Racial Injustice: Taking the Steps Towards Change

The past two weeks have been an emotional roller coaster, starting with the visceral rage and anguish from yet another black man mercilessly killed, crying out “Mama!” while a white cop kneels on his neck, his hands casually in his pockets. Then excitement and hope at the overwhelming outcry across the world, demanding racial justice and an end to police brutality. Embedded inside my reaction to external events sits the uncomfortable feelings of guilt and despair as I contemplate my own complacency in challenging white privilege. Among my friends and colleagues, conversations about social justice, race, and unpacking white privilege in the therapy room have been frequent and raw at times. There is an energy burning all over right now. It is critical that we catch this momentum and turn this energy into action.  

Contemplating my own role in fighting racism societally, exploring how racism manifests in myself, and how white privilege benefits my own life led me to reflect on my own in-action, though racial equality is something I would profess is very important to me. From the conversations I’ve been having with friends and family, I believe a great many of us are in the same place: devastated, but not taking action yet. And I thought, what if we could move this great mass of people into the “action” phase of the Stages of Change Model.

For a bit of background: the Transtheoretical or Stages of Change Model was developed by Prochaska and DiClemente in the 1970s, and has been applied widely and successfully in changing health behaviors. The model suggests that change, instead of occurring quickly and decisively, takes considerable time and occurs through a series of stages. Briefly, the stages are precontemplation: people in this stage are not really considering change; contemplation: in this stage people are aware of need for change and plan to do so in the next six months, but are still highly ambivalent; preparation (determination): people are making a change in the next thirty days and are making small steps towards the change; action: these are people who have really changed their behaviors; maintenance: these folks have maintained the change for six months and intend to continue; and termination: people in this stage have no more desire to engage in the unhealthy behavior. 

I looked at myself through the lens of the Transtheoretical Model to see what stage I would fall in, if fighting for racial justice was the change I wanted to make. I have long believed in the need for changes to the sociopolitical forces that confer unfair advantage to people because they are white, while systematically oppressing communities of color. However, my actual behaviors to support this belief (making donations, signing petitions, signing up for mailing lists) are not indicative of any real change in my behavior. In the last two weeks, my behaviors have shifted to more direct, intentional, and decisive actions. I’ve felt a kind of energy and responsibility that I haven’t felt before, and believe that I am in the process of moving from the contemplation phase into the action phase.

As I felt the determination to take part in the change that must transform systems of oppression, I came across a number of great resources listed below. One, that stood out in particular, was the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. It provides a structure for beginning to develop effective social justice habits. It offers a plethora of resources to read, watch, and listen to, as well as a variety of exercises to foster reflection and community engagement. But, as energized and excited as I am, one point from the 12-Day Racial Equity Challenge that stood out to me was the critical, necessary step of reflection. As the author states, “action without a vigorous self-education and self-reflection practice can unexpectedly reproduce the very power and privilege dynamics we seek to interrupt in this work.”

I have answered the call to move this great energy within, diving both inward – to explore and confront racism within myself, and outward – to devote my time and resources to social justice causes. I think that a great many of us are in the same place and ready to move toward actions. So let’s catch this moment and take responsibility for change and dig in for the long haul, because sustained and informed effort is needed to begin to deconstruct racism. 

Resource Links:

21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge

Implicit Bias Test

105 Things a White Person Can Do To Support Racial Justice

Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.

Pandemic Parenting Tips

Pandemic, coronavirus, COVID-19. Regardless of what you choose to call it, this globally-impacting disease translates to one universal fact—these are challenging and unprecedented times for all. In the midst of a new normal, mental health is sacrificed while many scramble to establish structure in their daily lives. In other words, life doesn’t simply stop, even when it may feel like we’re in a perpetual state of limbo. With survival mode as our shield of armor, we learn to shift and adapt.

Now picture this: school is closed for the remainder of the academic year, and parents suddenly have to tackle new roles including teacher, tutor, therapist, mediator, and friend—just more skills to add to your repertoire as a parent. Children are ripped from their routine, and in turn, may be manifesting these sudden changes in the form of anxiety, depression, and developmental regression. You may find that your fiercely independent six-year-old is now begging you to let her sleep in your bed. Your sweet and shy four-year-old is kicking and screaming with every ounce of his being. Your Tic-Toking teen has officially locked herself in her room and is refusing to engage with the rest of her family. Here’s where the good news kicks in—you are not alone, and this is not your fault—nor your children’s.

