Posts Tagged ‘Thought’

As someone for whom the words “mid life crisis” have become a daily reality, I read this guest blog from Helen Downing nodding at the shared insights and whistling through my teeth at the apposite and blazingly honest way she encapsulates the middle years of our lives and the search for meaning, especially in the face of profound changes and grief.

I am very proud and grateful to publish her words … and I shall be buying the book! I recommend you read on.

Helen, or her protagonist, confronts a few age old issues.

Helen, or her protagonist, confronts a few age old issues.

Helen writes …

When I was very young, I remember my maternal grandmother telling me that my grandfather had such a hard time when he turned 35 that it became a bit of legend in the small town of Seaford, DE where they lived.

Everyone knew that “Pop-Pop” had just had a big birthday and his reaction to it was pretty foul. Pop-Pop was one of my most favorite people ever. I didn’t get to know him until he was much older, and to me he was bigger than life. Self-confident to the point of being a bit of a bastard, a caustic wit that some found to be borderline insulting but always had me rolling on the floor, and he was the only member of my immediate family who was a businessman instead of clergy. (My interest always lied in business. The clergy seemed entirely too full of poverty and humility for my taste.)

He was my hero, and the thought of him having a hard time turning a particular age was so foreign to me I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

Now of course, I know. Each of us have a number in our head that will make us freak out when that number becomes our age. It probably lies between 30 and 50. But regardless, it’s somewhere in the middle. Once we reach “middle-aged” by whatever standard we’ve set, the words “Happy Birthday” becomes much more ominous, at least for that one year. Middle age is not for the weak of heart. In fact, middle age sucks.

My 40th year was the worst of my life. Not turning 40, that was fine in itself. But that year I found my self-esteem and identity truly tested.

It is not that my life, as every other person’s on the planet, did not have plenty of tragedy, trial, and tribulation, previously. I had failed relationships, sickness and death around me, a few times when I was so broke I considered selling blood for cigarette money, and lots of other things that just come with being a breathing entity on the planet.

But when things happened to me or around me, I would react based on who I thought I was, which had always been a strong, independent, intelligent woman who can talk her way through a keyhole and who could fall into a pile of shit and come up with an ice cream cone. That version of me could handle anything that comes down the pike.

Until I reached what I considered “middle-age”, I was invincible. In the year that I was 40 I had a bunch of firsts.

My daughter, who was my first-born and will always be my baby was grown up and moving out to live on her own.

I was laid off from the non-profit that I worked for due to a bad economy, and my husband of 10 years left me for another woman.

I had spent my entire career being the young executive who came in and opened up new revenue streams or developed innovative ideas to save money. Now I was the 40 year old who was put out to pasture.

In my 20s I was the ingénue who made married women nervous and hold on tight to their husbands. Now I was a 40 year old with mascara tears running down my face while knocking on my best friend’s door with an overnight bag and an old, old story.

My little girl, instead of being set free to experience the excitement of being on her own, was in fact being set adrift, all alone, while the foundation that was supposed to support her and be her safety net was crumbling behind her.

I wanted to bounce back. I wanted to be strong and independent and all of that stuff. I wanted to just overcome and be victorious. But my heart was shattered and my brain could not process what was happening to me. These things just didn’t happen to the version of me that I had built in my own head. And then my demons came out to play.

They sat on my bed at night and discussed my fate while I was lying there sleepless and sobbing. “Maybe she’s done” they’d say. “Maybe this is who she’s been all along. A loser, with no job and no prospects, unloved and alone.”  On top of that, I also felt horrible guilt, as though somehow all of this was not only warranted but deserved.  Maybe I was paying back all the bad karma I had incurred back when I thought that life was not preordained, and that I could be anything? As though dreaming of a greater destiny in my youth was somehow a sin? That is, of course, ridiculous. But guilt and regret became my constant companions.

Meanwhile, my mother who has been battling cancer off and on my entire life, had a relapse.

My father and I decided that I would come home to help him take care of Mom.

