How to Get Out of Quicksand

Old Posts

I was walking along the beach one day, having a nice vacation, when I stepped into quicksand. It wasn’t a deep pit like you see in the movies, the kind that can swallow a horse and rider, but it was quicksand, just the same. I soon was in up to my knees, just like in the movies. The more I struggled to pull my feet out, the more stuck I became.

Perhaps you’ve noticed by now that you get more entrenched in your issues the more you try to solve them; just like quicksand. You have a library of self-help books, have seen a score of therapists, attend groups, seminars, and yoga classes, you take medicine, and practice mindfulness. All this and you are still anxious. In fact, you’ve gone from being anxious to being anxious about being anxious. If your method of escaping is similar to my method of getting out of quicksand, you will get more stuck. You’re doing it wrong. Continue reading

The Psychological Immune System

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

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.

Living with Stress

workshop_6933-1_edited-1You’re not supposed to choose to have stress, but many people do, for good reasons and bad. For many, very many, stress is an acceptable price they pay for values they hold dear.

I’ve known people who are so dead set against having stress that they don’t try anything new because it’ll make them nervous, they don’t go anywhere because people might look at them funny; they continue smoking cigarettes because they’ll feel like crap if they quit; or they don’t get attached to anything because, when they lose it, they’ll grieve. For a while, sometimes a long while, they are gloriously stress free. It looks as though they’re doing well. They don’t give their families any trouble. They are not spending their days in misery.

The problem is that their lives are getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. The day will come when they see the price they paid to be stress free and, guess what? They’ll fall into despair. They will have dug themselves a fox hole so deep, they can’t get out of it.

Contrast that to the person who works so hard at his job that he drives himself into the ground, not eating, not sleeping, not even caring how he feels as long as he meets his objectives. He doesn’t want to destroy his health, but he accepts it because he’s doing something important. Compare it to the wife who sticks with an alcoholic, abusive husband, determined to bring him around to fulfill the promise she sees in him. She may prefer not to be hurt, but she will accept being hurt if it means that she is good. Or look at the performer who endures stage fright before each show. It’s no fun puking up your guts in the dressing room, but the applause makes it worth it. There are people, plenty of people, who do hard things. When you do hard things, you get stress, because there’s only so much a person can take. It’s the cost of doing what is difficult, if not impossible.

Those people might come to see a therapist, too; hoping to alleviate their stress. But their stress isn’t going anywhere because they won’t do what they have to do to get rid of it: quit trying to do what is difficult. The won’t quit doing what’s difficult because only the difficult really matters. This is how they make their lives mean something.

When they put it that way, I don’t blame them.

The moral of the story is that you can put up with anything, even stress, as long as it’s meaningful. Additionally, if you are putting up with stress, it had better be.

Shinrin-yoku and the Cost of the Placebo Effect

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Any time of year is a good time for a good dose of Shinrin-yoku; but, I think, for maximum effect, autumn in Western New York is the best.
 Shinrin-yoku is the Japanese term for forest therapy. That’s getting therapy by walking in the forest, not therapy for forests. People have been walking in the woods forever; but, I am told, since the 1980s, it’s become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers in Japan and South Korea have established what they call a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time in the company of trees.
 I love hiking, so I’d like to believe that walking in the woods can lower your blood pressure, lift your spirits, make you breathe easier, and be less interested in filling your mouth with junk food, your veins with drugs, your lungs with smoke, and your gullet with alcohol. It’s cheaper than Prozac and has fewer side effects than Xanax. In fact, unless you get sprayed by a skunk, eaten by a bear, or a tree falls on you, I can’t think of any side effects at all. If you’re sad, anxious, or confused, taking a walk in the woods should be the first thing you do, before you call a therapist or get a prescription for pills. As a matter of fact, there are studies that support some of those claims. In one such research experiment, volunteers were taken for a walk in the woods, or, alternatively, down a city street. Measurements were taken. The ones who walked in the woods had lower heart rates and blood pressures, reduced stress hormone production, a boosted immune system, and improved overall feelings of wellbeing.