Below are some tips and tricks to tackle common behavioral and emotional concerns that parents are facing today, and more importantly to start welcoming mental health back to the forefront of your mind.

1.     Gut over guilt: Parental guilt is inherent, and especially now can be at an all-time high. It’s understandable to feel upset that your child was robbed of the joys and benefits of school, yet your desire to fill the void and promote happiness may be hindering them. By needing to fulfill their every demand, wish, and desire, you are strengthening your child’s capacity to eventually push back against structure and defy your requests. Follow your parental gut, the one suppressed underneath the guilt, and follow accordingly when something isn’t sitting right. It’s okay to delete that extra toy out of your Amazon cart, or to have difficult conversations with your child, even if it may upset them.

2.     Establish structure: This is both to your benefit and theirs. Create a makeshift school or daycare, one where rules are written and verbalized. Sit down with your child and identify at least three rules or tasks to be followed daily. Including your children in this activity places the accountability in their court. Children thrive off structure, even when they crave chaos and spontaneity. Find a happy medium and attempt to create a weekly schedule to check off homework, meals, and playtime.

3.     Negative attention = attention: Highlight positive behaviors you are desiring more of, and practice selective ignoring when the negative behaviors are not posing a safety threat. This applies to children across all ages. Ignoring your child does not make you neglectful, so long as you are boosting their confidence and recognizing them for their polite manners, problem-solving skills, and following the rules. Replace words that are trigger points for children including “don’t” or “stop” with positive statements that promote the behaviors you are wanting to see in them (e.g. please use your inside voice; please keep your hands to yourself).

4.     Set consequences: This one is tough. Every family has a different tactic and strategy when it comes to discipline. However, removing desirable objects and activities from your child of any age when they are breaking important rules or acting defiantly is an effective measure to establish greater harmony at home. Sit down with your child and identify three consequences that can be enforced in a single day if a house rule is broken. These may include losing electronic privileges such as the television or cellphone for four hours after refusing to complete homework, or losing coloring time for 20 minutes after screaming at a sibling. Setting concrete consequences removes the power struggle and heated arguments by simply identifying and sticking to the structure. Selective ignoring will be a key player if your child attempts to refute.

5.     Spend quality time with your family:  You’re probably wondering why that would be a suggestion when you are with your loved ones more than ever, but there is a difference between physical presence and emotional connection. Go for walks as a unit, play board games, spend a few minutes each day letting your child pick the activity to build their confidence and assurance that their opinions matter, and remind every family member that you love and appreciate them. These are trying times, but your family will get through this as a team, one day at a time. Remember to prioritize your mental health—your silent, but efficient, captain chartering new territory in the right direction.

Dr. Bahar Rahnama obtained her Doctor of Clinical Psychology degree at the APA-accredited California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, Los Angeles (CSPP-LA). Dr. Rahnama completed coursework and field-based training in congruence with her graduate specializations across family, child, and couple dynamics. Through both research and clinical practice, Dr. Rahnama’s interest encompasses the correlation between enactment of cultural norms and parent-child attachment styles. Her examination and focus on these factors have led to a multitude of clinical opportunities and advancements including her UC-Davis certification in Parent Child-Interaction Therapy (PCIT), an evidence-based model that meticulously targets disruptive behaviors in children between the ages of two and seven while enhancing a positive and healing bond between caregiver and child.

The Power of Visualization: Imagining Yourself Doing Something Helps You Achieve Your Goal

How often have you heard an athlete say they visualize the moves they are going to make before they actually do it? Visualizing something and actually acting it out are closely connected. This process involves the activation of our motor cortex located in the frontal lobe of our brains. Our motor cortex is involved in planning, controlling, and executing voluntary movements. Basically, thinking about moving a body part or side-stepping to avoid an opponent from stealing the basketball from you activates the same areas of the motor cortex responsible for initiating that movement directly. Although thinking about a movement does not increase the amount of excitatory postsynaptic potential (EPSP) enough to reach a threshold to actually cause firing of a neuron in the brain that generates that movement, it does still activate the same region. So in short, you can think of something that activates the same region of the brain involved in movement without actually generating movement. Visualization allows us to rehearse our anticipated movements and over time primes our brain and body to more accurately and effectively execute an action. This occurs by the way of stimulating a component of the basal ganglion, the putamen (part of the striatum), a region of the brain that is involved in the rehearsal of movement. Over the course of rehearsing movements via visualization, the brain learns routine movement, making the movement more programmed and fine-tuned.

