PSYCHOLOGY OF CULTS

Cults are nothing new. Indeed, if asked to name a cult, you could probably name a few. In ancient Greece and Rome, a cult was simply the care owed to a deity, the rituals carried out at a shrine or temple. A mystery cult was a religious group that celebrated a minor god or goddess or a lesser-known aspect of a deity’s history. The word “cult” has different connotations today.

Janja Lalich, Ph.D., professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, is a big gun in cult research.  Her website, Cult Research, provides extensive information about the mental mechanics involved in cults. She has also included resources for recognizing signs of a cult and how to help others who may have been impacted by a cult.

Modern Cults

There have been too many cults to count throughout history, but the vast majority have been small and soon forgotten. A post on Insider.com listed the six most notorious cults in history. (These cults have been extensively discussed and researched by people who were kind enough to share their findings online.) 

  • The (Charles) Manson Family famously murdered seven people over the course of two nights. Their stated intention was to start a race war. The Manson Family was formed in the late 60s.
  • Members of Heaven’s Gate were told that their leader was the reincarnation of Jesus, that God was an alien, and that the end of the world was near. In 1997, 39 members died after ingesting barbiturates and putting plastic bags over their heads. It is the largest mass suicide on US soil.
  • The Children of God was founded in 1968 as a system of communal living under the strict teachings of preacher David Berg. Multiple former members have testified that the church used prostitution as a recruitment tool and engaged in widespread child trafficking and sexual abuse. The organization later rebranded to The Family of Love International, and it is still active online.
  • Jim Jones founded The People’s Temple in Indianapolis in 1955 but moved the band to Guyana, and called the place Jonestown, in 1977. Reports of member abuse followed the group from place to place. In 1978, Jones instructed all of his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. More than 900 people died. This is the origin of the slang expression “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” meaning a person who believes in a possibly doomed or dangerous idea.

From the Wikipedia entry on cults:

“In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religiousspiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal. This sense of the term is controversial, having divergent definitions both in popular culture and academia, and has also been an ongoing source of contention among scholars across several fields of study.  The word ‘cult’ is usually considered pejorative.”

Cults are attractive because they promote a feeling of comfort, and because they satisfy the human desire for absolute answers.

Characteristics Common to Cult Leaders 

Lists of characteristics vary in inclusiveness and contain both personality and behavioral characteristics.

Personality
  • Narcissism shows up on every list
  • Charisma is an essential quality
  • Personal proclivities that shape what’s expected of group members
  • Need for control/maintain power imbalance
  • Psychopath
  • Often delusional, believing their own teachings 
Behavior
  • Offer tantalizing promises
  • Be unpredictable (reactions, appearances, next demands)
  • Organize “love bombs” for new recruits
  • Promote an us vs. them mentality, feelings of superiority
  • Isolate members from family, former friends
  • Public humiliation of established members
  • Demand detailed acknowledgment of individual fears and mistakes
  • Repeat various lies and distortions till members can’t recognize reality
  • Promote paranoia: a group, family or government is out to get members
  • Encourage members to spy on each other

Writing in Psychology Today in 2012, Joe Navarro, M.A., presented his personal list of 50 clues to identifying cult leaders.  Listed below are several of his items.

  • A grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve
  • Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance
  • Demands blind, unquestioned obedience
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement or power
    • Expects to be treated as special at all times
    • Expects to be able to bend rules and break laws without repercussion
  • Arrogant and haughty
  • Hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others
    • Is highly dependent on tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments
    • When criticized, lashes out with rage
    • Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy”
  • Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly; often reacts with rage
  • Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy
    • Habitually puts down others as inferior
  • Ignores the needs of others, including biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs
  • Frequently boastful of accomplishments
  • Needs to be the center of attention 
    • The word “I” dominates his conversations
  • Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated, or exploited for personal gain
  • Is deeply offended by signs of boredom, being ignored, or being slighted
  • Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong, nor does he apologize
  • Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems
  • Works the least but demands the most
  • Sees self as “unstoppable” and perhaps has even said so

Characteristics Common to Cult Members

  • Female: world-wide, 70% of cult members are women
    • Explanations for this vary
  • Generally average sorts of people. No trends in location, income, etc.
  • Suffer low self-esteem, making them especially susceptible to love bomb (compliments, etc.)
  • Many have rejected standard religions
  • Intelligent
  • From sheltered environments
  • Blame others for their failures
  • Strive for perfectionistic goals
  • Often have no idea they are in a cult!

Characteristics Common to Religious Cults 

  • It opposes critical thinking
  • Isolates members and punishes them for leaving
  • Emphasizes special doctrines outside accepted scriptures
  • Seeking inappropriate loyalty to leaders
  • Devalues the family unit
  • Crossing boundaries of behavior (especially sexual) set in accepted religious texts
  • Separation from the main religious structure

Common Recruiting Tactics 

  • Target people who are stressed, emotionally vulnerable, have tenuous or no family connections, or are living in adverse socioeconomic conditions.
  • People who were neglected or abused as children may be easily recruited because they crave the validation denied them in their childhood
  • High school and new college students are good targets for cult recruitment since they’re still forming their identity and (in the case of college students) have recently been separated from their families
    • One old (1980) study of 1000 high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area found that 54% reported at least one recruitment attempt by a cult member, and 40% reported 3 to 5 contacts
  • I can only imagine that the rise of various social media platforms would have exploded those numbers.

Damage to Cult Members 

Various research has established that former cult members suffer long-term negative effects. Dr. John G Clark, Jr, of Harvard University works with former cult members and their families identifies the following 

  • Increased irritability
  • Loss of libido or altered sexual interest
  • Ritualism
  • Compulsive attention to detail
  • Mystical states
  • Humorlessness
  • Heightened paranoia

Because these are symptoms similar to temporal lobe epilepsy, it’s reasonable to assume that membership in a cult is a brain-changing experience. 

Bottom line: There is much we can and should learn about cults—possibly in our lives, certainly in the world around us. Many of these qualities and behaviors are present to some degree in people who aren’t actual cult leaders or members. Still, they provide fodder for compatible/consistent constellations of attitudes and behaviors. Think character creation!

Hot Fuzz, in addition to being a great movie, provides an example of two cults working against each other and destroying individuals in the way.

SANTAS ARE MADE, NOT BORN

Chocolate Santas with marzipan masks made by Hungarian chocolatier Laszlo Rimoczi.

The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School is the oldest in existence. Before 1937, Santas were pretty much on their own, and any man with a red suit would do.

Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School

OUR MISSION:
To uphold the traditions and preserve the history of Santa Claus while providing students with the necessary resources to improve and further define their individual presentations of Santa and Mrs. Claus, allowing them to enter the hearts and spread the Christmas spirit to everyone they meet.

At the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, more than 200 aspiring Santas gather each year to attend a three-day series of classes where they learn everything from the history of Saint Nicholas to reindeer habits.

In November, 2018, Mental Floss took an in-depth look. Here are several points from their write-up, 13 Things to Know About The World’s Oldest Santa School.

