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Friday, March 20, 2015

What Happens When We Avoid Life?

Much of what psychologists work on with patients is the way that they try to avoid aspects of their lives.

What do they avoid, or attempt to avoid?
  • Unpleasant thoughts or feelings.
  • What they consider to be unacceptable thoughts.
  • Situations and stimuli which make them feel uncomfortable.
  • New experiences which might cause some tension in them.
How do they attempt to avoid them?
  • drugs
  • alcohol
  • sex
  • overwork
  • very strict, straightjacketed ways of thinking
  • substituting one feeling for another
  • high stimulation activities
  • staying constantly busy

While not all of these are bad in themselves (high stimulation activities such as skydiving are sometimes positive in themselves), taken to an extreme they suggest that the person is trying to avoid something.

I work with my clients to truly encounter their lives.  However, recently, working with my jazz piano teacher, I realized that I was rushing through exercises.  And by rushing through them, I was not  getting the learning out of them which I could.

Some psychologists would go further, and would say that experiential avoidance is one of the root causes of human suffering.  (This was be true of therapists in the school called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; however, it was also true of the older school called Getstalt Therapy.)

My clients might find this hard to believe.  They might point to the fact that they ARE experiencing depression, in fact too much of it.  Or they ARE experiencing too much anxiety.  They might say that they are not experiencing too little feeling but too much.

The paradox would be resolved by the idea that anxiety or depression may be the result of not really encountering or digesting the original feeling.  If something is digested, everything tends to work out alright.  However, if we are not digesting something, then bad things happen.  In the same way, if we encounter life's experiences one by one, and deal upfront with each one by one, then they tend to get digested, absorbed, and so on.  We learn from them.  We solve problems.  We can even desensitize to certain types of negative situations.  But when we avoid feelings and situations, we can't do any of these, and things just go from bad to worse.

Another way to think of this is that there are primary feelings and secondary feelings.  A primary feeling might be the hurt of someone breaking up with us.  We might feel sadness and anger.  If we allow ourselves to feel those feelings, then they have a good chance of getting digested, and we can go on.  If we do not deal with those primary feelings, then we may be left with a residue which is not directly attached to any particular situation, a residue of depression or anxiety which is more free floating, and which tends to linger and stay on.  It tends to linger because we are not fully aware of what is causing it or how to solve it.  It may be a free floating residue.

Or here is another way of thinking of it.  If we deal with situations and feelings up front, then our stress levels may decrease, and any underlying genetic biological tendency towards a mental disorder may not be triggered.

Now, I don't want to claim that it is always easy to face our situations and feelings.  Sometimes we may need professional help if situational stress is overwhelming to us.  BUT, I do believe that it always better (with help or without help) to face issues and try to solve them within a reasonable period of time.  Feelings can be faced but not exactly SOLVED.  We can't solve a feeling.  But by facing it, it will often go away.

That doesn't mean that it hurts anything to go home at night and have a glass of wine, saying to yourself that you will tackle the problem tomorrow (assuming you are not an alcoholic).  That is avoidance, yes,  but very temporary avoidance.  We do not have to tackle problems 24/7.  But if we put off dealing with problems day after day, then that is when the problem and feelings we face may transform themselves into something even worse.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Language as a Two Edged Sword

A news article came out the other day about research indicating that dogs are able to remember what happened the day before.  This made me reflect once again regarding the value of language and the problems that come with it.  I would guess that lack of language is one contributing factor to dogs not being able to remember recent events.  Words and phrases such as "family get together," "football," "Saturday," and so on, aid our memory.  Dogs don't have those words.  In addition to helping our memory, words make us more capable of conceptualizing problems and solving them.

It just may be that dogs may be a little happier than humans, or put another way, that they may be less miserable. If their basic needs are met, they probably are content. Human beings can worry about tomorrow, remember the past, and berate themselves interminably.  And much of those thoughts involve words.

Words are a two edged sword.  It would be much harder to be neurotic without words.  Many of the negative events and effects of childhood are stored in words.  Negative messages from our parents, e.g., "You can't sing,"  "You'll never amount to anything," and so on, take abuse to a whole new level.  Physical and sexual abuse certainly harm a lot of people, but words add an entirely new layer of negativity.  We can rehearse and remember those negative statements over and over, until our own demise.  Moreover, our own negative thoughts about our abuse, e.g, "I must have deserved it," "I caused it," and so on, make it even worse.

Much of the therapy I do with clients is aimed at helping them to rid themselves of irrational negative thoughts.  I have written about that many times in this blog and elsewhere.

Sometimes the negative thoughts come so fast and furious in therapy, that it is hard to keep up with them.  Consider the following dialog:

     Patient:  So I screwed up once again--just like my parents said.

     Therapist:  That would seem to be the same type of negative thought we discussed just a few minutes ago.

     Patient: Oh, you're right.  I'm so stupid.  I can't do anything right.

In this example, even before the therapist is able to assist the patient with dealing with one negative thought, two more have been added.

That is one reason why cognitive therapy for depression can take 10-20 sessions.  Eventually, however, most persons can get a handle on their negative thinking and make progress with their thoughts.

I could say a lot more about this, but I will make this short and leave you with the moral of this story:  Use language wisely.  Use it to describe thoughts, events, and behaviors accurately.  Use it to conceptualize problems and conceptualize solutions.  But remember that thoughts can sometimes be produced by the brain which are very unhelpful.  In that situation, they neither lead to better conceptualization of problems, nor better solutions.  Sometimes rampant, unbridled words and thoughts in our heads are the problem.