Monthly Archives: April 2013
Because Life Holds Infinite Possibilities

Are You Perpetuating Your Problem?

Whether you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, anger, jealously, envy, guilt, hurt or shame, you may not like to hear it, but you are most likely perpetuating your problem by how you’re thinking about your situation.

Let me explain a little.

When we function healthily, we don’t just experience joy and happiness, and prance around like little lambs in a field without a care in the world, we actually still experience a range of emotions, which can be very difficult to live with.

It’s absolutely healthy to feel anxiety, depression, anger, jealously, envy, guilt, hurt or shame, but what makes these emotions healthy is that we don’t linger in them for longer than is good for us, or demand that they ‘go away’. We accept the appropriateness of how we feel, and do something about our situation.

Let me give you an example how a person’s thinking can perpetuate depression. Imagine that your favorite dog was very sick and you took her to the vet who tells you she’s in a lot of pain and it’s best to euthanize her. How do you think you might feel? Very sad (most likely), guilty (perhaps), happy (to some degree if you know you can stop her suffering). So, do those emotions seem healthy and appropriate to you? Of course they do, and to experience them is human.

Given the choice, you may not have wanted to face that situation in the first place, but we can’t always pick and choose what happens to us in life. We can only choose how we deal with those situation, when they arise.

So how could a person drive themselves into depression after such an event. It’s easy. When a person feels sad about a loss or death, if they start taking far too much responsibility for what happened and judging themselves negatively – then depression will only be a short taxi ride away.

The kind of thinking that perpetuates depression will be thoughts like, “I’m such a bad person for killing her.”, “I should have done more to make her life happy”, “I should have taken her to the vet sooner and I would have saved her.”

None of those statements are wholly true, yet when you tell yourself over and over, you start to believe it and you’ll feel depressed. You’ll even start acting depressed. Instead of going out for a walk, which you used to enjoy, you might stay at home watching TV, because ‘there’s no point in going out without your dog’. You might even stop socializing with other dog walkers and so you’ll become more isolated, which perpetuates the problem.

So from a healthy sadness about the loss of a loved pet, with unhealthy thinking and behavior, your mood sinks into depression. And once there, it is a lot harder to get out of than when you’re healthily sad.

Anxiety on the other hand is the opposite to depression. Rather than dwelling on the past, people with anxiety tend to focus on the possible threat in the future, and employ defensive mechanisms against that perceived threat or problem.

Let me give you another example.

Frank gives a presentation at work that doesn’t go down well with his boss. Frank gets shouted at and bawled out for not doing a good enough job. His boss also tells him that he must improve before the next presentation or else! How do you think you might feel? Disappointed (sure) frustrated (maybe) concerned (oh yeah).

So how does Frank perpetuate his anxiety? The first thing he does is to fly into the future and use ‘what if’ and ‘if…then’ type thinking. “If I deliver another bad presentation, then my boss will fire me.”, “What if I can’t do it the way he wants?” What if I’m terrible?”

These ‘what if’ thoughts are the precursors to the unhealthy demands that lead to anxiety: “I must know that the presentation will go well.” “I must not screw up the presentation or my boss will fire me.” “I must be perfect.”

The trouble with these irrational demands is that they lead to anxiety behaviors such as spending hours on the presentation, not sleeping, seeking other’s opinions, asking for reassurance that it will go well, feeling nauseous before the presentation, sweating and feeling very ill at ease. Do you think this type of behavior helps or hurts?

Clearly, Frank is not in a good state to be giving a presentation, and he’ll most likely deliver a sub-par presentation. His unhealthy thinking and behaving has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now what do you think will happen next time he needs to give a presentation? He’ll feel worse.

To end these destructive cycles, we need to understand that emotions are healthy. Even the difficult ones. Emotions shouldn’t be feared but used as a guide to let us know that something isn’t OK in our lives, and maybe that something needs changing. When we demand unreasonable things from ourselves, we’re destined to feel strong unhealthy emotions.

Sadness and depression, concern and anxiety. It’s a thin line between healthy and unhealthy emotions, but by understanding how our thinking perpetuates our emotional disturbance, we can change how we think, feel, and act, to become a healthier version of ourselves.

5 Things About Life, the Universe and Everything.

Admit it, you like reading articles that contain lists. You know the ones I mean. The ones that contain those snippets that’ll explain how you can change your life if you follow their 5 step plan to being a better person. The 5 steps to being wealthy; 5 beauty tips of the stars; 5 things that will help you beat procrastination, depression or anxiety. Come on, I know you do, because I do too.

There’s something strangely comforting in looking at these lists and hoping that our life problems can be boiled down into 5 simple steps. I read them hoping for the answers, because I too want the secret to life, the universe, and everything.

However, I think the reality is that, as much as some lists offer interesting ideas, the majority mislead people about change, offer false hope instead of facts, and generally encourage people to think their life can be simpler if only they do those 5 secret things that may have worked for another person.

Come on, really? Life is so complex and the reasons why we feel and do what we do is also complex. Take depression, for example. The reality is nobody really knows why people feel depressed; and nobody really knows what will cure each individual’s depression. When talking about cause and effect, there are so many factors to take into account: cognitive, environmental, social, biological.

What we do have is good empirical evidence that some therapies can help some people overcome depression. But that’s doesn’t mean everyone will overcome it through therapy. I’ve worked with many people and, for whatever reason, they remain depressed and sometimes become even more depressed. When that happens, the focus of therapy changes to learning to live with being depressed, and no list is going to change that.

We know that medication can help but it doesn’t help everyone; and, more often than not, medication is guess work – an art more than a science. What works for one person can make another person sick. I’ve seen some people recover in a matter of weeks, and others poisoned to the point of hospitalization. Where’s the 5 point list on that one?

Advances in neuroscience are helping us understand the brain and how it works. Yet, even super intelligent scientists with the most sophisticated technology don’t fully understand what is causing depression. So, can a 5 point list really tell us how to overcome it?

It’s clearly frustrating not knowing the secret to being well. As a therapist and coach, it’s my job to help somebody get well, so it’s easy to hope a list will provide me with the secrets that’ll help me and the person I’m working with.

But many lists just don’t cut it. I was reading a list on procrastination the other week and the first thing on the list was something like ‘just do it’. I can imagine all the people who procrastinate reading that and thinking, “Wow, that’s amazing. Why didn’t I think of that?”

OK, I’m knocking these lists, so I must know all the answers, right? Nope. I wish I did but unfortunately I don’t (please don’t tell my wife I said that). With that being said, I will now counter everything I’ve just written and offer you my own secret 5 point list to life, the universe and everything. Feel free to comment below!

  1. You are personally responsible for all that you think, do, and (mostly) feel.
  2. Accept reality: Life doesn’t owe you a thing.
  3. You are you. Nobody can ever know what it means to be you, so be kind to yourself and others.
  4. Life is meaningless, except for the meaning that you give it – so use that power wisely.
  5. Nobody has all the answers. We’re all just making shit up as we go along, hoping for the best.