It’s Considered the Harvard of Santa Schools

Each year, about 200 Santas (including a handful of Mrs. Clauses) attend class in Midland—but not everybody who applies gets accepted. Co-Dean Holly Valent rejects Santas who don’t seem interested in children or singing. (In other words, Santas who appear to be in it only for the money.) Additionally, she has to place around 40 prospective Santas on a waiting list each year. Thankfully, the workshop in Midland is not the only Santa school under the North Pole.

Child Psychology is the Name of the Game

The most important aspect of being a good Santa is learning how to genuinely listen to all kinds of children. “[Y]ou have to be on your toes all the time, because you never know what the children are going to ask you,” Mary Ida Doan, who plays Mrs. Claus, told WJRT. (Doan would know: She’s a member of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.)

During the workshop, the Santas get schooled in child psychology and learn handy tricks from experts and each other: How to deal with squirmy children, crying children, children who are afraid of you, and more. The Santas even learn basic sign language. “It’s important to be able to spread Christmas cheer to all children,” a Santa named Bill told Reuters.

An organization called Santa America provides extra training for Santas to connect with children who need a different kind of communication to reach all that Christmas cheer. The frenetic atmosphere at a typical Santa’s Grotto can be overwhelming and terrifying for any child. Santas who have trained with Santa America can create a quieter, calmer, slower space. These “Sensitive Santas” are in demand at Christmas for hospitals, very young children, children on the autism spectrum, and many others.

Santa America also connects local Santas and their companions with people who might need a visit from Santa Claus any time of the year: during a hospital stay, after major disasters, when a parent is deployed overseas. Part of their mission is to prove that Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and the elves never go off on vacation when children need them.

Gaining Background Knowledge Means Meeting Real Reindeer

Since kids are apt to ask Santa anything, it’s best that Santa draws his answers from real experience. What are the reindeer like? To find out, Santa students study reindeer habits and get to meet real reindeer.

How are toys made? The Santas spend quality time learning how to make wooden playthings.

The Santas also attend lectures about St. Nick’s backstory and the North Pole. “Know who you are,” Valent tells an assembly of Santas, according to CNN. “Know your legend. Know where you came from.”

They Have to Practice Their “Ho-Ho-Hos” and Their “Do-Re-Mis”
Despite being blind, this boy was able to see Santa during his visit.

Since each Santa must prepare for radio and TV interviews, much of Santa school focuses on teaching students how to craft an accurate and authentic persona. “For example, they’re advised to create a backstory for their ‘elves,’ pulling names and characteristics from kids and grandkids in their own circles,” Kathleen Lavey reported for the Lansing State Journal. It also means learning how to deliver a hearty but balanced Ho Ho Ho. “You have to do it mild,” Tom Valent explained. “It’s got to be a laugh.” (And to ensure the Santas are really in the Christmas spirit, they’re also taught how to sing with cheer.)

There’s More Dancing Involved Than You Might Think
From Santa’s Boot Camp, 2016

It’s not enough to nail the laugh. Being Santa requires you to be a full-body actor—and that means perfecting the big man’s jolly, bouncing swagger. The school is stuffed with movement lessons. “The school fitness teacher had them dance as if they were wrapping presents, baking cookies and filling stockings to classic Christmas tunes,” Christinne Muschi wrote for Reuters.

Santas also learn how to properly ease in and out of a sleigh and learn yoga and breathing exercises to keep limber. (It’s important work: Hoisting kids up and down from your lap for hours takes its toll.) As Tom Valent told CNN, “Santa is a healthy outdoorsman.”

Being Santa is not for the faint of heart or the faint of sinus. Pet photos with Santa are increasingly popular, often as part of a fundraiser. The Humane Society, Paws for a Cause, Sidewalk Dog, and many local animal shelters ask Santas to pose for photos with dogs, cats, hamsters, snakes, turtles, and any other pet they can safely hold. Better take that Benadryl!

They Receive Financial Advice
The cardboard versions are much cheaper!

At Santa school—which costs $550 for new students—they teach classes on marketing, accounting, and taxes. That’s because being a freelance Santa is not cheap. A Santa with a bare chin is advised to buy a custom beard and wig that can cost up to $1800. And while a generic suit costs about $500, a personalized one can run over $2000. Add to that $700 for a pair of authentic boots. And then grooming expenses. Oh, and makeup.

Santas Get Lessons in Grooming
I don’t think this Yugoslavian Santa was paying attention to the make-up lesson.

At school, Santas also learn how to curl their mustaches and groom their hair and beards (or wigs) to create a windblown I-just-got-out-of-the-sleigh look. They receive lessons in bleaching their hair to get a snow-white glisten as well as lessons in applying makeup.

 According to Lavey, teachers show other Santas all the insider secrets: “How to take the shine off their foreheads with powder, pink up their cheeks with rouge, and add stardust to their beards with hairspray that contains glitter.”

The big secret to making Santa’s beard smell magical? Peppermint oil.

Santa Day School

The Simpsons offer a reasonably priced alternative, but it is only open to two-dimensional Santas with three fingers.

For those who can’t—or won’t—spend three intensive days and nights in Midlands, Michigan, there are options! In-person schools around the country and online for DYIers.

In November, 2018, Business Insider did an article on Santa schools, particularly the finances involved. Here are several quotes from that article.

Santa Doug Eberhardt of the Northern Lights Santa Academy displaying a variety of historical Santa trends.

“There’s two kinds of Santas: There are professional Santas and there are guys in red suits,” Santa Rick, a former mediator and divorce arbiter who runs the Northern Lights Santa Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, told Vox. “And the difference for me is there are those who want to better themselves and learn and master the trade, and there are the others.” This Santa school also has classes for Mrs. Claus and elves.

“I’m very high-energy, so I tend to put on a little bit of a show: The Night Before Christmas, and caroling, and magic,” said Santa Jim Manning, who is the official Santa Claus for Boston’s tree lighting and has covered the Red Sox Christmas card.  “A lot of people think being Santa Claus means just showing up, sitting on the couch, and letting kids sit in your lap. But what I do is a lot more.” To the right, see Santa Jim jumping out of an airplane.

Fashion Santa of Toronto has a slightly different take on the traditional red suit and jolly belly.

Rick, of the Northern Lights Santa Academy, told Vox that high-end Santas can earn up to $25,000 a season, but the cost of travel, lodging, and garb can eat into the pay. A quality Santa costume and accessories costs at least $1,000 and a beard set made of human hair can range from $1,800 to $2,500, he said.”

Only the very bravest Santas are willing to risk turtle bites at the same time as dog fur on their suits.

“Santa Ed Taylor has been running the Santa Claus Conservatory, an online training program with more than 2,300 aspiring Santas, since 2013. The courses range from $97 to $347.”

The International University of Santa Claus

Not only does the IUSC offer courses around the world, they have a degree program recognizing a student’s years of dedication. A Santa or Mrs. Claus can earn a Doctorate of Santaclausology (PhD), with options for further advanced study.

Unfortunately, all 2020 International University of Santa Claus in-person classes have been cancelled. Online courses are available, so aspiring Santas can ask their grandkids for help logging in to Zoom classes!

