What motivates us during troubling times?

Good intentions often don’t result in concrete lifestyle changes, as most of us know. Flooded with emotions of anxiety, depression and of feeling overwhelmed, we often turn to quick fix solutions to try and lower such negative emotions. Ben Katz, PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has been studying what motivates change during therapy and why certain people thrive under stress and other people develop severe psychological symptoms.

“We have emotions for a reason. Inside Out [the movie] did a great job with that,” said Katz. “We feel anxiety and fear if we’re sensing danger. We feel sad if we need to digest loss. Reacting to the Coronavirus situation with negative emotions is perfectly adaptive – it’s a negative situation!”

Ben Katz

These emotions begin to become problematic when they begin to form a cycle of reactivity which generates stronger and more negative emotions and is very hard to escape from.

As Katz explained in his brief on-camera interview (viewable at the beginning of this article), these negative emotions can lead us to try desperately to reduce them: breathing exercises, meditation, connecting with friends. All these activities have the potential to enhance our coronavirus experience but they’re difficult to keep up. Some of it depends on our motivations. When we are motivated to reduce our negative experiences, stop their presence entirely or get relief from intense pain, the motivation is not enough to sustain the activity. After all, stress is inescapable right now. On the other hand, positive goals like creating personal or social change through this difficult situation, is a goal that can be accomplished. When we set goals that we can accomplish, they may help generate enough motivation to actually see the task through.

Katz has spent the past few years, among other projects, studying why people with phobias or anxiety are able to take part in the therapies which may be most useful in overcoming their difficulties.

“As a therapist, I know that one of the best ways of beating a phobia is to carefully confront it with a trained practitioner and yet for some that confrontation is successful and maintained and for others, the impact is minimal,” Katz said. “What we have discovered is that when a participant takes part in the exposure to the feared object as fast as possible and in order to rid themselves of the overwhelming negative experience, they are far less successful than when their motivation is positive, for example to have better experiences with their family, to be able to attend social gatherings, or to enjoy new adventures.”

The same can be said for our experiences during enforced isolation. Work may be a prime example of a positive experience that can become negative. At first work gives structure, and you are thankful that you still have employment. You may have heard that structure is important, and this motivates your productivity. But then, that positive motivation instead changes to reducing negative emotions like guilt or anxiety.

“You lean further into working and try to take fewer breaks. Maybe you feel guilty when you do and start worrying even more about keeping up with your workload,” Katz said.

This, he explained, is when the cycle can flip and what was once a positive motivation, can become negative and all your attention focused on just reducing said emotions. Furthermore, this cycle now becomes unworkable, a constant drive to reduce these emotions actually precludes positive experiences from occurring, and one can become incredibly stuck.

So how do we reduce the risk of this happening?

Katz gives three crucial tips: “Monitor yourself to learn what makes you feel good and what makes you feel bad. When does social media stop being a fun distraction and start leaving a bad taste in your mouth? How much sun do you need to feel good?

“Practice radical self-compassion, when you give yourself a break, you open up the potential for more positive experiences.

“And finally, this time of uncertainty can trigger a lot of issues on the backburner – issues with family, with food, alcohol and other substances. Just because we’re recommending isolation doesn’t mean you can’t find help. Many resources and professionals are migrating online and are only a Google search away.”

See the full interview above or a Hebrew version is available on our facebook page and youtube channel as is our schedule of upcoming lectures.

About the Author
Anna Harwood-Gross is a Psychologist and the Director of Research at METIV-the Israel Center for Psychotrauma in Jerusalem.
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