Category Archives: Psychology Reflections

Anxiety – a monster under the bed?

We can’t escape it. The worrying thoughts. Sometimes a pounding heart or sweaty palms. At times the sense of unease. Anxiety in its various forms can be present in all of us at different times. It is called many names. Fear, panic, phobia, stress, freaking out, concern, etc. At times it arrives because of a specific event (like an examination or doctor’s appointment). For others it may be the sight of an unwanted visitor. Good morning Incy Wincy Spider!

None of us escape the experience of anxiety. It is in essence hotwired into us. Hotwired neurologically and like electricity runs through our central nervous system. But why do we have anxiety? This uncomfortable and even disabling experience. Why is it often part of our daily lives? Not everyone will agree on “daily “, but I find that the majority of clients presents with a higher or lower degree of anxiety. This is very often the case when anxiety was not their initial complaint or concern. I am thus not surprised when a referral to me is due to depression or other challenges , but it becomes clear that anxiety is part of the package.

When it comes to emotional obstacles, a major challenge can be fighting against what we can not see or what we believe “is part of whom I am”. In essence the fight can then turn against one self. Me versus I. Instead of me against anxiety. To see anxiety as the enemy is not beneficial and can be visualised (imaginative or symbolised by a real object) as the problem the requires management. And the starting point? At the beginning. Understanding how anxiety operates and why we experience it.

Step 1. Feelings of anxiety start with a trigger or catalyst. This may be a smell, seeing an external object or by internal feelings . The amygdala jumps into action by preparing us physically and mentally into a fight or flight mode. This response is triggered by the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream via the kidneys. As a result our blood pressure and blood sugar rises, muscles are fueled with energy and we focus on what may be the potential danger. This may stifle some into a passive state; others are thrown into chaotic action, while others become extremely focussed and structured.

The Shadow ManStep 2. To identify the threat or potential danger. The importance of this that we may be (1) confronted by a real danger or problem, (2) that we responded incorrectly to an external or internal stimulus or (3) that when nothing happens, uncertainty may be appear to be a threat. This step is within the context of anxiety being a survival mechanism. If not for anxiety, we would not have survived as a human beings over centuries. However, when exposed to anxiety on a regular basis or growing up in an environment where anxiety flourished, it might have become behavioural patterns and even part daily routines.

Step 3. Ask yourself, “What purpose does anxiety serve in my life?” Does anxiety enhance my experiences of love, beauty, creativeness and (importantly) logical thoughts. Does it impede in the pleasure I may gain from a loving relationship, my sleep or even my ability to complete my studies or a piece of art? What does anxiety steal from me?

Step 4. Finding ammunition to manage anxiety. Before you fire away, know we cannot rid ourselves of anxiety . We all have times when anxiety visits and times when it serves an important function. However, consider the following:

  • How many of your worries become true? If you write down your weekly worries. Say you start at the floor, write them down one for one till you reach the ceiling. How many did repeat? Then tick each one that became true. How many ticks? Interesting.
  • Stay in the here and now, the present. Anxiety often let us dwell on decisions we made (“Did I do the right thing?”, “What did they think …?”) or focus on the uncertainties of the future (so many “What if?” questions).
  • Know that your experience of anxiety does not imply something is wrong with you. Anxiety visit people from all ages, religions, cultural backgrounds. You are one of us if you experience anxiety. You are not alone. You are not the problem. Anxiety is.
  • Do you ever worry that someone will knock on your door and say, “Congratulations, you have won a wonderful holiday!” No, anxiety does not focus on possible positive outcomes. It tells us the potential bad stuff, what may go wrong and the worst possible scenarios.
  • Know that physical sensations are anxiety gearing you up for action. Your dry mouth, hairs on the back of your neck rising up, having cold feet and pins and needled in your fingers, butterflies on your stomach, shallow breathing and increased heart rate are all part of the fight or flight package. You can use it if you are under threat. But if all is fine, know that it is just anxiety being unpleasant. Know YOU WILL NOT DIE FROM THIS.
  • Breath in. Breath out. Slowly and deeply. Give your body and your brain oxygen. Breath in. Breath out.

Step 5. If you find anxiety overwhelming, find someone to talk to. This may be a friend, a family member, someone you trust (e.g. religious affiliation) or professional. So often anxiety grows on us as we keep it private. But bottling it up just let the temperature rise. Let it out, let it go. The monster under your bed is not real. It is anxiety trying to scare you.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Psychology Reflections, This thing called life

The Tough Going

I love those moments when creative thoughts awake in the cortex and streams like golden liquid down neuro-pathways onto the white screen. Words that splatter out ideas, experiences and events into a synchronised line of meaningful thought. Or when the artist’s imagination draws a vision that flows in charcoal and paint onto a canvass to bring beauty into life.

