The Go-To’s of Life

We all have them. I call them “go-to” places. These are the places we go to when…well, when we want to for some reason. But let’s start with the idea that this “go-to” place is a good place, a safe place, a good thing for people, a place where people find solace, and maybe even a spiritual place. But the go-to’s of our lives may not be places. So, let’s consider what might be a go-to for you, for me, and for other people.

Go-To’s based on Temperament

  1. Many people truly value things, often more than people. We have been discussing temperaments in some recent blogs, and people who have what we call the “caretaker” temperament actually care deeply for things, property. Things can be very small like a favorite piece of jewelry or clothing, or it can be large like a room, a garage, a house, or a car. It can even be money.
  2. There are many forms of people being go-to’s. Some people have very special people who are go-to for them. Some people, we call them “lovers” by temperament, could go-to almost anyone as long as the person is living
  3. People with what we call the “analyst” temperament” tend to go-to with ideas. They love to consider possibilities, solve problems, prevent problems, and figure things out. There are variations of ideas being go-to’s including some idea or problem that has interested or intrigued someone for years, while others’ go-to places may be more random, like just thinking about some possibility or conundrum.
  4. People who have experience as a go-to we call “players” in temperament. They want to be involved physically in something and often look for excitement. Usually, this experiential go-to is new and different, like going to a new city or meeting a new person; but it can also be something that is activity that is quite familiar, like going to a familiar park or watching a familiar movie.

Go-to’s that are Helpful

  1. Food. We all have our special foods. Sometimes these may be “comfort foods” that are usually high in carbohydrates, but some people have a go-to with meat, vegetables, or fruit.
  2. Drink. We normally think of alcohol in this category, but drink also includes soda, fruit juice, coffee, or just plain water. If you have a go-to with alcohol or something else, consider the time when water was actually your drink of choice, maybe after a long run or on a hot day.
  3. Reading. Some people go-to fiction, others nonfiction, and yet others historical fiction. Some people poor over their favorite researcher, theoretician, or author, while others have a favorite topic that always can be explored
  4. Playing. Here we have many forms including the simple ones that take minutes, like Su-do-ku and Word Play, or the more complicated ones that could take hours, like Monopoly, or video games. Still others are intensely physical, like cross country skiing, basketball, or golf.
  5. Working. You don’t have to be a so-called “workaholic” to have work as a go-to. Many people who are not “addicted” to working, if we even call it that, truly go-to work when they don’t know where else to go.
  6. Entertainment. This includes movies, concerts, sporting events, and certainly TV. This is a go-to for most Americans at least to some degree. This can be movies, soap operas, weekly drama or comedy. But it can all be just flipping channels to find something that is interesting and enticing for the moment.
  7. Physical contact. Lovers are much into this as a go-to, but it is much more common than just with lovers. And it is not just about sex, although sexual contact is certainly a go-to for many people. This may be physical contact with a lover, a friend, a child, an unknown person at the market, or an animal.
  8. Sleeping can really be a wonderful go-to because it can restore body and soul simultaneously.
  9. Walking, and Hiking. I am intrigued with the people who run daily. While not exactly a go-to for me, walking and hiking is certainly something that is a go-to for Deb, and for many people.
  10. Do you know someone who is always humming or singing, often completely unaware that he or she is juggling a tune? An adjunct to singing might be reading or writing poetry, or maybe just playing on your guitar.
  11. Extraverts are inclined to talk when they have nothing of substance to say just because it is good for them to talk. Likewise, introverts often prefer their own company and find great solace in being quiet. Both good. Both different.

What have I missed? Probably plenty. Possibly a go-to that really works for you. You might even have a go-to that you don’t want anyone to know about. Nothing wrong with that. I think these go-to’s are usually related to our personalities in some way, like the temperament-based ones we started with. But they can be cultural or subcultural in their origin. Latino cultures have a “man(y)ana” in their culture, which technically means “tomorrow” but really means “eventually.” Church can be a go-to for many people that can be just as important to them as drinking or hiking is for someone else. No one can tell you that your go-to is wrong. It might just be different. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to work out every day…for an hour or more for goodness sake. I struggle to work out twice a week. But it is good for them.