Back in the cone of unconditional love that I have enjoyed by having the parents I was blessed to receive, I began to heal. However, I also now had to face aging parents, one of whom had been deemed terminally ill. Now my life was filled with things like “living wills” and “pre-arranged funerals”.

So, fast forward. Several years have gone by now. My mom is still with us and some days I believe that she will outlive me. My children are happy and settled. I have a job that I love and I have renewed dreams and inspirations. Turns out that middle-age doesn’t suck as much as I originally thought.

However, this is what I think I’ve learned through this experience.

Being in the middle of life means literally being caught in between two very powerful influences.

Many of us are dealing with aging parents or parental figures. We also have children, whether they are our own or those of someone else that we feel close to. When we see those younger than us setting out to conquer the world, and making the same stupid mistakes we made, feeling the same sense of invincibility that youthful arrogance affords them, we begin to take stock of our lives. Even those who are ushered into their late 30’s to early 50’s with much less drama than I just described still take a moment to reflect on what they  could have done better or not done at all. Each of us have burdens of regret that we are forced to carry to the top of the proverbial hill right before we establish that we are “over” it.

Being “over the hill” also means that we now go to more funerals than weddings – we have to plan to lose those people that we consider grown-ups – and we have to prepare to become matriarchs and patriarchs of our family units. When you mix regret and death, you have a cocktail for an epic identity crisis that can result in anything from clinical depression to simply having a bummer birthday.

The good news is that mid-life hands us as many fabulous lessons as puberty does.

At this time, we get to experience forgiveness on a whole new level. Especially how to forgive ourselves.

We also learn to let go, letting go of the past, letting go of old dreams to make room for new ones, or actually letting go of people. Whether that means letting go of children who are now adults and will start their own adventures or letting go of those who brought us to this point and are now transitioning themselves.

We learn to see ourselves in many different roles. Many of us don’t find our groove professionally until we get to this age, as well as becoming grandparents, or being caregivers.

We start to realize that having 40 or so years under your belt can inspire all kinds of things like creative pursuits, an entrepreneurial spirit, or a renewed relationship to a higher power.

We deal with relationships differently, from the married couple now having to deal with empty nest syndrome learning to rekindle their romance, to single folks like me figuring out how to be happy with or without someone else. This is a time to take stock of our lives, but not with regret. Instead we should honor our past with tremendous reverence and gratitude. Then quietly unpack our baggage and leave it at the top of the hill.

That way, instead of trudging down the other side weighted with heavy hearts, we can spread our arms out wide and fly, soaring into our own old age with grace and beauty.

Taking this one on my hols with me …

I wrote “Awake In Hell”, a book about a middle-aged woman who dies and finds herself damned for eternity.

It uses humor, foul language, and a unique vision of Hell to illustrate how I felt about reaching mid-life.

When my protagonist finds herself in a temp agency along with its enigmatic staff, she discovers the most amazing thing – redemption.

I hope you enjoy the second half of your life as much as I am enjoying mine.

I hope that my story gives you something to think about, or comforts you, or at least makes you think “there but for the grace of God” – and I offer it to you with a renewed heart full of conviction and thankfulness.

Helen Downing

Author, Awake In Hell

Find my book here: http://amzn.to/WYOwYv

Find my blog here: http://bit.ly/124uGCR

Like me on Facebook here: http://on.fb.me/Xuf1MO

Follow me on Twitter here: @imtellinhelen

What is goodness, for you? Focus on that.

What is goodness, for you? Well: focus on that.

Well, now and again, those internet homilies are gold: this one really struck me as both true, and helpful.

I know people generally read my blog for wacky news, hard news, poetry and politics – and not for philosophising – but I really liked this – it talked to me – so just this once, indulge me, eh?

Let goodness flow

The past is over, so let yourself be at peace with it.
Free your energy to be used in making the most of right now.

The future has not yet been determined, so don’t waste your
thoughts worrying about what might or might not happen. Fill
your heart and your thoughts with sincere gratitude, and tap
into the enormous abundance of this day.

