July 8, 2013 at 11:30 AM ET
Am I thinking about my failed relationship too often? Why would I laugh at a funeral? What if I can’t move on in life after a setback?
TODAY turned to Dr. Gail Saltz to help sort out what is normal, and she noted that many people are quietly wondering whether their feelings and actions are really OK or not.
Before tackling viewer questions on TODAY Monday, Saltz, a New York City psychiatrist, offered a definition of that all-too-tricky word, "normal."
“The best way to define it is if you have a mood or behavior or something that’s causing dysfunction, real dysfunction, in work, in relationships, in your ability to be in the world, then that we would say is abnormal,” she told Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie.
“But otherwise lots of things, lots of things that people are concerned about, really are normal.”
The first viewer question came from T, who emailed Saltz about a sibling.
“Is it normal to keep thinking about the argument I had with my once, very close younger sister? On June 22nd we had a ‘talk’ about things and she just started yelling at me! So I stood up and left. I’m so hurt over this I’m on the verge of tears every day.”
This behavior, Saltz said, is normal. It is called rumination, she explained, “a thought that you have about something in the past that upset you, that you think about over and over again and you can’t stop.”
As Guthrie told Saltz she would call that kind of behavior “obsessing,” Saltz noted Guthrie is likely to ruminate more than her co-host.
“Women ruminate more than men and it is really normal and is often nonproductive,” Saltz said, noting that people can ruminate so much that it causes depression.
“But before it’s depression, it’s still normal,” Saltz said. “What you can do, however, is make a list of what you can do about your situation and then every time you ruminate, do something distracting that’s positive, like going for a run or listening to music to break the cycle.”
The next question came from Pam, from Spokane, Wash., who asked from the plaza: “I’m wondering is it normal to laugh hysterically at a funeral?”
“It’s strange and people don’t like it, but it’s normal,” Saltz assured her.
People laugh at funerals, Saltz explained, because thinking about death and mortality can cause anxiety.
“When some people get really anxious, they laugh and then the more it feels like an inappropriate reaction, the more that they laugh because the more anxious they’re getting,” Saltz said.
Though you don’t want to be cracking up at such a somber time, if it does happen, Saltz recommended finding another way to relieve anxiety, like taking slow, deep breaths.
Or, she said, “sometimes actually biting the insides of your cheeks, something that sort of pings you, that’s like a stress-reliever to take the anxiety away.”
The final question came in an email from Carol, who wrote: “The love of my life left me two years ago for another woman. I can’t seem to get over this and move on. All I do is cry over him. I feel as if I’m not good enough and will be alone forever. I feel as if there is nothing left in life and don’t know what to do.”
Saltz and the anchors were concerned for Carol. Occasionally thinking about someone you miss or the anger you felt at being left during a two-year period is normal, Saltz said, “but when life doesn’t hold anything for you any longer, then I start to think about depression.”
“If this person is thinking about it all the time, they’re crying a lot, if they can’t sleep, if they haven’t been able to move on with other relationships at all, they’re not functioning in life, that’s depression,” Saltz said.
Lauer asked how Carol’s situation was different from the first questioner, who was constantly thinking about a fight with a sister. The reason why a situation could be more than rumination is when there are other symptoms than just thinking about a problem.
“If you’re not able to function and move on with the relationship, if you’re not doing well in work, that is depression,” Saltz said. “And let me say, that can occur from a breakup.”
From the serious to the silly, Guthrie asked the last question. “Finally, Gail, is Matt normal?” she deadpanned, before quickly joking that they were out of time.
“I’d love to expand on that,” Saltz said as Lauer grinned. “We’d need a lot more time for that,” Guthrie said.