The Grief Stone

grief stone

When I was going through some very bad times at the turn of the century, I was reading way too much about depression and madness (Health Tip: that doesn’t help) and I came across a brief reference to a Native American belief in the use of “grief stones.”

I didn’t do any deep research into it but decided to give it a try. The idea was that you selected a small stone into which you would rub your grief.  Focus on the negativity, problem or grief and rub it into the stone. The stone I chose was smooth river rock and I used my thumb to rub. When you feel that you have transferred those feelings into the stone, you bury the stone in the ground where the bad energy will slowly dissipate.

I know how “new age” that sounds. Did I believe it? I guess I was willing to believe it at that point. After a week, I felt better and I dug up the stone. Maybe I was supposed to find a new stone, but I was comfortable with this one.

Perhaps, my improvement had nothing to do with the stone. Science would say that it had nothing to do with it. But I carried the stone with me and rubbed it when things were bad. I buried it again and waited for things to seem better. That took a few weeks. I dug it up again and kept it in my car.

I began a practice of leaving work and rubbing into the stone anything bad that had happened during the day. I did that for two years before I felt that I had packed as much into that stone as it could hold. I had actually worn away a very comfortable groove in that stone with my thumb which I found pretty remarkable. 

I buried the stone a few times again in the woods nearby because I didn’t want the grief dissipating too near home. I left it there for a season, dug it up, and put it back in the car. It is still there, but I rarely use it. It’s more of a reminder of what had happened to me back then.

This past week I did some searching online for grief stones. I didn’t find much more than I had found back in 2001. There were sites selling grief stones, which bothered me for some reason. I found stones called “Apache Tears” that are said to be good for “transmuting one’s own negativity under stressful situations.” It is a dark black stone of obsidian and when held up to the light appears somewhat transparent. I read that some people claim that when the grief one feels goes into the stone, it turns opaque.

I claim no special powers for my stone. I don’t even know what kind of stone it is. What I believe happened is that the practice of rubbing the stone and thinking about the grief, worry, sorrow, pain, anger, or whatever it was at that moment that was bothering me was what had some effect. Recognize it, process it, and try to dismiss it. More psychology than sorcery.

I did find a reference to the grief stone on a site about art therapy. In this practice, you create a stone to represent the pain, memory, and emotion and bury it. I also found the recommendation to cleanse the bad energy in a stone by burying it in a crystal bowl of sea salt or placing it in a stream or into the ocean.

But I don’t think you need a special stone or a special cleansing. A stone that feels comfortable in the hand and the burying is as much ritual as you need.

Do I still use the stone? No, things are pretty good right now. Do I think the stone still holds some of the negativity? No. Did it ever? I know I held some negativity and it went away. Coincidence?

I still have the stone in the car. I hope I won’t need it again, but it’s there. The ground around where I buried it is green and growing. My grief didn’t kill everything nearby.

Everyone has days when you need to stop for just a bit, focus on what is causing negativity, and try to rub it into some other place outside of you and those you love. It might take a long time to rub out all that grief. It might take many more days for the grief to be neutralized.

Nocebo

Most people are familiar with the concept of a placebo. The word comes from Latin and means “I shall please.” We most frequently hear it used in medical terms. It can be a substance or a treatment that has no known therapeutic value. Common placebos include inert tablets (like sugar pills), and inert injections (like saline).

Sigmund Freud conjectured that since some placebos had a positive effect on what was considered a physical problem, the problem must really be in the mind. In his version of talk therapy providing positive information can improve the perception of well-being.

I have been fascinated with this concept ever since I heard about it in a high school course. But it was only recently that I heard the word nocebo. This is when negative data makes someone feel worse about their own health. Nocebo is Latin for “I shall harm.”