Move quickly beyond regret, resentment and anger. Choose instead to
point the power of your feelings in positive, life-enriching directions.

The quality of your life and the welfare of your world
depend on the direction in which your awareness is focused.
So make it your choice to focus on the most positive and
meaningful possibilities.

What you hold in your heart has a significant influence on
what you experience in your life. Open yourself to love,
peace, beauty, truth and caring, and let them continually
fill you.

Let life’s goodness flow in, and then let it flow out from
you with your own special goodness added to it. Feel the
goodness, live the goodness, and make more of it
with each passing day.

I love that image of life’s goodness flowing in, to which we add a dash of our own goodness, and then let it flow out again. Like the ebb and flow of waves on the beach that is our life.

Sometimes, when things are very dark, or frightening, it can be almost impossible to perceive those waves of goodness breaking on our shore, or to find the spark of goodness inside us to pass on to others.

Let goodness wash over you ...

Let goodness wash over you …

Yet the goodness is always there – it exists just beyond the borders of what we are thinking about when we are down, waiting to be discovered, longing for us to notice its existence, and for us to add our own unique essence to it.

We overwhelm it with our worries, and we shut it out with our fears. But I have never met a person in my entire life who did not have goodness in them, somewhere. Even people who were deeply depressed or lost.

And universally, I have seen that when we open our hearts and minds to the possibility of goodness, it manifests itself, as sure as day follows night.

I do not say this in a religious way, although I know many people will interpret it religiously. Whether you personally call it God, the Universe, Life, a meeting of a universal mind, the connectivity inherent in our humanity, or just happy coincidence, when we make ourselves available to the goodness, no matter how difficult or overwhelming it appears our life is at that moment, then the goodness seems to somehow enter us and lift us.

I also love that phrase: “Move quickly beyond regret, resentment and anger.”

“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention” as Paul Anka wrote in the most recorded song in history. (There must be a reason for that, right? It must, if you will forgive the pun, “hit a chord.”)

If we do something truly terrible with our lives then some remorse is healthy, of course, if only to square the situation with others, or to set ourselves on a better course with our future actions.

But see what the writer of this homily says. “Move quickly beyond.”

Endless dwelling on the mistakes of the past pushes the goodness away, and makes it impossible to share our own.

Similarly, anger is a deeply destructive emotion which might be useful in very limited circumstances, (as part of a fight or flight response, for example), but when it dominates our thinking it is as destructive of ourselves as it is of anyone else.

Ask yourself: how often are we actually hating ourselves when we are arguing bitterly with someone, when all we really want is to reconnect with them, and have them connect with us?

And resentment? Resentment has to be the emotion most obviously associated either with failing to resolve an issue, or of hanging onto an issue when it is supposed to have been resolved, as some perverse form of self punishment. In either case, it is self-destructive to the nth degree: it has no effect on what or who we resent, it merely hurts ourselves.

None of us gets these things right all the time, or even, very often. But experts – whether they be psychological or spiritual – agree that all of us can “do better”. I firmly believed we are wired to do so.

So once again: “The past is over, so let yourself be at peace with it.  Free your energy to be used in making the most of right now.”

Make the most of right now, hmmm? Time for a swim in the sunshine, I think …

Garbage in, Garbage out, people. It really is as simple as that.

Garbage in, Garbage out, people. It really is as simple as that.

In response to my article on “neuroplasticity” a couple of days ago, describing how I “cured” myself of the effects of a stroke, (with the help of my family, which I acknowledge) a couple of people have privately asked me why I specifically recommended Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as one of the things I would suggest for people wanting to work on their brain.

The answer is simple. Many years ago now, I was suddenly and fiercely struck down with an illness called “Obsessional Compulsive Disorder” (OCD). I have never hidden this from anyone who knows me, so I have no fears about revealing it in a blog. It was part of my life, I understand what triggered it, (the death of our first child), I was treated, I am recovered. And have been for some time.

