What is stress? A common phrase, heard frequently, is “I am sooooo stressed!” However, we know that most people are able to deal with stress. Bruce McEwen, stress researcher from New York city, has detailed the stress response in his numerous papers and articles. Stress is a normal phenomenon and responding to a stressor in our daily life is a normal and frequent process. Importantly, the response to stress is a biological process and requires that our bodies adapt to the stressor by secreting the hormone cortisol. However, in some people, who have experienced extensive amounts of stress, especially in their early years, their response to a stressful situation is affected. Two possible problems could occur: (1) in some individuals, there may be a hyper response with the body secreting too much of the hormone cortisol over a prolonged period of time. (2) in some individuals there is a critical failure to respond to the stressful situation. Both of these situations are a cause for concern and require different therapies. The problem is that popular media and therapies do not differentiate which type of response you have had resulting in therapies that might further affect your ability to respond to stress in the future.
There are many proponents of the approach of “letting go”. Similarities exist with the Buddha’s injunction to detach from things. What I do not like about this approach is that people say things like “let it go” when someone is in severe pain about a life event. Letting go – what the hell is that? No one can just “let it go”. Often it is children who are enjoined to “let it go”. Letting go for a child may involve pushing the pain and hurt down deep inside and trying to carry on as if nothing has happened. This type of “letting go” requires energy and strength that should be going into growing up.
After thinking sabout the idea of letting go over the last year, I have come to realise that one has to interweave all the experiences in one’s life to make the TAPESTRY of our own life. On a visit to the very beautiful Blenheim Palace in 2011, I was reminded about “letting go” and my belief that the idea of letting go of anything is a nigh impossibility. (http://www.blenheimpalace.com/education.html). In discussion with my wonderful friend of some 20 odd years and thinking this over the next few hours, I came to the conclusion that the tapestries at Blenheim palace more accurately reflect my view that letting go of past problems, pains or hurts is not appropriate. Letting go is only achieved when life experiences are integrated and woven into the tapestry of our life.
That tapestry is unique to us and contains all the joys, sorrows, angers, disappointments and achievements. It is a woven in silk with back breaking pain and sore blood stained fingers but it is the thing that makes us who we are. If these memories and hard times are woven into the fabric of our being, brightly hued and coloured with everything that we have achieved then we have designed our own Victory tapestry. If we just “let go” then we become cold and impersonal with empty eyes and a loss of passion and desire. So for me, everything needs to be worked and molded to fit who I want to be in the prime of my life.
A beach somewhere in Paradise. Peace, tranquilty and beauty impart a sense of oneness with the universe, a feeling of relaxation and refreshment. Deserted and blissful. Life lived to the full by all the creatures that inhabit it and something experienced by some of us only on our annual holiday. We proclaim that this is the life, no stress, no pain and no ugly. Or so we think. Then out of nowhere, loss and sadness. The bereftness of a mothers grief.
Her dead baby near. She seems unable to leave. Rocking herself in grief and despair. What is it about death that it invades our very best moments? We wish to push it away, pretend it doesn’t exist. We frenetically race around our lives so that we may not have to confront our morbidity or mortality and the loss of the life we wished for ourselves. But, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes so eloquently describes in her analysis of Skeleton Woman. Real life and real love require that we face and acknowledge the “not lovely”. Real living is a cycle of the life-death-life and that if we try to live without acknowledging death then we have deadened ourselves already. In some way, this mother Elephant Seal knows that death needs to be acknowledged.
And, what of the humans in this picture, how did they respond to her pain and despair. I, for one, am able to explain her grief in complex physiological terms. But, while I understand the physiology, it does not detract from the fact that this mother needed to complete a process of mourning. A process of release. This process, as my friend commented, takes as long as it takes. The two young boys walking to see what was going on understood this immediately. They accepted that she needed to “cry” and they gave her the space to do so. Most of the humans that came to see her wanted to assure themselves that she was ok. Some, primarily the men, would have liked to just take the dead baby away, and get her back off into the sea and returned to her tribe. But, paradoxically, the mother Seal, knew intuitively that she needed to spend time on the beach.
So the real question is what can we learn from the process of loss and grief, that our wild companions in this world undergo. I think that there are 3 lessons here.
The first and primary lesson is that we need to “sit with the dead child”, whether this be a real loss of a family member, the loss of love or the loss of a dream. Not pretend that everything is fine, pretend that we are alright. Not pretend that our emotions have not been affected, and I would add, not pretend that our physiology has not been disrupted. Once we have been alone in our grief and given the mourning the active time it requires we will be able to slowly return to our tribe and our journey.
The second lesson is that we need at some point to let it go. Not hang on or wallow in the deadness. Accept our role in destruction and then move on. This is, of course, easier said than done and some think it means putting it behind you but in fact it means integrating the lessons into the tapestry of your life.
And finally, embrace life again. Once again, available to taste and savour our lives with the open arms that a passionate journey requires.
If we do not do these three steps then we run the risk of gettng “turned down at the edges”. You know what I mean, the people that you have met who are bitter and turned against humanity because of their own pain. Signalling their displeasure in their demeanour, forever trying to pretend that they feel no pain or loss.
I wish for everyone who reads this post, the courage to face their losses, the courage to intergrate them into the tapestry of their life and then the courage to embrace their new dreams and destiny.
