Student Stress, Pressure and Self-Attacks: Interview with Dr. Daniel Zamir

Dr. Daniel Zamir debunks the thought process of “My grades define where I stand as a human being.” He discusses ways to reduce stress amongst students, as well as ways that students can challenge their Critical Inner Voice.


Debunking the Thought Process, “My grades define where I stand as a human being.”

The following transcript contains part of an exclusive interview with the Editor of PsychAlive and Dr. Daniel Zamir.

Dr. Daniel Zamir: We have a group at UCLA called Finding Focus that’s about, kind of, ways to study smart.  So it’s about time management and overcoming procrastination and studying in different ways that’s going to actually help them engage more with the materials.  So there’s that, kind of the academic side of things in which there’s a lot of tools and kind of tricks that can help people.

In terms of the anxiety, I find that the biggest piece that makes this just so anxiety provoking for students to where it becomes intolerable is that their grades are so tied up with their identity.  And so when I work with people individually who have these exceedingly high expectations for themselves, I try to help them think more broadly about their lives and to think about, you know, so I have students literally tell me, like, “If I get an A-, that is a horrible thing and means that I’m not cutting it in my program, actually.”  And it’s hard to know, maybe that is true for some academic programs.  But I think there’s a huge amount of kind of self-inflicted anxiety around, “This is how I’m doing as a person in the world, and this is how smart I am, or what school I’m going to get into in the future.”  And sometimes, it’s accurate and sometimes it’s a little bit more intense than it needs to be.

And so I help people to think about like, what are the other areas in their life that are important to them or that are part of their identity separate from academics?  What are their goals in terms of academics and what realistically do they need to attain in terms of grades, just to kind of, starting having some doubt about this idea that, “I am my grades and that I’m either going to fail or succeed as a human being.”  Because, in my own experience that hasn’t been the case.  I found that, you know, learning, the most important pieces of what I’m taught is really important and that grades are important to some extent.  But, um, they’re not everything and you can still achieve and get where you want to go, even without getting straight A’s.

Stress Reduction Skills

The following transcript contains part of an exclusive interview with the Editor of PsychAlive and Dr. Daniel Zamir.

Dr. Daniel Zamir: I teach people some stress reduction skills so part of this looking more broadly is we’ll talk about, you know, aside from your studies, which all these people are putting in tremendous amounts of time and effort to studying, like that’s not the issue — that they’re not studying enough– most of the time, sometimes there’s procrastination issues or things like that, and we can help dealing with the anxiety of approaching.  Which again, usually has to do with perfectionism and, like, not wanting to start a paper because, “Once I start writing, then I start criticizing myself and that’s unbearable and so I’m just going to avoid it.”  So that’s a separate issue.

But for most people, they’re working really hard, actually, and they’re kind of getting in their own way by not taking care of themselves.  So if you think about going into a final exam, like, it’s great to have put in whatever it is – the hours and hours of studying and knowing the material – but if you’ve done that at the expense of being sleep deprived and not properly nourished, when you go into that exam, your brain is not functioning as it should be, it’s not functioning fully.  So, even if you’ve put in the hours of studying, you’re not going to do as well as you might if you kind of attended to yourself more globally.  And so, I’ve, I talk to people a lot about like, what are the other things that you can do that are both going to keep you going, keep you motivated, for kind of the long run and also give you enough time to study.  So I talk to people about exercise and sleep and their social relationships and having like fun, kind of free time.  And kind of doing it, like working those in a way that’s realistic and kind of appropriate for each person.

And I find usually that people, if they are taking better care of themselves, it’s not that that gets in the way of their studying but they can actually integrate it into their lives. And especially over the long term, some of these people are going to be in school for another 5, 10 years.  But that’s really necessary not to burn out and just become overwhelmed.

Students Challenging the Critical Inner Voice

The following transcript contains part of an exclusive interview with the Editor of PsychAlive and Dr. Daniel Zamir.

