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As a seeker, I have gone down many roads. One thing I’ve decided traveling all those roads is that it is you are primarily responsible for what you get in life.

I have found that certain mottoes or mantras or whatever you want to call them talk about this idea. I have found this in religions and self-help books. It’s a wide range.

I don’t advocate the  idea that you can  visualize what you want from life, though that certainly will be an appealing way to attract followers. I’m also don’t buy into the law of attraction.

So many of these approaches involve thinking positively, and having a positive attitude is certainly better than having a negative one. The more scientific (or psychological) version of this is something I encountered when I was “in therapy.” That is cognitive restructuring. Right off, let me say that this helped me, but it was not enough on its own. It was a tool in the toolbox.

I have also seen this called cognitive reframing. I don’t have the degrees to explain all this properly but this technique is part of cognitive therapy. My doctor wanted me to identify and then change thought patterns and beliefs that were causing stress and/or depression.

When I was depressed, I found everything meaningless. I had a very difficult time naming any things – food, places, activities – that I enjoyed or that I felt were really were important. At the time, that did not seem odd. Now, it seems very odd – and sad.

The doctor wanted me to keep a journal, which is easy for me because I have been doing it most of life. I agree that writing our thoughts down is one way to take control of them. I do it currently with food as part of a diet I am following.

From my journal entries, the doctor observed that a lot of my anxiety seemed to come out of my imagined scenarios of situations that were really quite unlikely to happen. This observation made sense to me, but controlling or training my mind to think constructively and positively was difficult. It wasn’t working and I just could not believe that I could change things in my life by thinking differently about them.

I looked back at my journal from that period and found an entry that had the line “Reframe Your Negative Thoughts and Beliefs” written at the top.

Therapists like to turn your comments into questions. It is some kind of reflection technique. I was unhappy with my work life at that time.
“Why are you unhappy with your job,” he asked.
Well, for one thing, I’m making less money than my previous job.
“Do you equate happiness with financial status?”
No, but it would be nice to be paid what I think I am worth, and it would be great to get things I want and not worry about bills.

Then we would talk about what I might do to get a raise in salary or a promotion or even apply for other jobs that could give me what I was seeking. Of course, it was really about not just the money but feeling like my work was not valued in non-monetary ways too.

I had read back then that we have somewhere 10 and 20,000 thoughts per hour. This statistic freaked me out. Too too much thinking. In my insomniac nights (of which there were many in that period), I just could not turn off thoughts. Despite years of meditation training and practice, nothing worked.

This was a time before smartphones and early in the Internet days, but the therapist wanted me to tune out the news on TV and radio. (Probably more important today to do some tuning out, especially if you are anxious or depressed.) He suggested that I return to some print novels that I had loved earlier in life. But since most of us are online a lot (and you are online now reading this), and not everyone can afford or is willing to go into therapy, you can find websites with names like TheEmotionMachine.com and VeryWellMind.com that might get you started.

I can’t say that it did not help me, but I can’t say it was the action that pulled me out of that negative state. There were drugs, which I was opposed to at first, but seemed to help too. There were other changes in my life – some made by me, some made to my life by others.

Have you had any experience with this approach to making your life better?  Comments welcome.

There are some serious and some pop philosophies that extol “living in the moment.”  It makes sense to live in the now. In a very unenlightened sense, you have no choice since that is where we are. But many people cannot easily get over their past. They cannot leave behind events or people. Is this harmful?

I have always liked collecting quotations.  Here are two about this – serious: “The past has no power over the present moment.” – Eckhart Tolle; and pop: – “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today” – Will Rogers.

Eckhart Tolle has written about this in The Power of Now and says that the natural enemy to enlightenment is the mind. He feels that we are our own creator of pain and the cure is living fully in the present.

The past is important. It is clearly part of you and it is what formed the person we are in the now.  It shouldn’t be forgotten. Sometimes, it can’t be forgotten, though we may want to forget parts of it.

But sometimes letting go of the past is necessary to move on with our life. Obviously, we cannot change the past, even if it has changed our present.

Can you be selective in when and how you access your past? Being a product of the past is not the same as being a prisoner of the past.