Santa is a Super-Spreader

2020 is an atypical year. (You heard it here first!) And this is true for Santas and Santa schools as well. Dr. Fauci has assured the public that Santa Claus is naturally immune to COVID-19, but Santa can still spread the virus. Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, Sinterklaas, and all other Christmas gift-bringers have been declared essential workers and therefore exempt from quarantine or isolation rules.

Santa Johnny of Hong Kong was proclaimed “Best Santa” at the 2019 World Santa Congress.

The 2020 World Santa Congress was cancelled. Many tree lighting ceremonies and holiday parties have been cancelled. Even the 2020 Santa Mediterranean Cruise has been indefinitely postponed.

Some Santas are adapting with smaller grottos, shorter visits, and lots of hand sanitizer. Others are setting up plexiglass barriers or arranging for children to stay more than six feet away. A few mall Santa Grottos are even setting up holographic Santas for photos.

However, possibly the safest option for Santa and for kids is to visit Santa digitally.

  • JingleRing will allow Santa and Mrs. Claus to speak to kids one-on-one with their very own North Pole TV platform.
  • AirBnB has created virtual visits with Santa as well as the opportunity to tune in to Story Time with Mrs. Claus or with Santa and a rotation of children’s book authors.
  • Macy’s Santaland has gone virtual this year, though there will be no real Santas in their stores. There are pre-recorded video messages from Santa Claus, games to play with the elves, and the option to sign up for a real-time video chat with Santa himself.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Awkward Family Photos for sharing the very best of the very worst photos with Santa Claus.

Bottom Line: There’s more to being a good Santa than putting on a red suit! Consider how Santas and Santa schools might broaden your cast of characters and/or plots.

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Candlelight Vigil in Seoul, Korea

As the Winter Solstice approaches, many people are feeling a little low—or a lot.  Fortunately, there are several holidays and celebrations around this time of year to add a little light to your schedule. Here are just a few:

Diwali or Deepawali is a festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. It is celebrated in mid-October to late November, according to a lunar calendar.

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival of lights celebrated in November or December, according to the Gregorian calendar.

Kwanzaa is a celebration of culture and community celebrated in late December. An important part of the celebration involves lighting the kinara.

Lussevaka or Santa Lucia Day is a celebration of light, community, and the triumph of good over evil. It is primarily celebrated in Sweden, but St Lucia festivals are also held in Croatia, Italy, France, Germany, and Norway on December 13.

Yule is celebrated in many different ways by Pagans and Wiccans. It is the celebration of the Winter Solstice, the return of the sun. This is often symbolically represented by burning a Yule log, signifying the rebirth of the Oak King and waning of the Holly King.

Don’t Be SAD

Daylight Sky Light Therapy by MTS Medical Device

There is a term for those who suffer most when the days grow short: SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).  SAD increases in higher latitudes where the winter days are short. Light therapy, where you arrange a special wide-spectrum light therapy box device at an angle to your face. Using such a device for several hours at the same time every day can be used to treat SAD. It can also help treat those who have depression all year round, improving their overall well-being.

Anger management therapy can sometimes be combined with light therapy.

Scientists have also discovered that light therapy can lower nighttime agitation in Alzheimer’s patients and reduce symptoms in Parkinson’s patients, including sleeping problems and tremors.

Whether sick or healthy, light definitely affects your mood. According to research, one in four people in Alaska suffers from depression – and it’s mainly caused by a lack of sunlight.

Sunshine Cures Everything

Superman may have had a bit too much sunlight.
“No One Can Save Us Now”
by Mojoko and Eric Foenander
Singapore Art Museum

Sunshine can also help with pain control. Research shows that patients whose beds are on a sunny side of a hospital experience less pain than those whose rooms are in the shade. As well as reduced pain, patients in sunny rooms tend to recover sooner, use fewer painkillers, and feel less stressed. One theory is that exposure to sunlight releases serotonin: a feel-good chemical in the brain.

High solar activity has been found to increase fertility rates. Furthermore, light can also give men a boost in the bedroom. Research has shown that higher testosterone is boosted by Vitamin D. The biggest source? The sun. A light box would have the same affect, but is possibly less romantic than a sunny picnic or stroll along the beach.

As far as I can tell, the health benefits of sunlight are all attributed to Vitamin D effects on/in the body.

Fake Light

Aside from the health benefits of light, many practical applications have lead to the creation of light when there is no sun—primarily the benefits of being able to see in the dark! 

Over the centuries, we’ve seen many advances in created light.

Campfires really create a sense of community!
(Thanks to H.R.Joe Photography)
  • Fires, the first source of created light
  • Torches
  • Oil lamps, precursors to candles
  • Candles (beginning around 500 BCE in Rome) 
  • Lanterns
  • Matchsticks
  • Flashlights
  • Fluorescent lights
  • Incandescent lights
  • LED’s 
  • Plasma Lightsabers
Traditional oil lamp for Diwali

Until the 20th century, candles were most common in Northern Europe. In Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, oil lamps predominated.

Besides providing light, candles were used for the purpose of measuring time, usually in hours. The Song Dynasty in China (960-1279) used candle clocks.

Kerzenhur- Candle Clock

A version of a candle clock is often used to mark the countdown of the days leading to Christmas. This is called an Advent candle.

Note: This term is also used for candles that decorate an Advent wreath.

Among the earliest forms of created light, candles have had the greatest staying power into modern times for numerous uses. An estimated 1 billion pounds of wax are used in the candles sold each year in the United States.

FYI: No candle wax has ever been shown to be toxic or harmful to humans.

Advent Wreath
  • Holiday decorations
    • Shaped candles for specific holidays
    • Candles for tree decorations
    • Menorah candles for Hannukah
    • Kinara candles for Kwanzaa
    • Nine candles in a lingonberry wreath for Santa Lucia Day
    • Advent wreath candles (marking the four Sundays leading up to Christmas)
    • Candles for windowsills (to guide the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt) 
Loy Krathongs – Thai Floating Lanterns
  • Lighting paper lanterns
  • Lighting and lifting sky lanterns
  • To produce a romantic mood
  • To make a dinner table more formal 
  • As backup for a power failure
  • To dispel unpleasant household odors
  • To test for drafts
  • Scented candles for pleasure and/or aroma therapy
Very Formal Dining Table

As the days grow shorter and night falls like a rock earlier and earlier, many people light candles around the house, even when they have electric lights, simply because the warm glow is cheerful. Which brings us back to human craving for light!

Cold Light

Gas lights were developed in the 1790s and were in common use in large cities by the middle of the nineteenth century. Streetlamps made the night safer (in wealthy areas) and gas piped into houses allowed (wealthy) homeowners to ignore the setting sun.

Too bright!

The invention of the electric-powered incandescent light bulb was even more effective in making the sun obsolete. Since electric lights have become nearly universal, ideas like a 24 hour workday and cutting sleep to work more have become nearly as universal.

Newborn incubators, refrigeration, pacemakers, surgical lighting, heated houses, underground ventilation, and electric harp string tuning meters are undoubtedly beneficial to human society. However, humans in general have become increasingly sleep-deprived and overworked since the spread of electricity. Heated and lighted houses have also made humans more likely to stay indoors all winter, avoiding direct sunlight. This leads right back to the beginning of this blog – Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Bottom line: Humans need light for a multitude of reasons, and in a multitude of forms.

