– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

“There are not enough good things said about the people that put themselves in harm’s way every day for us. What does that say about us?” wrote Julie Hébert.

Police (and Fire and Ambulance personnel) keep us safe from ourselves and clean up our messes. They respond to the results of human pain and depravity, accidents and mistakes and mindless hurrying and inattention, suicides, crimes of passion or planned crime assisted by opportunity. You and your loved ones would not be safe or subject to being saved were it not for our police.

Many of us have acquired our understanding of police work and life chiefly through the lens of movies and TV. We might look up from time to time and remind ourselves that TV is not a faithful presentation of reality. It’s entertainment, the News too, developed to make money when advertisers buy commercial time. Our minds tend to immerge into, or merge with, the stuff on the screen.

Police work, on the other hand, is an immersion into the often unseen reality around us that is not in any way for the faint of heart. Police spend about 80% of their time with that 20% of the population who are the most tragic and unfortunate among us, and who are often violent, addicted, abused and suffering terribly. They expose themselves to situations and conditions from which most of us would run. Police enter worlds foreign to most of us, the world of the abused child or spouse, of shocking suicide, of those who’ve been raped, beaten, cheated; they witness the hatred among us, the damage done by people to other people.

“How was work today, dear?”

Police have huge hearts. I’ve seen their pain and their dedication to doing the right thing, to protect us and to catch the bad guys that would otherwise do us harm. They care deeply about their city and the people and families and businesses and brick and mortar that make it up.

If we know that our soldiers are risking everything that they have to serve Canada in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we need to also know that police embrace huge personal risks for our wellbeing. On a ride along I’ve seen female officers wade in to a stew of drunks fighting in a dark alley, replacing chaos with order and safety (although the drunks surely thought less of it). Even so, police work may not be the physically most dangerous job in the world, but it is one of the most emotionally dangerous jobs out there.

The work may be dull and passive or hyperactive and pressured in the extreme, changing abruptly without forewarning. If you know the exhaustion of vigilance, straining to influence outcomes as though through hope and thought alone, hour upon hour, you might know part of the burden that accompanies investigation or search and rescue.

A recent paper in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior confirms what all officers lament, which is that the uncivil, discourteous, and disrespectful behaviours by the public are a significant source of their stress.

I’ve heard some of their examples of how the public behaves and you have to shake your head. The public sometimes acts like a teenager in full huff, biting the hand that helps them. Suffering undeserved abuse by an ungrateful public is terribly ironic and rather inhumane. But then it’s a cop’s job, as it is a parent’s, to be polite and patient and to labour emotionally (another stressor).

Please, be an adult with our police. Practice courtesy, play nice, say thank you and respect that they are people doing a very difficult job – for you! And if you offend in some way and get caught, remember, it’s your fault.


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

What Scrooge might have said but which Dickens wrote elsewhere (A Tale of Two Cities) seems to apply to the Christmas season for many of us: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”.

The Christmas season is trans-sensory. The music, lights, aromas, tastes and new winter’s chill encourage heart-glow. Messages bloom about togetherness. The scent of love and goodwill mingles with mistletoe. People come together to celebrate their knowing of one another and the bounty of family and friendship.

Our culture has taught us since birth a felt sense of what is important for Christmas and the Holiday Season. But on the other hand, we have to be careful that what we actually do and get involved in and realize during this time of year is not unhealthy.

For many people the danger of hope is felt most acutely at this time of year. It’s a problem for people who feel separate, injured and remote from the happiness that others and the season itself prescribes.

A recent study found that non-celebrants (e.g., Sikhs, Buddhists) felt some decrease in well-being in the presence of Christmas decorations. A follow-up study found that reduced feelings of inclusion explained the change in well-being. Dominant cultural symbols in a culturally diverse society, even those that carol good-will toward everyone, may unintentionally serve to alienate and depress.

And from the ‘No surprises here file’ come the findings from a paper in which children’s letters to Santa were analyzed. They report that the majority of letters pleaded wants and desires, with a minimum of needs and hopes and dreams conveyed. The researchers concluded that “this implies that for children Christmas seems to be a rather unspiritual festival concerning having things rather than dreams coming true”. The spirit of post-modern consumption conditions the cradle-to-grave splurging that advertizers are shooting for, embodied in the U.S. Black Friday – but more than the Friday seems to be so blackened.