I heard nocebo used in the context of the negative effect that my wearing a fitness tracker on my wrist might have on me. I wear it to track my activities (steps, miles, exercise times). It also monitors my heart rate and my sleep. The device has a positive effect on me when it vibrates to tell me I have hit my steps goal for the day. But what is the effect on me when I spend all day working on the code for a website and discover at dinnertime that I have only taken 1200 steps all day and I have only been active for one of my waking hours? Nocebo effect.

“Placebo” was used in a medicinal context in the late 18th century to describe a “commonplace method or medicine.” In 1811, it was defined as “any medicine adapted more to please than to benefit the patient”.

In the 20th century, studies on the “placebo effect” showed that there could be a positive effect and that it could also have no effect. Inconclusive. However, placebo-controlled studies were used and are still used to evaluate new treatments. Clinical trials control for this effect by including a group of subjects that receives a “sham” treatment. Subjects in such trials don’t know if they received the treatment or a placebo.

I think it is interesting that if a person is given a placebo under one name, and they respond well, they will respond in the same way on a later occasion to that placebo under that name – but not if it is given with another name. Clinical trials are often double-blinded so the researchers also do not know which test subjects are receiving the active or placebo treatment.

I’m no medical authority so I must be careful what I suggest here, but I would think that when someone finds relief from a scientifically questionable treatment (copper bracelets for arthritis, some herbal products, etc.) that relief might be a placebo effect.

What was new to me (and perhaps to you) is the nocebo effect. It seems to apply to more than my fitness watch. What about social media “likes” and reposts and hit counters on your blog or website? They can all have a positive effect on you when you get them, but what about when you don’t get them? I think we might all need to be more conscious of any nocebo effects in out daily lives.

Saving Some Extra Daylight

from pillow studies by Albrecht Dürer

Last night I set some clocks forward by two hours. I know you are supposed to spring forward one hour for spring but that way when I woke up today I was able to turn the clock back one hour. It is just a psychological effect but then again the whole daylight savings thing is psychological in many ways.

I see articles twice a year about “Reasons Why Daylight Saving Time Is Bad for You.” (That particular one actually says five deadly reasons, but I think that’s going a bit sensationalist.) You know that other things, like “jet lag,” can mess with your natural circadian rhythm. “Circadian” is from the Latin circa dies, meaning “approximately one day” because our natural rest–wake period rhythm is 25.5 hours. Exposure to sunlight resets the brain’s circadian clock every day.

Daylight Saving Time (DST) throws that off while Standard time is close to the sun’s natural time. When we switch into or out of DST the effects on sleep, wakefulness, mood, and general health last about 5 to 7 days. If you were not getting optimal sleep in the days before the switch, the effect are greater. One thing you can do help is get outside this morning and for the next few days and get some sunlight to help your internal clock. It will eventually reset itself, but not as quickly or easily as your smartphone.

Back in 1895, New Zealand entomologist and astronomer George Hudson proposed the idea of changing clocks by two hours every spring so that he would have more daylight hours to devote to collecting and examining insects. In 1907, British resident William Willett presented the idea as a way to save energy. But neither proposal was implemented.

setting the clock ahead 1918
Ohio Clock in the U.S. Capitol being turned forward for the country’s first daylight saving time on March 31, 1918 by the Senate sergeant at arms Charles Higgins. via Wikimedia

Germany was the first to adopt daylight saving time on May 1, 1916, during World War I as a way to conserve fuel. The rest of Europe followed soon after. The United States didn’t adopt daylight saving time until March 19, 1918. Though we have a Uniform Time Act, there are different local DST policies across the country. For example, Hawaii has never observed daylight saving time under the Uniform Time Act, having opted out of the act’s provisions in 1967

Pattern Recognition

Neptune's Grotto
“The Organ Player” – Pareidolia phenomenon in Neptune’s Grotto (Alghero, Sardinia)

Detecting a pattern within a sequence of ordered units is a cognitive ability that we all possess and it is important in learning mathematics and influential in learning to read.

A more modern kind of pattern recognition is the automated recognition of patterns and regularities in data and it is used in statistical data analysis, signal processing, image analysis, information retrieval, bioinformatics, data compression, computer graphics and machine learning.  But a human extension of that ability is called apophenia.