While there is never anything intrinsically wrong with a go-to, any go-to can become harmful. Harmful is when something that is intrinsically good turns out to be experientially bad, largely because it has become an avoidance of feelings, avoidance of activity, avoidance of people, or any other kind of avoidance of the necessities of having a good life. We might call such avoidances “addictions,” but I try to avoid that word in favor of a go-to being something to a fault. When a go-to becomes an activity or a substance to a fault, it has encroached on the rest of life and in so doing, has limited one’s experience in life. The distinction between something that is good for you as a go-to and something that is harmful to you as a go-to has nothing to do with the amount of the activity or thing. It has to do with the reason you are engaging in the go-to. A go-to that helps you find solace, safety, and pleasure is rewarding and enhancing. A go-to that has become an avoidance brings none of these things. Recall the blog I did on liking and wanting. A go-to that is something you like profits you, and it tends to end peacefully. A go-to that has become an avoidance reduces you and it tends not to end at all. It may not even give pleasure. It’s just a habit.

I encourage you to consider your own go-to, value it, and use it. Then consider whether you are profiting for it, or perhaps using it as some kind of avoidance of the rest of life.  Remember: there is never anything intrinsically wrong with you go-to. No one has the right to say that you are addicted, or avoiding, or that your go-to is stupid. You are the only one who can make a judgment between “good for you” and “not good for you.”

Seeing Unicorns

There was once a small village in a mountainous region of the world. There lived in this village a wise man. He had seemingly always been both old and wise as no one could remember him being anything else. The people in village went about their normal responsibilities taking care of their property, persons, and purposes in life without complaint. It was quite idyllic and the village was not easily located although it had an interesting reputation in various parts of the region and in the world. There were stories of people who tried to find the village without success, often coming back from arduous journeys without ever finding the village, while occasionally a simple wanderer seemed to find this village without difficulty. There didn’t seem to be a logical reason why some very experienced adventurous people could not find the village while others less sophisticated in the business of exploration seemed to happen upon the village.

One such wanderer came upon the village one late night and found the village residents warmly welcome him. They quickly found him a warm place to stay and a nutritious meal before he retired for the night. The wanderer was a relatively young man who had been wandering for some time and had had both warm receptions and hostile ones. He couldn’t seem to understand why he sometimes found some people so accepting and others so rejecting, but it had been on his mind for a long time. His night in the village passed without incident.

Our wandering young man rose the next morning to discover that his hosts had prepared a sumptuous and nutritious morning meal for him. There was simple chatter at the breakfast table among the host family and other guests with young and old seemingly quite interested in one another. The young man found it interesting that all in the family respected one another despite differences in age, gender, or station in life. It didn’t seem appropriate for him to ask about the demeanor of the family and the guests. He was quite taken, however, with the respect and demeanor that this group of people seemed to have for one another. There was discussion of philosophical and spiritual matters as well as matters of care of property and people. There was even debate and discussion without an argumentative spirit. There was expression of emotions, sometimes joyful, sometimes sad, but never expression of anger or fear.

About the time that our young man was about to leave this gracious host family the wise old man of the village happened to walk into the house. The old man walked in with a staff that he placed by the entry door, leaning it almost as if it belonged there. He was greeted warmly by all in attendance and was offered what appeared to be his standard choice in hot tea. He sat at table with the others and listened intently to all who spoke, only rarely speaking his thoughts and feelings. Then, to the surprise of the young man the older man asked him if he knew why he had come to the village. This question bemused the wandering young man because it hadn’t seemed to him that he had come to the village purposefully. It had seemed to him that he had quite accidentally stumbled across the village on his wanderings. The old man saw the young man’s uncertain countenance and suggested that they take a walk together. It seemed the right thing to do for the young man but he continued to wonder about this whole scene: the pleasantness of the village, the graciousness of the people, and now the mysterious nature of the old man. Yet, he felt both privileged and compelled to accept what appeared to be yet another act of graciousness that seemed to be the nature of the whole village.

The old man took the young man on a walk that fairly quickly became a bit of a brisk hike, quickly out of town and then up the closest mountain to the village. The trek up the mountain was, for reasons unknown to the young man, long but not arduous. He felt compelled to trail the old man who clearly knew the route up this mountain demonstrated by his taking carefully orchestrated steps as if he had taken this exact route many times before. When the two men reached the summit of the mountain, the young man admired the view. He could see the village quite a bit below as well as a vista of other mountains in the distance. There seemed to be so much to see that he was taken aback by the whole scene. He expected that the two men would soon descent to the village shortly, but was surprised by a question the old man asked him. It was a simple question but at the same time it was the most invigorating question he had ever heard.