I think of some of this mental time traveling as harmless. I tend to still listen to the music of my youth. Serendipitously, I heard the song “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull yesterday which was recorded when I was in high school. Harmless nostalgia, right? Well, it does trouble me that I have almost no interest in new music. I was so involved in pop music at one time. That is gone. Is that bad?

But that is not as serious as a person who more generally finds it difficult to accept new experiences and are more likely to recreate past experiences in more important ways than music you listen to.

I found a series of articles online about this approach. In Psychology Today, I found both ideas about living in the past and also the idea that “No one lives in the past. The past is the past. It’s gone. You don’t ever have to put the past behind you. It’s always behind you.”

When living is the past goes beyond nostalgic time traveling, it is associated with the fear of making changes, complaining more about the current situation, and isolation.

You can find those who will say that those who don’t remember or learn from the past will be forced to repeat it. But sometimes those who focus on the past, unconsciously, end up repeating similar, and not positive, situations.

This living in the present approach can start to sound like a song from the movie Frozen that was so annoyingly popular a few years ago and became a meme for other kinds of letting go of your past.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free
Let it go, let it go

Living in the past also nurtures regrets for things done or undone that cannot be changed.

In my most serious period of Buddhist studies, I fully embraced the now.

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past;
If you are anxious, you are living in the future;
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
–  Lao Tzu

But I still found myself depressed and anxious in the present. A teacher would tell me that was because I was not really in the present.

Fears are normal. Phobias are not. When visiting the past becomes living in the past, there is cause for concern.

Still, living in the now is not easy. People who are depressed are often fearful of the future. Their negative and anxious expectations encourage them to go back and letting go of the past is very difficult.

It is hard to see some negative past experiences as ones that ultimately make us wiser or put us on a better path. And some negative experiences don’t do us any good. They hurt and scar us.

Finally, the most frightening form of this seems to me to be something a friend is still going through after the death of their child. They don’t feel they can control the present. And that means they certainly can’t have any power over their future. She sees this as not only her problem, but a problem that “all of us” are dealing with in the current state of “the world.”

Sorry – no solutions here. Just acknowledgement of something I am observing.

 

time in mind

You probably have heard the idea of “living in the moment.” I tend to associate it with Buddhist traditions, but it has Eastern and Western origins.

Living in the moment means that you take little thought for the future, but do whatever enhances what’s happening right now. there is also the phrase “living for the moment” which means that it’s those special moments that make life worth living.

These seem to be valid philosophies and I would guess that most of us want to be living in the moment or living in the now. But it is not that easy. Too often our thoughts take us to the past or future.

This is a kind of time traveling that is not only possible but probable. We go back to things to earlier points in our lives all the time. That’s not a bad thing. But sometimes we go back and dwell on particular turning points in our lives and imagine how things could have turned out differently.

These “What if?” and “If I had only…” kinds of thought can become obsessions.

The term in psychology for this is counterfactual thinking.

We all know that thoughts in the present about the past can never change the past, so why do we do this?

Some kinds of events prompt this kind of thinking about alternatives to life events. Yes, we know that this is thinking that is “counter to the facts,” and yet we do it.

Studies about this way of thinking are not new. Early philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato pondered why we have “subjunctive suppositions” about nonexistent but feasible outcomes.

“Counterfactual” mean “contrary to the facts.” Lately, the news has been full of talk about facts, alternative facts, false facts and other rather ridiculous versions of “facts.” I saw a review of Hillary Clinton’s book that came out after her election defeat, What Happened, and the book was described in a way that made it seem like a book-length counter factual about “if I/we/they had only…”

This kind of thinking is understandable as a coping mechanism.

Listening to an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, “Rewinding and Rewriting,” brought this topic to mind. They spoke there about the things that usually generate this kind of thinking. First, the past incident had a clearly negative outcome. It is likely to be something out of the ordinary. And it was something in which you played, or could have played, a key role in changing.

We imagine how an outcome could have turned out differently, if only we had done something differently. We might not have even been a part of the event, but we could have been there.

