Q: “I know that beginning college is a typically stressful time, but I’m just wondering if I’m losing it. Every day I drive to campus, it seems I’ve forgotten something. The most frequent things I’ve forgotten are my house keys, my purse, my lunch, or I’ve forgotten to turn off the air conditioning at my apartment. It makes me feel really “scatter-brained” to keep doing this. Some of my friends say that becoming dysfunctional like this during a time of stress is a sign of a deeper problem, and that I’d better talk to a psychologist. Are they right? Should I seek counseling?” -Allison
A: Allison, we can all benefit from talking to a trained counselor at some times during our lives, so I never want to discourage you from doing that. But, there is nothing about your description of your “scatter-brained” episodes that convinces me that the problem must be due to a deeper, underlying problem.
When we’re faced with increased responsibilities or stimulation, our usual coping mechanisms may not be adequate for the increased load. We may need to develop practical coping methods. As far as the specific problem you’ve described is concerned, I have helped literally dozens of persons with similar experiences. I often suggest a mental check-list, which can be easily recalled by use of an acronym. In your case, I’d like to suggest that every day, as you reach for the door knob to leave for school, you stop and think the acronym “PLAK.”
A: air conditioner
Review this acronym, and the 4 “forgettable items” it represents, every day before leaving for school. That way, even if you did not think of these items naturally, you’ve self-corrected in time. Then, you will no longer have to think of yourself as “scatter-brained” regarding this forgetfulness. You’ll replace the incompetent feeling with a feeling of mastery.
It may seem at first glance to be reading a lot into things to use words like “incompetence” and “mastery” when dealing with a relatively minor set of circumstances. But as I believe you can attest, Allison, discomfort about our own fitness and competence can build up fast.
I suggest that you try this little practical solution, and see if the discomfort disappears through the use of a good strategy. You can always come in to the Counseling Center and work on other practical solutions to problems, or on issues of deeper emotional import if they are present. I guess one of my important messages here is: Psychologists do not always look for underlying emotional problems; sometimes we can help in practical and strategic ways.
Michael R. Slavit, Ph.D., ABPP, is Board Certified in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. This column is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified professional.