The War On Worry

waron worry

We like to go to war on things we think are wrong or bad; the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war against crime. We need to have a war on worry because worry is wrong and bad;. It is one of the most common debilitating thought processes in which we engage, often daily. Let’s win the war on worry!

What is worry?

The word itself originates from the Old English ‘wyrgan’ which meant ‘to strangle.’ By the time Middle English was dominant, the word had morphed to ‘worien’ and meant ‘to grasp by the throat with the teeth and lacerate’ or ‘to kill or injure by biting and shaking’ which is how wolves would attack sheep. By the time of early Modern English, around the 16th century, the term had again morphed to ‘worry’ and meant ‘to harass, as by rough treatment or attack’ or ‘assault verbally’ and another hundred years later the meaning had shifted a bit and became ‘to bother, distress, or persecute’ and today the word worry is generally meant to mean ‘to cause to feel anxious or distressed’ or ‘to feel troubled or uneasy.’ It is quite a journey from ‘to strangle’ to ‘feel anxious or distressed.’ And yet, most people would agree that feeling anxious or distressed is not unlike being strangled. The question is, of course, who is doing the strangling?

More often than not, we worry when we ourselves are strangling ourselves. We do this with our own internal dialogue, often called ‘self-talk.’ Self-talk is that subtle, on-going subconscious flow of words and imagery which is the basis of our moods, and behaviors. You can imagine the worry you would experience if you were telling yourself that tomorrow you might get fired from your job, or you might fail a test, or you might have to confront a person about a conflict. There are any number of ‘might’ scenarios we could worry about most of which don’t come to pass. And yet, when worrying, we are in distress, and that distress is not just psychological but biochemical as well. When we imagine worrisome scenarios, bodily chemistry, especially neurotransmitters in the brain, change. Pharmaceutical medications attempt to counter this chemical change back to normal, but not without side effects. The easiest and safest way to counter worry chemicals in the bloodstream is to imagine positive experience, positive outcomes, pleasant scenarios. Because the future is unknown for certain, and because we are endowed with creative imagination, it is well within our capacity to generate happy chemicals as well as worry chemicals.

In our western culture, the word worry has come to be associated, or maybe even equivalent to, ‘responsibility.’ That is, if we didn’t worry about something, we would not be a responsible person, because responsible people are concerned about others, situations, problems, conflicts….Worry becomes associated with concern, which is associated with responsibility. Who worries about things they are not concerned about? If you were unconcerned about your money, your car, your job, your relationships, there would be no worry. But, we are concerned; very concerned. We are responsible, and so we worry.

But, what if to be responsible really means to be response-able. That is, able to respond, not to react in limited ways from decades of socialization; to have, like a player of chess, several options available to us as a response. Then, we are response-able. And, being response-able, we are more capable of dealing with any number of unexpected, even unpleasant, challenges that may come our way. We are more adaptable, more flexible, more resourceful; we are less strangled; and then, we don’t worry; we win the war on worry.

Mental health counseling is one way to develop better ways of being response-able, and learning to worry less, enjoy more….


Understanding Learning Styles

understanding learning styles

You can’t teach somebody something in English if all they speak is Spanish. Well, you can if you are showing them, rather than telling them. Likewise, if you want to teach effectively, you need to understand the student’s preferred learning style. Understanding learning styles is an important factor in just about any type of education. Some people do really well with wordy explanations, while others don’t and would prefer visual type education. Whether you are a parent, a coach, a teacher or a manger, you likely find yourself in a position of having to educate people in your environment. It behooves you to have some understanding of different learning styles.

There are typically four general learning styles:

Analytic. This type learner prefers to rely on what the experts already know about any given subject or topic. They may read, watch videos or online tutorials by those who are knowledgeable and experts in that respective field. These kind of learners won’t want to engage in the actual process of doing anything new until they are well versed in what the experts or authorities have already said about the topic at hand.

Factual. This type learner wants facts. Not opinions or anecdotal experience, but cold, hard facts. Unlike the person who prefers to defer to experts, this person relies more heavily on objective research. If the research indicates validity, then they are much more inclined to move ahead and learn the material.

