Are You Normal or Nuts?

Find out what human behavior crosses the line from wacky to worrisome, and what you really shouldn't worry about.

By Jancee Dunn | May 2010

There have been lots of layoffs at my company, which has increased my workload (and stress load). All I want to do when I get home is turn on the TV. My wife thinks I should talk to a therapist, but I tell her I just need to recharge. Who’s right?

We have to side with your wife here. Because men are more likely to ignore it (and resist getting help), depression can take the form of irritability, workaholism, risk-taking behavior (such as drinking too much or driving too fast), or withdrawal, which can manifest itself as spending all your time with your best friend, the television.

On the other hand, you really could just be stressed-out, in which case–well, you’re still wrong. Sorry, but studies suggest that watching too much TV can worsen mood and increase stress levels. Enjoy a favorite show, even two. After that, says Beverly E. Thorn, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, it’s time to step away from the tube and rejoin your wife. "A 30-minute walk together in the evening would be good for your stress level, your physical health, and your relationship," she says.

Everyone says they can’t remember names, but I really can’t, and I forget faces too! Once, I didn’t recognize a (fairly new) neighbor at the market. I’m not self-absorbed or uncaring–what’s wrong with me?

Odds are, nothing, says Joel Kramer, PsyD, a neuropsychologist in San Francisco. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, he says, and some people are just bad at recalling names and faces.

Of course, it’s also possible you have a condition called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, in which people suddenly have trouble recognizing family members, friends, or even themselves. Folks with this condition can have problems following the plot of movies because they can’t keep track of the characters’ identities. Prosopagnosia can be caused by brain damage from a stroke or head trauma, or degenerative diseases.

So if it’s a new symptom that’s getting worse, Kramer suggests a doctor’s visit, just in case. Otherwise, this may simply be a charming quirk (maybe not so charming to your neighbor).

Some people’s voices drive me crazy. It could be their whininess or their intonation or the annoying habit of saying everything as a question? It gets so disturbing for me that I completely lose track of what they’re actually saying. Am I alone?

You’re normal–it’s those other people who have a problem, our experts say. "A lot of people actually have annoying voices," says psychologist Bartell. "Especially now that people talk on their cell phones so loudly all the time, you hear their obnoxious voices, whining, and complaining! And they don’t have the self-reflection to know it, and no one is going to tell them."

You’re also not the only one to be driven bonkers by people who say everything as a question, also known as uptalk. A New York University professor coined the term in 1993, no doubt to describe the linguistic habits of California teens in the 1980s. Now it’s everywhere. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently got fricasseed in the press for talking like a Valley Girl. Some experts think it conveys an informal friendliness; others think it telegraphs meekness.

What do whiners and questioners have in common? The fact that you can’t just put them on mute. It may help to focus on the content of the conversation rather than the incredibly irritating delivery.

I have a satisfying life and am generally happy, but not a day goes by without an uncomfortable scene in which I screwed up flashing through my mind. Sometimes I replay painful conversations I’ve had with two friends who are now estranged. Why am I plagued by regrets?

You’re "generally happy," yet you spend your life dwelling on the past–that doesn’t really sync up, does it? Most of us cringe when we’re ambushed by memories of that regrettable weekend in Cleveland or the bout of crying in the bathroom at the office party, but … every day? Regrets, we’ve had a few, but we suspect that when you reflect on the movie of your life, you’re fast-forwarding through all the slapstick scenes and romantic banter to pause only on the distressing moments, which blows them completely out of proportion.

You can change the way you think about your past, says Wellesley professor Theran. Paradoxically, one way to do it is to stay with your feelings of discomfort as they arise. "Expose yourself mentally to the feelings of shame or embarrassment long enough to allow them to increase and then decrease normally," she says. "Of course you’re inclined to avoid your shameful memories, but that’s the way they maintain their power. Try to tell yourself that you don’t have to be perfect and that we all do silly or embarrassing things."

And here’s another reason to give yourself a break: Chances are good that what haunts you has already been forgotten on the other end. "We all tend to have a stronger memory for these kinds of things than other people do," says Theran.

I constantly find myself pulling out the stray hairs on my arms so that all the hair is closer to being uniform in length. I’ll do it while I’m watching TV or reading a book, but friends have pointed it out to me while we’re in the middle of a conversation. Is this a sign of boredom or something else?

There’s a name for this behavior: trichotillomania. "Usually, people who do this pull out the hair on their head, resulting in bald patches," says Christopher Peterson, PhD, of the University of Michigan. Some absently pull out a few hairs, while others go at it meticulously with tweezers. They may do it to relieve tension or just automatically–"much as you might be unaware of biting your fingernails," says David H. Barlow, PhD, an anxiety expert at Boston University. People who pull out their eyebrows or give themselves bald spots might be relieved to know that the condition is treatable. See a cognitive behavioral therapist and ask about newer antidepressants, which also treat anxiety.

Of course, whether you need treatment is up to you. Says Peterson, "If having hair-free arms is not a source of worry to you, then don’t worry." That said, be mindful when you’re out with friends, who may not appreciate a garnish in their guacamole.

I work in sales and recently had to give a talk in front of about a hundred people. For weeks, I dreaded it. By the time I had to speak, I was nauseated and almost fainting from fear. There were times when I thought I was going to drop right onto the podium. What’s wrong with me?

The famously silver-tongued Warren Buffett was once so petrified of public speaking that he made himself take a Dale Carnegie course (the certificate still hangs in his office). These days, Buffett tells his followers that it’s crucial to get trained in public speaking.

But for most of us, doing so means facing down terror. Nancy Cetlin, EdD, a Boston psychologist, says that fear of public speaking is a common social phobia. "And the majority of those who have it fear speaking more than death!" As Jerry Seinfeld put it, "This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."

Here are a few things to remember if you’re dying up there on the podium. Although you may imagine that everyone knows how anxious you are, most often no one can tell. A good trick, Sally Theran says, is to focus on one or two friendly faces in the crowd. Deep-breathing techniques can also help, as can watching a video-tape of yourself (to see for yourself that you didn’t screw up). Cetlin has an arsenal of additional remedies, from neurofeedback to live coaching. Or you could always float the idea of videoconferences–you know, as a cost-cutting measure.

Our Panel of Experts David H. Barlow, PhD, founder and director, Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University

Susan Bartell, PsyD, clinical psychologist in private practice in Port Washington, New York, and author of six books

Tom Bunn, LCSW, therapist, retired airline captain, and founder of SOAR, a fear-offlying program in Westport, Connecticut

Nancy Cetlin, EdD, psychologist and fear-of-public-speaking coach in Boston

Joel Kramer, PsyD, clinical professor of neuropsychology and director of the neuropsychology program at the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco

Nando Pelusi, PhD, psychologist in private practice in New York City and member of the board of advisers of the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists

Christopher Peterson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan

Michael J. Peterson, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

Sally A. Theran, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley College

Beverly E. Thorn, PhD, professor and chair of the psychology department at the University of Alabama