Psychological Self-Help

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beginning parachutists but seasoned jumpers concentrate on
accomplishing the task (like professional performers on stage) and
have to release the stress before and after the jump. Epstein (1982)
points out the similarity to being alert and calm during a near accident
but becoming shaky and scared afterwards. 
If certain thoughts can reduce stress, other thoughts should be
able to increase stress. Some interesting research by Andrew Baum
deals with persons who had been in Vietnam or near the nuclear
accident at Three Mile Island (Adler, 1989). Persons who continued to
suffer intense prolonged stress had many more intrusive disturbing
thoughts about their experiences than persons with the same
background who experienced less stress. The question is: does more
intense physiological reactions of stress lead to more worried thoughts
(seems likely) or do distressing, unpleasant thoughts raise our stress
level (seems just as likely)? Another question is: do low stress people
just avoid unpleasant memories and thoughts or have they handled
the stress in some other way? One theory, suggested by Wegner
(1989) and Pennebaker (1991), and supported by some fascinating
studies, is that trying not to think about something stressful (i.e.
denying, suppressing, or not disclosing) actually results in more
uncontrollable negative thoughts about the situation. The deniers and
non-talkers believe they are solving the problem when actually they
may be making it worse. What is a better solution? Wegner and
Pennebaker and almost all insight therapists would say these people
need to think and talk about their stressful experiences and express
fully their emotions. Cognitive researchers disagree, believing some
people simply think about traumatic experiences differently than
others and, thus, experience different levels of stress. Thus, cognitive
therapists focus on changing the thoughts, not expressing the feelings.
Research of this reduction-of-feelings vs. cathartic disclosure issue is
badly needed. 
Self-confidence in coping skills  
Naturally, if our perceptions and thoughts determine our feelings,
then it is a small step to seeking mind control methods, which the
Greeks did 2000 years ago. If methods for altering your own thoughts
are important, then your faith or self-confidence in using your mind
logically and effectively becomes important. Bandura (1977, 1980,
1986) and his Social Learning Theory deserves much of the credit for
highlighting the notion of self-efficacy. When cognitive psychology
filled the void of behaviorism in the 1970's, the view of man returned
to "man is a rational organism" (or, if not rational, at least controlled
primarily by the mind). The conscious mind preoccupied psychologists,
instead of Skinner's behavior and environment, Freud's unconscious
instincts, or psychotherapy's emotions. A cognitive orientation
suggested that solutions to our problems involve acquiring the skills,
knowledge, and confidence necessary to handle the current situation.
That sounded reasonable and hopeful. Thus, the big push arose in the
1970's for cognitive self-control and self-help. And that mental set
determined that I sit here day after day summarizing how you can
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