Happy Leap Day…well, I think…

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On this, the last day of February, I recall how I used to pity those poor kids who could only celebrate their birthdays on the actual date, every couple of years.  I felt uncomfortable about the ambiguous nature of the leap year birthday. I mean, those poor kids had to hesitate and figure out an understandable response to the question, “How old are you?”.

I have always had a distaste for ambiguity.  Therefore, I ask a lot of questions.  (Liars HATE it that I ask a lot of questions.  I catch them off guard, it seems…)  I ask people a lot of questions, not because I’m nosy but because when I have all the facts about a given situation, I can make better decisions for myself.  It isn’t a judgement issue.  It’s more like:  “If you’re going to do this….then I’m going to do that.”   “If you are going to call back later, I’ll leave my phone on.  If not, I’ll turn it off so I won’t be disturbed while I work.”  It isn’t that I’m asking someone TO call back.  Whatever their decision about this is, will be fine with me.  I just want to know one way or the other so I can take action accordingly.

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Turns out that science has now substantiated why ambiguity bugs me ( or all of us) as much as it does.   The phenomenon  actually screws with our heads.   According to a study published in the Journal of Science, the reason lies in how the brain responds emotionally, and sometimes, even illogically, when forced to make decisions based on conflicting or little evidence.   These so-called ambiguous decisions are different from decisions that we think of as risky decisions.  No wonder the person who is being lied to, for example, appears so nutty to the rest of the world. That person is being fed conflicting information.   The heart hears what it wants to hear, but the head says, “Um….hold on there just a minute….That doesn’t make sense!”

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Wait….If it looks like a duck…then, it IS a duck….but it also looks like a rabbit.  Which do I choose?

When faced with a risky decision, one  is not sure about the outcome of a particular choice but can have a notion about the probability of success. In an ambiguous decision, a person is ignorant of both factors.  Thus, the uncomfortable feeling….the uncertainty, and sometimes illogical and absurd behaviors.

Brain specialists  would say ambiguity is the discomfort from knowing there is something you don’t know that you wish you did.  This probably stems back to the fight or flight area of the brain, the hippocampus, and is a matter of survival.   In the previously mentioned experiment,  subjects were given the opportunity to place  ambiguous bets while their brains were scanned using a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI).  In this part of the experiment, participants  were given the choice between placing a monetary bet  on the chances of drawing a red card from a “risky” deck that had 20 red cards and 20 black cards…that is, where the probability of choosing either color was 50-50, and making the same bet with an “ambiguous” deck where the color composition of the cards was unknown.

In the majority of  cases, the participants  decided  to place the risky bet. Logically, however, both bets would have been equally good because in both cases, the chance of pulling a red card on the first draw was 50-50.

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The brain scans taken during the experiment revealed that ambiguous betters were often accompanied by activation of the parts of the brain known as the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).  These are  two areas of the brain that are involved in the whole emotions processing thing.   The  amygdala has been found to be closely associated with fear, which, again, harkens back to being in survival mode.   If you think about it, a correlation between aversion to ambiguous decisions and activation of emotional parts of the brain makes  perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view.  Do I go into that dark cave or don’t I?  Well, first, I need to know if a saber toothed tiger is in there, right?  And I’m going to be a little nervous about it until I find out.  Should I leave my boyfriend or not….Well, first, I need to find out if he really IS cheating on me.  In the modern human brain, this translates into a reluctance to bet on or against an event if it seems at all ambiguous.

The results of this study could help those of us in the field of Psychology,  understand how humans make decisions in the real world, because the choices people make are often based on very limited information.  (i.e…..All signs point to cheating, but he denies it….or I’m not going to walk into that dark cave if there’s a tiger in there, because it will eat me alive. )

Makes sense to me.

Anyway….Happy Birthday, Leapers…er…Leap Yearlings…um…people whose birthdays are on leap year.  Here’s a nice mug.  Have some coffee.

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Sick All the Time…..