But occasionally dark skies cloud the psyche and dwarf the imagination into submission. Troubled times arrive in the form of external events and dries the magic and steals the funny bones. And no, not all of these shadow times relate to brain tumours or cancer treatment. At times it is just life. Waves of “it happens” that saps the juice and suck the marrow from my fruit. Not so much Carpé Diem, more crap and damn.

It has been a rough 4 weeks. In between my car breaking down (twice), a broken tooth and attempts to replace it with a temporary implant (3 times and still not right), a drawn out winter the soaks Spring into a foggy memory and aiming to take that big grown-up jump again into the dark (called house hunting), the good times have been sidelined. Over the same period work slowed downed, adding pressure on responsibilities such as paying the tax master. It felt like sinking, drowning in the smoky skies.

Wet Winter

While holding up this grim picture, I am not bursting into sing and dance. I am actually not a great believer in positive thinking, or when the dark cloud comes rolling over the hills that you should start searching for the silver lining. When the dark clouds appear, find shelter. The storm while pass, but while it sweeping down and pouring gallons of water on the earth, curl up under a warm blanket. Stay dry, stay warm. It’s OK to cuddle up.

4 Comments

Filed under Psychology Reflections, This thing called life

Wishes For My Daughter

This so stunning and words I can identify with, that I need to share:

Wishes For My Daughter.

Leave a comment

Filed under My Brain Tumour and I, Psychology Reflections

A year on

Certain anniversaries are hollow. One year after your girlfriend dumped you. A year after your dog died. 12 months following your diagnosis of something that caused an epileptic seizure. There is a knowing that it is a significant date, but a need to avoid it. As with all significant dates, there is no escaping it. The calendar does not lie.

I decided well in advance of the 17th of May 2013 that I am taking the day off and will limit my driving. Just to be safe! On the day, a year before, leaving work on Thursday evening at about 6 pm was not out of the ordinary. Feeling tired was also expected as I was working hard and my working hours was often stretched to after 17:00. Waking up under bright lights on a hospital trolley was however unusual in the extreme. A first I can say in all confidence. A first since birth to be precise.

But there I was, dressed up in an angel white hospital gown. There was Anneén, in tears, describing an accident I was involved in on my way back from work. I was? I was. A tow-truck driver found me in my car next to the national highway after he spotted my car under a bridge against a guardrail. My car was not seriously damaged, but I don’t want to think that I might have ended up in the ongoing traffic if the barrier did not bring me to a slow stop. But thinking about all the scenarios remains vague and hazy as I have no memory of these events. Anneén could have told me that I was hit by a meteorite and I would be without any evidence to disprove it. Apparently I had two further seizures before the ambulance arrived. Apparently I was aggressive when they tried to rouse. Apparently so. All the things I just don’t know. It left me puzzled. And so were the doctors initially. Brain Scans done. Bloods taken. The initial diagnosis was Neurocysticercosis. This is described as, “Patients from an endemic areas presenting with seizures, a normal neurological examination and spontaneous resolution after therapy with albendazole”.

But no, this was not accurate. Follow-up MRI Scans showed that rather than going away, the “part” in my left frontal lobe was gaining in size. “It’s a brain tumour” the kind neurosurgeon informed. And so the journey of uncertainty, fear, anxiety and worry started. I was operated on. Twice. A craniotomy was performed to remove the brain tumour on the 6th of August. Two weeks later I had a bit of leakage upstairs and another operation was performed to close the leak in the meninges. So, twice my skull was flapped open and twice the repairs were done. Treatment followed in the form of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and more chemotherapy. Not the journey I was expecting for 2012 and the start of 2013. But so I was.

Long Table RestaurantOne year on. It was not a bad day, it was just day. Anneén and I took the girls in the late afternoon for drinks at the Long Table restaurant that overlooks several wineries and scenic views towards Stellenbosch. It was beautiful, autumn colours painted the landscapes, the red wine was wonderful and we were thankful. Grateful that it is year on. Grateful that we completed the treatment journey, was blessed with a clear MRI Scan in March 2013 and that life reflected how it was prior to May 2012. We have both been working hard, keeping fit and keeping our focus on the immediate future.

