By: Len Worley, PhD
Over the last several decades we have increasingly turned our capacity to sense danger into a medical problem. I am talking here about five difficult emotions—anger, anxiety, depression, shame, and vulnerability (which can include sadness). Two of these—anxiety and depression—now motivate nearly one out of six Americans to take psychiatric drugs to reduce the intensity of their feelings. Increasingly, we are treating disturbing emotions primarily as problems to be rid of, even diseases resulting from brain dysfunction in which our neuro-chemistry has gone awry.
There is growing concern among scientists and medical professionals—not to mention clients who suffer—that we have misnamed and thus are mistreating a problem that Nature itself does not want to easily be done away with. Take depression. A more recent review of the science shows that anti-depressants end up for the great majority being barely greater in effect than placebos when measured one year out. That is, while about 30% of people taking anti-depressants have an initial positive response, when these same people are assessed one year later, it appears that for the great majority of them anti-depressants have little effect if at all. See the recent article by psychiatrist Johann Hari We Need New Ways of Treating Depression.
My background. I was trained as a psychologist and worked as a psychotherapist for some twenty years before putting my hands on people to relieve them of pain—I now work as a Rolfer, a bodyworker that works deeper in the body than traditional massage. In my days as a psychologist the idea of neuro-transmitter imbalance was being seen as the primary cause of depression and anxiety. Traditional talk therapy was on the way out and medications were touted as the more effective and quicker form of treatment. But the hoped- for panacea has not turned out to be so—the majority of people taking anti-depressants do not find relief of their suffering.
I’ve noted something similar in the field of massage, chiropractic, and bodywork (including Rolfing). While a client may feel initial relief, the pain of tension may very well return in hours or perhaps days, this in spite of profoundly ridding the body of tension during a treatment session.
Puzzling over this, I have run into bold and disturbing questions: Could it be that the body and mind do not want to let go of disturbing emotions so easily? Could it be that depression, anxiety, anger, even shame and sadness overtake us for a reason, one that Nature itself intended in order to force us to attend to difficult situations that we might otherwise prefer to ignore?
In other words, might depression be Nature’s way of depriving us of energy so that we can’t continue living our lives in the same, unfulfilling way? Might anxiety indeed be a warning to alert us to situations that are in need of creative solutions so that we avoid harm or mishap and not miss out on opportunity? Might anger be Nature’s disturbing fire that motivates us to face unfairness and push through our tendency to avoid conflict; that is, might anger be a push from Nature to motivate us to advocate for ourselves in circumstances in which we ordinarily would tend to ignore our legitimate self-interests?
Shame is often considered to be at the heart of low self-esteem and is seen primarily as a problem to be overcome with positive affirmations. But might it be in some circumstances Nature’s way of bringing us into humility when we have hurt or offended another or have been untrue to ourselves?
If the answer be “yes” to these questions, then our approach to difficult emotions will change: we will begin to ask how we can cooperate with Nature—that is, how we can make the changes that depression, anxiety, anger or shame are calling for.
I recall going to a masterful Chinese medicine doctor years ago, hoping for a remedy from his vast medicinal pharmacy that would cure a nasty, intractable depression. After several rounds of ill-fated formulas, he said, “Len, maybe your depression is there for a reason. What are the depressing circumstances of your life that need attending to?” His question brought me face to face with a deeply imbalanced romantic relationship that demanded a solution. The depression was not going to subside until I had changed the depressing situation in which I was caught.
Understandably, we are intimidated and leery of sinking too far into our darker emotions. We fear that they may pull us under or in the case of anger possess us and cause us to act in damaging ways. And certainly, we do not have to look far to find myriad examples of people or ourselves who have acted impulsively or cruelly with anger and spite. Depression can lead to immobility, giving up, if not suicide. Shame can overwhelm with such unworthiness that we prefer to hide in isolation. Each of these emotions must be navigated skillfully if we are work with Nature and not succumb naively to its raw powers.
My Daily Practice. I have meditated for years and have often used this practice to calm troubled nerves to find relief from disturbance. But in recent years my approach has changed. As I have trusted difficult emotions as part of my evolutionary intelligence to warn me of situations in need of attention, I have incorporated respectful listening into my meditations. I now want to know what troubles me, so I listen for any signs of tension in my body and then ask, what emotion is related to this bodily sensation? Perhaps it’s tension in my stomach; turning in, I note anxiety, and upon inquiring further, I ask, what danger might my anxiety be alerting me to? From here I have noted various situations that call for a pro-active, creative response—perhaps I need to re-negotiate a deadline for a task that I’m behind on; perhaps I need to ask for help in finishing parts of the project; perhaps I should prioritize a task that I’ve been avoidant of.
I’ve approached anger and irritation in a similar manner. Rather than attempting to rise above my anger, I now honor it by listening closely to find how I might have allowed an unfair situation. Often, I find that the anger subsides once I take action on my behalf, which might involve speaking to a friend about hurt over disrespectful words spoken or setting a boundary and no longer over-extending myself in a relationship.
Depression has been more challenging, for it calls for one to drop into the deep and feel the helplessness that we so fear of this dark force. But in the depth of exhaustion and discouragement I ask, what am I weary of doing? What no longer satisfies me? Such deep, probing questions require great self-honesty and courage, but the rewards can be immense.
The Negative as a Form of Guidance. For years I sought direction for career or relationship by looking for that which inspired me; what I now would refer to as positive guidance. But with inclusion of difficult emotions as Nature’s intelligent guidance system—much like our GPS—I now consider that I can find as much direction for my life by noticing what I don’t like. What I yearn for and take delight in guides my decisions, and what I dislike and find disturbing equally guides me away from situations and decisions that are not in my best interest.
These words would not be complete without mention of a grand, heart-moving scene from the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. Young Hushpuppy, a motherless six-year old girl living in abject poverty in the backwaters of the southern bayou has dreamed of ancient aurochs—beasts much larger than her—coming to invade her land, a sure symbol of the approaching tragedies and changes she is about to face in the loss of her father and community. In a pivotal moment Hushpuppy turns and refuses to run any longer. She stares the imposing, intimidating monsters in the face with snouts only a foot from her own noise, and she looks into their eyes. The terrible aurochs finally stop and bow to their knees in humble, reverent response to the courage of the human spirit that no longer flees in fear.