So praise be to the pharmaceuticals, psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, family and – for a while – “CBT”. And we move on.

But at the time – and on occasions since – I found personally CBT incredibly helpful, even though I didn’t do a lot of it. In a few sessions, a therapist managed to explain to me how the brain often thinks things through wrongly, and this “wrong thinking” (and often, over thinking) lay at the heart of much stress and anxiety for many people. Essentially, we tell ourselves a load of crap (usually about emotional issues) and because we’re telling ourselves this, we tend to believe it.

Fact is, though, our brains require active management. Left to their own devices, left without any better or more deliberate instructions, they will faithfully regurgitate fears, assumptions, emotions, reasonings and learnings from our past – often our childhood – all of which (or at least some of which) may be total nonsense.

CBT triangle

Just one – just one! – example of what CBT can explain and then help you tackle – in this case the fear “What did I do wrong?” Or perhaps just the fear of mis-spelling “Anxiety” in public.

We weren’t paying attention – we weren’t “mindful” – when we laid down these reactions, and now they overtake us willy-nilly when similar situations occur. Unless – unless – we consciously choose to alter the way we respond to those situations, and the way we allow ourselves to think about them.

This is how your brain works - and how it lets you down - unless YOU control It. Not the other way round.

This is how your brain works – and how it lets you down – unless YOU control It. Not the other way round.

So when people asked “what is it?”, I went hunting for some approachable, easy to read explanatory notes. And I found them, at mind.org, which is a mental health charity in the United Kingdom.

I’m sure they won’t mind me reproducing their explanation, especially if you’re reading this and you need to know what’s in them.

I will reproduce them in full – and they’re long – so if you don’t need to know just stop reading now and wait for tomorrow’s story.

But if you think you do need to know, then read on.

And know that I have made a small donation to the charity on your behalf, to say thank you for shamelessly nicking their wisdom without asking permission.

If this stuff helps you, you might like to bung them a bob or two, too.

THE MIND.ORG NOTES – Making sense of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

What is cognitive behaviour therapy?

CBT is a form of talking therapy that combines cognitive therapy and behaviour therapy. It focuses on how you think about the things going on in your life – your thoughts, images, beliefs and attitudes (your cognitive processes) – and how this impacts on the way you behave and deal with emotional problems. It then looks at how you can change any negative patterns of thinking or behaviour that may be causing you difficulties. In turn, this can change the way you feel.

CBT tends to be short, taking six weeks to six months. You will usually attend a session once a week, each session lasting either 50 minutes or an hour. Together with the therapist you will explore what your problems are and develop a plan for tackling them. You will learn a set of principles that you can apply whenever you need to. You may find them useful long after you have left therapy.

CBT may focus on what is going on in the present rather than the past. However, the therapy may also look at your past and how your past experiences impact on how you interpret the world now.

CBT and negative thoughts

CBT theory suggests that it isn’t events themselves that upset you, but the meanings you give to them. Your thoughts can block you seeing things that don’t fit in with what you believe to be true. You may continue to hold on to these thoughts and not learn anything new.

CBT 1

For example, if you feel low or depressed, you may think, “I can’t face going into work today. I can’t do it. Nothing will go right.” As a result of these thoughts – and of believing them – you may call in sick.

By doing this you are likely to continue to feel low and depressed. If you stay at home, worrying about not going in, you may end up thinking: “I’ve let everyone down. They will be angry with me. Why can’t I do what everyone else does?” Consequently, you may judge yourself as being a failure and give yourself more negative feedback such as: “I’m so weak and useless.”

You will probably end up feeling worse, and have even more difficulty going to work the next day. Thinking, behaving and feeling like this may start a downward spiral. It may be part of an automatic negative way of thinking.

By continuing to think and behave in this way, you won’t have the chance to find out that your thinking and prediction may be wrong. Instead, the way you think and act can lead you to be more convinced that what you are thinking is true. In CBT, you will learn to recognise how you think, behave and feel. You will then be encouraged to check out other ways of thinking and behaving that may be more useful.

