Unreasonable Reasoning

Every individual acts and suffers in accordance with their particular teleology, which has all the inevitability of fate, as long as they do not understand it.Alfred Adler

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is a perniciously irksome expression. It would be better to say that everything happens because of assorted causation, but I suppose that doesn’t have enough poetic appeal. For example, if a tornado descends on a family of five—sparing only the youngest child—we should comprehend this misfortune as being caused by a rotating column of air near the earth’s surface (a tornado will demolish a home or community center with as much indifference as it would a liquor store). There is no need to say that the tornado happened for the child to learn a valuable lesson about bereavement while creating an opportunity to connect with an estranged relative. Likewise, it’s not very nice to tell children born with neurofibromatosis or leukemia that it happened for a reason. Manufacturing meaning to explain tragedies is not why tragedies occur in the first place; rather, the “meaning” represents a psychological buffer that promotes self-satisfied solace (albeit temporarily) in the wake of destruction. However, this type of specious perspective is short-sighted, conspicuously simplistic, and can appear distastefully insensitive to those whose suffering cannot be ameliorated. When used as a teleological anodyne, creative interpretations of trauma are simultaneously dishonest and intellectually bankrupt.

False consolation and convenient narratives, however well-intended, prolong our misunderstanding of reality and compromise human resilience for enduring future catastrophes. Furthermore, to say that everything happens for a reason diminishes the horror and sociopolitical responsibility with such historical atrocities as the Holocaust, the plight of Native Americans, slavery, and the Spanish Inquisition. There is no cosmic blueprint hanging on a ledge in the outer reaches of space providing intrinsic meaning to all random and non-fortuitous events. This is not to say, however, that wisdom cannot be gained from traumatic experiences. More importantly, we must learn to adapt to experiences that are not imbued with grandiose meaning via radical acceptance.

In conclusion, if your observational propositions do not align with reality, you may want to adjust your interpretive lens (altering reality is not an option). Cultivating compassion and solidarity starts with not lying to ourselves, or anyone else, about the nature of circumstance.

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FUBAR

It occurred to me that my speech or my silence, indeed any action of mine, would be a mere futility. — Joseph Conrad

Warning: Reader discretion is advised.

I once composed a contumacious and facetious reggae song entitled “Fuck It All Man”—emphasizing the word man with an unmistakeable Jamaican accent—during the recklessness of my evanescent youth. This creative gesture of nihilistic heroism has since been replaced with more commercially accessible (and successful) counterparts, but I remain amused at my melodic efforts to capture the crux of futility and exasperation at a relatively young age. Nonetheless, I also realize this phenomenon continues to plague me whenever my capacity for distress tolerance reaches its breaking point—albeit more euphemistically. As the proverbial rubric would have us believe, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

I’ve always been fascinated with individuals who can cope with a significant amount of stress from multiple domains while evoking an air of natural insouciance. Perhaps my genetic disposition loiters on the fringes of a Cluster C playground, but the overwhelming desire to “not give a shit anymore” will always be just below the surface whenever my potential for reaching maximum annoyance looms on the interpersonal horizon. I suppose the primary difference between then and now has been my ability to maintain composure in the midst of incredulous irritation. Granted, this hasn’t always been easy, and I remember a time when locating the quickest (and cheapest) escape hatch was more important than focusing on the gravity of obstacles in front of me.

Being a therapist requires observational tactics that demand conformity to the principles of emotional regulation and vigilance. Distress tolerance, by necessity, has to become a two-way street. The therapist must be just as willing to play ball with their client in the department of self-regulation if any therapeutic progress is to be achieved. Knowing what it feels like to be calm makes it easier way to return to that space if the fluctuation of circumstance tweaks the engine of anxiety. Relaxation via visualization or biofeedback can build dividends in the episodic memory bank of relative tranquility. However, if a refractory situation requires us to engage the sympathetic nervous system, it wouldn’t hurt to defuse these unavoidable confrontations with minimal damage. After all, biting your lip is better than grinding your teeth when it comes to enduring the liabilities of stress. There are few, if any, problems worth sustaining an indelible injury to one’s mental health.

