Life Lessons

The Season of Light

We are entering a season for celebrations, and the symbol of light plays a part in many of our spiritual traditions. Light in the darkness can be a powerful metaphor for important ideas: courage in spite of fear, empathy in place of judgment, love instead of animosity, faith in place of doubt, and hope in the face of despair.

The experience of trauma can cast a dark shadow over our lives. But I believe the light of healing can turn tragedy into an opportunity for change and growth. Often, we can’t find the light we need on our own. Finding the courage to take the first step – asking for help – can start us on the path to transformation.

Those in our community who attended the first Resilience Café last month were able to take some steps toward healing. People filled Aqus Café to capacity the evening of November 11th to learn about emotional trauma, take part in small group discussions, and fight the stigma and isolation so often imposed on sufferers of our hidden epidemic. It was truly an opportunity for all to “Listen, Share, Heal.” Please join us for our next Resilience Cafés scheduled for Monday, December 9th and Monday, January 13th, at 7:00 PM.

Soon, 2013 will draw to a close.  For many of us – including me – this has been another challenging year of struggle and change.  As painful as many of these challenges have been, I am grateful for the opportunities they have offered me. I look forward to 2014 with excitement, trusting that great things can happen when I act with courage and strength. Take hold of this thought and put it into practice in your life. Amazing things can happen.

6 Hurting Women

On February 26, 2012, trauma and tragedy entered the lives of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.  It entered the lives of the Martin and Zimmerman families.  And on June 24, 2013, trauma and tragedy entered the lives of six anonymous women called to civic duty in Sanford, Florida.

For 14 days, they listened to and watched the unfolding testimony of violence.  For three weeks, they spent their evenings isolated in a motel room. At the end, to the best of their abilities, they formed an opinion, reached an agreement, and rendered a verdict.  In the case of the State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman: Not Guilty.

It’s abundantly clear that Trayvon Martin and his family, and George Zimmerman and his family have suffered severely—and in Trayvon’s case, suffered the ultimate loss of life.  In the aftermath of the verdict, we might tend to overlook the painful experiences of the jury.  Since the verdict, the media and the nation have been obsessively second-guessing the jury’s decision and questioning their character and integrity.  This onslaught of criticism and blame adds to the burden they now carry from their exposure to emotionally disturbing images and evidence.

I’m not going to weigh in on George Zimmerman’s innocence or guilt.  I believe Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman were both victims of their encounter.  But I do know the women jurors committed no crime and yet are being tried in the court of public opinion.

Another thing I know—they are suffering from secondary trauma.

I define secondary, or vicarious trauma in my recently published book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic.  “Secondary trauma,” I explain, is “stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person”.  It can also result from witnessing disturbing or horrific events happening to others.  Anyone who is exposed to suffering is at risk for secondary trauma.  As a psychotherapist who helps people heal emotionally painful issues, I am intimately aware of the professional dangers of vicarious trauma.  Left unaddressed, it can lead to depression, burnout, and the urge to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.

What do I do to prevent my secondary trauma exposure from taking hold and causing personal deterioration?  I cover that topic in my book also.  There are deliberate, constructive activities and attitudes that can make recovery possible.

Here’s my list of recommendations for the Martin/Zimmerman jury, and for all witnesses to tragedy (from Chapter 8, “Danger Signals and Trauma First Aid”):

    1. Know that part of you goes on “pause” when you witness a disturbing event.  You may not be able to fully feel and react to what you’re experiencing at the time.  However, you must go back, after the experience, and work through your feelings and reactions.  Don’t bury them.
    2. A caring network of friends and family can be of great support and comfort.  Use them.
    3. Take extra care of yourself both physically and emotionally.  As much as possible, slow down, rest, eat well, exercise, put off major decisions, keep your life simple, and stay with what’s easy and familiar.
    4. Give yourself permission to feel or see things differently because of your experience.  You are not the same person you were before.  Don’t sink into embarrassment or shame; don’t judge or criticize yourself.
    5. Absolutely do not isolate yourself.  Isolation will start you on a fast downward spiral.  Share what has happened to you with supportive loved ones.
    6. Deliberately cultivate positive experiences, such as creative pursuits, dinner out, or watching a favorite movie, as part of your recovery.  Don’t just anxiously “keep busy”.
    7. If necessary—if you feel stuck or haunted by what you’ve been through—seek professional help, either short or long term.