How does negative thinking start?

CBT 2

Negative thinking patterns can start in childhood, and become automatic and relatively fixed. For example, if you didn’t get much open affection from your parents but were praised for doing well in school, you might think: “I must always do well. If I do well, people will like me; if don’t, people will reject me.” If you have thoughts like these, this can work well for you a lot of the time; for example, it can help you to work hard and do well at your job. But if something happens that’s beyond your control and you experience failure, then this way of thinking may also give you thoughts like: “If I fail, people will reject me.” You may then begin to have ‘automatic’ thoughts like, “I’ve completely failed. No one will like me. I can’t face them.”

CBT can help you understand that this is what’s going on and can help you to step outside of your automatic thoughts so you can test them out. For example, if you explain to your CBT therapist that you sometimes call in sick because you feel depressed, the therapist will encourage you to examine this experience to see what happens to you, or to others, in similar situations. You may agree to set up an experiment where you will agree to go to work one day when you feel depressed and would rather stay at home. If you go to work, you may discover that your predictions were wrong. In the light of this new experience, you may feel able to take the chance of testing out other automatic thoughts and predictions you make. You may also find it easier to trust your friends, colleagues or family.

Some of the work we did involved looking at the way I interacted with people, e.g. if somebody had seemed to reject me, I’d write a list of all the reasons against why the way I was thinking might be incorrect. This helped me see things from the other person’s perspective, and realise I might be wrong in my assumptions.

Of course, negative things can and do happen. But when you feel depressed or anxious, you may base your predictions and interpretations on a ‘faulty’ view of the situation. This can make any difficulty you face seem much worse. CBT helps you to understand that if things go wrong or you make a mistake, this does not mean that you are a failure or that others will see you as a failure.

What type of problems can CBT help with?

CBT can be an effective therapy for a number of problems:

  • anger management
  • anxiety and panic attacks
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • chronic pain
  • depression
  • drug or alcohol problems
  • eating problems
  • general health problems
  • habits, such as facial tics
  • mood swings
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • phobias
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • sexual and relationship problems
  • sleep problems.

CBT does not claim to be able to cure all of the problems listed. For example, it does not claim to be able to cure chronic pain or disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome. Rather, CBT might help someone with arthritis or chronic fatigue syndrome, to find new ways of coping while living with those disorders.

There is also a new and rapidly growing interest in using CBT (together with medication) with people who suffer from hallucinations and delusions, and those with long-term problems in relating to others.

Limitations

It’s less easy to solve problems that are severely disabling and long-standing through short-term therapy. But you can still learn principles that improve your quality of life and increase your chances of making further progress.

Experts know quite a lot about how they can help people who have relatively clear-cut problems, eg if you know your problem is a fear of spiders. They know much less about how the average person may do – somebody, perhaps, who has a number of problems that are less clearly defined. Sometimes, therapy may have to go on longer to do justice to the number of problems and to the length of time they’ve been around.

CBT may be less suitable if you feel generally unhappy or unfulfilled but don’t have troubling symptoms or a particular aspect of your life you want to work on.

What happens in a CBT session?

CBT sessions have a structure. At the beginning of the therapy, you will meet with the therapist to describe specific problems and to set goals you want to work towards.

When you have agreed what problems you want to focus on and what your goals are, you start planning the content of sessions and discuss how to deal with your problems. Typically, at the beginning of a session, you and the therapist will jointly decide on the main topics you want to work on that week. You will also be given time to discuss the conclusions from the previous session. With CBT you are also given homework, and you will look at the progress made with the homework you were set last time. At the end of the session, you will plan another homework assignment to do outside the sessions.

The importance of structure

This structure helps to use the therapeutic time efficiently. It also makes sure that important information isn’t missed out (the results of the homework, for instance) and that both you and the therapist have a chance to think about new assignments that naturally follow on from the session.