I’ve looked at these articles, but they only cause me to have more questions. Continue reading

Check your Dashboard

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I’d like to interrupt whatever else you might be doing, to remind you to check your dashboard; you’ll find there almost all the information you need to keep things running smoothly.

No, I don’t mean the dashboard in your car, although you should be checking that regularly, as well; I mean your body’s dashboard. You can see it when you look within. A lot of problems you might have with yourself can easily be explained by a quick look at your dashboard. Feeling anxious? Feeling depressed? Look at the dashboard; it might tell you why and what you can do about it. Are you cranky and irritable; do you just want to kick someone’s ass? Look at your own dashboard before you blame other people and their behavior. Is your work suffering from some kind of a block; is everything just harder for you now than it was an hour ago? Check the dashboard. Do you believe you need a drink or want scarf down great quantities of food? Yup, you guessed it; check the dashboard before you open the fridge.

Let’s go over all the gauges on the dashboard and you’ll see what I mean. Continue reading

What is Madness?

Someone asked why the name of this blog is Madness 101. Shouldn’t I call it Mental Illness 101? Isn’t mental illness the proper, politically correct term?

It is, but it’s not really mental illness that I’m writing about. I’m writing about the related subject of madness.

Illness is something that happens to you beyond your control. Some diseases are inherited, like Huntington’s; others are transmitted, like Ebola. Mental illness is thought to involve a multi-factor genesis called the Diathesis-Stress Hypothesis. (I love saying that. Try it yourself. Once you learn how to say it, you’ll love it, too. Diathesis-Stress Hypothesis.)

The Diathesis-Stress Hypothesis states that people are born with a genetic predisposition which is then activated by stress. You may have schizophrenia written into your genetic code, for instance, but it is not until you encounter the peculiar stress of adolescence or early adulthood that the symptoms of schizophrenia emerge. You may tend towards depression, on one hand, or anxiety, on the other. Most of the time you are fine, but when that decisive straw lands on your camel’s back, the camel falls one way or the other.

Other conditions are normal reactions to abnormal experiences. Almost anyone who smokes enough tobacco will become addicted to it. Addiction is the result of ordinary physiological processes whereby the body changes as a result of the substance ingested. All addictions are just as inevitable if you use the substance enough, although studies suggest that the path towards addiction may be speeded up or slowed, depending on genetics.

Post Traumatic Stress is another normal reaction to abnormal experience. It is true that not everyone who experiences a particular horrible event develops post traumatic stress over that event. However, we do believe that the accumulation of stressful events, or experiencing a single event in early childhood, when you are particularly vulnerable, will lead to the development of the condition.

The Diathesis-Stress Hypothesis is a powerful theory, but it leaves out one important factor: personal choice and responsibility. I’m not saying people choose to be schizophrenic; but the person with schizophrenia does choose whether or not to isolate himself, take his medication, and work with the people available to help him. The depressed person has a choice about whether to stay in bed all day or open the blinds to let the sun in. The anxious person can decide whether to avoid or face that which makes her anxious. The alcoholic chooses whether or not to drink.

When an alcoholic doesn’t drink, he is still an alcoholic, but he is not adding, through his own actions, to the condition. Similarly, the depressed, anxious, or psychotic person can do a lot towards addressing their conditions. They do not have to simply be passive victims.

I am aware that people with mental illness are subject to extreme social prejudice. I know that they often get blamed and blame themselves for things that are out of control. I work with them intimately on a daily basis. However, I am a counselor and it is my business to help people identify the ways that they contribute to the problems they face and the things they can do about them. It does them no good to tell them that they are the unlucky recipients of flawed genes or a chemical imbalance or have too much stress in their lives if they do not also address how they unnecessarily add to that stress.

Madness is my word for the things ill people do to make themselves more ill.

Having alcoholism is not madness, but drinking when you know you have alcoholism is madness.

Being depressed is not madness, but not getting up to start the day is madness.

Having anxieties is not madness. It’s very normal, and even may be desirable, to have anxieties; but, letting your fears control you is madness.

You are not responsible for having an illness, but when illness takes over your life and controls you and the people around you, that is madness.

In this series, I will describe the ways of madness and the things you can do about it.