The bottom-line truth in the case of Florida vs. Zimmerman is that no one came out a winner.  Everyone involved, everyone who has been touched by the events in Sanford, has suffered to some degree.  If you have experienced trauma, and I believe everyone does at some time, then I urge you to follow my suggestions above.  Buried trauma never goes away.  It’s never too late to heal.  That’s one of the central messages of my book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic.

Crisis and Reinvention

In my last blog post, I shared the CDC’s recent findings on the rising tide of mid-life suicides over the past decade.  I proposed that the background forces driving this alarming trend include such recession-related issues as unemployment or underemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies.  I also referred to military combat experience as another potent source of the kind of stress that leads to suicide—a fact also borne out by recently published statistics.  The magnitude of people experiencing these and other sources of distress and burnout leads me to call what we’re seeing now a hidden epidemic.

And, in fact, that phrase is a key part of the title of my new book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic.  In it, in simple language, I cover the causes and symptoms of emotional trauma and share practical guidelines for healing and resolution.  After forty-three years of private practice working with patients suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction, phobias, and childhood abuse, I’ve come to believe that emotional trauma is at the core of most of our mental health challenges.

But I’ve never been an intellectual, in spite of the diplomas on my wall.  I’m unwaveringly committed to therapy that works, that makes a practical difference in the lives of the people who walk through the doors of my institute.  I closed my last blog post promising to answer the question, “How in my own life and the lives of my patients have I been able to help create emotional healing for modern-day stresses and crises?”  I’ll say again today that I have a message to share of hope and reinvention.

In my estimation, suicides (and other self-destructive behaviors) arise from despair and hopelessness in the face of crisis or a challenge to change.  Let me take that statement apart.

First, let me define what I mean by crisis.  From the chapter, “Crises and Hard Times” in my book:

A crisis is different from the daily challenges of living.  Crises are life-defining moments, periods, or stages.  As opposed to the normal fears and anxieties that come up on any given day, they are unique.  A crisis is an event that completely overwhelms us.  It is terrifying.  We spend every ounce of energy, every thought, every effort to ensure our survival.

Crises can build slowly or come on suddenly.  Either way, once we become aware that we are in one, we may already be overwhelmed, feeling unable to find answers, unequipped to go on.  We are squarely faced with the following challenge: Is this crisis going to be the end, or is it going to be a turning point in my life?

No matter how helpless we feel, we always have choices.  But in order to make choices, to act, we must feel a sense of personal power.  In simple terms, the strength we find within us in the face of a crisis makes the difference between “the end”—collapse—and “a turning point”—reinvention.

When we come to the place where we want to yell, “Things can’t go on like this!”, where the need for change is absolute, we face the choice between despair and hope, between giving up and growing up.  Change requires the belief in the possibility of something better, the courage to make a decision, and the strength to turn that decision into action.

Where does emotional trauma come into this picture?  Trauma in the present moment, trauma from our past lives, and, especially, a potent combination of the two, can disrupt and sabotage every step of the reinvention process I’ve outlined above.  We can have every intention, every desire to move forward in life in spite of pain and difficulties, and never fully understand that the wounds we carry inside keep getting in the way.

That’s the hidden epidemic I’m talking about.  And, as with other health epidemics, professional help is often needed to survive and heal.  How can we find help in a crisis, for ourselves or for a loved one?  Many experienced counselors and therapists and many valuable resources are available.  Including my new book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic.

Stop Stress from Turning into Trauma

Today I’m going to wrap up my on-going, forced-move story about the Morrows and the Bodens – and my illustration of stress and trauma and the differences between them.  As promised, I’m returning to the list of ten suggestions I offered last week for preventing unavoidable stress from turning into avoidable trauma.  I’ll flesh out these ideas for you and explain how to get very practical in your application of them.  Using this ten-step action plan can help you navigate through these stressful times with more resiliency and achieve more success with your efforts.  They’ve worked for me, they’ve worked for my patients, and I’m betting that they’ll work for you, too.

Ten-Step Action Plan for Combatting Stress

1.  Slow down, don’t panic

In a difficult, stressful, or traumatic situation, the first thing to do – always – is to slow down.  Racing thoughts and a racing heartbeat can speed you across the finish line into panic, where nothing constructive can take place.  None of the steps that follow this one will help you if you panic.  Slowing down to find some calm in your storm is absolutely essential to prevent unavoidable difficulties from turning into avoidable trauma.