People spend money like there’s no tomorrow. The problem is that there is a tomorrow, Virginia, and it brings bills of Christmas past. Is there freedom and choice here? To spend more than we have or more than we can afford creates a stress that we all know too well. Being realistic is always a gift to our health, and particularly so with our finances at this time of year. If your children’s wish lists are beyond what is appropriate financially or otherwise, an opportunity presents itself to talk with them about money and the greater meanings in life.

Jolly Old Saint Cynic-less may not see the sad truths and cultural dramas that play out at this time of year. But the seasonal spirit and the hope it promotes undoubtedly nudge a prevailing positive shift. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any recent research showing the healthfulness of Christmas but one. A large British study reported that people suffering family and partner relationship problems and social isolation commit deliberate self-harm less during the week of Christmas. But people who episodically used alcohol spiked a 250% increase in self-harm on New Year’s Day.

The heartfelt gift of the seasonal values of goodwill, love, compassion and generosity is the wisdom and light that can’t be bought. If only those values were avidly promoted year-round; a New Year’s resolution, anyone?

Help From Einstein

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Einstein was not simply a physicist. He offered wisdom for all seasons of life and existence. At one time the whole world looked to him for guidance, like an oracle. He said that his genius was to look in to things deeply and to see with an uncommon clarity untethered to what we think we know. Let’s have an annotated look at some of his wise equations to get some ideas about searching our own life’s dark matter.

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” Women too! The difference between looking and thinking is the wisdom here. We can get quite caught up in thinking that things are a certain way because our own thinking seductively feels true. Thinking is undoubtedly a powerful and transformative ability, but we can get hijacked by it. A partial inventory of problematic types of thinking includes thinking that is self-critical, catastrophic, magical and superstitious, irrational, anxious, prejudiced, delusional, counterfactual, dysfunctional, ruminative and dogmatic. Instead, if we can remember to just stop and look and accept things as they are, we’re then better set up to work with what’s true. Lotteries would disappear.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Most disputes with a loved one are not resolved by more disputing. Usually what breaks a dispute is one person shifting and softening in some compassionate way, suddenly seeing the other person instead of clinging to their own rigid view. Thinking can keep us from foraging elsewhere. Recall that anxiety (future thinking) and depression (negative thinking) are epidemic.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Thanks for the diagnosis, Albert! Sometimes we think and think and think, going to absurd lengths to try to divine what someone is going to do or why they said a certain thing. And we keep on thinking, unsettled that we don’t know. Maybe if we realize that it’s true that we can’t know now, we can stress a little less.

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” If that was true in his time, what about today? Technology is now substantially managing our occupational, financial, social and emotional life. The tail might be wagging the dog.

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” This one feels like a big bag of groceries, a candy store. It recalls the sorry bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” What matters may not be what we expect, and what we expect may not be what matters. Opening up to look at your life as it actually is, with curiosity and interest, lets you tap in to intuition, feeling and a personal knowing that offers better guidance than any rational accounting of your life.

“Everything should be as simple as it is, but not simpler.” We should be careful with fast fixes, pat answers (sorry to all Pats out there) and prescriptive advice. Oprah knows that weight loss is more complicated than any advice that her show can package.

“One may say the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” This is perhaps one of the most optimistic insights of all time. Somehow this universe gave rise to us and to our capacity to know this universe and ourselves. When your life seems incomprehensible, please know that it only seems that way. It might be that, by stopping and looking and accepting things just as they are, it gets a little clearer. When we “Ah ha!” we’re suddenly seeing something that’s true, and a little of the dark matter becomes instead something that we comfortably know.

On Being Private

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Our culture does a pretty impressive job of teaching us to show each other that we’re, “Just fine, thanks”. The many ways in which our culture cultivates this kind of individual need to show that there are ‘no flies on us’ is an interesting subject in itself.

But if we’re all really OK, why are sales of psychopharmaceuticals powering through the roof? Why has the habitual use of substances, sex, food, gambling, consuming and shopping, and aggression in all its many forms become so widespread?

The suicides of nice guy-cum-hockey brute Wade Belak and others this past summer point to tragic truths beyond the confines of hockey today. They tell a story about our cultural imperative to be private, to rarely reveal and work with our fears and pain. Most of our private effort to not ‘burden’ other people with our problems derives from our own fear that the struggles that we have just shouldn’t even exist. All of us know the feeling of the social fear of being judged, criticized, ridiculed, dismissed, if we open up – the shame!

This privacy is conditioned by the messages from our ambient culture and intergenerational family history that teach that we shouldn’t be suffering; that, ironically, “There must be something wrong with me if there’s something wrong with me”. This may be one of the most insidious, cruel and pervasively damaging cultural perversions out there!

