Life is never easy; there are always problems and stressors that constantly appear in our lives in a daily rate. We all have ways to solve such difficulties, some may be good and others may be ineffective. Dr. Ilene Cohen specializes in counseling others making their lives meaningful through alleviating stress through effective methods. She offers significant lessons and messages through her blog and articles, making sure that those who wishes to lead a good life can do so.
*Please note that this interview was quite extensive so some of what Dr. Cohen has told me during the interview may be compressed*
What interested you in the field of stress psychology/counseling?
I really enjoyed studying about the mind and human behavior, what makes people do what they do. I always write up on it and once I started going to school for it, I became more engaged. So seeing that I enjoyed that, I studied it more and then when it comes to stress and anxiety, I saw how important it is and for our culture and people when it comes to suffering with being anxious and stressed in daily life. I really got interested in it more and the more I wrote about it, the more feedback I got from people and I studied it further.
A lot of your tips to handling stress involves knowing who you are and what you can do with your life. What are some of the limitations/challenges do you see during your career and/or with people who have little to no resources to cope?
One thing is that we live in a culture where life is quick and has fast-bandaid solutions, which makes sense if people feel stressed and they want to alleviate it quickly. However, that is not necessarily helpful to the situation. So when coming in contact with people, they’re already under medication from whatever they’re suffering from or they’re seeking out medication or techniques/quick ways to alleviate their problems. When working with people, I take a different approach and I like to go into what could be done with them, to talk about their family origin since their anxiety and stress are passed down generation to generation. The way we deal with stress comes from how we see our family deal with similar problems. So I kind of go into things that people rarely think about before they seek a therapist, but when we unravel those things, it makes more sense to them.
Much of your article offers the advice of acknowledging your anxiety/emotions stemming from problems you face. Why do you think people focus on trying to fix their anxiety rather than the problem itself?
I don’t think that people are necessarily doing that on purpose. They may not realize that there are other things going on when going through anxiety. There is anxiety where its acute, where people may know that there is a stressor and there is a solution (like getting a flat tire and replacing), so it helps us survive. However, with chronic stressors and/or panic attacks, its very uncomfortable for people and people want an immediate fix for that. Some of our solutions/fixes can be unfortunately bad and ineffective and, in turn, contribute to the chronic anxiety. Since we live in a culture where most doctors and healthcare practitioners try and heal the symptom rather than the problem, which solidifies the idea that anxiety is the problem rather than a sign.
They might not understand that they may feel anxious that there is an underlying problem, something that is not right in front of them. This contributes to the belief that the anxiety is a problem in its own self. If people took a step back and assessed that their body is responding to a threat and avoiding those avoidance behaviors/coping, they are able to understand what is really going on. Then those changes will take place, but you do need that awareness piece and you need to know that anxiety isn’t just the issue.
Another thing that I think is that people are busy! They don’t have the time to figure it all out. They can’t find what’s making them anxious and what they can do to fix it now. We have jobs, families, and bills and we don’t have the time or think that it is helpful to truly solve their problems. They just do what they can do to keep their minds off of what is going on with them.
You say that being sad is normal, to allow pain to enter your life. What are the importance of having meaningful times of negativity?
We live in a pop culture of happiness, which is great. But if you are just being happy for the sake of avoiding things that are happening in your life, that when it becomes an issue. You’re not dealing with the sadness and emotions that comes with the process taking place. It’s more about accepting, for example accepting a harsh breakup is difficult and takes time to heal. Once again, we live in a culture where we buffer it out by being positive (“it didn’t work out for a reason, be positive!”) rather than processing what went wrong in the relationship and how you can consider what happened there. If we just jump back to being positive, it may not seem genuine in suppressing an actual reaction. It’s not necessary that I want people to feel bad or upset, but to accept the natural reactions to the stressors, try and get through it, understand what happens. Once you’ve done that, you can say that you’re ready and think what is out there for me.
With college students finding their calling in life and values, what are the important factors that are crucial to the values that truly matter to us?
That’s a good question. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be a balancing act. Something that is important to know about your values is building a strong sense of self. Really knowing who you are and what you want and you do this with each experience you face. For college students, you’re still young and you feel like you need to know the answers [to what you want to do in your life/career/major]. When you’re so anxious from making big decisions, people can go with the flow, do what their peers are doing, follow the fad, because in the moment you are reducing your anxiety about answering in such big questions. You really don’t need to have the answers now or what fits for you. You may not know until you make a mistake, you follow a path you may end up regretting and you change such decisions. Just think of the difference of feeling and thinking and what you want in terms of your future/long-term goals compared to what you are doing now that fits with said goals and values. The decisions you make in college: your friends, majors, classes, fraternities, etc. will help you decide to make your values.
There are other factors that comes into our values, our families, our religions, etc. It’s ok to question those values and to take a second look at those if they fit you or not. As we grow to think more, you can look into that and if it works for you on who you are and what you want to be in the future.
Where do you think social support fits in making life stress-free? Do you think that unconditional love can foster self-acceptance, happiness, and high quality of life?
It’s less of a challenge to love yourself if you are surrounded by people who accept you of who you are. You can still love yourself and be with people who disapprove of you, although I don’t want you to be surrounded by people who do not appreciate who you are. You may have a family member who is critical of your life, but you find strength in that depending on how you look at it, especially if it helps you develop a sense of self-love. You don’t take their criticisms very personally and those criticisms could be more about themselves. People are seeing you through their own perspectives and possibly involving their own personal problems. Self-love is having the freedom of being with people who may not be happy with you entirely, but still having the ability to love yourself.
Although you are a psychologist that specializes in stress, do you ever fall in pitfalls caused by your own stress and anxiety?
Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t. Anxiety is always existent in our lives. As a psychologist, its important for us to perform the techniques that I would provide to my clients. Something that I like to do is that I try to be more objective to the situation and pay attention to the processes that is going on. I take a moment to be aware of my bodily process and natural reactions, such as my shoulders being tense when I’m anxious, rather than necessarily fixing it. It brings more thinking to the emotional process.
I would say that I have an easier time alleviating my anxiety, not only in having the knowledge of how to, but the ability to apply these techniques. Some clients come in and would surprise me if they are able to solve these problems easier than I did , but they may had a better starting point.
What are some of the stress intervention strategies do you think have potency in the future?
Meditation is big, which makes sense. What we have to understand is that some techniques may not be solutions to our problems. Meditation is useful for managing our emotions and acute stress. When it comes to chronic anxiety, it could be just another avoidance technique. You have to beaware that meditation is very useful if it helps you have clear head on what is going on and how to respond. But my fear is that there could be new things that are more of a quick fix, only managing the anxiety for a moment and makes you feel better just for a second (like taking drugs, be it xanax or something else). You have to be very careful with what you choose, see if it serves your purpose and helps diffuse a problem.
Another thing that I’ve seen is that people jump from relationship to relationship. People don’t feel secure when they’re not happy with somebody.
For the last question, are there any messages you would want to offer to the readers?
I’d say, anything with your life and the situations you face, move towards managing your anxiety rather than solving it immediately. Learn to manage yourself in certain situations and to remain present in those situations versus trying to get rid of your anxiety.
As someone who is very passionate about the topic of stress psychology, I always look forward on finding ways that I can help make my life easier by dealing with my problems more effectively. With the help of Dr. Cohen, I am sure I am able to.
If you’d like to know more about how to live a stress-free life, feel free to visit Dr. Cohen’s website where you can find her articles detailing what you can do to make better of your life.