Interactive. This type of learner wants information from those who have already engaged in some kind of direct experience. This is the person who values anecdotal experience from others. They will talk to others, listen to others, ask questions of and consult with others. Based on this kind of interaction, the person will determine the value and worthiness of learning the information and move ahead with it, or not, depending on what others say.

Dynamic. This is the kind of person that learns best by doing. They don’t care about the logic of analysis; they don’t care about cold, hard objective facts and they don’t really care about anecdotal experience from others. If they have any interest whatsoever, they will jump right in trying to figure it out by doing it. This approach often entails trial and error, but that is part of the appeal for these types of learners.

In addition to these four styles of learning, each person also has a dominant or preferred mode of learning.

Visual. This person learns best when they can see information. This is not to say that hearing information won’t work, but hearing alone would be much less effective than seeing and hearing. As a species, we are very visually oriented and some research indicates that about 80% of the information we receive from our environment is visual. We also live in a very visually dominant society. This is the type of learner who responds favorably to videos, movies or live demonstrations.

Auditory. This is a person who might be distracted by visual presentations and would much prefer to hear or read verbal instructions. This person would tend to choose something like audio books, tapes or having somebody read instructions to them.

Kinaesthetic This is a person who needs to feel it. As the saying goes, ‘those who feel it, know it’ and these are those kind of people. A kinaesthetic learner is one who would find the hands-on approach most appealing as it would allow them to touch, move and manipulate things.

Interactive. This is the person who needs to not only engage their visual, auditory and kinaesthetic modes, but needs to interact with others as well. This is the most inclusive form of learning, and teaching. It engages the whole person. It not only includes the mind and body, but encompasses the social environment. Some of our best learning experiences occur in this type of interactive setting. Ironically, these learnings are generally not in any kind of official educational setting, but rather simply a part of living.

Trying to determine which style and which mode is dominant and preferred in any given person can be a challenge, and time consuming. A much better approach is to go for the most inclusive form of teaching/learning and employ that as the general paradigm. In the case of both styles and modes, this would be labeled as dynamic-interactive. As such, if you want to be the most effective coach, parent, teacher or role model; if you want to make sure the information, ideas, concepts, skills and behaviors are being not only transmitted but internalized as effectively as possible, then you need to engage their looking and seeing, hearing and listening, handling and feeling and, most of all, when at all possible, doing with others. As the Chinese proverb states: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

The Advaita Approach to Mental Health

 advaita approach to mental health

Mental health, or illness, is based primarily on a philosophy, a collection of beliefs, about who I am, what I am, where I am. Everybody has answers to these questions, even if the answer is ‘I don’t know.’ And, even if we don’t know, for sure, we can give some semblance of an answer to those questions. We often give answers to questions without knowing, for sure. How we think about not knowing, how it reflects on us, is part of our philosophy of life in this world. What does it mean for you to not know?

For those who do know, that philosophy of life, or world view, whether conscious or not, informs just about everything on a macro scale such as society, family, work, money, moods, actions, conditions. All of that informs our micro life, our personal life with our specific family and our particular work, our own individual ups and downs, circumstances, situations. We interpret all of this through the lens of our beliefs about our life in this world. What if a lot of these beliefs, our philosophy of life in this world, is petty, narrow, short-sighted? What if it is not aligned with reality? What if it is based on ignorance?

Advaita is a philosophy of life in this world based on long established knowledge. In most traditional mental health therapies today, there is a ‘psycho-educational’ component. A lot of this psych-education is about how to think rationally instead of emotionally, realistically instead of erroneously. Advaita not only questions and challenges current thinking, it introduces specific philosophical concepts very conducive to mental health. Applying these concepts as a filter through which to interpret experience can change one’s moods and behaviors, relationships and sense of self.