The more serious the event, the more likely it is that we will turn to counterfactual thinking. So, when we don’t put money in the parking meter to run into a store quickly and we get a ticket, that mat seem like something we could have changed, but it’s relatively insignificant. You probably won’t dwell on that thought for days, weeks, months or years. But if an accident results in a serious injury or death and you feel you could have prevented it if you (or someone else) had done something differently, that will linger in the mind.

I had an accident the first week I owned my first car. I turned down a street on the way home and misjudged distance and clipped another car. I was a new driver, but really I had gone down that particular street, which was not the way I would normally go home, because I was hoping a girl I knew who lived there would see me driving my new car. I was angry with myself, and for weeks after I thought about how I could have just gone home the normal way and avoided the accident. My mother followed a different philosophy. She would say that maybe if I had gone the usual way I might have had a worse accident. I’m not sure if that is optimism or pessimism.

Two examples that I found online of counterfactual thinking point out how it can be harmful and useful. One case looks at Olympic Medalists. The study found that counterfactual thinking seems to explain why bronze medalists are often more satisfied with the outcome than silver medalists. Silver medalists tend to focus on how close they were to the gold medal and think more about what they might have done to get gold. Bronze medalists tend to think about how they could have not received a medal at all. The researchers call this downward counterfactual thinking.

Another study from the same researchers looked at the satisfaction of college students with their grades, which is not that different from the Olympic athletes. The study is called “When doing better means feeling worse: The effects of categorical cutoff points on counterfactual thinking and satisfaction.”  They studied the satisfaction of college students based on whether their grade just missed the cut off versus if they had just made the cutoff for a grade category. Students who just made it into a grade category ( for example, just barely got a “B”) tended to downward counterfactual think and were more satisfied. They thought that things could have been worse. Students that were extremely close to making it into the next highest category but missed (for example, they got a high “B” but just missed the “A” grade) showed higher dissatisfaction and tended to upward counterfactual think. They focused on how the situation could have been better and things that they “could have” done.

I believe that living in and for the present moment is very important. I try not to dwell in the past. I try not to be counterfactual in thinking about past event. But it is easy to fall into the harmful habit of wanting to change the past.

I saw an article years ago about a survey that asked people, “If you could travel to your own past, what time would you return to and why?”  The most common answers involved going back to change something the person either had done or had not done. Some people wanted to go back and relive a moment – the birth of a child, a great day with a loved one – but most people wanted to change the past in order to change the present.

Most scientists who have pondered time travel have said the same kinds of things about the experience. Most of their ideas don’t make for a good story plot.

We could go back in our own timeline, but we could not travel back before we existed. You’re not going to do anything about Hitler or the Kennedy assassination unless you lived through hose events.

If we went back, we would simply relive what had happened and we could not change anything. It would put us in a loop where we would again move through time until the point when we traveled back and then return and do it all over again. It’s the movie Groundhog Day.

If we went back and did change something, the entire series of events after that would change. In fact, they might change in ways that would eliminate us from the world that follows. What happens to us then?

This killjoy kind of science is a reminder that we can’t change the past. We live in the moment of now, and we need to be very conscious of the now and appreciate it.

spiders

Little Miss Muffet suffered from arachnophobia.

We all have fears. But if you have a disproportionate fear of something that does not pose a real danger,  that is a phobia. Phobias are an intense, persistent and lasting fear that you associate with a specific thing.

I did some experiments for college psychology classes related to phobias. I was in a group for arachnophobia, the fairly common fear of spiders. We were told that past experiences often have a profound influence on our reactions to things in our environment. I couldn’t recall any traumatic events occurring with spiders, but not all types of phobias necessarily develop due to psychological trauma.

The conditioning our group went through started with looking at photographs of spiders. Some people were freaked out by the photos. We moved to spider videos and then to spiders in tanks. I was fine until we got to putting our arm into a tank and allowing spiders to crawl on me.

 

People suffering from phobias get physiological symptoms including tachycardia (rapid heart rate) dizziness, gastric and urinary disorders, nausea, diarrhea, choking, redness, excessive sweating, trembling and exhaustion.