But that night it suddenly grabbed me. It all suddenly felt too much. The memories were all too real and dragged me to the ground. It was just awful. Awful, awful, awful. No silver lining, no moment of meaning, no inspiration, no affirmation of life. Drained empty. Fragmented and hollow. I took a hiding and needed shelter. I believe it was grief. I was struck down by
grief of what I lost. Of course there are so much that I did not lose – my family, my life, ability to work and to be productive. And we were touched by the kindness of people who cared and prayed for us. But it robbed me of my illusions of invincibility and good health, my sense of self and being in control of my well-being and abilities, my delusions of immortality. Maybe it killed off those parts of me that I had to let go off, but never had to time or awareness to strangle.

It would not have been the route that I would have chosen, but maybe grief taught me that it is not always about my choices. My choice might only be in the ways that I come to terms with where my life took me. My choice in how I love my wife, my girls, my family and friends. How I engage with my colleagues, the people I consult with, the random strangers that I pass and the world around me. How I find my own path amidst the uncertainty that comes with a brain tumour and the emotional ripples it leaves. How I find my strength in faith, friendship, hardship and discipline. How I stand up when a wave mauls me into the sand. And that I will do.

17 Comments

Filed under My Brain Tumour and I, Psychology Reflections, This thing called life

Stories in late summer

I see it as an honour. I know it is my profession, but I never take for granted that people share personal and intimate stories of their lives with me. It is often under the label or description of “depression” or “anxiety” or “loss”. But as with all labels, they reflect a limited part of the surface. And people’s lives, personalities and relationships have much more depth and texture.  The stories that are weaved between these areas are filled with even more detail, emotion, memories and unconscious material. To tell their stories bring them in touch with Imagewhat happens in their lives, but also with who they are. Often the telling of their stories is a liberating experience, to be able to unburden their load or to break a weighty secret that keeps pulling them down. As Leonard Cohen once sang, “I need to tell my story said one of them so bold. I need to tell my story before I turn into gold

Often the (conscious or unconscious) request that arrives with these stories is for pain or suffering to end. And who would not want that? Especially in our western culture where fantasies of health, wealth, wellness and youth are sold on magazine covers, labels of medicine bottles, pop culture and social media? Who wants to be forever young? Well, the advertisers and those behind the fat wallets are pushing hard to make the sell to us. And within that fantasy the enemies are pain, suffering and ageing. Even on cover of my monthly Runner’s World edition, those smiling with their white teeth and their bodies embraced by the latest running gear are all seemingly in their 20’s, white and healthy. But when I line up for a race or fun run, these front cover “athletes” appear to be in the minority. And still, on public display and in the hearts of people I see in therapy, there is a wish that all problems and those threats to a positive view of life and being human can be solved. Even in my own heart that fantasy does arise.

In part I agree. Pain in its physical form should be investigated and treated.

However, suffering is an intense discomfort that we all face on our life journeys and one without a quick fix or delete button. The death of a love one, the diagnosis of a brain tumour or a friend’s cancer, the unhappiness that crept into a marital relationship over the past 10 years or the awareness that you are not happier since you got that big promotion opens the door to internal turmoil and a collapse of the card-house of positive fantasies. This often happens after you established a family, a career and settled circle of friends. But that platform of ambition and dreams can become a distraction of the realities of life. We all grow older, we all suffer losses and we all drink at the well where the water became stagnant and bitter. It does not spare us. There is no cure for life. As Scott Fitzgerald once said, “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning …” Tragedy is inevitability.

What then do we do with suffering when our distractions, cognitive strategies, helpful friends and intake of medication or alcohol do not bring relieve? How do we approach suffering that cannot be switched off? Maybe that is the point where you stop running, stop bargaining and stop self-medicating. The point where suffering is not the enemy, Wandererbut the door we need to pass through in order to learn about the life we are living and this person we are. Then suffering becomes more that just discomfort and an unwanted emotional experience (which it will remain). Then it might become about meaning, about purpose, about becoming the full complicated, eccentric, individual we are meant to be. This is something that several great leaders have embraced and through their suffering found ways of being that made them larger than life.

It is a relationship with suffering that can bring us to meaning. The knowledge that while suffering is real, so is my life and that whom we are can be expanded through this experience. When we find meaning, pleasure and connections in our hospital beds, while on medication and during the process of picking up the broken pieces. When it is possible to cry about the threat to our health and youth, while holding  onto new aspects of relationships with a partner and friends that open up. When the bereavement process reminds us of all the aspects that we loved about our grandparents, a friend or a brother. How precious are these moments in contrast to the fleeting moments of pop culture, the hard lines of fundamentalism or the fantasy that we can take away life’s pain and suffering.

