Are You Normal or Nuts? 2013 Edition

Calling all neurotics, paranoids, and phobics! Our panel of experts says you might not be as loony as you think in this fan-favorite feature.

Are You Normal or Nuts?
Illustration by Serge Bloch

Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. That’s true for everyone, not just candy bars. The problem is that when you do feel like a nut, you can go even more nuts worrying about it: How nutty am I on the nut continuum? Almond Joy? Fruitcake? Jif Factory?

We asked experts to analyze questions from our readers about the behaviors, thoughts, and fears they worry about. The results are below.

Generally speaking, if you’re aware enough to ask about your quirks, you haven’t snapped (yet). But ask yourself this: Is my idiosyncrasy interfering with my ability to go about my life? If it is, says Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, “that’s worth exploring” with a professional.

If it’s not, your issue isn’t psychiatric. You’re merely one of those lovable, loopy creatures we call humans. In fact, says David M. Reiss, MD, a psychiatrist in San Diego, “If you think you’re doing everything perfectly, you’re probably deluding yourself.”

The problem: Why is it that, when I’m trying to fall asleep, I feel compelled to solve problems like: “If someone jumped off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, how fast would he be going when he hit the water?” No joke. I actually had to get out of bed and grab a calculator.

The verdict: Not nuts, just exhausted. Ironically, that bridge thing is exactly the kind of math puzzle that used to put most of us to sleep. But even if it’s odd, it doesn’t make you crazy, says psychotherapist Tina Tessina, author of Money, Sex, and Kids (three things you can worry about all night long).

The crux of the matter? “You’re using your brain as a memo pad,” she says. We all do this during the day—Remember to buy birdseed! Remember to buy birdseed!—and it may interfere with our concentration, but it doesn’t stop us from sleeping. At night, it does. Just as you’re drifting off to sleep, you come up with something that your brain—now drowsy and illogical—feels it must solve before it forgets. But if you keep a pad and pencil next to your bed, you can write down the problem and something like “Do this in the morning.” And that little note should allow you to relax.

“Once you know you’re not going to forget it, you don’t have to keep reminding yourself or take action,” Tessina explains.

Next: Is it crazy to imagine your child’s funeral?

Are You Normal or Nuts?
Illustration by Serge Bloch

The query: Sometimes when a sad but lovely song comes on the radio, I imagine that it would be a nice song to play at my child’s funeral if he were to (God forbid a bazillion-trillion times) die young. Then I start to imagine other details about the service. This is insane, yes?

The verdict: Actually, not insane. Music has a way of stirring deep emotions, and sad songs stir up—surprise—the sad ones. As we listen to, let’s say, Adele, sorrow washes over us and soon our thoughts go rolling in the deep, depressing places we usually avoid. Down there in the dark lurks our greatest fear: death, especially the death of a child.

Confronted by an emotion so overwhelming, the brain has to do something to keep from going over the edge. So it turns the pangs into a project—a do-it-yourself, check-your-checklist activity—because that’s something we can get a handle on, says Dr. Reiss. Thinking about the funeral logistically almost “takes the emotion out of it,” he says. “That makes it bearable.”

Ah, but when does song-induced sadness slip into something more serious? “There’s no specific cutoff,” says Dr. Reiss. “But if it doesn’t fade away, and you find yourself inconsolable, maybe you should talk to someone. A friend or a professional.”

But first, turn off the Adele.

Next: What to do about elevator-induced rage.

Are You Normal or Nuts?
Illustration by Serge Bloch

The query: Why do I get so angry in an elevator when someone presses the button that I’ve already pressed?

The verdict: All too normal.

“What, I didn’t press the button correctly?”

“Seriously, do you think pressing it again is going to make the elevator come faster?”

“Pressing the button—what a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that?”

As you watch someone act as if he’s got the only functioning brain cells left on the planet, “Sarcastic remarks go through your head,” says Judi Cinéas, a therapist in Palm Beach, Florida. Those silent screams reflect a very normal reaction to being dissed.

What’s wrong here is the idea that you were dissed. Most likely, says psychologist Michael Woodward, “it was a mindless action” on the button presser’s part—sheer habit. The guy wasn’t dissing you, because he wasn’t even thinking about you.