Let’s not be mistaken, I reserve a special affinity for those who know exactly when to say quit. Eternally pushing on a door that says “pull” is tantamount to listening to Zac Efron on auto-repeat. Unable to lie to myself about all things sordid, I periodically espouse a brand of “neo-nihilism” that rivals Arthur Schopenhauer on a bad day. Sometimes the best thing to do requires letting go of preconceived outcomes—regardless of the emotional investment. Cutting losses and learning to consolidate can be skills that are undervalued in our search for unrestrained optimism. However, keeping things on a realistic continuum isn’t a mandate for card-carrying anarchy. Psychologically buffering the impact of losses and gains is more important than stubbornly anticipating either negative or positive results.

When the desire to reflexively say “fuck it” overrides our willingness to “deal with it,” the aftermath allows inertia and entropy to claim full sovereignty—which they will readily claim anyway (don’t give it away so soon). The art of recovering your motivation for living is to think of stressful situations as challenges rather than sources of devastation. Then again, sometimes you just have to say what you really feel.

Related: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrZq4z1z33A

Serviceable Despondency

Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the selfto the mediating intellectas to verge close to being beyond description. William Styron

Behavioral norms and stereotypes often stigmatize or prematurely dismiss complex maladies such as depression. For example, mentioning depression in certain company can imply failure. The depressed individual may also be perceived as experiencing a lack of motivation, or possessing the inability to obtain a proper perspective on life’s vicissitudes. However, it’s the colloquial descriptions of depression (e.g., “having the blues”) that should not be confused with clinical depression, and clinical depression is not generally alleviated by blaming the victim.

Exploring the idea of there being an evolutionary advantage to depression could explain how, in some cases, the process of contemplative brooding can result in adaptive resolution. According to some speculations promulgated by evolutionary psychologists, the genetic proclivity for an individual to succumb to depression may indicate a type of (counterintuitive) selective advantage—theoretically described as the analytical rumination hypothesis (ARH). Keep in mind that most justification for the ARH model is based on the statistical prevalence of depression (Scientific American states that 30 to 50 percent of people have met current psychiatric criteria for Major Depressive Disorder at sometime during their lives). Perhaps depression can be seen as an ipso facto opportunity for the brain to adapt to misfortune, but not in a way that benefits the species as an overall evolutionary adaptation. After all, depression is a costly defense mechanism with disabling effects on one’s ability to function and survivenot to mention the potential consequences of suicidal behavior or substance abuse. Even if a protective impetus is initiated by the symptomatic nature of depression as an adaptive response (i.e., psychosocial “hibernation”), it would not be as adaptively useful as one’s ability to overcome depression. Since the empirical evidence for the efficacy of cognitive behavior therapy in treating depression is good, this suggests that neurological plasticity via salutogenic priming plays a significant role in reversing the pernicious effects of this disorder. In other words, the learned therapeutic skills one employs to battle depression may increase the likelihood of recognizing it’s emergence in the future. This reflective capacity may also reduce the potential of being victimized by severe depression later on if the experience of adaptively processing negative thought patterns is committed to episodic memory.

It should be noted that the causes of depression are as debated as the prescribed treatments. Furthermore, a combination of biological and environmental factors for depression are often equally involved in unquantifiable ratios. In fact, recent studies have shown that serotonin levels have less to do with depression’s actual effects as does the reduction in neurogenesis, changes in neuronal connections, relentless stress, long-term anxiety, and psychological disillusionment.

The phenomenology of depression has been the topic of many poems, books, paintings, musical compositions, and artistic endeavors. Michael Foucault, Ernest Hemingway, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Sylvia Plath are just a few of the notable figures who have suffered from disillusion-based depression (sometimes described as intellectual depression). William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness is filled with caliginous metaphorical allusions attempting to describe the visceral experience of Major Depressive Disorder. Similarly, the British biologist Lewis Wolpert vividly recounts his bout with depression in a partly autobiographical and scientifically informative investigation entitled Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression.

Counteracting the effects of depression requires a comprehensive therapeutic approach with additional pharmacological intervention when necessary. The important thing to remember is that depression is a complicated abnormality and no two individuals will necessarily respond to treatment in predictable ways. The more we learn about depression, the more we may discover the brain’s capacity for developing resilience in the wake of adversity.