The old man asked him, “What do you see on that farthest mountain?” The young man looked at that far mountain expecting simply to see a mountainscape, but then felt a strange feeling come over him, so much so that he was quite unsure as to how to respond to the question put before him. He answered the old man’s question with hesitation and with some concern because of what he thought he saw but dared to answer, “I think I see a unicorn.” The young man felt a bit awkward by saying what he had said so he quickly added, “…but know that unicorns don’t really exist, so I must be mistaken.” The young man felt a mixture of feelings at that point including a kind of exhilaration at seeming to see something so wonderful. He had learned in his personal study that unicorns are symbolic of purity. But in addition to the exhilaration he felt some embarrassment, or was it shame that he felt? He waited for the old man’s further comment. He didn’t wait long.

The old man quietly and carefully said this: “There are three things about seeing a unicorn. First, not many people ever see unicorns because it is very hard to see a unicorn. Secondly, it is very hard to believe that they are seeing a unicorn. But the hardest thing of all is to remember that you believed that you saw a unicorn. Having said that, the old man quietly and simply took a step on the path leading to the village. The young man followed equally silently. Having returned to the village, he gathered his simple pack and left. Though he never saw the village or the old man again, he remembered.

 Comment

I heard this story from the person who has been my most important therapist, Dick Olney, perhaps 40 years ago. I have no idea where he heard it or if he actually created it. I have found myself compelled to tell this story to a very few people whom I deemed ready to hear the story. One of these men having spent an intensive week of therapy with me wrote to me when he returned to the UK: “there have been several sightings of unicorns here in England.” I was glad to hear of such a thing because not many people see a unicorn because they are hard to see, it is hard to believe that you are seeing a unicorn, and it is really hard to remember that you believed that you saw a unicorn. I remain grateful that I have helped a few people see the unicorns in their lives, believe it, and remember it.  I’m certainly old, but not always wise, but occasionally I help people see unicorns. What a wonderful moment it is

The Cure for Anxiety

Sadness. That is the cure for anxiety. But let me explain. Or you can read our book that devotes a whole chapter to the “cure for anxiety.” In this brief blog I will attempt to do several things:

  • Explain what anxiety is along with its cousins: worry, fretting, fear, and outright terror
  • Explain why anxiety is without a doubt one of the most resistant of all psychological difficulties people have, like depression, relationship problems, vocational problems, and general living problems.
  • Explain some of the underlying neurological functions that cause, create, and maintain anxiety once it gets into one’s psychological system

The neuropsychology

I distinguish the mind and the brain as I have explained in Mind over Matter blogs before. I use the term “mind” to describe our thinking, feeling, and acting. The brain is the machine the mind uses to do such things. There is great debate about this matter, however, with some very good neuropsychologists suggesting that the mind is the brain, while others, like myself, believe that there is an as yet undefined element in the human condition that we consider to be the operator of the brain. I’m afraid you’ll have to be content with the fact that we are all theorizing about how things work in the brain. But let me defer this discussion to previous blogs and other psychologists’ writings.

Aside from whether there is a real mind/brain difference, some things are quite well known. The brain (in my understanding) engages in only two operations that keep things going in the body: safety and pleasure. We discussed the pleasure side of the brain when we discussed “liking and wanting” as different operations of the brain, both related to pleasure. So this function of the brain seeks pleasure, mostly through chemicals, such as dopamine, and sometimes through electrical operations. The more important of the two things that the brain does, however, is safety. In other words, your brain works most diligently and constantly on keeping you alive. Central to this keeping you alive is the brain’s fantastic operation of keeping blood flowing in the body, originating in the heart and then to the rest of the body. Blood oxygenizes the body’s cells with blood and simultaneously cleanses these cells from material that needs to be dispenses. While the brain looks to pleasure when possible, something like 99% of the brain looks for safety. Our wonderful brain is doing this protection all the time, every second of our lives.

