).

Lack of Assertiveness & Relationship Problems

When one or both members of a relationship have a lack of assertiveness it can lead to relationship problems.

In the short term, not speaking up may feel like a good solution. Unassertive people have good intentions: “If I don’t say anything negative or speak up, it will keep the peace.”

But in the long term it leads to problems for the relationship and for the unassertive person.

When one fails to establish boundaries and state a clear opinion, it certainly communicates to the partner that the Submissive person is giving way to the more Dominant partner, as I explain in “Pack Leader Psychology.” The Dominator may then take advantage of the Submissive person in unhealthy ways, perhaps even abuse.

Often a lack of assertiveness is learned in childhood, perhaps from parents who were also unassertive, or from parents who were dominating, emotionally or physically abusive or intrusive.

Children who experience either end of this parenting spectrum. learn that assertiveness is unsafe. Kids of abusive parents learn to lay low and avoid being any “trouble” and stirring up problems. Unassertive parents model relationships that are based on fear of disapproval and fear of conflict. Clearly, neither pattern is healthy for adult relationships.

The helplessness and disempowerment that accompany a lack of personal assertiveness is also unhealthy for the individual, often leading to anxiety and/or depression. When a person feels weak, this can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, as the person feels unable to manage even the most non-threatening of situations.

This leads directly to feelings of anxiety or fear/stress response. It can eventually lead to depressive feelings as the person gives up (“fold” response to fear) and numbs out the feelings of anxiety that are overwhelming.

Unassertive people also are likely to have low self-worth, which in and of itself can also lead to anxiety. Internal messages of shame and blame trigger the “fight-or-flight” feeling in the brain and body.

In relationships, if a person is not speaking up about her needs, her spouse may also sense her distance and also pull away emotionally and/or physically. This leaves her feeling emotionally alone, which can also trigger the fear response.

It’s a perfect storm of emotional problems all started with good intentions, but ending in many personal and interpersonal difficulties.

When in doubt, speak up!

What Dogs Teach Us About Yawning and Anxiety



A young patient of mind yawns regularly in session — and big yawns that she doesn’t cover with her hand… but manners are a topic for another post. Many therapists might either be offended at her boredom or check on how much sleep she is getting. I knew that it was just a sign of her anxiety.

While yawns can signal a need for oxygen or sleep, they can also signal that a person is feeling uncomfortable or in a fear state.

Arousal or fear travel two ways in the body. The brain can send out signals to the body, as in, “Hey that looks like a snake on the trail. Get ready to run.” Many don’t know that this also works in reverse. The body can also send signals to the brain to be on guard. A person who fidgets a lot or carries tension in her shoulders can also trigger the brain to become aroused and fearful based only on the physical actions. So yawning could also be seen as the body’s way of signaling the brain that it needs to calm down: “There is nothing to be worried about, because I am yawning, a sign of sleepiness.”

I remember when in my early 20s I would yawn a lot in certain settings, not realizing the implications related to anxiety. I now only yawn when I am truly tired.

Anxiety ranging from low-grade to panic attacks also can cause shallow or rapid breathing, which can reduce the amount of oxygen that gets to your lungs. Yawning can be the body’s way of signaling to your brain to slow down the breathing rate. Most of us when we get over a stressful event take a big breath of air and let out our stress with the exhale. A yawn may be a similar attempt by the body to achieve this stress reduction.

But yawns also have interpersonal significance. In the animal world, we know that yawns are a means of communicating anxious states between animals. When a calmer dog is around another more-anxious dog, he may yawn to communicate that he senses the anxiety and to signal to the anxious dog that he should calm down. I’ve heard many dog owners assume that their dog is tired when he yawns, when really the dog is anxious due to the owner’s anxiety or due to a stressful situation. The dog is signaling the owner to calm down, but the owner does not understand this communication.

Observe your dog. Does he yawn a lot in your presence or in certain situations, such as when the kids are acting out? Don’t assume he is tired.

Be sure to check with a physician if you find yourself yawning a lot. You may have sleep quality problems or other medical issues that need to be ruled out. Or you may just be anxious.

Parenting Lessons from Horse Trainers


739035_2008-half-arabian-chestnut-mare_photo_1_1419540419_imgI walked out into the waiting room at work to meet a new family for therapy and they arrived in the waiting room at the same time. The father was pushing their 6-year-old son into the room. The son was very clearly afraid, hesitant and clingy. The father was irritated and dismissively said: “What are you afraid of? There is nothing to be afraid of. You’ve walked into waiting rooms before.”

I had never met this child but I intervened immediately, addressing him directly: “Would you like to stand here by the door for a bit until you feel OK?” He nodded shyly and clung to his father. Thankfully, the father followed my lead and stopped being demanding of his son. I then commented to the boy (also modeling emotional attunement for his parents): “You looked a little scared when you came in. It can be a little upsetting coming to a new place, can’t it? It can take awhile to feel safe.” He nodded his head again.

I then said hello to the parents and by that time the child was fine. He walked into the waiting room himself, checked it out and then calmly followed me toward my office. His fear and clinging disappeared and he was relaxed. Total elapsed time was about 30 seconds.

I recalled a saying used in horse training that applies directly to the patience and emotional attunement also needed for parenting:

“If you act as if you have 15 minutes, it will take all day. If you act as if you have all day, it will take 15 minutes.” 

Just as with horses and dogs, a lack of awareness of a child’s fears and impatience will merely escalate those fears. Pushing for progress in training will guarantee the opposite.

With that anxious child, all it took was someone to notice his fear and honor it. I allowed him to stay where he felt safe and get his emotional feet under himself, and he then was fine seconds later. I reflected his feelings, acknowledged them and validated them. It was normal for him to feel scared and I shared that experience with him.

Imagine if the father had kept forcing the child into the room, telling him there was nothing to worry about, and perhaps getting increasingly angry and agitated himself. It’s not hard to imagine the child having an angry tantrum, sobbing or otherwise becoming emotionally dysregulated. Instead of 30 seconds of delay, it could have turned into 30 minutes of upset.

And the parent would likely blame the child for behavioral problems.

Then the child gets labeled as having ‘ADHD” or “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” and his self-worth gets lower and his behavior worsens.

Long term, if the child and parent experience enough of these incidents, it leads to a strained relationship due to poor bonding or attachment.

Lack of emotional attunement is at the heart of insecure attachments or bonds in relationships.

So many parents — most in fact — are more focused on behaviors than emotions. They fail to notice very important information the child is sending in a rush to accomplish a task or have the child behave a certain way. They often get a negative result — upset kids, oppositional behavior, and arguing.

Of course, the parents in the waiting room were running very late for the appointment and were anxious themselves. That certainly did not help this child arrive in a new environment in a calm, relaxed mood. Again, parents might blame the child for becoming upset, not realizing their involvement in that incident.

I have experienced this “15-minutes rule” many times when dog training. When I want to give my dog a shower, I take some deep breaths and relax myself first. Then I calmly approach her and slowly lead her into the shower. If I try to rush the process and become impatient, she will resist, making the job take even longer. If she starts to get anxious, I pause and let her calm down before moving forward into the bathroom or shower.

The “15-minute rule” also applies in the therapy room when trying to push patients through an emotional experience too quickly can lead them to never fully feel safe being in those emotions.

For parents, learning to be aware of or attuned to a child’s emotions can improve a child’s behaviors in the short term and the strength of the relationship long term. Research also shows it leads to improved emotional intelligence, improved resilience and a a reduced incidence of anxiety and depression in adulthood. Big gains from such a simple skill — a skill that even horse trainers know about.