Acceptance and Patience

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There’s a farm not too far from my office where you can have a therapy session with a cow. For $75, you and a friend can spend an hour with the beast; you may pet her hair, look into her big brown eyes, and cuddle. You could tell your problems to the cow, if you’d like; she won’t mind. Her big ears will take it all in and she will never judge. Compared to what I charge, it’s a bargain, but you’d have trouble getting insurance to cover it.

Do I have any fears that the cows will take over my business? Not a chance. Whenever I see a new client who has been to therapy before and didn’t find it helpful, they often say it was because the therapist rarely spoke up and gave them no direction; a problem, I imagine they would also find with cows. That is not to say that a cow cannot be therapeutic. Continue reading

Loneliness

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Unlike some other species – cats, for instance – humans are social creatures. That means we naturally tend to form alliances to accomplish objectives we could never accomplish alone. It means we’re comforted by the presence of other humans. It also makes us subject to the feeling of loneliness. Continue reading

The Psychological Immune System

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Germs abound. No matter where you go, there are people sneezing and coughing all over you. Despite this, no one gets infected as often as they could. In fact, studies show that even when researchers place a flu virus directly in a person’s nose, at least sixty percent of the time the subject will not get the flu. What prevents people from getting sick more often than they do? You know the answer, it’s the immune system.

Stress abounds. No matter where you go, there are awful people and intolerable demands. Threats loom; just look at the news. Why don’t people crack more often than they do? There’s a psychological immune system just like there’s a physical one. What is this immune system? It involves your feelings. How do you build it up? Learn to listen to your feelings and use them to manage your stress.

When you’re tired, go to sleep. Hungry? Get something to eat; something good that will nourish you. Going too fast? Slow down. Sleep deprivation makes everything worse. Hunger makes you want to bite someone’s head off. When things go too fast, you can’t keep up. All this is stressful. Get the sleep and the food you need and learn to pace yourself and you’ll eliminate most of your stress. Things will still happen. There will still be awful people and intolerable demands, but you’ll be in better shape to deal with them.

How about the other feelings? What is anger trying to tell you? It says you’re powerless. Frustration? You’re trying to do the impossible. Sadness? You can’t rely on what you lost anymore. Fear says warning. Disgust says avoid. Joy tells you there’s something good. Pain is what you get when you go beyond your limits. Feeling stupid is what it feels like to learn. All your feelings are coded messages. Learn the codes.

Did you think these feelings mean something different? For instance, do you believe that anger means someone did you wrong and you must make it right? It could mean that, too. Set things right, if you can; but, when you become a crusading angel for justice, you won’t be lowering your stress, you’d be increasing it. It’s your choice. Either lower your stress or make things right. If you chose to lower your stress, listen to how your anger is trying to tell you, you are powerless and stop trying so hard.

When the body gets invaded by a virus and succumbs to the infection, the immune system learns to recognize that virus. It doesn’t want to make that mistake anymore. When stress gets to you, do you learn from the experience? Do you get better at recognizing the stress and developing more effective ways to combat it? Many people don’t. They keep on doing the same things that don’t work, expecting different results.

Some people have an overactive immune system, an allergy. In that case, their body fails to recognize that a foreign organism poses no risk. It thinks a piece of pollen is a flu virus and fights against it. An over-active psychological immune system regards every fear, pain, and discouragement as something dire. They’re not. Sometimes the feelings get it wrong.

The chronically anxious person takes every fear as a warning that something terrible might happen. His overactive psychological immune system thinks something harmless is a threat. The few times something terrible does happen, the fear is reinforced. The many times nothing terrible happens do not make as much of an impression. The anxious person’s overactive psychological immune system ends up creating more stress by not correcting itself when it gets false positives.

The chronically depressed person is doing the same thing with feelings of hopelessness. She thinks things are hopeless when they are not. When they turn out better than expected, she never gets the memo and goes on believing every discouragement is a dire threat. She has an overactive psychological immune system that, by ignoring false positives, may create the very hopelessness she incorrectly thought she had.

So, in summary, if you want to lower your stress, listen to what your feelings are saying about the things that give you stress; but test those feelings and correct them when they turn out to be wrong.

How Emotions are Made

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Science often tells us that things are not what they seem. Why should feelings be any different?

In the popular view, when a man tells me his dog died, the break in his voice indicates he’s sad. This means, according to the common conception, a circuit in his brain called sadness has been activated. This circuit was wired into him at birth, designed to be stimulated whenever he suffers a loss. The loss of his dog causes his brow to furrow, his shoulders to stoop, tears to form, and his throat to constrict; all signs that tell the world he’s sad.

I hear the break in his voice and the news that his dog had died and feel sad, too. I’ve had dogs, and mine have also died. Following common sense, the same sadness circuit got activated in me in sympathy to his, and there was nothing I could have done about it.

According to the popular belief, this circuit is like many such circuits that take over whenever they are activated: fear, anger, surprise, disgust, among others. When we’re in their throes, we’re unlikely to be able to think straight and do what we think is reasonable. Evolution gave us these circuits to our advantage and they’re now a permanent part of our nature. Consequently, everyone worldwide, except freaks such as psychopaths, have these emotions.

The popular view of feelings can be found everywhere, from Aristotle to Darwin to Freud to Sesame Street. The typical courtroom judge believes that feelings are an inherent vestige of an animal nature, and so will the jury. Teachers put up posters in their classrooms of the universal language of the face to teach their students to recognize emotions as if they’re as standardized as letters of the alphabet. Researchers study the health effects of anger, assuming there’s a single pattern of bodily changes that goes by that name.

And yet, despite this persistent belief that each emotion has a distinct profile and possesses an existence as real as rocks and shrubs, there’s precious little scientific evidence for it. On the contrary, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book, How Emotions are Made, your emotions are not built in, they’re custom crafted. They’re not universal, they vary between cultures. They’re not triggered, you create them. She admits that feelings are real, but not real like rocks and shrubs are real, but real like money is real: a product of consensus. Continue reading

Snapshots

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If the inside of my own head is any indication, we all carry around a few snapshots of what our childhood was like. These snapshots are extremely powerful in determining our self-image, the choices we make, and the way we feel about everything.

One snapshot of my own childhood is that of me, sitting in a school bus. Every other seat is taken, but the seat next to me is empty. Continue reading

Freedom

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If you have ever been to a sawmill like the one I used to run, you have seen one of the most fearsome objects you are ever likely to meet: a sawblade at least three feet in diameter with teeth as big as a tiger’s whirring loudly just a couple feet from the operator. There were no safety guards on my sawmill. I’m not sure how there could be. I frequently had to reach close to the blade to remove boards and some debris.

One day while I was working, the thought entered my brain that I could just dive onto that sawblade and have it cut me in half. This thought frightened me so much I shut everything down, went home, put the covers over my head, and talked to no one. What was going on with me? I wasn’t suicidal. Until this happened, I was happy with my life. Was I going crazy? Continue reading