Basically, cognitive practices can get us closer and more prepared to execute a task with more success. Studies have shown us that cognitive practices are almost as effective as physical practices, and engaging in both cognitive and physical practices is even more effective than doing either one alone. Additional benefits of mental visualization include: improved attention, planning, memory, motor control, and perception. The bottom line is that the brain is receiving additional training for actual performance during imagery rehearsal. It has also been evidenced that these practices enhance motivation, self-esteem, increase states of flow, and improve motor performance. Examples include sharpening your chess skills, practicing your surgery that is coming up this week, practicing your softball swing, your forearm pass in volleyball, or your dance move, or simply working out your muscles. 

As I am writing this blog, I keep wondering if our readers are wondering how this relates to psychological well-being. Let me explain how it works. It is great to know that an athlete can use visualization to enhance his or her performance, but how could this affect someone who is not an athlete or is not planning on executing a movement?  What these studies are really teaching us is the powerful connection between our mind, body, and behavioral execution–in other words, the powerful interaction between our thoughts and our behaviors. Brain studies have now supported that idea that our thoughts produce identical mental commands as actions. Let us reflect on that statement for a second. If studies are showing that you can increase your physical health by simply thinking about it (Harvard study: Crum & Langer, E. J.), what other domains in life can you impact by simply thinking about it in a positive way? I frequently discuss with my patients the importance of positive visualization when working towards a goal, as this visualization impacts motivation and goal attainment. Therefore, if you want something to happen in your life, first you have to think about it, set your goal to achieve it, and then visualize it happening. The difficulty that many face is that we set goals and forget to do the necessary prep work that is needed to get to that goal. Part of this necessary preparation is to visualize the goal being achieved. Essentially, Henry Ford was right: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”

Dr. Narineh Hartoonian is a Clinical Health and Rehabilitation psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine. She has several years of interdisciplinary clinical and research experience in health and rehabilitation psychology and has served the needs of many individuals with chronic medical conditions and disability. Dr. Hartoonian received her Bachelor and Master of Science in Physiology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Loma Linda University (LLU). She has taught various graduate and undergraduate courses in the physiological sciences, health and psychobiology.


REFERENCES

  1. Crum, A. J., & Langer, E. J. (2007). Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science, 18(2), 165-171.

  2. Franklin, E. N. (2013). Dance imagery for technique and performance. Human Kinetics.

  3. Gabriele, T. E., Hall, C. R., & Lee, T. D. (1989). Cognition in motor learning: Imagery effects on contextual interference. Human Movement Science, 8(3), 227-245.

  4. Jeannerod, M. (1995). Mental imagery in the motor context. Neuropsychologia, 33(11), 1419-1432.

  5. Ay, K., Halaweh, R., & Al-Taieb, M. (2013). The effect of movement imagery training on learning forearm pass in volleyball. Education, 134(2), 227-239.

  6. Lacourse, M. G., Turner, J. A., Randolph-Orr, E., Schandler, S. L., & Cohen, M. J. (2004). Cerebral and cerebellar sensorimotor plasticity following motor imagery-based mental practice of a sequential movement. Journal of rehabilitation research and development, 41(4).

  7. Mulder, T., Zijlstra, S., Zijlstra, W., & Hochstenbach, J. (2004). The role of motor imagery in learning a totally novel movement. Experimental Brain Research, 154(2), 211-217.

  8. Richardson, A. (2013). Mental imagery. Springer.

Your Personality, Music & Learning

How often have you heard that listening to music can help you learn better? There have been reports that listening to background music can increase productivity, improve learning, increase concentration and more. Extensive research has been done in this area and there have been mixed results on the impact of music on learning. One interesting relationship that has been examined is the one between the dimension of personality that deals with introversion and extroversion and how that may change the impact of music on learning. The basic question we are asking here is: Do introverts and extroverts respond differently on cognitive tasks when background music is presented? Let’s find out!