Massive forest fires can’t stop Oregoners from playing golf. Maybe it’s not giving off enough light.

EARLY BIRDS AND NIGHT OWLS

Folk wisdom would have us believe that we all should be early birds: they get the worm, after all, and they are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Indeed, research indicates that there are real differences between the early-to-bedders and the late-to-bedders.

.
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Being up and ready for the day correlates with EBs getting better grades and having a better chance of getting a good “regular” job. 

More coffee, please!

In one way, at least, early birds (EBs) have a big advantage: most social life takes place during the day, and EBs can take full advantage of that. Getting to medical appointments, grocery stores, and business breakfasts are not hardships.

In addition, at least one study found that EBs anticipate problems and try to minimize them. Being proactive in this way is linked to better job performance, greater career success, and higher earnings. They set goals and plan to meet them.

Mixing coffee with beer makes it perfect for breakfast! Thanks, Coronado Brewing!

Overall, EBs are much more likely to exercise, and as a result are less prone to health problems, everything from obesity to depression. Perhaps that’s partly because most outdoor activity takes place during the day anyway!

However, not everything is roses for EBs. For one thing, their days are all downhill. They get no “second wind” late in the day. As sleepiness pulls, an EB’s performance lags. In addition, EBs need more sleep, and if they don’t get enough, it really drags them down.  Still, it seems a small price to pay for all the good stuff I just talked about.

So why wouldn’t everyone want to be an EB? First of all, what one wants isn’t always what one gets. People are biologically predisposed to be either an EB or a Night Owl (NO). Frederick Brown (Penn State psychologist) refers to EBs as early risers and NOs as late setters and comes out strongly on the side of genetic determination. In fact, in 2003, researchers discovered a “clock “ gene. EBs were more likely to have a longer version of this Period 3 gene.

And there is a real downside to being a NO—including being more prone to a whole host of mental and physical health problems, especially depression and obesity. Not surprisingly, they tend to die sooner than EBs.

Not bedtime. We’re not tired. Definitely not… tired…

Perhaps the increased likelihood of mental health issues are a byproduct of being generally and literally out of sync with society’s rhythms.

NOs struggle with social activities. Yes, there are all night restaurants,  gyms, and movies, but if NOs’ family and friends are on a different schedule, they face the choice of pressing/stressing themselves to accommodate or suffer from self-imposed isolation and loneliness.

It sounds like being a NO is a total bummer, but not so! Research has discovered several benefits to getting up with the owls.

Changing one’s sleep pattern often requires large amounts of caffeine.

Somewhat surprisingly (to me), NOs have more sex—which could lead to being productive in non-work-related ways! 

“It’s almost midnight. Let’s order pizza!”

One’s sleep patterns and preferences are expressions of one’s circadian rhythm: this is the rhythm of one’s body processes over the course of approximately 24 hours. In fact, the word “circadian” comes from the Latin words circā (approximately) and diēs (day). All living things—even plants—have them. (If there is life on Mars or Venus, then all bets are off!)

Left to their own devices (i.e., with no external cues as to time of day), humans tend to settle into a “natural” cycle of about 25 hours within a waking/sleeping day.

Fortunately, adjusting by an hour is fairly easy.

On the issue of enduring wake/sleep rhythms, there is lots of variability. Approximately 1% are diehard EBs and another 17% are diehard NOs, with everyone else being somewhere in between. The “tweeners” have an easier time making bigger adjustments in their sleep cycles.

It’s 2am. Time for everyone to wake up because I’m hungry!

There are age-clustering effects, too. High school and college age people, regardless of bio-rhythms, tend to stay up late and sleep in. The opposite is true of the elderly.

All sorts of outside factors have major chunks of control over when we wake and sleep, regardless of preferences. Many NOs must adapt to workplace schedules, or demands due to spouse or children. Consider how one’s body’s preferences would adapt to these work schedules.

  • 9-5:00ers
  • Night shift workers
  • Swing-shift workers
  • Parents
Sleep deprivation in fire fighters can be very dangerous. They get cranky when they’re tired.

People do what they have to do, sometimes for years at a time. Not surprisingly, swing-shift workers have the hardest time of it, and the more often their shifts change, the more disruptive it is. (If one’s work shifted by an hour a day, it would be easy to handle… but I don’t know of any examples.) If one works 7-3:00 followed by 3-11:00 followed by 11-7:00 and then repeats the cycle at lengthy intervals, the adaptation is easier than random shifts and/or short intervals.

At least the ambulances are pretty comfy for a nap.

Sleepers following a swing-shift work schedule face additional mental and physical hurdles. Researchers have identified a sleep disorder specific to employees on these schedules: Shift Work Sleep Disorder.

  • Prone to chronic sleep deprivation
  • Slower reaction time
  • Decreased focus
  • Impaired decision making

Many of the people whose jobs require focus, speed, high-level decision making, and operating under extreme stress also have to work on swing shift schedules.

Plus, hospitals are super creepy at night. So are power plants.
  • Power plant operators
  • Emergency medical technicians and paramedics
  • Doctors and nurses
    • Emergency room staffers and residents are more likely to work night shifts and swing shifts
  • Emergency hotline operators (911)
  • Police
  • Military personnel

Whatever structures are imposed, our NO or EB tendencies endure, even into old age. Remove external structural constraints/demands and one’s true nature comes to the fore again.

Bottom line: You’ll be happier and perhaps healthier if you can shape your life to extract as many benefits as possible from your natural tendencies!

Gemma Correll understands me!

CAN COVID CAUSE OCD?

Someone coughed. Just burn it down and start over.

Last Sunday I talked with a woman who said, “COVID is making me so OCD!”  She’s been working from home for months, in a state that is tightly locked down.  With her normal summer activities disrupted, her isolation has been filled with painting the baseboards and other wood trim, hanging her growing son’s clothes hooks higher, and weeding flowerbeds for hours.

“I get down on the floor to exercise and all I can focus on is the pulled place in the rug.  And then I look out the window and feel like I ought to be out there raking leaves, even though they’re only half down.  And this morning, I rearranged books size and color as well as type.

“See?  Completely OCD.”

Ready to go outside to fetch the mail!

OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is a label that’s tossed around loosely, like beautiful or crazy. The woman I talked to is a good example.  OCD is casually applied to people who are finicky or particular about some one thing (e.g., straightening picture frames) rather than people with serious mental health problems that interfere with living a healthy, comfortable life. 

Technically, OCD applies only to people who use obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors in an attempt to deal with anxiety and fear. It’s a coping mechanism—another way to get through the day.

Dropped the mail. Better burn it.

Today, OCD is viewed by researchers as a spectrum, much like autism. It often develops in people with a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders and mental illness, and this is the group most likely to develop true OCD in response to COVID. For these people, when the threat diminishes, the attempts to reduce the threat do not go away—and may worsen.

Not a healthy coping mechanism

Ideally, people with OCD receive treatment (usually a combination of medication and behavioral or exposure therapy) to deal with the condition. One of the major goals of treatment is learning not to try to avoid their fears. Instead, patients with OCD work to balance exposure to triggering conversation and information with healthful activities such as exercise, spending time outside, developing good sleep habits, etc., while doing things in line with personal and work-related goals.