Paris as a metaphor for the brain? Even with a little lateral thinking, is this a metaphor worth analysing? I have recently returned from the 9th World Biological Psychiatry Congress in Paris. So, in the first instance Paris was most definitely associated with the brain for me. But there are more interesting connections than just this literal one. Getting waylaid down a little side street on one of my adventurous “Dee-tours”, I realised that the brain and Paris bear a remarkable similarity in a number of respects. If you are willing to stay with the metaphorical tone of this post then perhaps I may be able to enlighten you with some of my ideas.
The Seine, is like a single track running through Paris. In my practice, I come across people like this. They have decided on a single path and will not deviate come hell or high water. Even if this hell or high water is the loss of their relationships, health, wealth or career. Their ideas are the correct ones and anything outside of that leaves them feeling afraid, lost and sometimes insecure. Now don’t get me wrong, single track approaches are highly profitable. In our early lives when we are establishing our careers the single track mentality is beneficial, and I would ventrure to suggest, required, if you want to get to the top of your chosen profession. But, inevitably, a single track approach to life results in experiences lost and adventures not taken and as we age we suddenly realise that we have lost out on a life beyond the confines of the river.
Another restrictive focus that I see in my practice is evident in the patients who traverse the small area that they know and feel comfortable in. While in Paris, I met up with someone who has lived in Paris for a number of years but travels only in the up-market areas, generally by cab or bus and if, push comes to shove, on the metro. In neurology, under a PET scan, it is evident when people have walled off certain areas of their brains. We are very good at doing this and it is a remarkable ability of our brains to split and shut things down. We need this dissociative ability because it allows us to cope when we experience trauma and stress. The problem is that maintening walled off aspects of ourselves and our lives requires energy and it prevents us ever feeling like we really know who we are. Usually, the walled off aspects are those things that we consider to be negative and ugly. Thus, we claim that we are up-market and ok but those other areas are disgusting, dirty and shameful and other people inhabit those. However, we invariably get ill, old or life just throws us another curved ball and we cannot maintain the walls, and we break-down.
In contrast, if you are wandering around the streets of Paris, with no real understanding how streets that intersect and dissect a circle can run off at some extreme angles, you will find yourself confused and just a little lost. I see this pattern with some of my Bipolar patients who are all over the place. They are running down every little side street in their brains and getting lost. They find it extremely difficult to categorise, contain and maintain their focus and their ideas. They also get extremely irritated with anyone who has a narrow focus. One of my patients was recently reading a book from a self-help guru who recommended a focused “down-the-river” type of approach. The approach left him feeling that the guru, and anyone with quick blase answers, has no real understanding of the complexity of life.
I believe, that if we are to have a passionate life, we need to open up all the areas of our brains, take a look and see what’s there and evaluate who we are. But, we need to do it with a map. Where do we get that map? Perhaps from someone who has been there, someone who cares and someone who can accept us for who we are. We need others in our lives to help us get off the boat, break down the walls or just to give us directions about where we are and who we are. Paris needs to be shared with those you love. It’s a wonderful passionate place, this brain of ours.
While some of the comments regarding the development of the DSM-V have merit, especially those regarding indiscriminate diagnosing of mental illness and fraudulant perscriptive behaviour, anyone who has ever spent time with a patient suffering from a “mental abberation” knows that these patients are distressed, confused and desperate for help. Brain and mental functioning cannot, as yet, be determined by a simple blood test or X-ray as is the case for some somatic conditions such as diabetes, thus there remains a need to have some diagnostic standardisation and integrity when dealing with a “mentally” distressed patient.
The inadequacies are there, one cannot dispute that, but there is a need to have an ongoing review of the manual as we gain more and more information about mental functioning. Neurology and psychiatry are on the threshold of some amazing research and work into the impact that aspects such as sunlight, Vit D, the immune system and the endocrine system have on brain functioning and this work is progressing at an astonishing rate. Much of this research is funded by pharmaceutical companies who are at the forefront of finding the metabolic links (I need to add that I have no financial connections to any of these companies but know that if a patient has a neurotransmitter depletion or is severly traumatised, pharmaceutical intervention is required). One would not refuse insulin to a diabetic child or an antibiotic to a septic patient, why then do we want to refuse a serotonin (or other neurotranmitter) depleted individual any type of pharmaceutical assistance.
Perhaps, it is not the DSM that is at fault but society at large, and old school psychiatry, who refuse to acknowledge the need for a paradigm shift as we get closer to identifying what the rapid change in lifestyle has done to our bodies and brains and those of our young people. We are only now being able to identify what parenting, bad eating and early life stress may do to the our “adult” neurobiology. The days of regarding a child or an adult as either mad, bad or sad are over. There is now more and more evidence that abberations in biology play a role and the DSM-V is striving to provide a basis of understanding of these processes without quick blase answers.
Living a life with passion and real purpose requires an examination of the life you have led and the roads you have, voluntarily and involuntarily, taken. This journey has had an impact on your relationships, health, wealth and career. An unexamined life, is frequently, a shut down one in either mind or body.
Mind, Body, Wisdom is designed to deconstruct and explore journeys. In Dee’s Psychology Pages, I have started us on an exploratory trip about emotional life. Physical and emotional journeys comprise both shadow and light. We are exploring how wonderful it can be to acknowledge and own the shadows of ourselves. How accepting the shadows can allow you to open your arms to life.