CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gold. Silver. Bronze. We've been surrounded by them for the past two weeks. The thrill of victory ... and the agony of defeat.
The Olympic Games - the best of the best. We swell with pride when we hear our national anthem. And we want to reach into our television sets to prop us those who fail.
Wait a minute. I'd hardly call anyone who made it to the Olympics a failure. Yet just look at those faces like gymnast Alicia Sacromone's when they've let themselves and their teams down.
Years of preparation dissolve into minutes. And it's hard to imagine the years of discipline and sheer grit that have gone into those few moments of glory.
Not to mention the pressure - from coaches, parents, fans and the media. And the ever present prodding voice within.
Which brings to mind the playing field - or battlefield - that occurs every day in our minds. The pressure to be the best and the perfectionist attitudes that come along.
Spiraling behaviors that used to be the stuff of movie plots are now being played out in mainstream society - in middle schools, high schools, colleges, workplaces and homes everywhere.
We're all familiar with the escape mechanisms of alcohol and drugs that cut across all demographics. And I keep hearing of other mechanisms to deal with the intense pressure of "measuring up" - anorexia, bulimia, cutting - and a new one I learned about last week.
While visiting my mother in the Washington, D.C., area, we met some cousins at a restaurant to catch up on life. My cousin Diana started telling us about a conference she attended to learn about her daughter's anxiety disorder that causes her to tear her hair out.
I was not familiar with this and listened intently. The condition is known as trichotillomania, and the person experiencing it has no control over it at all. This disorder is not limited to pulling hair from the head. It also extends to the eyebrows, eyelashes, arms, legs and armpits (ouch!). In fact, Diana said she could tell how stressed her daughter was just by looking at her brows.
So what's causing all this pressure? Has it always been there, and we're just now hearing more about it? Or is it more intense these days? Is it internally or externally driven?
From what I've learned, it seems these severe coping mechanisms are either a route to escape or a release valve for getting through some immediate trauma. According to Dr. Daniel Ploskin, people with such impulse-control disorders can't resist the urge to do something harmful to themselves or others.
Usually a person feels increasing tension before committing the act that characterizes their disorder. During the act, the person feels pleasure, gratification or relief. Afterward, there are feelings of regret, guilt or shame.
With the hair pulling, my cousin says there are common characteristics to the disorder. It generally affects very bright students who hold themselves to a high standard, and it can be hereditary. It's similar to other impulse-control disorders like shoplifting, gambling, pyromania, addictions to alcohol or drugs, eating disorders and intermittent explosive attacks of rage.