2.  Remember you’re not alone

After panic, the second-greatest threat to successfully coping with stress is self-deception.  Believing you are the only person experiencing distress leads to believing there is something wrong with you, that what’s happening to you is somehow your fault and you deserve it.  On the contrary.  You are not alone.  Many, many people today are struggling and suffering with problems similar to yours.

3.  Think through your options

When you steer clear of panic and self-condemnation, you will be able to think clearly.  You’ll be able to use your rational, creative abilities to identify good ways to respond to problems and crises, rather that reacting impulsively and thoughtlessly.  You’ll recognize the best choices for how to deal with the situation in front of you, and come up with a plan of action for moving forward in a positive way.

4.  Ask for help, don’t isolate yourself

Along with panic and self-deception, isolation is your enemy in the war on trauma.  Alone, our energy and personal resources are limited.  When we reach out to others – family, friends, loved ones – we gain strength and valuable perspectives unavailable to us on our own.  I can’t emphasize this enough; reach out and share your burdens.  Let people help you.

5.  Take good care of yourself physically and emotionally

Wars can be fought with exhausted troops, but victory is more sure when warriors are rested, well-fed, and in good physical condition.  You may not think you have time to take care of yourself physically and emotionally when you’re battling stress, but letting yourself get run down will cost more time and trouble in the long run.  Make self-care a high priority.

6.  Don’t blame yourself for things beyond your control

You are human.  Let me say that again: You are human.  You are not perfect, and are not supposed to be.  There are things beyond your control, beyond any one person’s control.  You may have gotten behind on your mortgage payments, but our enormous financial downturn – which no one could have fully anticipated – is not your fault.  Take responsibility for your part, and let the rest go.  Guilt and blame will drain your spirit and keep you stuck and traumatized.

7.  Reduce the pressure on yourself in every way possible

Get very clear on what is essential to deal with in the present, and leave everything else alone.  Simplify your priorities and commitments.  Examine your “rules” – such as “I have to pay all my bills on time, no matter what”, or “I’ve got to always keep my house clean and organized”, or something else from your own personal list.  What truly matters right now?  Choose taking care of the people you love (including yourself, see #5), over taking care of things every time you can.

8.  Keep your perspective

Our Great Recession has been going on for so long it can be hard to remember when times weren’t tight and difficult.  Hard times are here for now and for the near future, but better days will return.  When they do, we won’t be the same people we were before.  We have the opportunity to grow from our experiences, or become devastated by them.  It’s your choice.  Look forward.

9.  Look for ways to help others, give back to those who’ve helped you

The quickest way I know to move out of a fog of discouragement is to lift my head and look for someone else who’s hurting too.  Mobilizing ourselves to help others can give us the energy to not only make a difference in their lives, but in our own, as well.  Being able to give fellow sufferers support and encouragement (and a helping hand to move furniture or make a meal) gives meaning and purpose to these dark, distressing times.

10.  Don’t lose hope

Never, ever give up.  If you lose heart and collapse, get back up again.  Accepting defeat is never the answer.  Remember the hard times you’ve been through before and believe that you can survive this one, as well – even if this time is the hardest time yet.  Surrender the things it’s time to let go of, and fight to the end to save the things that really matter.  Feed your spirit and keep hope alive.

As I said last week, these ten steps are fairly simple, but I know personally that they are not easy.  Some of them can, in fact, be very challenging to conquer.  But they’re worth the attempt.  Like all of life’s “basics”, these ideas are worth studying, putting into action as best you can, and then coming back to think about some more.  I wish you much success as we journey together through the challenging days to come.

No, It’s Trauma

Last week I wrote about two fictional couples, the Morrows and the Bodens, as they faced a sudden, forced move from their homes in a foreclosed apartment building.  I used their scenario of dislocation to illustrate the differences between stress and trauma.  I mentioned that many of the people I meet and talk to believe they’re under enormous stress during this, our Great Recession, but would deny that they’re experiencing trauma.  In my professional and personal opinion, I disagree.  I think many, possibly most people don’t understand what trauma is, and have actually been traumatized rather than just stressed by the events of the recent past.

Most often, when people hear the word trauma they think of some horrific and shocking event.  They think of tragedies like car accidents, violence and brutality, death – something horrendous and devastating.  These kinds of events are certainly trauma: a type called shock trauma.