Though it is very difficult to find a straightforward answer about the effects of music on learning, many studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of listening to background music. Evidence has shown that reading comprehension (1), IQ (2), visual search task (3), and foreign vocabulary learning (4-5) are positively affected by background music. However, other studies have also shown some unfavorable effects on reading comprehension (6), verbal and visual memory (7-8), and recall of numbers (9).

When researchers looked at the effects of learning and remembering foreign vocabulary words (a form of verbal learning), the authors reported that there are more advantages in playing music in the background than not (4). Those participants who were exposed to the background music during the learning protocol were able to better recall the foreign language words a week later when compared to those who were not exposed to the music. In this study the findings suggested that there may be individual differences that mediate the relationship between background music and learning. This led scientists to ask if these difference could be the result of personality, particularly looking at the difference between how an extrovert and an introvert may respond differently to the learning tasks.

So, let’s look quickly at the essential differences between introverts and extroverts. When studying the theory of personality, we learn that extroverts require a lot more external stimulation in order to preserve optimal alertness or arousal as compared to those individuals who are introverts. Introverts on the other hand tend to naturally be at a much higher level of alertness than extroverts and increasing external stimulation can ultimately impair performance for introverts. Also, introverts are at risk of depleting energy if exposed to external stimulation.

Based on the different characteristics between introverts and extroverts, theories have suggested that exposing an introvert to music during a cognitive protocol could negatively impact learning. The opposite would be true for extroverts as these individuals need a lot more external simulation in order to preserve optimal alertness; therefore, music is thought to lead to better learning. Studies by Küssner et al. looked at these theories and found no evidence to support the idea that those introverts performed worse on verbal learning trials when background music was being played. However, they concluded that potentially other personality dimension could be playing a role in the relationship between music and verbal learning.

So, what does all of this mean? Although these studies cannot clearly say whether or not playing background music while trying to learn verbal material has any positive impact on learning, it is safe to say that learning is contextual and it is depends on the type of task, as well as individual differences.  Further research is needed in this area to address the impact of personality on learning when listening to music.

What we do know is that music makes us feel good. In fact it triggers the secretion of dopamine in the brain, which is linked with pleasurable stimuli, including sex, snorting cocaine, as well as simply listening to your favorite song. So, if you enjoy listening to music while you do work, then forget what the studies say and simply do what you love and what makes you happy! 

Dr. Narineh Hartoonian is a Clinical Health and Rehabilitation psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine. She has several years of interdisciplinary clinical and research experience in health and rehabilitation psychology and has served the needs of many individuals with chronic medical conditions and disability. Dr. Hartoonian received her Bachelor and Master of Science in Physiology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Loma Linda University (LLU). She has taught various graduate and undergraduate courses in the physiological sciences, health and psychobiology.


REFERENCES

1. Kiger, D. M. (1989). Effects of Music Information Load on a Reading Comprehension Task. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 69(2), 531-534.

2. Cockerton, T., Moore, S., & Norman, D. (1997). Cognitive Test Performance and Background Music. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 85(3f), 1435-1438.

3. Crust, L., Clough, P. J., & Robertson, C. (2004). Influence Of Music and Distraction on Visual Search Performance of Participants with High and Low Affect Intensity 1. Perceptual and motor skills, 98(3), 888-896. 

4. De Groot, A. (2006). Effects of Stimulus Characteristics and Background Music on Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning and Forgetting. Language Learning, 56(3), 463-506.

5. Kang, H. J., & Williamson, V. J. (2014). Background Music can aid Second Language Learning. Psychology of Music, 42(5), 728-747.

6. Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Letnic, A. K. (2012). Fast and Loud Background Music Disrupts Reading Comprehension. Psychology of Music, 40(6), 700-708.

7. Woo, E. W., & Kanachi, M. (2005). The Effects of Music Type and Volume on Short-Term Memory. Tohoku Psychologica Folia, 64, 68-76.

8. Furnham, A., & Bradley, A. (1997). Music While you Work: The Differential Distraction of Background Music on the Cognitive Test Performance of Introverts and Extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 11(5), 445-455.

9. Alley, T. R., & Greene, M. E. (2008). The Relative and Perceived Impact of Irrelevant Speech, Vocal Music and Non-Vocal Music on Working Memory. Current Psychology, 27(4), 277-289.

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