The brain is wonderful in protecting you and finding pleasure for you, these 100 neurons (brain cells) operating sometimes with trillions of connections to one another. But the brain is sort of stupid in anything else than pleasure and safety. For instance, the brain (again, not the mind) does not know what the mind knows, like love, trust, honesty, work, play, and the many other elements of character, relationships, and daily living. Importantly, the brain does not have an understanding of time. The brain does not know any difference between past, present, and future. In the brain, these three elements of time are all conceived as present. So when the brain senses that something might happen in the future, that future is right now or at best, a second or two in the future. This fact, namely that the brain doesn’t distinguish future from present is very important in the cause, maintenance, and ultimate cure for anxiety.

The brain’s resistance to threat

If you keep in mind that the brain is spending most of its time taking care of the body and protecting the body from harm, you get the picture as to why the brain needs to do this and how it does this. The brain (not the mind) has a startle reflex, for instance, that overrides anything else on your mind when you are started in some way, usually with a loud noise, but also sometimes by something visually that startles you, or perhaps even something that startles you in one of the other three senses (smell, taste, and touch). You don’t have to think, much less feel, when you touch a hot pan by accident while you’re cooking. You don’t have to think or feel when you see fire in that same kitchen. Your startle reaction operates in your olfactory lobe (smell) if you smell something odd in the kitchen. Startle reaction is just one of the ways the brain takes care of you by taking immediate action when the brain perceives something that is dangerous or could be dangerous because it is not within the norm of daily living.

The brain’s protective mechanism operates wonderfully all the time and keeps us alive. Unfortunately, this same protective mechanism also operates when there may not be any immediate or actual threat because the brain doesn’t distinguish a current threat from a future threat. When your brain senses some kind of threat, it goes into hyper drive in order to protect you from danger. This hyper drive comes in the forms of increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, increased breathing, and increased sensual awareness. Increased sensual awareness is in all five senses: sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch. In other words, when the brain senses some threat, it garners all the defenses: chemical, electrical, and sensual to protect you from this perceived threat. These increases are much like what it may have been like for primitive humankind to be faced with the sight of a lion coming over the hill: the brain sees the lion and immediately does the chemical and electrical changes in your body so that you can run. Hopefully, the brain churned up these defenses in time for you to protect yourself. If a lion were chasing you in the Serengeti, for instance, you would be experiencing a pretty high level of anxiety, like life-and-death anxiety. Thank you brain for keeping you aware of possible escape routes from the charging lion.

The cause of anxiety

Anxiety is devastating. It is a well-known fact that that many, if not most, visits to the ER have at least some anxiety driving these visits. Millions of people have thought they were having heart attacks, raced to the ER, and had all kinds of expensive tests, only to find out that there “was nothing wrong with them,” often to their great disappointment. Anxiety has many forms, including the rather popular current diagnoses of PTSD and OCD, but more often anxiety is what is called “free-floating.” In other words, people “just feel anxious for no apparent reason.” Well, there is a reason but it is not that they are having heart attacks or making this stuff up to get attention. Nor is it true that “nothing is wrong with them.” Something is “wrong,” but it has nothing to do with their bodies or minds. What is wrong is that their brains have somehow concluded that the lion is coming over the hill, or something equally dangerous. Why would the brain think such a thing? Most of us don’t roam the Serengeti and few of us have to contend with lions around. The brain should know that, so it seems. The brain does not know that. The brain thinks something very much like “the lion is coming over the hill, so you have to be hypervigilant.

How does this happen. How does the brain think something crazy like the lion is coming after you when there is no lion? It does so because the brain has heard a message from the mind that there is some immediate danger. So, the brain goes into its normal operation of increasing heartrate, blood flow, breathing, and hypervigilance to keep you hyperaware of your surroundings. Anxiety is essentially hyperawareness. Why?

The brain creates what we call anxiety for you to be hyperaware of your surroundings and “protect you from the lion coming over the hill.” The brain does not distinguish different kinds of dangers. The brain does not distinguish dangers: danger is danger, whether it is the spider or the lion. So anything that the brain determines is some kind of threat will start the chain reaction in the brain of upping the various elements of the body to protect you, primarily by making you hypervigilant.