It’s always important to coordinate the princesses on one’s dress with the princesses on one’s mask. The mask works better that way.

The spread of COVID has caused a spike in anxiety and fear for everyone (with the possible exception of some diehard deniers). The constant need for vigilance has forced nearly everyone to change daily habits, focus on ways to stay safe and well, and then to act on them. People who compulsively watch the news or spend hours on social media typically are more fearful.

Very young children do not need to wear masks. They are sticky petri dishes of germs and no mask could ever help with that.

Many people previously diagnosed with OCD are suffering greatly. Medical experts’ advice to wear a mask, wash hands thoroughly and often, avoid touching their faces, avoid being around sick people, disinfect surfaces most often touched, and socially distance requires a lot of attention throughout the day. People with a germ phobia may be unable to attend to anything else!  

Ideally, the OCD sufferer will do but not overdo: for example, to wash hands for twenty seconds and no longer—to focus on having done the hand washing, not on feeling clean. Tip: if you wonder whether you are over-doing it, you probably are.

A germ phobia as related to OCD is obvious. But according to Dr. Rachel Ginsberg of Columbia University, there are several possible impacts of the pandemic on OCD patients.

“Other types of OCD that can be triggered by this pandemic include somatic obsessions (concerns with illness or disease, such as headaches), sensory-focused symptoms (obsessing over sensations in the body or perceived feelings on the skin’s surface), feelings of over responsibility and inappropriate guilt (e.g. related to spreading the illness), and harm OCD (e.g. fear that one will be responsible for something terrible happening, such as unknowingly causing others’ death).

Umm… This doesn’t seem quite right.

Additional OCD symptoms might include magical thinking, superstitious fears, fear of harm coming to self or others because of not being careful enough (fear of spreading germs if you were unknowingly COVID-positive or asymptomatic), and religious obsessions or excessive fear of right vs. wrong.

Moreover, OCD symptoms may include needing to know or remember information related to updated guidelines, and related excessive information gathering and checking. In addition to handwashing and cleaning, compulsions that might present or worsen could include mental reviewing (of where you have been, how far you stood from someone else, what you might have touched), needing to tell/ask/confess to others, superstitious behaviors, and health-related compulsions (e.g. asking for excessive reassurance from doctors about health symptoms).”

Dr. Rachel Ginsberg
Some people just refuse to change their hygiene habits for any pandemic!

For some people, the pandemic is just proof that they were right all along: the world is truly a dangerous place. For mentally healthy people, this danger will pass when the pandemic passes: they are highly unlikely to develop lifelong OCD. In non-OCD people, when the threat diminishes, the compulsive threat-based behaviors will diminish.

Bottom Line: People are different. (You heard it here first!) In this instance, people will vary widely in the extent, severity, and duration of COVID-triggered obsessions and compulsions.

NIGHT TERRORS: MORE THAN DREAMS, MORE THAN NIGHTMARES

The Pooka (or Poukha or Puca), an Irish nightmare

A character’s “night life” can provide depth to the characterization and understanding for the reader. Nightmares and night terrors are both frightening, but the two sleep disorders are frightening in different ways to very different audiences. Knowing the distinctions will help you use them effectively in your writing.

Pity by William-Blake 1795

Adequate sleep, with all the different stages and cycles, is a crucial part of overall physical and mental well-being. Dreaming is absolutely necessary to good mental health. There is far too much detail to get into here, but research is clear. Indeed, repeatedly waking someone to prevent dreaming is a well-known form of torture.

What Are Nightmares?

Job’s Evil Dreams by William Blake

Nightmares are vividly realistic, disturbing dreams that rattle a person awake from a deep sleep. They often affect the body in the same way waking danger does. Adrenaline spikes, heart rate and respiration rate increase, and the body increases sweat production.

Rakshasa, a Hindu demon causing nightmares

Nightmares tend to occur most often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreaming takes place. Because periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, people experience nightmares most often in the early morning hours.

A Dream of Crime & Punishment (1847) by JJ Grandville

Some people wake from nightmares crying, while others may wake shaking from fear. After a nightmare, people often have trouble falling back to sleep. The combination of the stress hormones flooding through the body with whatever lingering images from the nightmare are stuck in the mind make it very difficult to relax enough to fall back asleep. Particularly disturbing nightmares can cause sleep disruptions for days and stick around in the brain for years.

What are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are recurring nighttime episodes that happen while a person remains asleep. They’re also commonly known as sleep terrors. When a night terror begins, a sleeper will appear to wake up. They might call out, cry, move around, or show other signs of fear and agitation.

Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking by Artus Scheiner

Other common reactions:

  • Screaming or crying 
  • Staring blankly
  • Flailing or thrashing in bed
  • Breathing rapidly 
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Becoming flushed and sweaty
  • Seeming confused
  • Getting up, jumping on the bed, or running around the room
The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch

A sleeper may become aggressive if a partner or family member tries to restrain them or keep them quiet. The episode can last for a few seconds or up to several minutes, though the sleeper typically doesn’t wake up. Most people fall right back to quiet sleep after a night terror.

Takagi Umanosuke Confronts the Ghost of a Woman
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Night terrors are more common in young children, but they can disturb adults as well. An estimated 2 percent of adults also experience night terrors. In reality, this number may be higher, since people often don’t remember having night terrors. 

Night terrors usually happen earlier in the night, during the first half of the sleeping period. This is when a sleeper is in stages 3 and 4 of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, also called slow-wave sleep. It’s uncommon to have them twice in one night, though it can happen. 

What is the Difference Between Night Terrors and Nightmares?

Dream-Land etching (1883) by S.J. Ferris after a painting by C.D. Weldon

Night terrors may might seem similar to nightmares, but the two are different. In addition to the immediate mental and physical effects, the effect on witnesses or other members of a household are very different for night terrors and nightmares.

The Last Judgment (detail) by Jan van Eyck

When a sleeper wakes up from a nightmare, they will probably remember at least some of what the dream involved. Come morning, the sleeper is quite likely to remember the episode, though the memory may be vague.

During night terrors, the sleeper remains asleep and usually doesn’t remember what happened when they do wake up in the morning. The sleeper might remember a scene from a dream they had during the night terror episode, but it’s uncommon to recall any other part of the experience. 

The Orphans Dream (ca. 1900) by James Elliott

A partner, roommate, family member, or other witness to a night terror episode is likely to remember the experience quite well. The daughter of a friend has fairly frequent night terrors, during which she will wander out of the house in her pyjamas or physically attack her partner in his sleep. In the morning, she occasionally has grass on her feet or bruised knuckles but no memory of how she got them.

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Nightmare by Eugene Thivier
SPECT Readout of a Sleepwalking Patient, from the Lancet

Many adults who experience nightmares or night terrors live with mood-related mental health conditions, such as depressionanxiety, or bipolar disorder.  Night terrors have also been associated with the experience of trauma and heavy or long-term stress

Physical factors can also contribute to the frequency of night terrors and nightmares. Sleep apnea is a very common cause of other sleep disorders. Some other possible causes

Khumbhakarna, a bringer of nightmares, in a temple in Bali

Frequent disruptions to sleep cycles (such as night terrors or nightmares) cause fatigue and, eventually, sleep deprivation. Fatigue and sleep deprivation increase the likelihood of having night terrors or nightmares. There’s no escape!

