Psychology has always had an air of mystery to it. From its root word psyche, meaning soul, and drawn from the Greek myth of psyche and cupid, to Anton Mesmer's introduction of hypnosis (then called "Mesmerism") and Freud's mysterious unconscious, practitioners of various psychological arts have often emphasized some unfathomable quality or another to explain what they do.
The upside is that it may enhance placebo, which is not insignificant. Placebo is just a word we use to describe an effect that we can't explain, but it often seems to involve a person's belief. The downside is that it places the healing power with the practitioner, rather than with the client, which can actually disconnect the practitioner from his or her client through an air of superiority or even magic. I have seen colleagues get quite full of themselves with this, and it's no good for anybody.
I have studied a lot of these things over the years and while I would never claim or even desire to eliminate all of the mystery of the psyche, I have found that there are some things that are much simpler than they are often made out to be. I also like what C.S. Lewis said through one of his characters in That Hideous Strength: "I believe that you cannot study men, you can only get to know them."
I find that the better I know my clients, the better I am able to help them. I also find that the more you are empowered to take on your own issues, and the more my role is a supporting one for your efforts, the more effective the work is. In that spirit, I want to address a few psychological issues that are today better understood and more available for you to personally take action on than ever before.
They all start with an assumption of free will, and they all require acts of conscious awareness and understanding. These are what I will call "decision points."
I was at a local climbing gym with some friends; one of those indoor warehouses with artificial rocks with varying shapes and sizes of foot- and handholds, along with the ropes you need to keep you safe. I was getting up pretty high on one of the walls, and I took a peek down. In that moment, I could feel the beginning of a feeling of panic, the initial infiltration of a fear of height.
I also, in that moment, realized that I was completely safe on a rope and I knew that if I let that fear continue to grow it would ruin my day, create a little bit of drama and if there were any danger, it would put me in greater danger, not less. So I decided something: I decided not to let it grow, to instead focus on my goal and continue on.
I did that, and the moment I made that decision the fear disappeared. Was that magic? Did I give myself some kind of hypnotic suggestion? No. I decided where I wanted to focus my conscious awareness; I decided to aim it at my goal rather than at my internal process.
Was I denying the reality that I was scared, thereby repressing my feelings and creating a deeper neurosis? Nope. There was nothing "real" or deeply meaningful about that fear, aside from the fact I was feeling it in that moment. Feelings come in and out of our awareness for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes they are responses to accurate evaluations of danger or opportunity, and are signals that we ought to attend to. Sometimes they are mistaken connections and should be ignored. Sometimes they are vestigial echoes of past human dangers – many phobias likely fall into this category.
The bolt of fear that wanted to begin in me was likely a mistake – an emotion triggered by the misperception that I was in a position where I would likely fall and die, when in fact I was safely strapped into a harness at the end of a strong rope secured by a trusted friend on the ground. There was no danger, and therefore the emotion was a mistake.
There are moments when you have the possibility to make a decision to go one way or another – to allow yourself to feel afraid or to stay focused on your goal without going into the fear, for example. These moments are more common than you may think, and you can practice becoming more aware of them so that you have more say in where you go emotionally and relationally.
When you are working toward a goal, and in the process you are faced with a task that scares you, you have the choice, in that moment, to succumb to the fear or to shift your focus toward the goal. It may be that the fear is overwhelming, the task actually too challenging for you at the moment, or the danger real and serious. To accept that sort of fear is not a failure; it is feedback – time to stop (if you can) and do some more work preparing so your skills will be up to the challenge.
If you don't have that option, if you are in a position where you have to see your task through, then you, of course, have to stick with it and do the best you can. Let's look at a few more examples of these decision points:
Depression: If you get depressed, there is sometimes a moment you can identify when you have a choice: Do I stay in bed and wait for it to pass or do I drag myself out of bed and do my best to get moving for the day? Do I continue thinking about how hurt I feel from some painful interaction or do I refocus my thinking on what I can do now to feel better?
Depression is often a response to feeling helpless so staying in bed or dwelling on past (and therefore un-actionable) pain will intensify those helpless feelings, while getting up and moving will often be really hard but the best thing you can do. Getting some physical exercise or making progress on a meaningful task can help, anything so that you are not stuck feeling helpless.
Panic Attacks: As I wrote about in "Panic," up to 45 minutes before a person actually feels a panic attack there is a change in the CO2 levels in their bloodstream – meaning that they have been constricting their breathing for up to 45 minutes. Then they feel panic hit them out of the blue. Since feeling like they can't breathe and are going to die are some of the symptoms of a panic attack, this restricted breathing could actually be the cause of the attack.
Since finding this research, I have been having my clients who experience panic check their breathing about 20 times per day, relaxing and moderately deepening their breathing when they find that it is shallow or tight. Though this is no substitute for controlled clinical studies, the results so far have been very good, giving people who were otherwise helpless in the face of debilitating symptoms something they can actually do to feel better.
OCD: In "Change Your Brain with Your Mind," I wrote about how you can overcome Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It is not a matter of understanding the deep unconscious roots or trauma that you think may be causing it because while personal history or trauma may dictate the form the OCD takes, it is not what is causing the OCD.
What is causing it is an improper functioning of your brain's circuitry, and that is something that you can in effect repair through how you think about it. You can do this by reminding yourself that the feelings and urges are not accurate reflections of reality, but mistakes – "This is not me; it's my OCD."
The hard part is continually reminding yourself that the pull to think or do the obsessive thought or compulsive act in order to have the right feeling is actually a misfiring of your brain, and then refusing to do what these resulting mistaken feelings and thoughts are telling you to do.
This takes mindful consciousness – paying close attention to these thoughts, feelings, impulses and compulsions. It also takes willpower – the willingness to refrain from indulging these obsessive thoughts or compulsive urges.
These are a few examples of tangible steps that you can take right now to improve your situation and quality of life. They are by necessity oversimplifications and I am by no means saying that it is easy to do or somehow shameful to make the "wrong" decision. The pull to get drawn into these troubles can be extremely strong – black-hole-gravity strong in some cases – and it can be an act of tremendous courage and willpower to overcome them.
It is also not necessary or optimal in many cases to tackle these alone, though you will be tackling them yourself. Secrets are the breeding ground for psychological troubles; having another person involved whom you can trust as you face your personal challenges can make your job less daunting and your success more forthcoming.
The wonderful thing to know, however, is that in many cases there are things that you can do. You do not have to suffer and endure these troubles helplessly.