But there are many other traumatic experiences that, while not shocking, are beyond the ordinary.  Extraordinary experiences beyond normal fears and normal circumstances can produce a kind of trauma, too.  When these events occur repeatedly over a period of time they erode our physical and emotional reserves.  They can be very strong and significant and extremely destructive.  I see the symptoms of our “wearing down” in higher divorce rates, higher suicide and suicide attempt rates, and higher rates of disease and depression.

If you wondered, when you read last week’s illustration about the Morrows and the Bodens, whether there might be “more to the story”, you were right.  What if I were to go back in the history of the two families, and fill in some of the gaps?

Take Mr. Morrow, the head of the family who experienced stress, rather than trauma, from their enforced move and handled the transition in a healthier way.  Let’s say, pre-move, he had enjoyed the security of a steady job for the last decade, he and his family were in good health, and had maintained close, loving ties with friends and an extended family of supportive relatives.

Now let’s take Mr. Boden, whose family suffered significant trauma around their relocation.  I could shed some light on his struggle by proposing that his family’s move was just one more trial in a series of unfortunate recent events.  Let’s say he was laid off three years ago and has been alternating between unemployment and scraping together small jobs since then.  Let’s say he has chronic back pain, his wife has stress-induced migraine headaches, and his kids aren’t doing well at school.  Let’s say, even, he’s the son of an alcoholic father who was unavailable both in the past and the present.

My point is that at the outset, going into this sudden and difficult need to move, Mr. Morrow had physical and emotional reserves that Mr. Boden did not.  And how many of us can confidently say, after over three years of economic and personal hits, that we still have plenty of energy reserves for the continuing challenges coming almost daily down the road?

In 2008, when the stock market fell, and the real estate market tanked, and jobs started to disappear – when the Great Recession got its start – we all felt shocked, we all felt traumatized.  Even though it had been coming for a while, it was a shock when it first hit, and it hit fast and hard.  And it was devastating.  That we’re still in pretty much the same place, three years later, is one of the things I think is unique to this period of time.  I see that people are somehow getting used to our hard times and adapting in some ways, and so they don’t realize they’re experiencing ongoing, or developmental trauma.

Developmental trauma occurs when an individual experiences a series of events which may or may not be shocking of themselves, but are painful, disturbing, and overwhelming.  This type of trauma is called “developmental” because it disrupts the normal intrinsic development, or maturation, of a child or adult.  A child suffers developmental trauma, for example, when they are subjected to repeated verbal or physical abuse.  Adults can experience developmental trauma also, when the circumstances of their lives prevents them from growing or thriving in physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual ways.

The economic straightjacket of our recent past has put a severe limit on opportunities for adults to grow and prosper.  People are feeling thwarted and trapped in their efforts to provide for themselves and their families.  They’re learning to adapt, or they’re dealing with their frustration and pain by going numb.  Some of us respond to crises with denial.  Some of us respond with action; some of us tend to freeze into paralysis.  There are many things people do to survive in times of crisis and difficulty.  In the meantime, whether they feel it or not, they’re frying emotionally and physically.  Their systems are under siege, 24/7.

My heart goes out to all of you who find yourselves in this painful, devastating situation.  I too have experienced recent financial trauma.

In the hope that it will provide you some relief, I promised last week to include suggestions for how to deal with ongoing stress – the “wealth, health, and stealth” kind.  These suggestions may make it possible for you to keep your unavoidable stress from turning into avoidable trauma.  You saw some of these ideas at work in the story of the Morrows and Bodens.  In the midst of difficult circumstances and events, I encourage you to try the following:

  1. Slow down, don’t panic
  2. Remember you’re not alone
  3. Think through your options
  4. Ask for help, don’t isolate yourself
  5. Take good care of yourself physically and emotionally
  6. Don’t blame yourself for things beyond your control
  7. Reduce the pressure on yourself in every way possible
  8. Keep your perspective, others are suffering too
  9. Look for ways to help others, and to give back to those who’ve helped you
  10. Don’t lose hope, focus on the positive

These ten steps are fairly simple, but I know they are truly not easy.  I’ll be back next week to go through these steps in more detail.  I’ll provide suggestions for how you can get started using these steps in real-life, practical ways.  I know these steps can help you, because I use them and teach them to my patients, and I’ve seen them make a world of difference in these hard times.  I encourage you to give them a try.