Nightmare (1810) by Jean Pierre Simon

Bottom Line for Writers: Characters can be just as interesting when they sleep! Why would your character have disrupted sleep, and how would they react? Would the sleep disruption be more effective if experienced by the narrator (nightmare or confusion after night terrors) or by someone close to the narrator (night terror or discussing remembered nightmare)?

Sleepwalker a rather odd statue put up in Boston in 2014 by Tony Matelli

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: FITNESS

Some people, I’ve heard, actually like to exercise. These people are probably playing games such as tennis, golf, basketball, etc. Maybe biking, hiking or kayaking. There are also people who enjoy lifting weights just for the sake of lifting weights. Is your character one of these? If so, how good is s/he?  And when did s/he take up the game?

Then there are activities that some people do for fun and others do as a means to a specific end. In this category I’d put swimming or water aerobics for a bad back, running to relieve stress, boxing as a form of anger management, yoga to relax. Some people bike or walk for fun; for many others, walking and biking is a primary mode of transportation.

This group also would include those people who work out primarily to get or keep a body beautiful.

For most of human history, the vast majority of people have gotten plenty of exercise just trying to stay alive. Farming, hunting, and gathering food require activities people pay big money to recreate in a gym today. Building defense structures, making tools and weapons, chopping wood, washing clothes, and travelling are all much more physically demanding without machinery to help. In almost every part of the world, there are still cultures today that rely primarily on human or animal labor rather than technology.

Some people exercise simply because they have to. Physical therapy can be done to prevent a future injury as well as to treat an existing injury. Martial arts practice can people alive in crisis situations, but regular practice has also been helpful in the treatment of mental illness. A home might only be reachable by strenuous hiking; a job might require frequent lifting and carrying.

At the other end of the spectrum are people whose preferred activity is reading novels while snarfing chocolates or swigging scotch. Or maybe that’s watching TV while munching chips and chugging beer. Sound like any characters you know?

But even these people have probably heard “sitting is the new smoking” when it comes to being detrimental to one’s health. This group of people will find the easiest or least painful way to stay minimally fit.

  • Go to the gym with a friend and enjoy the socialization
  • Join an exercise class that’s nearby
  • Hire a personal trainer
  • Get up for jumping jacks during commercial breaks
  • Lifting the coffee mug to take a sip counts as doing bicep curls

For some, getting dressed and going somewhere is too much effort—not to mention those who don’t want anyone to see them doing whatever it is they are doing.  And in these times of COVID-19, many people don’t want the exposure. These people are likely to choose a stay-at-home option.

  • Buy equipment to use at home:
    • Balance ball
    • Exercise bands
    • Graduated weights, hand-held or strapped to wrists/ankles
    • Heavy-duty weights, barbels, etc.
    • A multi-purpose machine such as Bowflex
    • NordicTrack or similar treadmill
    • Rowing machine
    • A compact elliptical trainer
    • Stationary bicycle
    • Some version of a vibrating plate

Note: Jugs of water, broken swivel chairs, flat-surface furniture, paper plates, and compliant dogs or small children can provide the same benefits as all of these expensive gadgets for almost no money at all!

3.1 How likely is your character to show up at the gym wearing only a towel?

Bottom line for writers: Know your characters’ fitness habits, particularly main characters. There are three components to a person’s/character’s exercise decisions

  1. How does s/he feel about fitness/exercise?
  2. What does s/he think about fitness/exercise?
  3. What does s/he actually do?

WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?

In Vrindavan, India, a group of widows break social taboos and celebrate Holi, the festival of colors

Invictus by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Compare that to “Life happens.” In essence, these are examples of internal locus of control and external locus of control, respectively. Most protagonists—for good or ill—have an internal locus of control.

Locus of control is a psychological concept regarding an individual’s belief system concerning the causes of experiences, successes, and failures. Psychologists have been studying locus of control for approximately 70 years, and a lot has been discovered. 

Note to writers: Be aware of what usually goes along with locus of control and how that might drive your characters.

Internal Locus of Control People

  • Are more likely to take responsibility for their actions
  • Tend to be less influenced by the opinions of others
  • Often do better when they are allowed to work on tasks at their own pace
  • Usually have a strong sense of self-efficacy
  • Feel confident in the face of challenges
  • Tend to work hard to achieve the things they want
  • Tend to be physically healthier
  • Report being happier and more independent
  • Often achieve greater work/professional success

Internals Say Things Like

  • “I know it’s up to me.”
  • “I have to learn how to become more successful at X.”
  • “I’m responsible for what happens in my life.”
  • “If I want better grades, I have to start working sooner.”

External Locus of Control People

  • Blame outside forces for their circumstances
  • Often credit luck or chance for any successes
  • Don’t believe they can change their situation through their own efforts
  • Frequently feel hopeless or powerless in the face of difficulties
  • Experiencing tasks as exceptionally difficult and consequently failing often can lead to developing an external locus of control as an ego defense mechanism

Externals Say Things Like

  • “It’s too hard to succeed these days.”
  • “The competition in my field is killing me.”
  • “Just when you think you’ll get ahead, fate kicks you in the ass.”
  • “The teacher had it out for me.”

Things to Keep in Mind When Determining Your Characters’ Behavior, Attitudes, and Feelings

  1. Locus of control is not an absolute, it’s a continuum.
  2. Men tend to have a more internal locus of control, women more external.
  3. When men fail, they tend to attribute the failure to luck or other external circumstances. When women fail, they are more likely to attribute the failure to their own abilities or efforts.
  4. When confronted with truly uncontrollable circumstances, externals are likely to suffer less psychological distress than internals.
  5. People who are externals are likely to experience anxiety because they believe they have no control over their lives, no predictability.

Roots of Locus of Control 

While there’s a tendency to assume a person was born that way, there’s lots of evidence that early life experiences have a strong effect.

  • Internals are more likely to have parents who encouraged independence.
    • Internals have parents who help them see the connections between their actions and the consequences.
    • Internals are likely to be healthier, less likely to be overweight, less likely to report poor health and high levels of stress.
  • Externals grew up seeing no relationship between what they did and what happened. 
    • Even worse, externals who were “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” suffer learned helplessness.

Bottom line for writers: Use locus of control and situational variables to up the stakes for your characters.

THERE’S KISSING, AND THEN THERE’S KISSING

When writers write about kissing, it’s almost always in the spirit of Klimt: love, passion, romance, sexual attraction, sexual activity, and/or sexual arousal. These kisses are often described in great detail: lips, tongue, involuntary reactions like breath and pulse, all taste, and smell. The reader is told whether it’s tender or demanding, hard or seeking, along with related sensations of hair, hands, body positions, and eye contact.

FYI, Kissing is the second most common form of physical intimacy among U.S. adolescents (after hand-holding). About 85% of 15-16-year-old have experience kissing. (At least, they say they do; one of the only things worse for a 15-16 year old to be caught doing than lieing on an anonymous survey is being shown to have less experience than their peers in any kind of sexual activity or exploration.)

