Sunday, March 3, 2013

How to Stay Sane

I hope for peace and sanity - it's the same thing.
Studs Terkel 
My computer isn't working great today. It keeps kicking me off my blog when I hit "save." And, of course, the words aren't saved either. Random things are popping up and blocking words. I am not a peace. But I am sane, working my way through the problem, so I know Studs' words aren't always true.

But they're true often enough that the fight for sanity (because it's never easy) is often a quiet one.

In her book How To Stay Sane, Phillipa Perry summarizes what she's seen in people who have improved their mental health. If you were to improve your physical health, we all know what to do: eat healthier, exercise more, get enough sleep and get medical care as needed. But what are the four things to do if you want to be less anxious, less angry, more productive, more content?

Like when I wrote about how we have much more research on the stages and types of negative emotions than those on positive ones (October, 2012 ), there's much more known on how to lessen insanity (therapy, meds, activities, skill-building) than on increasing sanity. You'd think they're the same, but they're not. The goal of most depression treatment is not "being generally happy," but rather "spending less time in abysmal misery." Or, physiologically, eating more. Cognitively, having fewer suicidal thoughts.

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This simplifies the issue, but my point is only that we think more of the opposite of depression as "not depressed," or the opposite of anxiety as "not anxious," when that is actually in the middle of the gradient.

I understand why. I do. When you are depressed, just getting to "upset" is a miracle. Here's a scale designed on a blog by a person with dissociative identity disorder trying to describe their experience with depression.  She called the blue stage the "cookies and french fries" stage and said she doesn't feel anything above purple, or hadn't in a year.

But the full-scale opposite of sad is happy. Of anxious is calm. And it's important to know how to get there if you can. This is what Phillipa outlines for us. The four things she has found get people to a sane and peaceful place? I would have known generally, but she gives us specifics:

1. Self-Observation. This is also called mindfulness, or conscious awareness. You can do it running (she says she learned it best when preparing for the London Marathon) or sitting, cooking or lying in bed. When you get better at it, you are accepting of yourself and non-judgmental about your actions and experiences. The key is separating your thoughts, sensations and emotions to take note of them. There's that pinky toe rubbing against my shoe. Jealous thoughts triggering a fight with my daughter. Worry about school making my stomach clench. 
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I first learned Mindfulness as a treatment for depression in a training by Zindel Segal on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and, like many useful ideas, it took me far longer to put this to use than to understand the concept. Years of practice. But it works. I do best, these days, combining it with yoga and a teacher. I am simply unable to focus my mind when I'm alone.

2. Relating to Others: When the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was published, I thought it was cute. Most people did. Also in many ways true. Sharing, caring, all little animals in the classroom tanks eventually die as do we. But the book itself takes on more depth, including how adults are socially complex and it's hard to find our way.
“Hide-and-seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found.” ― Robert FulghumAll I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things
Phillipa gives us ideas on how to nourish relationships, and find them fulfulling in return. The exercises are relatively simple but they point you in the right direction. There's an article in that Psychology Today from last week about how ambivalent relationships are more stressful than routinely negative ones ("The Mixed-Bag Buddy And Other Friendship Conundrums"). Often the ambivalence peaks around times like weddings. This certainly has happened with me. Phillipa points out that one or more of these can be romantic partners or children, but they don't have to be in order to be happy. An obvious point, but one we sometimes forget when lonely.

3. Stress: This word is so often paired with "managing" that I almost wrote them as one there are other dynamics. Sometimes we court stress. Sometimes we fear it. Stress is challenge, and opportunity, and excitement, and change. It is almost impossible to experience personal development and growth without stress, because stress is the reason we have for changing. It is a ruffling of the static force field around each of us, making those particles dance and clash. It can be fun. It can be lethal. It's important to understand the process and our responses (and improve them). Phillipa calls it Positive Stimulation.

4. What's the Story?: I don't love this title, but it works. The story of our lives, the way we describe ourselves, the meaning we give to our existence, all matter in our feeling like our life is worthwhile, a necessity to stay sane. Phillipa has an exercise in genograms for a start, and others that serve this purpose as well as others (a mindfulness exercise that delves into what we are feeling about who in our lives, and why, covers all four bases).

The book is short, only 130 pages, and I read it in an afternoon. You may consider doing so yourself. She's a nifty teacher, Phillipa. I'll give you her picture for fun.

Her glasses, and her book, make me cheerful. Since I was a child of the seventies, I'll use our catchphrase and hope you are having a good day.

Love, Lisa




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