(This article originally appeared as Depression: A Silver Lining? in the NPI newsletter, Summer edition, 2012).

Reversing Rigidity

Neither separateness nor union is the goal of the therapeutic process, but rather the exhortation of the endless and often painful undulation between them. — Walter Kempler

Many philosophical, political, and ethical topics are conveniently bifurcated, buffered, or dismissed simply because of the psychological implications involved when addressing the fact that most situations in life require a willingness to challenge comforting intuitions, biased assumptions, and developmentally imbedded preconceptions.

Walter Kempler, the American psychiatrist who worked closely with Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt therapy), noticed an indispensable continuity within experiential and existential modes of ontological awareness that was pivotal to the outcomes of long-term emotional equanimity. Kempler focused on the importance of accepting disappointment, challenging intuitions, confronting obscurity, and developing a capacity for compromise and resilience in the face of uncertainty. From an existentialist viewpoint, an inability to cope with impermanence predominates when a denial of change persists. Likewise, experience sculpts perception and the type of experience often measures an individual’s ability to emotionally process and reflect on life events in a healthy, congruous manner. Ideally, a regulatory flexibility should occur that enables one to adapt to change while realistically assessing and differentiating actual threats to survival from situational inconveniences. “Oriented to an exploration of the resistances to experience” was Kempler’s philosophical position, and realistic compromise is the necessary ingredient to facilitate life transitions.

Similarly, a parallel analogy of this conceptual framework can be demonstrated in modern theoretical physics. For centuries cosmologists adhered to an Aristotelian model in which distinct realms of existence were defined by the idea that the earth was the orbital center for all celestial bodies. In the seventeenth century, this antiquated model of astronomy (otherwise known as the geocentric model) was replaced by a less rigid cosmological system known as the Newtonian model. Eventually, as the scientific community learned about general relativity, the expansion of the universe, and the counterintuitiveness of quantum mechanics, a very open-structured system known as the relational model acquired preeminence. The relational model, simply put, describes how the principle of perpetual fluctuation in the cosmos dictates that no point is any more significant than any other point in a spectrum of physical “relationships.” No longer are we saddled with a static hierarchy of definitive boundaries. The universe is unconstrained by stationary layers and the random particle relationships result in an infinite recombination during the interchangeable dance of mass and energy.

So what does this have to do with psychotherapy? An acknowledgment of the human need for safety, comfort, and security cannot be dismissed; however, in a world where change is inevitable, the ability to acquiesce to shifting parameters in the social landscape becomes a vital coping skill. Life is ephemeral and relationships between family members, friends, lovers, co-workers, and strangers involve complicated forms of exchange that require malleability, openness, and the willingness to reduce unrealistic expectations while relinquishing the desire for control. Humans encounter a plethora of goals, drives, beliefs, and ideas on the platform of daily interaction; more importantly, navigating this myriad of experiential diversity requires a mindset capable of eschewing simplistic black and white thinking. However, this does not mean that all positions or beliefs are relative. Clearly, many inquiries do have right and wrong answers based on objective methodologies that produce reliable and verifiable results, but our approach should include the realization that relationships and communication are based on process rather than destination (for example, field theory strategy in Gestalt therapy recognizes structures and relationships as dynamic rather than fixed).

Being “okay with the gray” is another way to think about reducing the black and white hues of cognition to enhance emotional and behavioral regulation, improve interpersonal effectiveness, and increase our level of distress tolerance when dealing with life’s acute or chronic adjustments. No matter how much impassioned momentum or emotional dividends we have acquired from certainty, reversing rigidity is a developmental process worth experiencing.

Emotional Immunity

Pediatricians and immunologists will confirm that healthy children are born with immunity to certain environmental pathogens (innate immunity). However, a child’s immune system also develops over time based on increased exposure to harmful microorganisms (acquired immunity). As an adult, macrophage cells perpetually scan the body for invading antigens while sending messages to helper T cells that prompt the body’s white blood cells to create antibodies. This arms race of virulent pathogens versus host cells is a non-stop competition for space in biological systems.*

Similarly, human emotions are affected by a never-ending cascade of environmental stimuli; some traumatic, some pernicious, some prosaic, and others exhilarating. Developing resilience requires the construction of an emotional immune system capable of identifying activating life stressors while carefully calibrating the correct behavioral responses. The more exposure one has to life’s unpredictable range of experiences, the more availability one has to adaptively process the outcomes of various events. My personal aphorism and pragmatic default position has always been, “Wisdom is not experience, but rather the interpretation of experience.” How an individual interprets and assimilates life’s occurrences often determines one’s ability to preemptively avoid attaching emotions to uncontrollable outcomes.