“When we sit around thinking that everything everyone does is an affront to us, that’s the problem,” says Woodward.

A little self-centeredness is completely normal, shrinks agree. And it’s especially understandable in the elevator-button scenario, because you’re going to be stuck in close proximity to the very person disregarding you. But, says Cinéas, if you get to what might be called the Larry David Syndrome, where you’re raging against almost everyone you encounter, “you may have some issues going on. It could be too much self-esteem, or too little.” Too much and everything’s all about you. (It’s not.) Too little and you feel invisible. (You’re not.)

The solution? Well, this is not from any reputable source, and it may be petty, but I’d say in the elevator situation, you should press the button again, right in front of the fellow. Take that!

Next: What it means if you get the urge to slap people in the middle of a conversation.

Are You Normal or Nuts?
Illustration by Serge Bloch

The query: When I speak to someone, I often wonder how they might react if I slapped them.

The verdict: Normal, but we’re going to avoid you anyway. You know very well how someone would react if you slapped them mid-“We had the best guacamole last night.” That’s why you don’t actually do it. But as for why you’re fantasizing? You’re bored.

Your mind is wandering, desperately trying to keep itself amused. It’s not crazy, says therapist Cinéas; it could just be a way to occupy yourself. We all have an active inner life; we’re busy making remarks, silently snorting, and imagining scenarios. The only time the slapping fantasy becomes a problem, says marriage and family therapist Merrett Sheridan, is when you act on it.

The query: When I’m walking around my city, I’m constantly making sure I have all my bags, my necklaces are on, my cell phone is in my pocket, etc.

The verdict: Probably normal, with a touch of OCD. If you live in a high-crime city, the cops would agree that it’s not crazy to be cautious. But what you’re describing may be a bit of OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, says David Solly, a psychology professor at University of the Rockies.

The “obsession” is the anxious belief that something is about to go wrong. The “compulsion” is the need to do some activity, over and over, to make sure it doesn’t. Simply because you repeat some behavior several times a day doesn’t mean you have clinical OCD. For instance, washing your hands a lot during flu season usually represents nothing more than trying not to get sick, says Dr. Reiss. It’s only OCD if you feel compelled to keep doing the activity, sometimes on a schedule, or feel anxious when you miss a round.

Try this to allay your anxiety: If you feel compelled to count your bags every ten minutes, tell yourself that today you are instead going to do it every 20 minutes. Then watch what happens next, which is usually … nothing. The world doesn’t end, and your brain takes note of this wonderful fact. A few days later, do the possession-check every 30 minutes, and then wait longer and longer. This may be hard to do on your own, especially if you have OCD, so consider seeing a therapist who can lead you through these exercises. Often, no medicine is necessary, just practice, says Dr. Reiss.

Next: What it means if you can’t handle silence.

Are You Normal or Nuts?
Illustration by Serge Bloch

The query: I can’t handle silence. If I’m around someone who’s quiet, I’ll ramble on about anything just to fill the void. I can’t sleep without the TV on, and just in case that’s not loud enough, I have a noisy fan going. Funny thing is, I used to live for those precious moments of silence. What changed?

The verdict: Not nuts, but possibly in need of a tune-up—or a friend. The question you ask is exactly the question you have to answer: What changed? What happened that you don’t want to think about? Because clearly you no longer want to be alone with your thoughts.

“I would guess that there was some event that triggered it, a loss,” says Julie Hanks, a psychotherapist in Salt Lake City. To get to the bottom of this need for noise, you have to face it head-on. “Sit in silence, and see what comes up, emotionally,” says Hanks. “Do you get lonely? Scared? Do you start crying? Notice your thoughts and feelings, and that will give you a clue as to why you’re doing it.”

The sound of silence may rankle more than nails on a chalkboard, “but you’re not going to die,” says Hanks. And once you commit to the quiet, it’s quite possible that you will again find peace in peaceful moments.

By the way, lots of people crave background noise. The most common reason is plain old loneliness, says Dr. Reiss. The only time the need for noise merits medical attention is when the noise is necessary to muffle inner voices or extremely disturbing thoughts. Hear that?