Have you ever known someone who was sick virtually all the time?  Not REALLY sick…such as an illness caused by a life threatening disease such as cancer or kidney failure …but someone who spends most of his or her life in bed complaining of unspecific symptoms?  It could be a headache…or a backache….or a sore thumb….or heart palpitations.  It could manifest as allergies or cold symptoms or low energy or even a mild fever.  This is what is known as Somatic Symptom Disorder or Hypochondria.   These people are often anxiety ridden, fearful, angry or all three, and they do not know how to remedy their situations, so they take to their beds with virtually every symptom under the sun. The illnesses and symptoms frequently shift from one thing to another, all in the name of avoiding something in their lives that is unpleasant…whether past, present or fear of something in the future.

While the symptoms of Hypochondria are not, in and of themselves, dangerous, convincing oneself of an illness that doesn’t exist can actually lead to that or other diseases occurring.  A study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, suggests that the anxiety associated with Somatic Symptom Disorder can actually lead to the physical manifestation of the malady being imagined.

What causes Somatic Symptom Disorder?  Well….There are many causes, and many of them go hand-in-hand.  For example the person in a bad relationship where there is physical violence, verbal abuse, threats, public humiliation, embarrassment can fit into several different categories and can manifest the symptoms of Hypochondria in various ways.

Here are some of the causes:

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  • A History of Physical and/or Sexual Abuse Observing or experiencing physical and sexual abuse, particularly as a child, but also as an adult, can result in a heightened sense of physical vulnerability and lead a person to suspect serious health issues when they are not present. A history of abuse can also lead a person to feel a sense of insecurity in their interpersonal attachments, which causes them to engage in compensatory care-seeking behavior.
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  • A Bad Relationship  Hypochondria can occur when someone is part of an abusive relationship, especially if one is does not have strong coping skills.  People who have difficulty expressing their true emotions, whether it is due to the way they were raised to behave or to traumatic past experiences or fear of their current abusive  situations may develop symptoms of feigned illnesses as a coping mechanism.  The illnesses they manifest take them out and keep them under cover (literally) until they can feel safe again
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  • Unhappiness   Chronically unhappy individuals can also manifest symptoms of Hypochondria to take their minds off of their problems.  For instance, a person who is unhappy in her job, or the man who is hooked up with a woman he doesn’t want to be with can convince herself or himself that a true illness exists as a means of coping with his or her unhappiness.
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  • Serious Illnesses or Deaths of Family Members or Friends Seriously ill family members or friends can create an environment, for a child especially, where love and attention are directly linked to illness. Observing this, the child may assume that they must be ill to deserve love and attention, and continue to hold this belief subconsciously even into adulthood. When a close family member or friend dies, at any point in a person’s life, the shock and grief related to the death can easily trigger fear and obsessive concerns about personal health.
  • Difficulty in Expressing Emotions People who have difficulty in expressing their emotions, whether it is due to the way they were raised to behave or to traumatic past experiences that caused them to feel “safer” at an emotional distance from other people, may find that the only way to connect emotionally with others is to provoke concern in them regarding potential health problems. A person who does this may not even realize they are doing it, apart from being aware on some level, perhaps even subconsciously, that being sick and having people worry about them makes them feel better.
  • A Hypochondriacal or Overly Protective Parental Figure or Spouse   Learned behavior from a hypochondriacal caregiver is a prominent cause of hypochondria. Behaviors taught to a person during childhood are likely to persist into adulthood by helping to form their beliefs about the world around them.  A child with a hypochondriac as a caregiver is likely to believe that it is healthy to constantly question one’s health, and that a primary feature of the world around them is that it is a highly dangerous and unhealthy place. An overly protective caregiver instills many of the same lessons into a person during childhood, while also teaching them the notion that people who care about them ought to worry constantly about their health and be highly receptive to their health complaints, even when they are minor.

Learning the specifics of the cause behind a person’s hypochondria is the first step towards addressing their core beliefs about why illness “needs” to be a part of their life and cultivating healthier beliefs to replace them, so that eventually they can be healthy, happy, and even happy to be healthy.  If that doesn’t work, antidepressants might.