February was a special month to me. I ran the Gino’s 10 km Night Race through the streets of Stellenbosch and survived! I wrote a piece called “Finding Sugarman” about the music and influence of Rodriquez in South Africa following the movie “Searching for Sugarman”, which appeared on the official Rodriquez website (http://sugarman.org/). My moment of international fame! But tomorrow a MRI Brain Scan is scheduled followed by appointments with my neurosurgeon and oncologist on Wednesday. I am grateful that I can have both, even though I wish the brain tumour never came into my life. But both aspects are part of where I am at present and through embracing both do I find parts of the essence of the journey that we call life.

33 Comments

Filed under Psychology Reflections, This thing called life

Finding Sugar Man

Unexpected questions can open up new thoughts. A new perspective can open new answers and new findings can satisfy an old thirst.

Sugar ManA question from a stranger via Facebook this morning was less existential, more specific and artistic. “How would I explain why Rodriguez’s music made such an impression in South Africa and not the rest of the world?” A nice challenging question and it reminded me of the impression that Searching for Sugar Man left on me. The documentary connected dots from earlier in my life that appeared like the unrelated songs on a mixed tape before. Until you find out who made the tape and for whom. Then you can recognise a certain theme or a hidden message.

I confess that my early life was nothing special. I cannot claim that I took a position in either the left or right growing up in a political and racially divided South Africa. I grew up without television as it only arrived in the Republic in 1976. When my parents did buy our first black and white Sony, the content was heavily regulated by the governing National Party and SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). In addition, due to the apartheid policies at the time and within the framework of larger boycotts against South Africa (e.g. sport, for musicians to tour South Africa), the United Kingdom and Australia introduced a boycott of their programme sales to South Africa. Therefore, most kids and teenagers my age grew up in the late 1970’s and 1980’s on a diet of local TV shows and later programmes from America such as Knight Rider, Magnum PI, Miami Vice, etc.

After 5 years of limited hours broadcasting on one channel a second channel was introduced in 1981 that broadcasted in the main African languages. However, the SABC operated within a country where all aspects of life and every South African was dominated by narratives about race and subjected to a controlling bureaucracy that was pushing for control over all aspects of life. In addition, the close relation between state and church (Dutch Reformed Church) created a dictation from both politicians and pulpits on morally acceptable behaviour, choice of music, etc. and what was approved on racial grounds. For a white middle-class small town boy, what happened outside my small protected environment was a world far away and often filled by voices and news paper pictures of what seemed like very angry black people. Given that the SABC was by large state-controlled, it provided very little time to any voice that did not fit the ruling party’s agenda or to opposition politicians. Even when a subscription based TV service arrived in 1986, the state regulated that they were not allowed to broadcast news programs.

This was the context in which I grew up. Restricted, regulated and separated. Even though my recall of growing up and life up to the early nineties are filled with happiness and plenty of laughs, these wonder years were naïve times. Only with time a political consciousness grew and a realisation that my protected life was in contrast with those living with fear, poverty and limited opportunities.

A few alternative voices crept through the cracks during those times and oftenthey arrived in guises or unexpected places. Even though local religious leaders and the state expose pop music and rock and roll as from the devil as well as a threat to all that is morally good and holy, some of these voices arrived with soundtracks. A revisit to music available and broadcasted in South Africa during the 1980’s does not inspire any great political speeches. However, a few dare to challenge. The best example was the local band Bright Blue that released the beautiful “Weeping” in 1987. Even though it contained harmony parts of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and referred to the “State of the Emergency” at the time, those in power seemed blissfully unaware of this. In 1999 Weeping was voted best All Time Favourite South African song and in 2000 as (South African) Song of the Century.

South Africa was also experiencing more exposure to musicians and bands from abroad, even though boycotts did not allow them to tour and perform. Queen, Erasure, Genesis, U2, Talking Heads, Blondie, A-Ha, Paul Simon and others competed with those banning anything that appeared too sexual, liberal or had references to banned chemicals. I don’t know how much influence music had on the crumbling political situation, but it provided a voice to those disgruntled with apartheid or rebellious in the face of the dominant moral imperatives.