Good News, Bad News

Your heart is pounding, your palms are sweaty, you’re short of breath and you’d like to either scream or jump up and down.  Bad news: your company just announced another wave of lay-offs and you wonder if you’re about to lose your job.

Your heart is pounding, your palms are sweaty, you’re short of breath and you’d like to either scream or jump up and down.  Good news: you’re strapped into your seat, having a great time spinning through the air on the Zipper carnival ride at the Sonoma County Fair.

Wait a minute.  How can your body respond in almost exactly the same way to two very dissimilar situations?  How can the sensations aroused by two distinctly different emotions feel so much the same?

The two distinctly different emotions I’m talking about are anxiety and excitement.  In her recent Psychology Today article, “Make Your Own Luck”, (which I’ve been blogging about recently), author Rebecca Webber makes five suggestions for making the most of the unexpected, fortuitous events that cross our life-paths.  To start off her discussion about point #3, “Say Yes”, Webber makes the observation that anxiety and excitement, or intrigue, are connected.

When a “juicy” opportunity comes along, Webber states, we can be “immediately besieged by two competing emotions: intrigue and anxiety.”  “You’re curious about that job opening,” she continues, “but you can think of a hundred reasons why you should stick with your current gig.”

When we encounter something new, each of us instinctively responds in similar ways.  Since the new person, place, event, or idea could possibly be either good news or bad news, our minds and bodies go on alert in order to assess the situation.  The phone rings; the caller ID is unfamiliar.  We say hello cautiously and hear the voice of an old friend we haven’t heard from for awhile.  We relax; all is well – very good in fact.

Or, the caller on the other end of the line is a bill collector, threatening to repossess our car.  Our initial alert status goes into fully-armored protection mode.  We need all our wits and defenses instantly operational to respond to this attack.

One of the consequences of unresolved painful issues in life – past trauma that has not healed – is that our ability to accurately “read” possibly threatening situations gets damaged.  Opportunities and fortunate events can look like danger to avoid, and, conversely, dangerous situations can masquerade as harmless and benign.  Trauma damages our emotional “radar” such that we have trouble seeing reality the way it really is.

But we can make an effort to counteract our overly fearful or cautious tendencies if we are aware of them.  Can we prime ourselves to be more open to serendipity – to fortuitous chance?  Webber points out in her article that “serendipitous people are more fearless about trying something new.  Instead of giving in to worry about what could go wrong, they think, ‘Isn’t that interesting?  I’d like to give that a try.'”

I agree strongly with her next statement: “Good outcomes increase self-efficacy, or the belief that you are capable of accomplishing whatever you set out to do; they also fuel an appetite for future risk.”  I would translate this by saying that every time you challenge yourself to take a promising risk, and are able to make it work out well for you, it will get easier to tackle the next attractive opportunity.

I see this happen all the time with my patients: the ones who improve their lives and relationships are the ones who motivate themselves to move through their fear and anxiety to discover excitement and joy.  Sometimes they stumble, sometimes they misread situations, but they also make incredible strides forward into the lives they’ve always dreamed of living.

So, the next time a heart-pounding, sweaty-palm moment comes your way, ask yourself, “Am I anxious, or excited?  Which response does this new situation call for?”  Is it good news or bad news?  If there’s any way it could be good news, take the risk.  Step out.  Don’t wait to feel comfortable.  Faced with the new, the exciting, or the unexpected, waiting to feel comfortable is a dead end.  Stay on track, don’t get stuck, and embrace our unpredictable, uncontrollable, but infinitely wonderful world.

The Virtues of Being a Slacker

No, it’s not a misprint, and no, I haven’t gone off the deep end.  Could there be any redeeming value in slacking off, in not always conscientiously following through on what needs to get done?  Right now, your “to-do-conscientiously” list may be a mile long.  Whether it concerns your job, your finances, or your relationships – with your spouse, kids, parents, friends, or co-workers – keeping your life on track may pose a real challenge for you during these very difficult times.

In her recent Psychology Today article, “Make Your Own Luck”, author Rebecca Webber states that “conscientiousness is no friend to serendipity”, or fortuitous chance.  She quotes University of Utah psychology professor Carol Sansone’s definition of conscientiousness to mean “you do what you’re supposed to do, and you stick with it”.  What could be wrong with that?  Isn’t being a quitter a sure road to ruin?