The philosopher George Santayana once commented, “Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.” Although this statement may appear disheartening in its declaration of unsentimental realism, a lesson can be imparted regarding the importance of adaptation while developing strategies for navigating stressful terrain. How do we learn to incorporate the experiences of suffering in ways that give us leverage to assess and overcome future obstacles? Are all stressors worth solving (or even capable of being solved)? How do we prioritize our daily concerns while learning to alleviate unnecessary, long-term anxiety?

The word dianoetic means to engage in discursive reasoning rather than reacting with emotional intuition. Likewise, dianoetic therapy is a way of evaluating the degree of stress in our lives, its primary causes, and our options for being selectively indifferent to non-critical hardships by limiting our emotional attachment to outcomes by way of being rational. In contrast, hedging our emotional well-being on the results of a future event is one way to guarantee disappointment, disillusionment, and possibly despair. The more familiar we are with alternative responses to stressors, the more likely those alternatives will emerge in consciousness as plausible coping mechanisms.

Just as the human microbiome depends on the cooperative equilibrium of billions of microorganisms, seemingly inconsequential imbalances often become the precursors to pathology. Similarly, learning to recognize how we successfully responded to unfortunate circumstances in the past presents us with a guide for relying on our emotional immunity to maneuver through challenging life predicaments without losing composure. In other words, in the arms race of tragedies we must develop an arsenal of confrontational strategies.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., has written an ambitiously titled book, The Undefeated Mind, related to similar ideas of developing resilience and discovering our own formula for achieving emotional equanimity. Steeped in the philosophical underpinnings of Nichiren Daishonen’s Buddhism (a thirteenth-century subset of traditional Buddhism), Lickerman explores what it means to combat adversity while discovering contentment in the face of rejection, illness, suffering, and loss. Despite the provocative and principally questionable title, The Undefeated Mind offers a comprehensive overview of the concept that acceptance does not equal browbeaten acquiescence and misfortune does not have to result in nihilism. After all, the first (and often unmentioned) principle of Buddhism is that life involves suffering and a non-anesthetized awareness of pain is required for understanding the fragility of existence. Strength is often equated with physique, but tenacity more often relies on mental endurance. Despite our vulnerabilities and need for “licking our wounds,” we must avoid what the psychologist Daniel Gilbert refers to as affective forecasting (predicting how we’ll feel in the future). None of us can predict how life circumstances will affect us several years from now and each day brings distance between what was once a dire crisis and what may now be an uncomfortable memory. The basic principle of resilience development involves using our memory of previous experiences as a GPS device for adjudicating current stressors and building a library of internal mechanisms for survival in turbulent waters.

Nonetheless, emotional immunity does not mean that our tolerance won’t be profoundly compromised; after all, some levels of agony or disenfranchisement may exist within a realm that requires acceptance of another type altogether. To be clear, I’m not endorsing naïve optimism of the ilk so eloquently critiqued by Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided, or the late Christopher Hitchens in his brutally honest biographical account of living (and dying) with cancer entitled Mortality. Rather, a realistic approach to processing extreme difficulties often depends on context, availability of resources, interpersonal support, and severity of circumstance. It is the type of acceptance described in existential philosophy that ultimately makes life more bearable during insurmountable periods of misery, but our perspective may demand creative action more than contemplation to offset the impact of trauma.

A healthy immune system should be robust enough to recognize external threats without turning on itself by overcorrecting responses to innocuous pathogens. Likewise, emotional immunity requires parsimony by minimizing energy spent on trivial nuisances to retain ammunition for the things that matter most.

Whatever reserves of adaptability and deflection from psychological harm we may cultivate, it is worth remembering that none of us are immune to change.

*For a highly-recommended book concerning the development of biological immunity, read Why We Get Sick by Randolph M. Nesse, M.D., and George C. Williams, PH.D.