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August Anxiety

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The pushback on health care change is just a bunch of bed-wetting for no particular reason, according to President Obama and his White House press secretary.

"There's something about August going into September — (laughter) — where everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up," Obama said last Thursday to laughter. He was belittling the growing pushback regarding his proposed health care changes during a forum at the Democratic National Committee headquarters,

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The next day, when asked, "What is wee-weed up?" White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs attempted to explain. "I don't know if I should do that from the podium," he said to laughter. "It's a phrase I use, but ... Let's do this in a way that is family-friendly. I think wee-weed up is when people just get all nervous for no particular reason. ... This is sort of an August pundit pattern between people getting overly nervous for something that still has a long way to go. Bed-wetting is — would be probably the more consumer-friendly term."

While Obama might be attempting to belittle the pushback, the concern over his policy is real. According to a Gallup poll this month, 49 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of health care policy versus just 43 percent who approve.

Obama's dedication to pushing through health care changes, potentially without bipartisanship, is approaching perseveration rather than persistence. Perseveration is the "continuation of something to an exceptional degree or beyond a desired point," according to Webster's Online Dictionary.

Think of it as beyond persistence.

Obama might argue that he is simply being optimistic regarding health care change.

Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, encourages people to become optimistic by changing their thoughts regarding adversity. The core of his approach leads to a reframing of beliefs from pervasive and permanent to specific and temporary.

This change in thinking about an adversity will lead to a different action, and more energy moving forward, according to Seligman, who is the author of "Learned Optimism."

Obama may be using this model in his approach to health care change.

Maybe his reference to being "wee-weed up" is an attempt to make the adversity specific (about health care only rather than about encroachment by government into private life) and temporary (an August event), rather than permanent. He may be hoping that this type of disputation will result in energizing his troops.

Or it could be that this inappropriate comment uttered by the nation's president might be a reaction to the chronic stress he has been under this summer, particularly over his proposed health care changes.

According to a Gallup poll, Obama's job approval rating has dropped from 68 percent in mid-January to 52 percent last week. Even more dramatic is the steady climb in disapproval over his job performance — from 12 percent in mid-January to 42 percent now. This net differential of approve-disapprove has moved from 56 percent to 10 percent.

A study published last month in the journal "Science" concluded that chronic stress rewires the brain, creating new circuits that intensify the impact of habits and lowering the ability to make decisions, which in turn promotes even more stress. In the study, rats under chronic stress continued to operate by habit even though doing so did not lead to the desired outcome (i.e., perseveration).

If, paraphrasing Albert Einstein, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," then chronic stress made the rats insane.

This neurological model might explain why we often dig ourselves into a rut, and then continue to dig it deeper.

The study also found that a four-week vacation provided the rats with a long enough respite to rebuild their circuits and regain their ability to make better decisions. One can only hope that Obama's week on Martha's Vineyard might provide this same respite, allowing him to come back able to work with his critics rather than resort to belittling them with inappropriate comments.

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