Not only does not brain fail to distinguish kinds of threats, the brain does not distinguish the present from the future. And this the crux of the problem with anxiety. When you think of something aversive that might happen in the future, it is your mind that is doing this thinking, not your brain. Let’s say your boss has called a meeting with you on Monday morning but she didn’t tell you what she wanted to talk to you about. This kind of situation can cause “anxiety,” namely worrying about what your boss might say to you, or God forbid, that you might get demoted or fired. So it seems natural that you would worry about this future meeting. Unfortunately, your brain does not know any of this: it does not know that you work, it does not know you have a boss, it does not know about the meeting, and it does not know about the future. So, when you brain hears from your mind that you have a potential meeting that could be deleterious for you, your brain assumes “the lion is coming over hill,” and wants to send you into hyper drive.

Then, to make matters worse, your brain sort of “talks” back to your mind about this potential danger because the brain can’t think. It is the mind that thinks. The message from the mind to the brain started this cycle moving by telling the brain that there is some danger. You brain assumed this danger was immediate and started the hypervigilance, but it didn’t stop there. The brain then sent the mind the message that the mind needed to figure out what to do. Now we have this ongoing cycle with the mind telling the brain that there is danger and the brain talking back to the mind asking the mind to figure it out. So the mind tries to figure it out. How does the mind do that? By worrying about worst case scenarios like, “If he fires me, where will I get another job?” or “if he criticizes me for my performance, how can I defend myself” and the like. Of course this fretting does no good but, all the while the brain is sort of insisting that the mind come up with a solution to the problem it perceives as “the lion coming over the hill.”

Unless there is some way to stop this cycle of considering danger (the mind), reacting to danger (the brain), and then fretting (the mind again), anxiety will stay present and very possibly increase. If the brain determines that there is no immediate solution to what it perceives as the lion coming, it will do what it does: create more hypervigilance. How do we break this cycle?

The cure of anxiety

Read the first word again in this blog: sadness. The cure for anxiety is sadness, however odd that sounds. This is what I mean: you have to face the potential loss, feel this potential loss by feeling sad, and resolve this sadness. Easily said, not easily done. Anxiety in all its forms (fear, worry, fretting) keeps therapists busy trying to calm people down and physicians busy prescribing anxiolytics to treat the symptoms of anxiety. But neither really works to cure anxiety. There is no “settling down” someone who is in a state of anxiety because the brain perceives “the lion is coming over the hill.” You can’t talk to the brain about jobs, meetings, and the like, and you certainly can’t talk to the brain about the future because the brain, this wonderful machine, has no capacity to understand such things. You have to get the mind involved. You have to get the mind and the brain to work together the way these two elements work together 99% of the time. How do you do that?

You cure anxiety by considering the loss you might have, feeling sad about this potential loss, and allow this sadness to end. This is what you need to do: truly consider the worst case scenario. In our theoretical case, you need to consider that you would be fired. Then you have to feel sad about possibly being fired. This is what we call anticipatory sadness because you are anticipating some important loss in the future and allowing yourself to feel the sadness about this possible loss. It sounds crazy, I know, but this is the only way to cure anxiety, namely feeling sad in the present about something that might happen in the future. Note the tenses here: feeling sad in the present for something that might happen in the future. You can learn to do this with a little practice, but let me warn you, you don’t want to do it. You don’t want to feel sad about losing a job that is important to you; you don’t want to consider that your daughter with cancer might die; you don’t want to consider that your house will be robbed. And you don’t want to feel sad about these things because they haven’t happened. You know that they haven’t happened. But this “you” is your mind, not your brain. Your brain thinks that something really dangerous is happening and needs to be fixed. The only way out of the cycle of anxiety is to feel this anticipatory sadness. The sadness will end.

The interesting thing about sadness is that it always ends. Anxiety does not end. It can go on for years or a lifetime and get worse in the process. But if you lose something you love, you will feel sad for a period and eventually finish feeling sad. An even more devastating phenomenon that occurs with people is depression. Depression is the collections of many losses that have not been felt and finished, and have collected to such a degree that your brain shuts down interest in life in order to cope with the fact of these many losses.

So try it out. When you feel anxious about something, ask yourself the question, “What might I lose?” Then you will discover that you might lose something that is important to you, something that you love. Then allow yourself to feel the sadness you would feel if you would actually lose this something. Dare to feel this sadness now about what you might lose in the future. You will feel sad for a moment or two, maybe longer, but eventually, your anticipatory sadness will end.

Further Reading

Previous blogs on feelings

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The Positive Power of Sadness. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger

LeDoux, J. (2015). Anxious: using the brain to understand and treat fear and anxiety. New York: Viking Press.