Apophenia is when we perceive meaningful connections between seemingly unrelated things. The term was coined by psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in his 1958 publication on the beginning stages of schizophrenia. Conrad saw this abnormal meaningfulness and over-interpretations of actual sensory perceptions. These are not hallucinations. He saw this as an indicator of the onset of mental disease.

The term’s meaning has evolved somewhat and many people who experience this misperception are not mentally ill.

Pareidolia is a type of apophenia involving the perception of images or sounds in random stimuli. One famous example is the “Face on Mars.” An image taken by Viking 1 in 1976 had people then speculating about whether this face on the red planet might have been carved by aliens.  A second photo taken by a later mission showed the area without deep shadows and it looked less like a face. (It even provided some content for the Brian DePalma film, Mission to Mars, which was inspired by a Disney theme park ride.)

Mars face
The “Face on Mars” as seen by Viking 1 in 1976 (top) and the image from Mars Global Surveyor in 2001 below.  (NASA)

Pattern recognition is not always a visual misperception. Gamblers may think they see patterns in the numbers that appear in lotteries, card games, or roulette wheels. A winning player may be seen as being on a hot streak. This is sometimes known as the “gambler’s fallacy”.

Apophenia is a common effect of brain function. As with phobias, when it is taken to an extreme, it does seem to indicate some psychiatric dysfunction. A film that portrayed this is A Beautiful Mind.

This biographical film based is based on the life of the American mathematician John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics. As a mathematician, Nash’s brilliance came from his ability to discern patterns in data. He could find order in what looked like chaos. It brought him to the attention of the Department of Defense, as seen in the clip below.

Unfortunately, Nash’s talent turned into apophenia and he began to see patterns where there were no patterns and he developed paranoid schizophrenia. He began to see hostile patterns, including a vast conspiracy against him.

Apophenia is common in conspiracy theories where coincidences are often stitched together into a perceived plot.

face in outlet

There are everyday examples of pareidolia “hidden faces” which are the  “chance images” that we see in clouds, stains on a wall, a face in a slice of toast, the “Man in the Moon” or just a wall outlet. In a Rorschach Test, we are asked to find a pattern in random shapes.

inkblot
Do you see something in a random inkblot?

Recognizing patterns is a critical cognitive practice for everyday life, but when it goes beyond “normal” into apophenia or even further it becomes a problem.

Are You Suffering from Chronophobia and Anticipatory Anxiety?

fear of future
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

I don’t need more to worry about these days, but I recently read about a reported increase in fear of the future by therapists and mental health providers. I did some reading and found that the official names for those fears are chronophobia and anticipatory anxiety. If you’re not fearful of reading more about it, proceed.

Chronophobia – like all phobias – manifests as an extreme, one that can cause obsessive and debilitating behavior. It is a fear of time and mostly fear of time moving forward. That fear often comes from the unknown, and the future is the great unknown.

For some people, the fear of the future is based on a fear of failing in that future.

Anticipatory anxiety seems to be defined as pretty much the same thing: being nervous about future events where the outcome is unknown.

Some of the warning signs of these mental health issues are problems eating, sleep disorders, and muscle tension. Aren’t those just descriptions of how we all feel all the time? Hopefully not, but…

Fear causes inner pain and body pain perceptions. We often try to numb the pain with substances and behaviors that seem to have a temporary effect but often have a longer-term negative effect.

I’m not a professional but I point you in this post to some articles with coping suggestions.  I channel some of my anxiety, stress, or fears into my walks in nature. I think writing also helps, though those things sometimes both inspire and hinder my writing.

If you made it to this point in the post, at least you didn’t fear reading about your fears.  And acceptance is the goal at the end of the acceptance cycle, so good for you!

 

 

 

A Perfect Storm for Depression

SAD woman

When I saw a headline this morning warning of a “double whammy of pandemic blues and seasonal depression” my first thought was that it was more of a perfect storm.

