There is currently an epidemic of pain in our country, and chronic pain is increasing especially rapidly in people under 40. Teen anxiety, with its many physical manifestations is particularly problematic. A few of them include:
- Body image disorders
- Eating disorders
- Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis
- Irritable Bowel and Spastic Bladder
- Depression/ OCD/ Bipolar disorder
Remember, anxiety is simply the sensation you feel when your body is flooded with stress hormones, which affects every cell in your body. Since each organ system will respond in its own way, there are at least 30 different physical symptoms that can be generated in this hyper-vigilant chemical environment.
I gave a lecture about dealing with stress at a local high school a few years ago and over 300 of the 1,500 students were on daily medications for a chronic illness. This phenomenon is occurring in an era of unprecedented opportunity. What is going on?
There are books written about why there is so much societal angst. However, conjecturing about all the reasons is of limited value unless the core problem of relentless anxiety is addressed. Since this unconscious survival sensation is much more powerful than the conscious brain, it isn’t responsive to isolated rational interventions. The way to solve anxiety is to decrease your levels of stress hormones. It’s a learned skill that improves with repetition.
The dark side of human consciousness is that a mental threat is processed in a similar manner as a physical one. It takes the form of Unpleasant repetitive thoughts (URT’s) (1), from which you can’t escape. Disruptive thoughts are maybe greatest reason for sustained anxiety. Most of us suppress them, which is the one worst thing to do. Research has shown that this creates a trampoline effect, where not only are the unpleasant thoughts stronger, they are a lot stronger. (2) One effective way of addressing the problem of URT’s is to become aware of them, understand their impact and then reframe the situation.
In this modern era, one of the greatest sources of anxiety is dealing with unreachable expectations, and winning is one of the ultimate goals. Somehow, success (your perception of “winning”) is going to bring you peace of mind. Really? That isn’t even a reasonable concept. How many “winners” have we watched self-destruct, yet we keep pursuing the dream that money, power, accomplishment, and attractiveness will quell our fears. The problem is that you can’t outrun your mind.
What is even more problematic is that our concepts of success and failure become attached to our identity and vice versa. Modern neuroscience research has shown that thoughts and ideas become embedded in our brain, in the same way as physical objects. (3) In other words, the only reason a dish is a dish is because your brain has unscrambled visual and tactile senses and decided that it is a dish. This is true for everything. None of your body’s sensors have any inherent capacity to determine the nature of your reality and environment.
So, our perception of self is programmed in by our past experiences, and is as real as the chair you are sitting on. Much of it is determined by your definition of success and failure. They are “stories” that run your life. It is also the reason why it is impossible to truly see an issue from another person’s perspective.
These many negative stories become stronger over time, alter your body’s chemistry and compromise your sense of well-being. In contrast to this sustained assault of stress hormones generated by your “stories”, consider the feelings generated by being full of oxytocin (love drug), serotonin (antidepressant), GABA (anti-anxiety) and dopamine (rewards), when you are at play. Instead of pursuing happiness through achieving your goals, why not get happy first and then pursue your dreams? Part of that pursuit is learning how to “fail”. A major aspect of this approach is understanding the impact of your “failure stories” and realizing how irrational many of them are.
A close friend of mine sent this piece to me on stress. I don’t know the person who gave this seminar, but I think it is excellent and reflects many of the tools to just let go, reframe many of your created “adversities” and enjoy your life. Where are you actually going and what’s the rush?
A Great Lesson on Stress
A young lady confidently walked around the room with a raised glass of water while leading a seminar and explaining stress management to her audience. Everyone knew she was going to ask the ultimate question, ‘Half empty or half full?’ She fooled them all. “How heavy is this glass of water?” she inquired with a smile. Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.
She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”
She continued, “and that’s the way it is with stress. If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won’t be able to carry on. As with the glass of water, you have to put it down for a while and rest before holding it again. When we’re refreshed, we can carry on with the burden – holding stress longer and better each time we practice.”
So, as early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down. Don’t carry them through the evening and into the night. Pick them up again tomorrow if you must.
- Accept the fact that some days you’re the pigeon, and some days you’re the statue!
- Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them.
- Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.
- Drive carefully… It’s not only cars that can be recalled by their Maker.
- If you can’t be kind, at least have the decency to be vague.
- If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.
- It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.
- Never buy a car you can’t push.
- Never put both feet in your mouth at the same time, because then you won’t have a leg to stand on.
- Nobody cares if you can’t dance well; just get up and dance.
- Since it’s the early worm that gets eaten by the bird, sleep late.
- The second mouse gets the cheese.
My past formula for “success” – highly NOT recommended
As I went through this list, I pondered my historical approach in each category, and I’m not making this up. One of my basic core beliefs was that of being “cool under pressure” and I could take on an unlimited amount of stress.
- It is important to always be on top. If someone dumps on me, I’m a “loser”.
- If there is an obvious problem, it is necessary to speak up (not such soft voice).
- I have always liked good books and don’t like to waste that much time on something that isn’t informative, entertaining or inspiring.
- My time is valuable, and I’ll do whatever I need to do to get there quickly. (I had 14 speeding violations in five different states between ages 18 to 25. Thank goodness it was well before there were computers)
- If someone is “wrong” from my perspective, it’s my role (duty) to correct them.
- I am not forgetting that person who shortchanged me. I don’t care how long it’s been.
- Having some variation of a “purpose” has defined my existence. My identity was based on my ideals and I couldn’t always clearly see who or what was right in front of me.
- I actually don’t care much about cars one way or the other.
- One day, one of my fellows asked me, “Don’t you ever get tired of talking?”
- I don’t dance. I’m not very good at it.
- There aren’t enough hours in the day, and I have to get up early.
- What if the first mouse gets the cheese?
The bottom line is give yourself a break. What are your ideals? How do you mentally punish yourself if you don’t live up to your own expectations. It’s great to be successful at whatever you set out to do. But does it define you? Are your endeavors grounded in reality. I did define “me” by my achievements, and many efforts were driven by “magical thinking” and unattainable goals. I used my adrenaline drive to become “successful”, yet it was this same energy that caused me to sink into chronic pain and become physically ill. Another version of her advice is reflected in this poem sent to me by one of my patients, She Just Let Go.
I wish I had figured this out many years ago, but my life and parenting advice (if I am asked) has boiled down the word, “play.” If you can’t enjoy your family and life today, when will you?
- Garland, EL. Brown, SM, and MO Howard. Thought suppression as a mediator of the association between depressed mood and prescription opioid craving among chronic pain patients. J Behav Med (2016); 39:128-138.
- Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34–52.
- Feldman-Barrett, Lisa. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, New York, New York, 2018.