Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Power of Ruby Slippers and Magic Words

So, you're the owner of a hyperalert brain that gets alarmed at the slightest provocation and sends life-or-death signals that must be responded to immediately to avoid psychic pain. Your fight-or-flight response to that alarm causes problems in your life in many ways, not the least of which is the effect is has on the people around you who witness it.

But part of the difficulty of avoiding psychic pain is that the person experiencing the false alarm and responding to it doesn't realize that the bad feeling is coming from his brain.  He thinks himself fully justified in being angry or sad or anxious or lethargic because he has come up with reasons for his feeling state that make perfect sense to him.  That they don't make sense to others doesn't matter to him.  He may tell himself that his friends or family or coworkers just don't understand, or that they are jealous and seek to sabotage him.  It doesn't occur to him that he is getting upset about something minor or easily tolerated or quickly remedied, and if some brave person points it out to him, he indignantly insists his complaint is legitimate and his so-called "friend" should support him in his beliefs.

A friend who wants to support him, though, often doesn't fare any better. She may get trapped into what would seem a rational strategy of offering suggestions for how the person could fix the problem.  These suggestions are usually rejected, one by one, until the helpful friend gives up in exasperation.  The offered solutions are rejected ostensibly because they are bad solutions, but in reality, the problem is not what the hyperalert person has presented it to be; the problem is his brain chemistry.  The friend's suggested remedies will not help the real problem. The sufferer probably realizes the truth on some unconscious level, so he avoids solving the imagined problem to avoid facing the probability that even if he finds a solution, he will still feel bad. 

And that's what usually happens.  A problem solved may be followed by momentary relief, but then the bad feeling returns and another, equally intractable problem is identified that must be solved in order for the hyperalert person to feel good again. And so the cycle continues, sometimes for a whole lifetime.

How can this be avoided? Well, the first step is to acknowledge the brain's role in producing the bad feeling.  That's not easy. People often are heavily invested in their rationale for why they are unhappy. Acknowledging the brain's role means acknowledging that your unhappiness is all in your mind.  When you've spent a lifetime blaming everything and everyone outside yourself for your misery, you're not eager to accept that you can stop being miserable whenever you want.  And perhaps even more difficult to accept is knowing that you had the power to change all along, that all those years of misery could have been avoided.

Once you see your brain chemistry as the culprit, the next step is perhaps harder to take: to make a different decision about what to do when the bad feeling strikes.  The brain's alarm is powerful; the strength of the longstanding stimulus-response chains makes it hard to think and to resist.  The sequence is firmly established, after all, so the organism doesn't have to think, just react, the way she should in a real life-or-death situation. But when it's not life-or-death, changing her response means going against powerful conditioning.  It gets easier with time and practice, but there's always a chance that the automatic response mode will kick in when the hyperalert person least expects it, undoing perhaps months of "normal" behavior.

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