Your Pain

Finding a different way to interact with your pain is hard. People have the most difficulty embracing the paradox of acceptance. Our instinct is to run as far away from our pain as possible, to be as safe as we can be. Making a decision to step into it rather than trying to get rid of it can be excruciatingly difficult. Feeling the intensity of those difficult, painful emotions and sensations can feel very dark and very lonely. I see it in all forms of suffering. The depression that never seems to lift, the drink that has to be drunk, the highway we cannot drive on, the hands that must be washed over and over and over. The reality is that most people are willing to embrace acceptance only when they have run out of options – when what they have been doing, often for years, simply doesn’t work anymore. This is a dark place that feels like there is no light to guide you out. It can be devastating. 

To be able to connect and embrace a lifetime’s worth of suffering in service of a valued end, that – in its very essence – is acceptance. 

Joseph Trunzo writing in Aeon 

Embracing Life as it Is

For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments. The Buddha said, “Our life is the creation of our mind.” Marcus Aurelius said, “Life itself is but what you deem it.” The quest for wisdom in many traditions begins with this insight. Early Buddhists and the Stoics, for example, developed practices for reducing attachments, thinking more clearly, and finding release from the emotional torments of normal mental life.

The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately. When people improve their mental hygiene in this way—when they free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their consciousness—they become less depressed, anxious, and angry. 

Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt writing in The Atlantic 

Mental illness: Out of the shadows

Mental illnesses account for more suffering and premature death in rich countries than heart disease and strokes, or than cancer. One study estimates that depression is 50% more disabling than angina, asthma or arthritis. Men with mental-health problems die 20 years earlier than those without, according to the British Medical Association, mostly from causes other than suicide. That is partly because mental illnesses make physical ones tougher to treat, and because sufferers often live less healthily. Research has linked even moderate levels of stress to lower life-expectancy. 

Half of adults with long-term mental conditions suffered their first symptoms before turning 14. Left untreated, even moderate conditions such as anxiety hurt school results and the prospects for employment. For serious conditions such as psychosis, prompt treatment greatly improves outcomes.

From The stigma of mental illness is fading in The Economist 

The Mental Fog Begins to Lift

Over time, you begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world outside the prison of your sadness. The conscious mind takes hold of some shred of beauty or love. And then more shreds, until you begin to think maybe, just maybe, there is something better on the far side of despair.

I have no doubt that I will eventually repeat the cycle of depression. But now I have some self-knowledge that can’t be taken away. I know that — when I’m in my right mind — I choose hope.

Michael Gerson, published in the Washington Post 

 

Daily Rituals

Here’s the true secret of life: We mostly do everything over and over. In the morning, we let the dogs out, make coffee, read the paper, help whoever is around get ready for the day. We do our work. In the afternoon, if we have left, we come home, put down our keys and satchels, let the dogs out, take off constrictive clothing, make a drink or put water on for tea, toast the leftover bit of scone. I love ritual and repetition. Without them, I would be a balloon with a slow leak.      

Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.    

Anne Lamott, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair

Our private online worlds

When we enter a coffee shop in which everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds, we respond by creating one of our own. When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in her private zone, you don’t. And slowly, the whole concept of a public space — where we meet and engage and learn from our fellow citizens — evaporates.

Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety.

Andrew Sullivan writing in New York Magazine

The Joy of Third Place

Is third better than second place? It seems to be better if you are in the Olympics. Psychologists at Cornell University say their research shows bronze-medal winners are generally happier than silver medalists. Here's the reason: When you come in second place you focus on what you might have done differently in order to win. Come in third and you’re happy just to get a medal.

The phenomenon of "what if" reasoning (knows as Counterfactual thinking) leads us to imagine how things could have been different rather than on what actually has happened. The bronze winners generally think “what if” I hadn’t won anything and realize how fortunate they are to be on the podium at all. But for the silver medalist, “what if” means pondering the little things that might have turned silver to gold.

It seems counterfactual thinking plays out, not just in games, but in every day life. If a student misses making a grade of "A" by one point, having a "B" is no longer so satisfying.

"Would I be happier today if only I had married someone else?" “What if I had attended a different school or majored in another field?” “Suppose I had selected a different profession?”

Miss a flight by five minutes and you are frustrated. But if there’s no way you could make the flight you don't waste time on it. It's like the football team losing in the final seconds of a game. If the team had gotten blown out, then the players can more easily put it behind them and move on. But when victory was so very close, they can always think of little things they might have done differently to affect the outcome.  

