This year the American Psychological Association (APA) released another disappointing study in their Stress in AmericaTM series. Why do I consider their annual reports disappointing? They perpetuate harmful illusions with the questions they ask in the survey.
According to Merriam-Webster, manage is a verb that means:
To have control of something
To take care of and make decisions about
To handle or direct with a degree of skill
To exercise executive, administrative, and supervisory direction of
To try to alter for a purpose
Nowhere in the definition of manage does it say “put one’s head in the sand and ignore the problem” nor does it say “ignore the problem by not thinking about it” or “don’t be proactive.”
In their annual survey, the APA asks over 3,000 participants what stress management techniques they use and provide the following possible answers:
Watching television or movies for more than two hours per day
Surfing the internet
Napping or sleeping
Play video games
None of these activities meet the definition of manage.
The APA could introduce real stress management methods and stop calling mere distractions stress management.
The APA does a good job of measuring how much stress Americans feel. The stress level Americans experience has a significant adverse effect on every area of our lives—health, relationships, career, finances, and leisure activities. Our lives are shorter and we are sicker (mentally and physically) than we would be if we were less stressed.
Education that informs people about the detriments of an action (or a failure to take beneficial actions) is a poor motivator. It’s the most common approach—but it is far from the best possible approach.
The publication seems designed to encourage people to talk to a psychologist “for a healthy mind and body.” Now, I have nothing against psychologists. They help a lot of people. But there are serious problems with this approach being the only solution promoted, including:
- Our country has a severe shortage of psychologists. On July 1, 2015, a 232 page list of about 3,000 counties that lack adequate resources to help people seeking mental health care was published in the Federal Register.
- Stigma prevents many individuals from seeking help from mental health professionals.
- The cost of counseling is a barrier many cannot overcome and poverty creates mental health problems that make it more difficult to recover from financial setbacks.
- At least 1/3 of Americans who need mental health care receive it from their primary care physicians, which means drugs not therapy. The problem with any drug-only approach is that it treats the symptoms of the illness, but does nothing to cure it.
“Mental health disorders are common in the United States, affecting some 44 million adults and 13.7 million children each year. . . Despite the facts that mental health disorders are as disabling as heart disease or cancer in terms of premature death and lost productivity . . . fewer than half of adults and only one-third of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive treatment”.
–Center for American Progress, 2010
The reason is we do not understand how to accurately interpret and respond to our emotions. This problem is not limited to the United States. Depression is at epidemic levels worldwide. Researchers recently rejected long-standing theories about emotions that were commonly accepted and taught for eighty years.
Can the new theory solve the mental health crisis in America?
Yes. When human behavior is viewed through the lens of the new theory, formerly inexplicable behavior makes sense and is even predictable. Understanding how to interpret and respond to our emotions improves mental health and overall outcomes in every area of life.
Can we teach enough people how to accurately interpret their emotions?
Yes. Teaching individuals how to accurately interpret their emotions can be done in both online and in person classroom settings. Costly one-on-one sessions are not required to teach the techniques. The basics are simple enough that young children can understand them.
While it won’t completely eliminate mental health problems, it will reduce the burden significantly. The root cause of depression, anxiety, and most suicides could be prevented before mental illness develops. The techniques reduce stress at the root cause. Chronic stress sets off bio-chemical reactions in our bodies that lead to depression, anxiety, most suicides, and even psychosis.
The new understanding of emotions is that the purpose of emotions is to guide us toward self-realization and away from danger. Understanding emotional guidance is like developing the ability to self-administer cognitive behavior therapy, but unlike during therapy, you don’t have to explain to anyone else what you’re thinking and feeling.
Today, most people believe their emotions validate the thought that preceded it—as if the emotional response to a thought validates the accuracy of the thought. If they feel fear when they hear about crime on the news, they believe they should be afraid. That is an inaccurate interpretation of their emotional guidance that leads to lower emotional states. Today, misinterpretations of the meaning of emotions happens frequently throughout the day, which compounds the problem.
The new method of interpreting emotions increases psychological and emotional flexibility, which increases resilience and happiness and lowers stress. With epidemic levels of depression and anxiety decreasing the quality of life of millions each year, people deserve the best possible information.
Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., DeWall, C. N., & Zhang, L. (2007, May 16). How Emotion Shapes Behavior: Feedback, Anticipation, and Reflection, Rather Than Direct Causation. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(2), 167-203.
Corrigan, P. (2004). How Stigma Interferes With Mental Health Care. American Psychologist, 59(7), 614-25.
Russell, L. (2010). Mental Health Care Services in Primary Care: Tackling the Issues in the Context of Health Care Reform. Washington D.C.: Center for American progress.
Vohs, K. D. (2013, August 30). The Poor’s Poor Mental Power. Science Magazine, 341, pp. 969-970.
Wang, P. S., Demler, O., Olfson, M., Pincus, H. A., Wells, K. B., & Kessler, R. C. (2006). Changing Profiles of Service Sectors Used for Mental Health Care in the U.S. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(7), 1187-1198.
 (Corrigan, 2004)
 (Vohs, 2013)
 (Wang, Demler, Olfson, Pincus, Wells, & Kessler, 2006)
 (Russell, 2010)
 (Baumeister, Vohs, DeWall, & Zhang, 2007)