To begin with, the therapist takes an active part in structuring the sessions. As you make progress and grasp the ideas you find helpful, you will take more and more responsibility for the content of the sessions. By the end, you should feel able to continue working on your own.

Learning coping skills

CBT teaches skills for dealing with different problems. For example:

  • If you feel anxious, you may learn that avoiding situations actually increases fears. Confronting fears in a gradual and manageable way can give you faith in your own ability to cope.
  • If you feel depressed, you may be encouraged to record your thoughts and explore how you can look at them more realistically. This helps to break the downward spiral of your mood.
  • If you have long-standing problems in relating to other people, you may learn to check out your assumptions about other people’s motivation for doing things, rather than always assuming the worst.

The client-therapist relationship

CBT favours an equal relationship. It is focused and practical. One-to-one CBT can bring you into a kind of relationship you may not have had before. The ‘collaborative’ style means that you are actively involved in the therapy. The therapist seeks your views and reactions, which then shape the way the therapy progresses. The therapist will not judge you. This may help you feel able to open up and talk about very personal matters. You will learn to make decisions in an adult way, as issues are opened up and explained. Some people will value this experience as the most important aspect of therapy.

Group sessions

CBT is usually a one-to-one therapy. But you may also be offered group sessions. You may find it helpful to share your difficulties with others who have similar problems, even though this may seem difficult at first. The group can also be a source of valuable support and advice, because it comes from people with personal experience of a problem.

How effective is CBT?

Clinical trials have shown that CBT can reduce the symptoms of many emotional disorders. For some people it can work just as well as drug therapies at treating depression and anxiety disorders. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends CBT via the NHS for common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety (see ‘Useful contacts’).

Comparisons with other types of short-term psychological therapy aren’t clear-cut. Other therapies, e.g. inter-personal therapy and social skills training, are also effective. The challenge is to make all talking therapies as effective as possible, and also, perhaps, to establish who responds best to which type of therapy.

I attribute the success of CBT to the skills of my therapist; my starting therapy at a time when I was motivated to change; a structured programme tailored to my individual needs; and my determination.

Is CBT for me?

CBT is more likely to be helpful to you if can relate to its ideas around thought and behaviour patterns, its problem-solving approach and the need for homework. People tend to prefer CBT if they want a more practical treatment – where gaining insight isn’t the main aim.

The importance of doing homework

The sessions provide invaluable support. But most of the life-changing work takes place between sessions. You are most likely to benefit from CBT if you are willing to do assignments at home. For example, if you experience depression you may feel that you are not able to take on social or work activities until you feel better. CBT may introduce you to an alternative viewpoint – that trying some activity of this kind, however small-scale to begin with, will help you feel better. If you are open to testing this out, you could agree to do a homework assignment, say to go to the cinema with a friend.

You may make faster progress, as a result, than someone who feels unable to take this risk.

Making a decision

If you are referred for a treatment through the NHS, (or the public health system in your country), you will usually be assessed before you are allocated a treatment or a therapist. The assessor will check out what your problems are, and can then decide with you if CBT is likely to be helpful for you.

If you choose to see a therapist privately, many will offer a free consultation, so you get a chance to discuss directly with the therapist what you want help with. You can then decide if you feel this therapy might be right for you.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions during the assessment. It will be helpful for both you and the therapist if you raise any concerns before therapy starts.

Can I learn CBT techniques by myself?

Since CBT has a highly educational component, the therapist will often suggest that you read through relevant material between sessions – there is a large selection of self-help books available. Some people find this helpful. How useful it is will depend on how severe your problem is and how long it’s been going on. There are some interactive CD-ROMs and online programmes, e.g. Beating the Blues and MoodGYM which can help with depression; and FireFighter for panic, anxiety and phobias.

MoodGYM is available from the web and is free to use. If you want to use Beating the Blues or FireFighter, you will need a referral from your GP or other service-providers. Some people may prefer them to seeing a therapist, particularly as a first step. They can help with creating useful activities and monitor your progress with graphs, which may be encouraging.

I hope you found these notes useful – Yolly

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