Dr. Daniel Zamir: I see that in social relationships as well, that people are very self-critical.  A lot of people come in who have types of social anxiety and there especially, there is so much self-criticism around, you know, “People are not going to like you, people are going to think that you’re weird or inappropriate in some way.”  And people really avoid social interaction.  Obviously with depression, you know, we see people who are really self-critical and have this sense of like, “I don’t deserve to be happy.”  So that’s a huge part, I think, that cuts across all different sorts of issues that people come in from relationships to school to family problems.

And I think the first thing, for me, in working with people who have a lot of self -critical thoughts is to help them to identify them.  Because most people are so fused with the thoughts that there’s not any separation –they’re just taken as reality, “This just must be true,”  because it’s so much a part of them.  And so I think that first just noticing, like,” these are the things that you tell yourself.”  Sometimes, that is really eye opening for people, because they don’t think of it that way.  They think of it as what’s true about the world and that’s why it’s in my head.  So when people kind of stop and reflect and just notice that this is just a thought actually and maybe doing some exploration into their past about where this came from and how they started to think about themselves in this way, it creates kind of this separation and no longer identifying as strongly with the thoughts.

And then often I’ll use different elements of Voice Therapy to help people actually directly challenge the thoughts sometimes.  And then I think one of the most important pieces is starting to act as if the voice wasn’t true.  So I’m trying to think of an example. So like if somebody, let’s say somebody has social anxieties, since I already talked about that, and they’re telling themselves these things about, you know, “People don’t like you, you’re, you know, creepy, you make people uncomfortable, you should just kind of stay away, you shouldn’t put yourself out there because you’re going be rejected,” these sorts of thoughts and voices.  What I’ll do often times is first, kind of doing this cognitive diffusion piece which is about, “OK, this is what you’re telling yourself and it’s not even something that you’re trying to, it’s automatic .” And that kind of separating this idea of ‘just because you think it, it’s not necessarily true.’ And so I’ll do some work with them around that to get a little bit of distance and then helping them sometimes actually directly challenge the voice.  So to say, “This isn’t true about me.  I’m not creepy.”  And often times, people have a lot of difficulty doing that.  People are so used to just accepting this as the truth that it’s very hard for them to step out of that and to take their own side.

And so often times what I’ll do, maybe as an intermediate step, is to have people do some data gathering.  Like I’ll kind of recruit them as a fellow scientist and this idea of,   “OK, so you think that people are – don’t like you and will always reject you.  What if we test this out?  What if we put you in social situations where you’re interacting with other people and you can see and just kind of be objective about, ‘How are they responding to me?’”  And almost across the board, people, at the very least, have a much less negative experience than they expected.  And often times have a really positive experience.  And just the act of approaching situations that they used to avoid is really empowering for a lot of people.

And so then we’ll use that as kind of ammunition to challenge the self-critical voices when they come up.  Because now they have examples that I can point to this time when these people actually liked me and asked me to go hang out with them again.  And then, the last piece is just continuing to take actions that are in line with this new view of themselves as somebody who’s not going to be automatically rejected.  So, continuing to take risks.  And we’ll do this in kind of a systematic manner where it’s not going to be overwhelming and feeling like they’re kind of jumping into the deep end.  But where they can kind of take incrementally challenging steps towards undermining that self-critical voice process.

It’s remarkable how that can change people’s lives.  Just not accepting those really self-hating thoughts as true.  Even just having more doubt in there and starting to acknowledge that this might just be something I’ve been telling myself and not something that’s actually accurate.  People kind of come alive. To the degree that they can accept that, they come alive.

About the Author

Daniel Zamir, Psy.D Dr. Danny Zamir is a clinical psychologist in Santa Barbara, CA. He practices psychology at University of California, Santa Barbara and teaches at Pacifica Graduate Institute. In addition, he has a private practice where he conducts individual therapy and couples counseling, specializing in the intersection of physical and mental health as well as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for anxiety disorders.

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