Advaita is an old language word that means ‘non-dual.’ Non-dual is non-duality. That translates into no battle, no attack, no conflict. So many mental health disorders and dysfunctions are based on internal battles, and attacks, and conflicts. The Advaita approach closely examines duality and weaves a way of understanding it as integrated and unified. The ‘self’ of which we are often so concerned with its many stresses and pressures, goals and duties, responsibilities and obligations, dreams and hopes, strivings and achievements, is entirely based on a dualistic philosophy of life in this world. That philosophy is to transportation as Advaita is to teleportation. Advaita is very advanced. It also extends far into the human past.

At the very least, Advaita offers a way of thinking about things which may be to most rather novel, big, comprehensive and wholistic, which does no harm, and may do good. At the most, it can be very helpful along the journey towards that supreme level of human consciousness we all seek. This supreme consciousness which incorporates, integrates and unifies duality, is beyond happiness and pain. It is more than the pair of opposites which make up our dualistic universe. It is a consciousness which like the sun shines equally on the land and on the sea. It is a consciousness which like the ocean receives all rivers from every continent. It is a consciousness of real love and bliss, the supreme state of mind for any human being.

Mental health is a lot more than coping well. A philosophy of life in this world which requires coping, may be a philosophy worth relinquishing. A world view in which war is for peace and violence is for safety may be worth relinquishing. A belief in oneself as independent may be getting in the way of that supreme state of mind. Our current philosophy of life in this world, our complicated, partial, conflicted and dualistic view of the way things are, can be relinquished, and replaced with a wholistic view of all life, which is Advaita.


Advice for Parents: The Ping Pong Strategy

ping pong strategy

Communication between parents and children can often be a power and control dynamic. Parents especially get caught in this kind of situation where the child or adolescent is saying things to which any response by the parent is not effective. For example, the parent might tell the child to clean up her room and she might respond with “no, I don’t have to, you can’t make me.” Any response, even a firm threat of punishment, would only escalate the conflict; the child might respond “go ahead, I don’t care.” And even if the parent does enforce the punishment, it has been a no win situation. The room was not cleaned up, the child forced the hand of the parent into the punishment and nothing was really accomplished.

There is another approach to these verbal sparring matches which can yield a more positive result. I call it the Ping Pong Analogy or the Ping Pong Strategy. It works like this: first you need to understand how the game of ping pong is played, which you probably do. I hit a ball to you, you hit the ball back to me, I then hit it back to you, then you back to me and we try to keep this back and forth volley going.

In the analogy, the ping pong ball represents the spoken word – and the spoken word is the power. So, when a parent says to a child or a teenager “clean your room” or even it it’s stated nicely like “please clean your room” – that is the ping pong ball being served. It represents the parent’s power. When the child responds “no, I don’t have to, you can’t make me” – that is the ping pong ball being hit back and it represents the child’s power. The child fully expects the parent to hit the ping pong ball back to them with a statement like “if you don’t you’ll be punished” or “you’d better or else” or “did you hear what I said!” It doesn’t really matter what is being said as long as something is being said because by saying something the ping pong ball, which represents power, has been sent back to the child who is now in a position to say something else, to hit the ball back again, which feels good because it is using power.

So, what would happen if the parent rather than hitting the ping pong ball back yet again held it? For example, after the child or adolescent says “no, I don’t have to, you can’t make me” the parent says nothing, does nothing. This is not as easy as it sounds because there is tremendous momentum and pressure to respond. But, if the parent does remain silent and shows no visual signs of response, that is, no smiling, frowning, smirking, but just looks at the child without saying anything, the game is all of a sudden changed. The parent is now holding a ping-pong ball that should be sent back. Remember, the ping-pong ball represents words which represent power. So, the parent is now holding the power. And the child wants it back!

As the parent remains silent simply looking at the child, the child will likely say something. The child (or adolescent – or anybody in this position) will send another ping-pong ball over to the parent by saying something like “well!?” or “WHAT!” or “What’s wrong with you” or “Cat got your tongue?” It doesn’t really matter what is said but, again, the parent again says nothing, does not send a ping-pong ball back. Now the parent is holding two ping pong balls! More power. And the child is even more frustrated because they are not getting the response they want, which is for the parent to send back some words, some power, so they can then exert their power by sending another few words back to the parent.