The query: Why do I worry so much more about my oldest child (a boy) than about either of my younger two (girls)? I’m much more concerned about sending him to overnight camp than I would be about sending the younger two.

The verdict: No nuttier than most parents. “You’ve had more practice worrying about the eldest, and it stuck,” says Dr. Reiss. Most parents tend to worry more with their first child, whereas the second time around—and the third, etc.—they’re more confident. Also, sending your firstborn into the world is a little like sending the proverbial Christmas letter: You’re showing everyone what you’ve been up to.

“It’s like your product that you’re sending out into the world,” says Joe Taravella, a psychologist who practices in New York and New Jersey. “It’s a reflection of you.”

Naturally, you want your son to make a good impression, but you also want to know that you’ve done right by him and raised a kid who can cope. You won’t really know that until he sends that first letter from camp, like the one my friend got this summer: “I am at camp and just brushed my teeth. There is good lighting.”

Come to think of it, you may never know.

Next: Why do I pick my cuticles?

The query: I’ve begun picking at my cuticles even though it’s painful and no conceivable good can result. What’s up with that?

The verdict: Pretty normal. What you’re doing sounds like yet more anxiety, says Rajiv Juneja, MD, author of You Are More Than That. And it could be worse: “Some people pull their hair out. I have one client with no eyebrows left.”

The connection between those behaviors and worry? The pain they inflict distracts the picker-pullers from the fear they’re feeling. And the fact that they are personally inflicting the pain “gives them a feeling of control,” says John McGrail, a clinical hypnotherapist in Los Angeles. It’s like: Hooray, no one else is picking my cuticles. It’s all me!

Of course, if cuticle mangling is not a real ambition of yours, try to substitute another behavior whenever you get the urge: squeeze your thumb and forefinger together, or rub cream on your fingers, making them too slippery to do much with. Just don’t start pulling out your eyebrows instead.

The query: I am scared of puppets. There, I said it. They’re supposed to be fun, but they scare the hell out of me. I can’t watch a puppet show without getting goose bumps. Why?

The verdict: Surprisingly common. Why are you so scared? Because puppets are creepy. In fact, the fear is prevalent enough that there’s even a name for it: pupaphobia.

The problem with puppets—and dolls and ventriloquist dummies (ugh, ugh, ugh!)—is that they occupy what’s called the uncanny valley. That’s the no-man’s-land between alive and not alive, real and fake. “Though these objects are not real, if they look real, the mind thinks they should be, and yet they are not,” says Tamar Chansky, of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. “Are they alive? Are they dead? Why are they staring at me like that? All of these experiences are uncomfortable.”

Chansky recommends a possible cure: a staring contest. Stare at the hideous object from across the room at first, then get closer and closer. “You’ll want to run, but ride it out,” she says. “You can shut off the alarms by saying, ‘I don’t like puppets and I don’t have to, but I can live with them.’”

The query: I’m afraid to tell jokes to pregnant women. I have this fear that they’re going to laugh so hard that they’ll go into labor. Is this remotely rational?

The verdict: Normal fear, abnormal idea of how funny you are. Here’s a true story: “I’m not a doctor. But when my sister was über- pregnant, we went for a walk and ended up laughing hysterically, cracking mother-in-law jokes, and she went into labor that evening,” says Sheridan, who bills herself as The Happiness Therapist. The only “happy” thought to take from that story is this: Physiologically, laughter can’t induce premature labor. Psychologically, it sounds like you just don’t want to be anywhere near a lady giving birth, which isn’t that unusual.

“I’m afraid of pregnant women myself!” says Woodward. “I think all guys are worried that when they’re around a pregnant woman, the woman is going to give birth. If I get into an elevator with a pregnant woman, my first thought is, If this thing shuts down, I’m going to have to deliver the baby myself!” “It’s a combination of protectiveness—not wanting to do any damage to a mother or her baby—and political correctness: not wanting to be rude or intrusive” about a clearly female condition, sums up Tessina. “Also, pregnancy implies sex, and that may be in the back of people’s minds.” It usually is.

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