There are different categories of phobias. Situational phobias are fears caused by a specific situation, such as public transport, tunnels, bridges, elevators, flying, driving, or closed areas (claustrophobia) or  open spaces (agoraphobia).

There are many kinds of animal phobias: fear of birds and even a fear of just pigeons, insects, dogs, cats, mice etc.

Besides my fear of spiders (which isn’t bad enough to really interfere with my life) I also have one of the more common phobias – acrophobia or fear of heights. That fear hits me on a tall ladder, cliff edge and many amusement park rides.

I have read that glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is the most common phobia. The word glossophobia derives from the Greek glōssa, meaning tongue, and phobos, fear or dread. Some people have this specific phobia, while others may also have broader social phobia or social anxiety disorder.

Other common ones are fear of  the dark (scotophobia), phobia of water (hydrophobia), blood phobia (hemophobia), and needle (as in injections) phobia.

There are also some rarer but real phobias.

How about reacting to hearing good news with fear? Those individuals are suffering from euphobia have opposite reactions to good news.

Yellow is a nice color most of associate with warmth, summer, sunlight and positive emotions. But there are people who fear yellow. That is xanthophobia.

Eosophobia can be a disabling phobia because fearing daylight, these people prefer sleeping during the day and become more active throughout the night. Get ready for vampire jokes, but it can seriously affect someone’s work and social life.

Whatever the opposite of turophobia is, I have it. Turophobia is an irrational fear of cheese. Like any true phobia, this can manifest as a fear of seeing, smelling, touching and certainly of eating cheeses.

it is more likely that the thought of cheese causes you nausea. Only the idea of eating cheese will probably make you feel disgusted due to its texture and taste.

Imagine how tough it is to live with ablutophobia which is when the thought of bathing, showering, cleaning or washing can cause shortness of breath or accelerated heartbeat. Many children show this fear at an early age, but become conditioned to these activities. Some never do.

On the other extreme are individuals with mysophobia who have such a fear of getting in contact with contaminated things that have a constant need to clean their environment, such as their working area or any object they touch.

There are conditioning treatments that can be effective for some people with phobias. It is a very gentle exposure to what we fear. You have probably heard about people who have a fear of flying (aviophobia) who watch airplanes, sit in grounded ones and build up to actually going up in the air for a flight.

We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. For years, you have heard that we all need to multitask and you may have convinced yourself that you can do it it pretty well.

It’s not so bad to listen to music while you work – a distraction, but minimal. But add in checking your email and messages, watching a video on Facebook and all suffer.

The push to multitask is being reversed. We all know now that anything else you do while driving hurts your focus on driving and can be deadly. Listening to the radio, singing along or talking to a passenger may be tolerable distractions, but texting, looking at a screen for your audio settings, looking at the sites as they are passing, reading signs, studying the GPS map, drinking or eating, and fumbling in your pocket or pocketbook for your ringing phone are all very dangerous.

More and more research shows this to be true: We all like to think that we can multi-task and do all the tasks well, but we can’t. And when it comes to paying attention, who is better, men or women? Turns out, neither.

Here is a simple attention test. Watch this short video of two basketball teams, one wearing black and the other in white, passing basketballs between them and count the number of passes made by the white team.

Recent neuroscience research tells us that rather than doing tasks simultaneously well, what we might be good at is just being able to switch tasks quickly. But that stop/start process in the brain wastes time and degrades our focus on both tasks.

When you watched the video, how may passes did you see? Actually, the researchers didn’t care much about that part of this experiment known as the “gorilla test.” Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created the video to see how many people saw a woman wearing a gorilla suit walk onto the scene, thump her chest several times and then walk off. She is there in the middle of the video for about 9 seconds but only 50% of viewers spot the gorilla.

Why? Because when you are told to concentrate on one thing, your mind tends not to see other things. You were counting passes from one team and paid less attention to other things.

The video is not proof of our inability to multitask, but the psychologists call this effect “inattentional blindness.”