The problem happens, Webber maintains, when we persistently pursue a task even if the reason to continue is gone, or our goals or priorities have changed.  I agree; it really is possible to “try too hard”.  Remaining absorbed in an effort that may no longer be promising – just because you think you should stick with it – could lead you to miss a more likely solution or path to your goal.

So, give yourself permission to get distracted.  What might seem like aimless mind-wandering could instead be your creative side making fruitful leaps of inspiration.  Creativity arises in our right brain function; linear, logical thinking originates in our left brain.  We live in balance when we can draw on the resources of both sides of our brains – using our reason and our imagination in partnership to find new solutions to the sticky problems in our lives.

“Allow yourself to stray off-task sometimes,” Webber continues.  “We need to be loose to become aware of hidden opportunities.”  What would this look like?

When you’re reading something with new ideas, or serious content, do you find you want to stop and drift off?  Maybe an important concept – just the insight you’ve been hoping to find – is right before your eyes, but your mind needs some time to take it in, to wrap itself around this new perspective.  Indulging in a little “drift time” allows your mind the opportunity to make intuitive connections that can bring the whole picture into focus.

Or, when you need to make an important decision and have been intensely studying and analyzing all the various choices and their ramifications, do you feel a sudden urge to go clean the kitchen, or detail your car?  Sometimes thinking leads to over-thinking leads to brain freeze.  A little physical activity can often free you from the anxiety, self-questioning, and possible second-guessing that can leave you stuck and stumped for an answer.

So whether you indulge in a little daydreaming, or a radical spring cleaning, take an occasional break from rigid management of your time.  Following a seemingly aimless train of thought, or surfing a semi-random chain of websites, can lead to “ah-ha!” moments arising from the somewhat unfathomable processes and truly remarkable capacities of our own minds.

Maybe mental wandering looks suspiciously too much like play to us, especially as we grow older and the pressures and stresses pile up.  “I can’t take time off, now”, we tell ourselves.  “I’ve got to keep working!”  Today’s lesson: You deserve a break today (and I don’t mean going to McDonald’s – remember their old ads?).  Slack off a little, take off the blinders, let your mind drift, ease up on yourself a little – and give leaps of inspiration and imagination a chance to happen.

Let me warn you: if you live life strictly by the clock, all that ticking may drown out the sound of opportunity knocking.

Do You Feel Lucky?

Are you a Dirty Harry fan?  The iconic Inspector Harry Callahan used a signature phrase in each installment of the San Francisco-based police thriller movies.  “A man’s got to know his limitations” was one.  Good advice, actually.  Another standout phrase was “Do you feel lucky?”  Harry added a derogatory epithet at the end that I won’t repeat.  So, do you feel lucky?

Luck and chance are related concepts.  In a recent article in Psychology Today, entitled “Make Your Own Luck”, author Rebecca Webber makes an important connection between luck, chance, and opportunities.  She lists five suggestions for making the most of the unpredictable, based in part on The Luck Factor, by University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman.

Her first point: See serendipity everywhere.  People who “take advantage of happenstance have competence, self-confidence, and the ability to take risks,” she observes.  Spontaneous, extroverted people are more likely to encounter what I’d call “random acts of fortune”.  Living in a rut, either in our daily habits, our thought patterns, or our relationships, rather than confidently embracing the unfamiliar, reduces the chances for “chance” to enter our lives, with the potential for a happy outcome.

Webber’s second point, “Prime yourself for chance”, makes the related observation that while successful people set goals, they often stay flexible about how to achieve them.  Think of this in terms of a GPS device.  You know where you are.  You know where you’d like to be.  How many different routes can you take?  The number is probably infinite.

So you give your GPS some guidelines.  Maybe you want the shortest route by mileage, or by time.  Maybe you want to stay off the freeway, or out of certain neighborhoods.  Programming your GPS can be a big help in finding the best path.  But what happens when the road specified just happens to be closed for construction (and your GPS doesn’t know it)?  What if an accident has traffic backed up for miles?  Good GPS units can redirect you to alternate routes.

Does your “internal GPS” do that?  How do you feel when your master plan hits a road block on the way to your goal?  Can you change your route, be willing to try what looks like a less promising “side street”, or do you tend to stay stuck behind someone wearing a hard hat and holding a stop sign?  Staying flexible about how you reach your goal gives you a much better chance of arriving more quickly at your destination than when you pick one route and rigidly stick to it regardless of whether it’s working for you or not.