Affection

Affectionate kisses are presented very differently. While not denying that affection can be a part of romantic/sexual kissing, it often has no erotic component at all.  Although seldom mouth-to-mouth, affectionate kisses are much broader, and can express loyal affection, gratitude, compassion, sympathy, joy, or sorrow. 

Affectionate kisses are common among family members, especially parents and children, and others who are “like family.” These are often cheek kisses accompanied by hugs. But affectionate kisses typically are not described with the sensory detail of erotic kisses. It is as if, given the context (of wedding, funeral, leave taking, illness, etc.) the act itself says it all.

Consider the possibilities of sensory description of affectionate kisses. A great-aunt’s overly strong perfume and clouds of fine, white hair obscuring vision as she leans in for a slightly whiskery kiss at a funeral. An exuberant friend hugging hard enough to squeeze breath out or lift someone off their feet entirely while smacking loud kisses on the cheek. A young child inadvertently pulling hair or scratching while pressing slobbery, banana-scented open-mouthed smears of affection to the face.

Greeting

Pro-forma kisses of friendship are common in Northern Africa, the U.S., Europe, and South America as a ritualistic form of salutation. Though occasionally given on the hand, most pro-forma kisses are on the cheek (or in the air next to the cheek). Think French cheek-kissing or Russian back-pounding hug accompanied by multiple kisses on both cheeks. Such kissing is very culture bound. The “rules” are different for every occasion in every society.

Joseph Stalin kissing pilot Vasily Molokov in congratulations, 1937

The Socialist Fraternal Kiss is a complicated bit of political theater, usually involving multiple kisses on the cheeks and lips combined with back-slapping and hand-shaking. Originally, it was a sign that all members of society should greet each other as equals rather than subjects kissing the hands or feet of a ruler. After World War II, the custom spread from Russia to Communist areas of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Cuba. The duration and intensity of the greeting kiss largely depended on the global standing of the country involved and the number of cameras in the area.

The Meeting at the Golden Gate by Giotto di Bondone

The Holy Kiss was an important part of early Christian ceremonies. Apostles were instructed to ‘salute one another with a holy kiss’ in several books of the New Testament, including St. Paul’s letters. This was later replaced with a handshake in Catholic services; in these days of COVID-19, congregants are encouraged to wave over the internet.

The Oceanic Kiss is not technically a kiss but is common in many cultures where actual kissing is not commonly practiced. Both parties approach and pass each other with their mouths slightly open but do not touch. Sniffing may be involved, so avoid the onions in these cultures.

Ritual

Ritual kissing has a long and varied history. Here again, the sensory detail is usually nil. Perhaps dwelling on the specific smell of feet or trying hard not to think of how many lips have rubbed that ring before yours.

Religion: kissing a temple floor, a religious book or icon. It conveys devotion, but also indicate subordination, or respect. Examples include kissing the Pope’s ring, or the foot of someone to show total subservience.

Joan of Arc Kissing the Sword of Deliverance by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The kiss of peace: while part of religious ritual, it was also long a tradition to signify reconciliation between enemies.

Pope Francis greeting Holocaust survivors

The kiss of death: a signal from the leader of a group that the receiver of a kiss on the cheek is marked for execution.

The Godfather, Part II

Learning to Kiss 

Contrary to common belief, kissing does not “come naturally.” Although some anthropologists hold that kissing is instinctual and intuitive, evolving from suckling or pre-mastication—and others maintain that kissing evolved from tasting the saliva of a potential mate to determine health—these are contradicted by societies where kissing was unknown prior to exposure to Europeans. These include indigenous people of Australia, the Tahitians, and many tribes in Africa. 

Some people learn a little later than others.
from The 40 Year Old Virgin

Perhaps the most convincing—and entertaining—evidence is when infants and young children are taught how to kiss.  Starting with the wide-mouthed cheek lick. They are taught who to kiss, where, and when it is an appropriate occasion for kissing, with plenty of hilarious trial and error. These vary widely across cultures and time periods.

The Lovotics Kissenger, a cell phone attachment that allows people to kiss while on opposite sides of the planet!

Kissing doesn’t happen in approximately 10% of the world’s population.  Some believe it is dirty. Others have superstitious reasons, as in the mouth is the portal to the soul, so kissing can allow one’s soul to be taken and invites death.  Some cultures see kissing purely as a form of greeting or a sign of platonic affection rather than being associated with sex at all. Researchers at the University of Nevada have found that societies near the equator are less likely to equate kissing with romance than with affection or greeting.

Health Benefits of Kissing

There’s a moratorium on a lot of kissing just now because it can transmit some infectious diseases (COVID-19 as the newest, mononucleosis and herpes simplex, to name a couple of oldies). But overall, kissing is good for one’s health.

Maybe it’s just safer to blow kisses.

Kissing stimulates the production of feel-good hormones such as endorphins and dopamine. Regular kissing protects against depression and stress. Married or cohabiting couples who increased their frequency of kissing reported less stress, and increase in relationship satisfaction, and—wait for it!—lower cholesterol levels.

Another possible meaning of the Kiss of Death is an infection of the herpes simplex virus in infants. An infected person kissing a newborn can easily pass the virus on, sometimes proving fatal to the baby.

History of Kissing

Graves found in Teppe Hasanlu, Iran and Valdara, Mantua, Italy indicate that humans have been kissing for at least 6,000 years.
Sanskrit Vedas

However kissing got started, it’s been around for a long time.  Kissing is believed to have originated and spread from India. The earliest documentation of kissing comes from Sanskrit scriptures important to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, around 3,500 years ago. It is present in Sumerian and ancient Egyptian love poetry, in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. 

Romans had separate words for kissing the hand or cheek (osculum), kissing relatives on the lips with closed mouth (basium), and passionate kissing (suavium). The French have at least 5 nouns for a kiss and at least 10 verbs for to kiss, depending on the sort of kiss being referenced. There are at least 12 German words for kiss.  Using the wrong word for the occasion in any of these languages can lead to very embarrassing linguistic

This blog has just skimmed the surface, raising things a writer might want to consider whenever kissing is part of a scene—or could be. If you are truly intrigued, check out The Kiss and its History, by Kristoffer Nyrop.

Bottom Line for Writers: the types and meanings of kisses are nearly infinite. Enrich your writing by giving each kiss the level of sensory details usually reserved for erotic kisses.

So much sensory detail!

WHEN PEOPLE ARE STRESSED OR ANXIOUS

And who isn’t, these days? But a pandemic isn’t the only trigger for defense mechanisms.  For example, the death of a loved one, loss of a job, life-threatening illness, relocation, demotion . . . the possibilities are endless. So, for you reading pleasure and maybe your writing of believable characters, here’s a quick overview of ways people cope with thoughts, feelings, or acts that are too psychologically painful to tolerate.

Hulk throws the ultimate temper tantrums.

Acting Out 
Performing an extreme behavior when a person cannot otherwise express thoughts or feelings. A child’s temper tantrum would be one example. Hurting oneself is one form of acting out—cutting or burning oneself, literally banging one’s head against a wall.