As the parent remains silent and simply observing, the child may say more, sending more words and more of their power over to the parent who again simply remains silent. Soon the child realizes that nothing is going to happen and there is an extended silence. During that period the entire exchange hangs in the air like a mist and it is not uncommon for the child to acquiesce to the original request and say something like “ok! I’ll go clean the room!” and storm off.

Even if the child does not acquiesce, the parent has not only avoided a power struggle but has maintained the upper hand by doing nothing. Following is a transcript segment for a real life scenario:

Parent: John, It’s time to turn off the TV and go finish your homework.

John: I’ll do it later

Parent: No, John, you’ll do it now. Turn off the TV.

John: Ah, come on…

Parent: No

John: You’re such an SOB!

Parent: (silence)

John: (after a moment turns away from the TV and looks at the parent)

Parent: (remains silent but watchful of John)

John: what?

Parent: (remains silent and looking at John)

John: I’ll do it later, I will

Parent: (remains silent and looking at John)

John: (an extended moment of silence – John looks back to the TV and watches for a few moments. He then turns the TV off and goes to his room)

Parent: (remains silent and observing until John is in his room and then returns to the kitchen to finish cleaning up from dinner.)

The issue of name calling is secondary in this scenario. If the parent addressed that issue, the conflict would have escalated and the homework would have been forgotten. Sometimes parents need to choose their battles.

This approach may appear simple but it is often quite difficult for the parent to simply remain silent and watchful without responding to what is being said to them. However, it is a very powerful method of holding the power and certainly worth some practice. Good luck.

Told What To Do

sonoran desert image for told what to do post

Children growing up in a family are often told what to do. You, as a child, and an adolescent, were told what to do, perhaps way more often than necessary. The alternative to be told what to do is being presented with choices. Instead of ‘go clean your room’ it becomes ‘you can choose to clean your room before you play video games for 1 hour, or after. If you choose before, you get 1/2 hour extra.

Being told what to do is very familiar, comfortable. Choices can be troubling, difficult. So, it makes a lot of sense that people, in general, have a tendency towards wanting to be told what to do. It’s what we grew up with. It’s normal. If nobody is around to tell us what to do, we’ll find somebody. Who’s the boss? Who’s the authority? Who’s the parent, the teacher, the bully, the friend, the spouse, the lover, who tells us what to do? Moreover, we internalize others telling us what to do so even if there is nobody around, we let others tell us what to do within our own mind.

A part of us, you know, is animal. We have an animal brain residing underneath our human brain. We have a body, that is animated, ie, animal. We are very socially animated; our sense of self is integrally woven with social interaction from birth to immediate family, to neighborhood, to community, to nation, to planet. The animal part of us does one thing really really well, much better than the human part of us, and that thing is ‘idle.’ Like being in a car, resting, gazing out at the scenery in front, while the engine is idle.

Being idle, animal idle, is often exactly what we have been told not to do. Instead, we are told to do something, anything, other than be animal idle. The upper most part of the human brain is referred to as the frontal neocortex. The activities that go on in this region of the brain are referred to as ‘executive functions.’ Underneath this frontal neocortex are a lot of systems around emotions and existence. Our animal brain is very aligned with existence, much more so than our executive functions.

Existence is not in a rush, and it has no goals; in a sense, it has nowhere to go, and nothing to do. It is existence; always has been present; always will be present. Animal idle is resting in that existence. Human idle is considered lazy; and, as humans, we typically look upon animals resting in the shade, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, as dumb. Of course, we know, intellectually, they are not dumb, they are just animals. Humans are animals, and the animal brain on which rests the executive functions, which are uniquely human, is operative, though atrophied. We’ve been told by the executive functions to do almost anything to avoid being animal idle; these executive functions in the frontal neocortex do have goals, agendas, something to do and somewhere to go. We’ve been told to do so much, so often, that the prospect of animal idle as a very comfortable and healthy state of mind and body would appear preposterous. And yet, perhaps it is that state of mind and body, this state of animal idle, that all humans yearn to reclaim. To be still, quiet, at ease and in comfort with existence.

Read the companion blog post The Bully in the Brain