Also, having to take a personal detour may lead to an encounter with people and places you’ve never seen before.  New people and places can mean new ideas and opportunities.  Chance turns into opportunity which can mean you get “lucky”.  Always living in the “usual” leaves no room for the “unusual” break that you just might be looking for.

Try to maintain a large network of all kinds of friends and acquaintances.  Try new methods in your line of work.  Read books or magazines you wouldn’t normally pick up.  Take a different road into town, vary your exercise time, talk to someone from another generation or culture, go to Peet’s instead of Starbuck’s.  “Breaking behavioral habits can lever changes in mental habits that have kept you from success so far,” Webber maintains.

And stay positive.  A new route or a new suit won’t help if you’re fearful or skeptical or just plain feeling hopeless.  Don’t turn left instead of right tomorrow only feeling sure you’ll come home with nothing changed, and justified in saying, “I told you so.”

Serendipity, chance, opportunity – a shake-up in routine can transform your life, if you let it.  I’m telling you so.  What do you have to lose?

Do you feel lucky?  You can be.

Corvette Crash Course, Lap 2

Last week, I shared with you one of the most devastating traumatic events to happen to me in a long time.  On a summer evening two years ago, my wife Lynn almost died while I was virtually helpless to do anything about it.  The incredible men and women of the Two Rock Fire Department saved Lynn that night, she recovered very quickly, and my partner in love and life was restored to me.

I want to continue to share things I’ve learned in the aftermath of trauma.  Two weeks ago, following my post on an accident in which I totaled my Corvette, I mentioned five lessons I’ve been reminded of at somewhat great cost.  They are:

  • I am not in control.
  • I forget too quickly what’s really important.
  • “The Tortoise and the Hare” is not just for kids.
  • If I “know pain”, I can “know gain”.
  • I am human and mortal.

Today I want to add five more lessons from Lynn’s traumatic emergency episode:

1.  Life is fragile.

It was clear to me, as Lynn lay unconscious in my arms, that it could all be over, that she might be taken to heaven and I would have to say goodbye to her.  In that potentially disastrous moment, I recognized again how truly fragile life is.  One moment we can be alive and have the people we love with us, and in the next moment they, or we, can be gone.

2.  We are all dependent.

I also was forcefully reminded of how dependent I am on Lynn.  I like to think of myself as a strong, capable, and independent person.  In many ways, I am.  But Lynn takes care of so many things for us, some of which I’m aware of, and some I’m not.  She works very hard at maintaining our home and managing our finances, which are important and complicated right now.  The day after she went to the emergency room, she was taking care of some business matters from her bed in the hospital.  I had no idea about all the things she was keeping track of and staying on top off for us financially.  I am very grateful that she is so purposeful and committed, as I am, to our life together.

3.  Our lives have rhythm.

This lesson is related to the lesson from “The Tortoise and the Hare” – we tend to try to live our lives too fast.  We tend to overshoot that core, basic rhythm that each of us has but may be unaware of.  When we’re moving fast all the time, we can stop being tuned in to the pace of life that works best for us.  It’s a pace that allows us to accomplish what really needs to get done, while still permitting us to take the time to make wise decisions, pay attention to and discern what’s really important, maintain our health, and sustain our treasured relationships.  A traumatic event can strip away all that fast-paced, driven quality that keeps us consumed with all the things we’re so worried about.  As we recover, we can regain the pace of life that restores our balance.

4.  It’s harder to watch.

When my Corvette skidded out of control on Springhill Road, I knew what was happening to me and how I felt in each frightening moment.  I could tell whether the injuries I was sustaining were major or minor.  Someone looking on could not have known that I was only suffering a bump on the head and a slight neck strain.  When Lynn passed out and collapsed into my arms, I had no idea what she was feeling or what was happening to her.  I had no way of knowing whether she was in pain, whether she was suffering a heart attack or stoke, whether irreparable damage was happening inside her or if she would be able to recover.  There’s a helplessness that accompanies watching trauma occur to someone else, particularly someone we love.  It’s not just that we may not be able to stop what’s happening, we also can’t always know the extent of the crisis.  This helps make the experiences of secondary victims of trauma – the observers – so potentially shocking, overwhelming, and intense.