Aim Inhibition
Rather than admit to failure, a person accepts a more modest goal. Think of someone who had hopes for a career in the NFL who becomes a high school coach.

If he can’t be the Flash, at least he can be Whizzer!

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Altruism
Rather than admit having no control over a situation, a person copes by helping others, perhaps compulsively. This is a person who needs to be needed and may promote helplessness in those close to him/her.

The Angel had such a strong compulsion to help everyone that Dr. Charles Xavier of the X-Men diagnosed him with “heropathy” (not an actual disease).

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Avoidance
Refusing to deal with the situation. In the current pandemic, choosing not to watch the news, read the newspapers, or respond to online postings.

Deadpool has been using running and laughing to avoid his horrible life situations since he was a child.

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Compartmentalization
Keeping different parts of one’s life in separate compartments, often with different moral guidelines. For example, someone who lies, cheats, steals, or hurts others to make a living but is unfailingly kind, helpful, and loyal to family and loved ones. Another example would be someone who enjoys extramarital sex but would never have “an affair” because that involves emotional intimacy and thus would be “cheating.”

Matt Murdock is a blind defense lawyer by day and the superhuman illegal vigilante Daredevil by night.

Compensation
Overachievement in one area because of failure in another. For example, throwing oneself into professional achievement because of failure of a marriage or intimate relationships. Or the opposite: not making it professionally and then becoming a helicopter parent.

Hartley Rathaway was born deaf and became obsessed with sound manipulation, eventually becoming the Pied Piper.

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The Amazons on Themyscira spent centuries denying the existence of any world outside their island paradise.

Denial
Basically, this is saying it isn’t so.  “There is no pandemic. It’s all a hoax—or an exaggeration.”  “It isn’t that dangerous.” Addicts often deny that they have a problem.

Displacement
Taking out frustrations, feelings, or impulses on people or objects that are less threatening. It usually applies to displaced aggression. The classic example is the boss criticizes the employee, the employee yells at his/her spouse, the spouse scolds the child, and the child kicks the dog. Of course, the person might just abuse the child or pet. Or one might smash a fist into the wall or break something.

Reed Richards “Mr. Fantastic” frequently expressed his frustrations with the world by beating his wife and children. This panel occurred immediately after such an outbreak.

Dissociation
Mentally separating oneself from one’s body or environment in order to keep an overwhelming experience at a distance. An example would be someone unhappy with his/her job has trouble concentrating at work, frequently “daydream” or finding his/her mind wandering.

Trance used her astral projection ability to escape the demonic Limbo pocket dimension and get help.

Fantasy
Retreating to a safe place in one’s mind. If one can’t find relief in fantasizing about being turned into a movie star or whatever, you can get much the same effect by binge reading or tv watching or gaming.

Michael Jon Carter hated his life in the 25th century, so he traveled back in time with stolen gadgets to live out a fantasy life as the superhero Booster Gold in the 20th century.

Humor
Seeing the funny or ironic side of any situation. This is actually a pretty adaptive way to handle stress and anxiety. For example, wearing a face mask with giant mustache attached or creating silly photo shoots of pets in quarantine.

Spiderman is a master of using bad jokes to torture his enemies.

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Dr. Manhattan is so brilliant that he loses all touch with humanity.

Intellectualization
Focusing on the problem/problematic thoughts in a cold, factual way. For example, putting the current pandemic into the context of  pandemics through the ages, how devastating they were, how they were transmitted, how they were dealt with, etc.

Passive Aggression
This is often the refuge for someone who can’t express anger or aggression directly (by scolding, hitting, etc.). For example, a teenager who is assigned a chore, such as mopping the kitchen floor, who begins by asking a gazillion questions about where to find and how to use the necessary equipment, then doesn’t sweep before starting, then mopping around the table rather than under it, and finally leaving soap scum behind.

Emma Frost generally straddles the line between passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive, depending on her allies.

Projection
Ascribing one’s unacceptable qualities, thoughts, or feelings to others. Think Donald Trump accusing reporters of being rude.

Harley Quinn projected her brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome onto Flash and tried to “cure” him.

Rationalization
Basically, this is making excuses. You did it, you aren’t denying that you did it, but you give rational or logical reasons for it. What makes this a defense mechanism is that the stated/acknowledged reason isn’t the real motivation. For example, you pawned your mother’s wedding and engagement rings and claim you needed the money when you really wanted to hurt her—or you hated your dead father and don’t want the reminder around.

Gin Genie can create seismic shock waves in direct relation to the amount of alcohol in her system. To be a powerful superhero, she also has to be an abusive alcoholic.

Kamala Khan wants to fit in and avoid trouble but goes out of her way to stand up and confront super villains and terrorists when she shifts into Ms. Marvel.

Reaction Formation
Replacing an unacceptable feeling, impulse, or behavior with the opposite. For example, subconsciously wishing a sibling would fail and so going out of one’s way to be helpful and promote success — the perfect fan.

Regression
A person reverts to a pattern of behavior that worked when one was younger. Think thumb-sucking, crying, sulking, or temper tantrums.

Zatanna feels such guilt over using her powers to erase the memories of her enemies and friends that her powers revert to a level she had when younger.

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Repression
I like to think of this as motivated forgetting. Things that are too painful are kept out of consciousness awareness, but may have a powerful effect on behavior. For example, a victim of early childhood sexual abuse who doesn’t remember the event(s) but has difficulty becoming intimate.

Jessica Jones has years of repressed memories thanks to brainwashing and mind control.

Suppression
Much like repression, but one consciously decides not to think about or remember something. This is fairly tough to pull off!  Every time it comes to consciousness, one distracts oneself with something else. One example: having an obsessive thought running through one’s head is a way to block other scarier or more stressful thoughts from surfacing.

The Red Room training forced Natasha Romanoff to remove all empathy and mercy and become the Black Widow. She had to retrain herself to join the Avengers.

Sublimation
Act out unacceptable impulses by transforming them into a more acceptable form. For example, aggressive impulses channeled into martial arts. Someone who likes looking at naked bodies takes up figure drawing.

Batman has turned the anger and grief from watching his parents’ murder into a drive to fight crime.

Undoing
Closely related to Reaction Formation but usually on a more conscious level; trying to make up for unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors — sort of like an unstated apology. For example, a child who is jealous of a younger sibling and wishes s/he were dead might make a point of giving that sibling toys, one’s cookie, etc.

Tomorrow Woman is an android created to destroy the Justice League. She achieves artificial consciousness and sacrifices herself to destroy her creators instead.

BOTTOM LINES FOR WRITERS: Everyone uses defense mechanisms. It’s how we cope. Choose defense mechanisms for your characters that are in line with his/her character in general. So, for example, a scientist is unlikely to use denial and more likely to use intellectualization.

Although using defense mechanisms is natural, normal, and helpful on an episodic or “acute” basis, long-term or “chronic” use can lead to emotional problems because the underlying threat or anxiety is never actually addressed.

The most emotionally stable superhero out there seems to be Zephyr aka Faith Herbert, from Valiant Entertainment. We should all be as awesome as Zephyr!