2015-12-17

Slaughtering Your Demons

A wise man once told me that having anxious feelings about something is how we know that we care about the outcome.   That man is Dr. Zosar Mohamed, my psychiatrist (I got help, remember).

This is single most important thing he taught me, so far, and that I honestly didn't get his permission to share; I beg his forgiveness if doing so is somehow verboten, but it's just so insightful, and simple, and helpful not to share.  I'll link to Dr. Mohamed's book, which I own, at the end of this post (for whatever that's worth).

It goes like this: there are four stages to how we completely process and interpret events.   These stages are:
  1. The event itself.
  2. Our interpretation of the event.
  3. How we feel about that interpretation.
  4. How we behave based upon #3.
One thing we notice right away (or not, which is why some of us need(ed) help), is that the only stage of how we perceive the world that is external, and that we have no control over, is the event itself.

Jesus Christ, praise be upon Him, was walking with His apostles one day.  The passed by a dead dog that had been lying in the street for days.  Each apostle commented on how ugly the dog was, how badly it smelled, that there were swarms of flies around it, and that the carcass should be thrown away.  Jesus, praise is upon Him, looked at it and exclaimed, "What white teeth!"

 --Zoser Mohamed, Have a Passion for Success (p31)

(forgive the lack of proper MLA attribution, this is a blog, not a published paper)

(for the record, I'm a die-hard atheist, and Dr. Mohamed is a Muslim, so neither of us have much interest in Jesus).

As somebody with an anxiety disorder, my tendency was to interpret events in negative ways, which led to fear, and behaviors designed to prevent the worst imagined outcome.  When this behavior made the bad outcome a self fulfilling prophecy, it reinforced the initial interpretation of the event, leading to the vicious cycle of expecting the worst and achieving it.

The trick is to pause in between steps 1 and 2, take a deep breath, and think for a second about the event, before interpreting it.   This is really fucking hard to do!

Say somebody cuts you off in traffic.  How does that make you feel?

Now, what if that person is rushing his expecting wife to the hospital to deliver their baby?

How does that make you feel?

The point is we don't have complete information about the events that affect our lives (and thus our mental state), so the conclusions we draw from the events we experience are what really shapes our overall outlook.

So why is this really hard, all we've got to do is assume the best, right? Well, no.  That would make us all morons.  Sometimes the negative interpretation is the correct one.  If you're in an abusive relationship, for example.

This is also hard, because our emotions are innate, and we're not used to interjecting in our mental processes before they've been formed.   It can be done, however.

For me, it took an extra step, at least initially.

It is hard to interrupt the progression from stage 1 to 2 and even stage 2 to 3, but stage 3 to 4 is where our higher consciousness begins its involvement.  We can recognize the bad feeling very easily, so start there and work backwards.

Why do we feel this way?  What do we think happened?  Ask yourself what you THINK happened, and whether or not you know for sure the motivations behind the actions.  Now take a deep breath and revisit your feeling, is it different?

Now proceed to stage 4.  You'll be happier.

This is not the final solution, but the first step.  With enough practice, you really will be able to pause between the event and your initial interpretation, obviating the need to backtrack, which makes the whole process much easier.   

Think of common situations.  Where I work, we have a very heavily used set of elevators that link one wing of the main building to the cafeteria, two floors above.  A running joke is how (very few) people opt to use that elevator to go up or down a single floor, instead of from the main floor to the cafeteria.   Over time, I've been able to change my initial reaction to this event from one of mild annoyance, to one of "good, now I won't be stuck behind a slow walker in the hallway." (I walk pretty fast, for the record).

So in summary, if we are anxious about events in our daily lives, and feel powerless to change our trajectory, this is a helpful tool to overcome that.

Disclaimer:  I am by no means a mental health professional, and if you are experiencing severe anxiety and depression, I urge you to seek professional help.

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