We are now in our ninth month of COVID-19 and hopeful that while we hit a daily record of 100,000 daily cases, we might be able to avoid a simultaneous flu season. The past week (or months or year) of election madness has certainly affected Americans. And the triple threat is the annual arrival of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

That term – “perfect storm” – has evolved in its usage from a literal meteorological storm to other disaster scenarios. It came into wide usage with The Perfect Storm  2000 film that was based on the 1997 non-fiction book of the same name by Sebastian Junger. The film tells the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel that was lost at sea with all hands after being caught in a storm at sea. Though there are earlier references to storms that came from an unusual confluence of conditions for storm creation, the popular usage of the term “perfect storm” was coined by Junger. He had a conversation with NWS Boston Deputy Meteorologist Robert Case in which Case described the convergence of weather conditions as being “perfect” for the formation of such a storm at Halloween 1991.

I’ve seen a good number of articles about coping with pandemic depression. I’ve seen advice on dealing with the election news – mostly saying turn off your screens. I have posted in past years about SAD which I know I have suffered from in my adult life, even before there was a name for it.

What might have been called “winter blues” at one time happens when temperatures drop and the hours of sunlight shorten and (depending on where you live) we spend less time outdoors and more time inside. It is estimated that more than 66 million Americans display symptoms of mild or severe depression that might be associated with SAD during the fall and winter months.

This rise of depression that happens every fall is expected to be greater in 2020. One psychologist, Dr. Martin Klein, says that studies have shown that around 80 percent of all Americans are dealing with some form of depression or stress since the pandemic began. That triples the country’s depression rate.

I have been sitting outside for a half-hour each morning with my coffee no matter what the weather has been because I know that SAD occurs mostly in the fall and winter with the literal decrease in sunlight. Sunlight helps to maintain human circadian rhythms and sleeping-waking cycles, as well as other biological functions of the human body. Less sun exposure disrupts those rhythms.

There are also chemical changes, such as a decrease in hormones like serotonin and melatonin, and vitamin D. All of those are associated with mood, anxiety levels, and sleep patterns.

You can also negatively affect mood and raise your blood sugar levels in the colder months if it means you get less exercise less, drink more alcohol and eat more sugary and carbohydrate-rich junk and comfort foods. A lot of us may have fallen into that pattern well before the seasons changed due to the pandemic. Some people have been calling this “Pandemic Affective Disorder.”

As we have been warned about the possibility of flu and COVID19 occurring simultaneously and having some of the same symptoms, the symptoms of SAD are similar to other forms of depression. This is what is usy=ually listed as symptoms of SAD: irritability, lowered mood and energy, increased anxiety, fatigue, a lack of libido, and difficulty paying attention.

SAD can be more severe and it is classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a subset of major depression, officially known as “major depression disorder with a seasonal pattern.”

Some differences in SAD symptoms as compared to chronic major depression include SAD tending to cause people to overeat and sleep longer and later. Major depression usually causes weight loss and erratic sleep schedules.

It is only somewhat optimistic to say that at least the effects of SAD tend to go away once the seasons change because that is at least five months away and we still don’t know when the pandemic will dramatically subside or end.

Here in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere, November through February are the toughest months.  So what can we do to combat SAD?

The suggestions given in the past still hold. Eating healthy and regular exercise (even if that is only neighborhood walks, runs and bike rides) and increased daily exposure to sunlight.

The sunlight can be my half-hour outside in the morning (try to expose as much skin as possible – which is harder to do as the weather gets colder), sitting inside by a sunny window (sunlight through glass is not as effective) and even special lightboxes with bulbs designed to mimic sunlight.

In all cases of depression, the advice is to interact with people and stay engaged. Unfortunately, depression often makes you want to do the opposite, and the pandemic restrictions have also limited your options. A perfect storm.

Monitor your physical and mental health and don’t be afraid to seek professional help if either seems to be negatively changed.