This privacy and shame arrests the very process that we need to encourage in order to grow and find contentment – it keeps us from dealing with life and our feelings effectively. If, like an enforcer in the NHL, we find ourselves in a career or some situation that causes us pain, and we don’t look at that pain and come to understand what it’s about, we’re trapped. To be trapped or powerless or defeated by life itself is to set up conditions that will often lead to depression.

Our individual and collective capacity to deal well with anything relies substantially on what we know about it. Consider that we need the World Health Organization and dedicated scientists to use all of the tools of science to look carefully in to any new disease threat. They investigate sources of new virus strains, learn about their nature and how they interact with hosts, and ultimately how we might deal with them so that pandemics are averted and lives are saved. Nothing useful can be done about something that we know too little about. And this research has to be done honestly, without contamination from business interests.

Swinging that logic over to our individual lives and mental health plainly indicates that our fears and anxieties must also be looked into, carefully and honestly, instead of ignored. Self-regulation requires self-engagement.

We each have some state of physical health, dental health and mental health, all of which benefit from preventive and remedial care. The products of neglected mental health include abusing our children (which feeds teen suicide), abusing ourselves in a zillion ways, physical illness, divorce, crime, greed.

Intellectual self-analysis is a withered pretender – your mental health most commonly relies on facing and knowing your feelings, learning how and why they arise and learning how to work with them. Just experimenting with lightly touching in to opening up with someone you trust, someone who’s healthy and accepting, starts us all in the right direction.

When we try to open up with a friend, a parent, a religious figure, a therapist, we’re taking an uncommonly big and brave step. Also, please remember the Golden Rule and watch your judgement, criticism, gossip and the other ways you keep this problem going.

Texting and Driving

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Here’s your Thursday skill-testing question: Put the following three actions in order, from least dangerous to most dangerous – driving while intoxicated; driving while talking on a cell phone; driving while texting. A collection of studies completed over the past six years or so, using simulations and naturalistic situations, indicates that the correct ordering is the one above that you just read. Texting-while-driving results in an approximate 20-fold increase in collision risk!

Now this research is just getting going, so please remember that comparing apples to oranges (does texting your girlfriend during a spat equate to four beers? Six?) takes a lot of work to sort out. But the evidence is crystal clear that if you’re not paying full and clear attention while operating a vehicle (or for that matter while operating a chain saw or having an important conversation with someone) then your performance will suffer very significantly, as may your health.

Some recent surveys shows that 20 – 33% of young drivers text when they drive. Many jurisdictions, including Ontario, have banned texting while driving, but some unfortunate effects may have ensued. There’s some evidence that the bans on texting may actually increase our vulnerability to having an accident, maybe because texters feel they have to be more awkwardly sneaky to text without getting caught. This just takes even more attention away from what has become the secondary task at hand, driving. Officials in accident-prone Abu Dhabi noted a 20-40% drop in accidents during the BlackBerry outage in October this year!

A potentially valuable question is, what predicts texting while driving? At this time we don’t know very much at all about what individual factors may lead some people to forgo safety and to text while driving. I would wager that those who do text and drive would already know intellectually that the act is dangerous. The issue touches in to that more general question and observation, why do we do things that we know are bad for us? We have to recognize that there exist internal influences, of which we may be unaware from time to time, that powerfully compel unhealthy behaviours, with inattentive driving being a case in point. Would being aware of our moment to moment unsafe motives and impulses make us (and everyone else) safer?

Research published this month in the journal Personality and Individual Differences investigated whether people who are more mindful, more attentive to their moment to moment thoughts and feelings, text-and-drive less. They measured mindfulness and texting-while-driving frequency in 231 undergraduates. They also asked each driver to rate themselves on statements such as, “When I’m feeling upset, I send or read text messages to distract myself”, to learn about any emotional and attentional motives that may influence texting-while-driving.

The study found that people who are more mindful text significantly less while driving and take more care to preserve their attention, such as by turning their phones off when they’re driving. Further, emotional motives seem to be a considerable determinate of many driver’s texting. Emotional upset, irritation and social curiosity were more frequently reported as motivators for texting among those who text-and-drive. The more mindful the driver, the lesser the role of emotional motives for texting.

While this is preliminary research, the findings point to the well-established view that we humans are driven to distraction by the internal flurry of emotional events. Parents and friends, as well as occupational health and safety professionals, would be wise to look at the emotional and attentional underpinnings of unsafe actions, and to consider that mindful awareness is a prerequisite to emotion regulation and the wiser mediation of complicated situations.