Do you puzzle over what you might have done until you what-if yourself into dissatisfaction? Do you get stuck thinking about what almost happened? Do you feel like you are the silver medalist in life?

It's worth noting that first place has its pitfalls as well. Research shows the first runner in a long-distance race puts in three times more effort maintaining that position than the runner-up. The researchers recommend when you are in the lead to focus on the struggle with one’s self rather than the pace of the other runners.

Stephen Goforth

Too Busy Feeling Bad

You’ve had an awful day—the cat peed on the rug, the dog peed on the cat, the washing machine is busted, World Wrestling has been preempted by Masterpiece Theatre—and you naturally feel out of sorts.

If at that moment you try to imagine how much you would enjoy playing cards with your buddies the next evening, you may mistakenly attribute feelings that are due to the misbehavior of real pets and real appliances ("I feel annoyed") to your imaginary companions ("I don't think I'll go because Nick always ticks me off").

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of depression is that when depressed people think about future events, they cannot imagine liking them very much.

Vacation? Romance? A night on the town? No thanks, I'll just sit here in the dark.

Their friends get tired of seeing them flail about in a thick blue funk, and they tell them that this too shall pass, that it is always darkest before the dawn, that every dog has its day, and several other important cliches. But from the depressed person's point of view, all the flailing makes perfectly good sense because when she imagines the future, she finds it difficult to feel happy today and thus difficult to believe that she will feel happy tomorrow.

We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. But rather than recognizing that this is the inevitable result of the Reality First policy, we mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness we feel when we think about it.

Our confusion seems terribly obvious to those who are standing on the sidelines, saying things like "You're feeling low right now because Pa got drunk and fell off the porch, Ma went to jail for whupping Pa, and your pickup truck got repossessed—but everything will seem different next week and you'll really wish you'd decided to go with us to the opera."

At some level we recognize that our friends are probably right. Nonetheless, when we try to overlook, ignore, or set aside our current gloomy state and make a forecast about how we will feel tomorrow, we find that it's a lot like trying to imagine the taste of marshmallow while chewing liver. It is only natural that we should imagine the future and then consider how doing so makes us feel, but because our brains are hell-bent on responding to current events, we mistakenly conclude that we will feel tomorrow as we feel today.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Imagining the Future

I often ask people to tell me how they think they would feel two years after the sudden death of an eldest child. As you can probably guess, this makes me quite popular at parties. I know, I know—this is a gruesome exercise and I’m not asking you to do it. But the fact is that if you did it, you would probably give me the answer that almost everyone gives me, which is some variation on "Are you out of your damned mind? I’d be devastated—totally devastated. I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. I might even kill myself. So who invited you to this party anyway?"

If at this point I’m not actually wearing the person’s cocktail, I usually probe a bit further and ask how he came to his conclusion. What thoughts or images came to mind, what information did he consider? People typically tell me that they imagined hearing the news, or they imagined opening the door to an empty bedroom.

But in my long history of asking this question and thereby excluding myself from every social circle to which I formerly belonged, I have yet to hear a single person tell me that in addition to these heartbreaking, morbid images, they also imagined the other things that would inevitably happen in the two years following the death of their child.

Indeed, not one person has ever mentioned attending another child’s school play, or making love with his spouse, or eating a taffy apple on a warm summer evening, or reading a book, or writing a book, or riding a bicycle, or any of the many activities that we—and that they—would expect to happen in those two years.

Now, I am in no way, shape, or form suggesting that a bite of gooey candy compensates for the loss of a child. That isn’t the point. What I am suggesting is that the two-year period following a tragic event has to contain something—that is, it must be filled with episodes and occurrences of some kind—and these episodes and occurrences must have some emotional consequences.

Regardless of whether those consequences are large or small, negative or positive, one cannot answer my question accurately without considering them. And yet, not one person I know has ever imagined anything other than the single, awful event suggested by my question. When they imagine the future, there is a whole lot missing, and the things that are missing matter.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Finding Sorrow

When you get depressed, it’s comforting to remember that deep inside you is a well of pain. This pain can help you. It’s a reservoir of self-knowledge and nourishment. When you’re able to welcome this pain, it can carry you out of depression into sorrow.

When depressed, you are merely numb and listless. But in sorrow, you feel the fine-grained texture of loss. Whereas depression diminishes our world, sorrow teaches you the true value of the things you mourn. Sorrow is the other side of joy—a dark, moist cradle of grief that slowly nourishes you, a solemn vigil that honors what you love. So the next time you are ensnared in darkness, cut through the gray armor of depression straight to the dark heart of sorrow.

Lost in depression, I am found in sorrow.

Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions

what pain does to us

Pain humbles the proud. It softens the stubborn. It melts the hard. Silently and relentlessly, it wins battles deep within the lonely soul. The heart alone knows its own sorrow, and not another person can fully share in it. Pain operates alone; it needs no assistance. It communicates its own message whether to statesman or servant, preacher or prodigal, mother or child. By staying, it refuses to be ignored. By hurting, it reduces its victim to profound depths of anguish. And it is at that anguishing point that the sufferer either submits and learns, developing maturity and character; or resists and becomes embittered, swamped by self-pity, smothered by self-will.

I have tried and cannot find, either in Scripture or history, a strong-willed individual whom God used greatly until He allowed them to be hurt deeply.

Charles Swindoll, Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns

Maintaining

It’s the maintenance of life, the plumbing of life that we sometimes slip into and forget the prose and poetry. It’s easier to make lists, it’s easier to call the plumber, its easier to wonder why the car doesn’t work, and spend our life, worrying about the plumbing. And one day at 50 we wake up and say, “Why is there no juice? Why is there no joy? Why is there no pleasure?”

Roger Fransecky, Apogee Group

Recovery

Outcomes by themselves don't really have an unambiguously positive or negative effect on your happiness. Yes, there are some outcomes—you get a terminal disease, or your child dies—that are pretty extreme, but let's leave those out. But if you think about it, the breakup that you had with your childhood girlfriend, or you broke an arm and were in a hospital bed for two months, when they occurred, you might have felt, “Oh my goodness, this is the end of the world! I'm never going to recover from it.” But it turns out we're very good at recovering from those, and not just that, but those very events that we thought were really extremely negative were in fact pivotal in making us grow and learn.

Raj Raghunathan quoted in the Atlantic

Depression Lingers

There is a chain of events follow the awareness of a loss that starts with mind-body chain of events that leads to depression. While it mind can resolve the loss, the body still needs time to recover. The biochemical changes accompanying the depression take time to return to normal. One may continue to feel depressed long after the problem seems to be resolved.

This is important to remember because many people who experience such temporary losses do not allow time for the body’s chemistry to heal. They are likely to interpret their continued low mood as a sign of failure, reject themselves, and create further loss and depression. Many depressions are perpetuated this way.

The healthiest way to deal with sadness following restoration of the loss is simply to accept it. Give the body time to heal after the mind is recovered.

Archibald Hart, Counseling the Depressed

Depressing as an excuse

We often use depressing as an excuse for not doing something we don’t want to do or afraid to do. When someone suggests that we go ahead and do whatever we are trying to avoid, we usually agree and say, “I think you’re right, but I’m just to upset right now to do it.” For example, your company is downsizing and you lose a good job through no fault of your own. You tell me what happened and how depressed you are. I try not to pay much attention to your depressing. Instead, I say, “I know it’s hard, but don’t sit around; get out your resume.”

But you are depressing for a good reason. You have just been laid off and feel rejected, even though it was not your fault. You are afraid of another rejection, of facing the fact that there may be no good jobs for you at your age and with your experience. As painful as depressing is, it’s less painful at this time than looking for job and getting rejected again and again.

William Glasser, Choice Theory

Choosing the Misery

Force yourself to make a different choice for a short time, for at least an hour. Do something physically hard that, under different circumstances, you can easily do and that you usually enjoy, perhaps a brisk walk or a short hard run. If you can do it with a good friend who is not overly sympathetic, so much the better. While you are walking or running, especially with a friend, you will notice you are not depressing. For a short time, you are not thinking about your unhappy relationship, and you feel much better. But as soon as you finish, you tend to go back to thinking about the relationship that has gone bad, and the feeling comes back. To depress, you have to keep thinking the unhappy thoughts. To stop these thoughts, change what you want or change your behavior. There is no other way.

William Glasser, Choice Theory

The power of sibling rivalry

Sibling rivalry can be a year-round tradition for some families. University of Missouri researchers followed more nearly 150 pairs of siblings for a year and found the conflict fell into two overall categories:

1. Conflicts about shared resources and responsibilities which focused on equality and fairness, like whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher or use the computer or ride in the front seat of the car. These siblings were more likely to become depressed.

2. Meanwhile, those who argued over privacy and personal space, such as borrowing clothes without asking or entering a room without permission, were more likely to be anxious and have low self-esteem. The most vulnerable for this twist were younger siblings.

The researchers say the way preteens and teens react to the conflict with siblings to the has to do with what they perceive is at stake. You'll find details about the study in the journal Child Development.

Stephen Goforth