Daniel Simons says:
“Indeed, most of us are unaware of the limits of our attention—and therein lies the real danger. For instance, we may talk on the phone and drive because we are mistakenly convinced that we would notice a sudden event, such as a car stopping short in front of us.
Inattentional blindness does have an upside. Our ability to ignore distractions around us allows us to retain our focus. Just don’t expect your partner to be charitably disposed when your focus on the television renders her or him invisible.”

This shift in our attitudes toward multitasking probably tracks with an increased interest in many forms of mindfulness training, and an increase in the number of people identified as having attention deficit disorders. We know our attention is lousy. We are easily distracted. And most of us want to do something about the problem.

 

I haven’t heard the term  “existential crisis” used lately. I don’t think that is because they don’t occur any more. I suspect they occur more today than they did in earlier times.

An existential crisis is defined as a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life.

Despite having no proof to point to, I believe this questioning is as old as mankind.

Existentialism was a term that come into being in the late 19th- and 20th-century via a group of diverse European philosophers. It may seem odd that this “crisis” is attached to philosophical thinking whose predominant value is commonly acknowledged to be freedom.

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it “authentically.”

I came to know the term in my teen years through literature. Reading books by Jean-Paul Sartre (such as Nausea) and works by Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot and Herman Hesse, and then reading about them, existentialism kept being referenced.

I started to see it in many things I was reading. That “crazy cliff” that Holden Caulfield wanted to save people from falling off by being a “catcher in the rye” seemed existential to me. I started to see my own life that way. I can’t imagine getting through your teen years without an existential crisis.

Existentialism came into popular use after World War II in philosophy but also in theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

I’m sure that when I learned about an existential crisis I thought I was going through one. Mental health hypochondria is pretty common.

An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life. Does life have any meaning, purpose, or value? It is commonly wrapped up in anxiety and depression.

I have a vivid memory of seeing the film The Graduate for the first time and then again in college and when Ben was floating in his parents’ pool and feeling of a lack of purpose in life, I was floating right there with him.

But a true existential crisis is big. Questioning Life means questioning relationships, decisions, and your motivations. It is an illness. A serious one.

Currently I hear the term being used on more temporary states of mind. I did some searching online and found it in an article about spending too much time on social media. It was referenced in an article about suddenly not wanting to spend time with people and wanting to be alone. I found in searching this blog that I have used “existential” in several posts.

If an existential crisis is really a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life, it doesn’t seem like ending a relationship qualifies. Or does it?

An article that I read but won’t link to suggested that some warning signs of the crisis include drinking lots of coffee and using alcohol and cigarettes as a crutch and solution instead of coffee.

Very few of us have not felt a lack of motivation, unable to be productive to the point of depression. Mental fatigue can transform into physical fatigue, which drags you down further.

Is that an existential crisis?

Or is when it when you start to think about death, talk about death and live in the shadow of death?

When I went through a bad depression (which I and my therapist never called an existential crisis) one of the signs was that I began to cry easily for not very “valid” reasons. Movies, abandoned dogs on the drive to work, leaves falling from trees, a sad-looking woman drinking coffee at a nearby table, seeing homeless people or just sitting in the car at a red light would start me off.

Obviously, someone in a real crisis needs professional help and the support of those around them. I found that one treatment known as existential-humanistic focuses on your personalized concerns for your future. It is an approach that asks about the meaning of life.

I have probably written more about solitude than loneliness and I now view solitude – that choice to be alone – as a gift.

We all have our “dark nights of the soul” but when the night carries in the daylight and for more days and nights, I think it is a crisis.

I titled this piece “Just Another Existential Crisis” not because I trivialize the term, but ironically because I think we too often toss off depressions of other people and ourselves too lightly.

When I taught Romeo and Juliet to middle school students I became very sensitive to teen suicide. Of course, I didn’t want the play to be seen as saying that suicide was a solution, but in my research I found that it is very dangerous to not take seriously teen crises. As an adult, it is easy to dismiss the end of a seventh grader’s romantic relationship that lasted only two weeks as not being anything serious. That is a mistake. It is the same mistake that the Capulets and Montagues made. Call it existential or not, a crisis is real.

Holden Caulfield may have remembered the Robert Burns poem incorrectly, but his wish to save others in the midst of his own crisis was correct.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
– from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

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