5.  Surviving can mean dissociating.

Dissociating is the capacity to distance ourselves from present-moment events and feelings.  Our innate, built-in survival mechanisms include the ability to dissociate during highly dangerous and traumatic moments.  This concept is valuable to a real understanding of trauma and the process of healing from it, and so I want to devote my next post to a fuller explanation of this aspect of our human nature.

My hope is that these lessons learned from my traumatic experiences will help and inspire you to better navigate these hard times we’re in.  As I do with my all my patients, I want to reach out to you where you are hurting and in need.  I want to  let you know you’re not alone and you can have hope as you learn and apply some of these universal life lessons that I too have had to learn so painfully for myself.

Obsess and Progress

In one of my favorite movies, Jack Nicholson walks into a restaurant, sits down, and unwraps a set of plastic tableware.  He doesn’t order off the menu because he always eats the same thing.  His waitress, Helen Hunt, has his number, though.  He’s not going to rattle her today, even though he always finds something to complain about.  She knows that for obsessive/compulsive types like Jack, it’s never completely possible to “have it your way”.  Instead, Jack spends his life carefully negotiating each moment as best he can, and this is “As Good As it Gets”.

Obsessive/compulsive disorders (OCD) seriously compromise quality of life for the people who suffer from them.  Each day with OCD can feel like an endless journey through an unmarked minefield.  Other people, while not clinically shackled by OCD, may struggle with obsessive or compulsive tendencies, which can emerge particularly under stress.  Obsessions and compulsions are symptoms of unresolved trauma, and are mechanisms for coping in a world that feels chaotic and out of control.

The May/June issue of Psychology Today includes a thought-provoking and inspiring article by Dr. Eric Maisel, titled, “Go Ahead, Obsess!”.  “Forget life balance,” Eric proposes.  “Throwing yourself 110 percent into a complex project could be the key to creative breakthroughs – and to a meaningful life.”  The article is adapted from Maisel’s forthcoming book, Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions, coming out next month from New World Library.

Eric, according to his website, is an author, family therapist, cultural observer, and creativity coach.  He has written and spoken extensively on meaning-of-life issues, and the value of creativity and taking personal responsibility in life.  He stakes out his claim for positive obsessions in the opening paragraph of his article.

“Obsession gets a bad rap.  Of course, obsessions with people, or with irrational beliefs such as those held by OCD sufferers, can be unhealthy or even dangerous.  We are lobbying for something quite different: productive obsessing, or putting yourself wholeheartedly into a useful and meaningful passion.  These healthy preoccupations are an antidote to boredom and passivity.  They aren’t just for people driven to accomplish something out of the ordinary.  They are for everyone.  We firmly believe that doing things by half – merely dabbling in a hobby or professional endeavor – produces sad human beings.  It’s dangerous to feel as though you aren’t making a meaningful contribution.  We don’t want you to look at yourself in the mirror and see a person who might have done this but didn’t, or who loves that but, for some odd reason, takes no active interest in it.  In order to lead a life that makes you proud, you likely need to up the ante and get obsessed.”

I’ve been delivering a message like this for some time now.  Eric is just coming at it from a different angle, with a perspective that adds new dimensions to the issue.  In my last two posts, I’ve talked about the urgent necessity to harness your energy to move forward in life, in spite of obstacles and setbacks.  Harnessing your obsessive or compulsive tendencies in the pursuit of constructive progress is another valuable skill.

I believe people can channel their obsessive tendencies in order to create something positive, turn their obsessions into passionate pursuits that prompt them to act, and allow those actions to feed their lives.  In doing this, they will become more enthusiastic and hopeful; they will grow into their life purpose and calling.  Things may not always be practical or clear, but if they keep moving ahead, and beware of self-criticism, they will eventually take ownership of their very self.  They will develop their “soul passion”.  They will live without regret that they didn’t follow their dreams.  They join others who have chosen the path of, as Eric puts it, “big thinking and big doing”.

Those of my regular readers know how often I say – and I mean it – never give up!  Eric delivers the same message:

“Each of us has that do-nothing, watch-a-little-more-television place in our hearts and that harder-to-engage work-well-and-think-intensely place.  The life of your productive obsession depends on your constant recommitment, which sounds like ‘I am doing this, damn it!’  Your mind may prefer its habitual ways and opt for fear, fantasy, worry, regret, or idleness.  The instant your mind produces one of its stories about why you ought to abandon your productive obsession – because you can’t succeed, because a storm is coming – shout, ‘No!’”

I heartily agree.