A few musicians however provided more poetic and intelligent lyrics that verbalised alternative narratives that resonated with the youth, due to their rebelliousness, due to the mystery of the artists and as they arrived in a void that formed where critique of the system was deemed evil. The two names that immediately come to mind are (Sixto) Rodriguez and Leonard Cohen. Their music explored themes of relationships, sexuality, power and oppression that did not fit the common commercial or repressed political lines. Where South African protest songs and artists where still few, their music provided a new discourse that challenged the establishment and raised questions about justice and equality, but also had a smack of hedonism and escapism. Their brave lyrics found a waiting consciousness that hungered for alternatives, for music that would match the awakening political mind of a young white South Africa or at least found part of the vinyl or tape collections of those that loved songs like “I Wonder”, “Sugar Man” or Cohen’s “Suzanne” and “Chelsea Hotel” as part of a rite of passage into young adulthood.

When asked about his lack of success after his two albums released, Rodriquez suggested, “I was ready for the world but I don’t think the world was ready for me“. He was wrong, at the foot of Africa there was a readiness that responded. Only recently he found out about it.

PS: For those not knowing “Weeping”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeecXiqNzWA

7 Comments

Filed under Psychology Reflections, This thing called life

How Bad News Flows

Just a ringing telephone.
Just my mother’s voice on the other side.
Just another conversation about the week with a bit of this and bits of that.
Just good to speak to her, the same spread of topics. “How is everyone?
It was fine just like that.

But bad news infiltrates the normal flow of things. Unexpectedly. Unwanted. “Did I hear that Laurie has been diagnosed with lung cancer?” Out of the blue, into the cold.

Laurie was a classmate many years ago, a good friend and never a smoker. Despite little contact over the eight years while we lived abroad, he remains a dear friend. And I hate phrases like “good friend” being allowed in the same sentence as “bad news”. Even more when the bad news shadow push towards someone who lives in service of others and support their lives towards new meanings. Like my friend Laurie.But sometimes it merges into the same linguistic stream, creating a new reality that follows the telephone’s ring. In a few seconds the past is shattered with a new present.

It reminds of what Douglas Adams wrote in Mostly Harmless:

One of the problems has to do with the speed of light and the difficulties involved in trying to exceed it. You can’t. Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws”

Bad news with its own special laws bends the rules and does not read the policy document. Like an outlaw, a deceitful prophet, or the fraudulent official. Bad news carries its own load of heartache and pop songs. Maybe a positive take on it, is that it can override the previous bad news edition. It makes the mouse we caught in our bedroom on Monday night, the power failure Wednesday and the 15 cm drop in swimming pool water on Friday appear like an eventful week, but its only humorous samples to be served at a next social event. Nothing more. But a friend’s diagnosis touches deeper. It wakes the existential me that wants good will, for good to triumph over evil, even world peace. It stirs those emotional places that I visit after dark, the memories where tears and fears frequent, and the heartaches that left scars.

British Library Gate ShadowBut the bad news shadow man can serve other functions. It waves a flag with a red question mark. Where am I? What is my focus? Who is important in my life? What am I suppose to do where I am now? It wakes us from our slumber and pokes us in the side. It raises the shadows that we have forgotten to confront. It is not the niceties of life that gets us through these times. It asks of us, like Job, what remains when I am stripped of everything?

Bad news in essence presents the question of meaning.

Bad news is not about what we have or what possession we might have lost. It does not deal with the fantasy of acquisition or our standing in the world. It takes us inwards, towards facing the mirror with our history and present portrayed in full detail and full colour. It takes us towards our relationship with all the parts of ourselves that developed throughout our journey through different times and places. It takes us towards what we love and loath about whom we are.

And it takes us outwards towards those whom we love. Those for whom we hope that they will take their cancer, their loss, their heartache, their heart attack, their unfaithful partner and that it will confront them with the totality of whom they are. Wake up the shadows that they have to confront, bring them closer to the meanings they have to find for their life. Be that psychological, spiritual, artistic, humanitarian, existential or within whatever framework you define your journeys. It requires the relinquishment of what is unnecessary, what holds us back and what allow the shadows to anchor us in a false reality. It might be status, it might be the drive for success, or it might be materialistic. Or it might be to give up the hope that the world is manageable and predictable. We run into bad news and it breaks our hearts. It takes the solid earth from under our feet and grabs the soft pillow from under our sleeping heads.

Being lucky might not mean the bad news will go away or fit into our fantasy that everything will be all right. Being lucky might mean that we meet ourselves outside the constraints placed upon us by our parents, our teachers, our culture or our fantasies about how life should be. Being lucky means becoming authentic, facing our shadows and watering our inner beauty. It might take us to showing love to ourselves and those we love. Then, to quote James Hollis*, we learn “that life is much riskier, more powerful, more mysterious than we had ever thought possible” and that the “world is more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we were young”.

*From “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

14 Comments

Filed under Psychology Reflections, This thing called life