Wikimedia, CC 3.0
Source: Wikimedia, CC 3.0

Many people have “issues” that don’t rise to the level of a disorder requiring professional help. For example:

  • They’re sad by nature or because of external events but they’re not (as in clinical depression) numb or inert, or suicidal. They function, just not as happily as they’d like.
  • They worry more than they'd like to but rarely panic, nor does their anxiety greatly impede their quality of life.
  • They’re predisposed to anger but  aren’t in an ongoing state of suppressed anger. Nor are they subject to frequent outbursts or physical violence.
  • They have trouble staying focused but their distractibility doesn’t rise to the level of clinical attention-deficit disorder; neither the spacey version (ADD) nor the hyperactive version (ADHD).

Here are some not-magic pills that have helped a number of my clients address their sub-clinical malaise. some of these tips are old news , yet many of us can benefit from reminders even about tactics we’ve successfully used before.

For sub-clinical sadness

Always have something to look forward to. While doing an unpleasant task, think of a pleasurable thing you will or could do afterwards.

Exercise. For many people, exercise increases sense of well-being. No, you needn’t be an extreme athlete. Indeed, there’s growing question about its salubriousness. Sometimes, just a brisk walk does the trick—no equipment, long treks to the recreation center, or partner necessary, although some people enjoy exercising with a partner.

Perspective. At the risk of sounding like your parents, some people really are starving in Africa.

For sub-clinical worry

Picture the worst case. Could you survive? Let’s say you’re worried that you’ll get fired. It could be for the best. There may be a better job for you somewhere. Practically the only thing you can’t survive is end-stage disease, and I’m betting that if you’re reading this, your worst problem is less daunting than that.

Suppress. That suggestion may rankle some Psychology Today readers. After all, a time-honored (some would say hidebound) psychotherapy tenet is that exploration, even if painful, is worth it: ‘The unexamined life isn’t worth living. Plus, if you suppress it here, it will come out there, like whack-a-mole.”

But at least with my clients, and frankly, myself, greater contentment is likely to derive from consciously suppressing worries you can’t do much about. Rather than strengthening the memory neurons associated with those worries, which is what exploring them would seem to do, not thinking about them likely atrophies those neurons, thereby moving more pleasant thoughts top-of-mind. That’s merely a hypothesis of what goes on physiologically but even if it’s wrong, I can assert that many clients find suppression, being Queen of Denial, more effective than revisiting an immutable issue yet again.

For sub-clinical anger

Exit. Most people with a predisposition to anger go from 0 to 60 in two seconds. So, one approach is to excuse yourself the moment you’re aware that you’re starting to get angry at someone: “I need to use the bathroom” or some such excuse. Having taken your temporary exit, take deep breaths and remind yourself of your past outbursts. Have they more often helped or hurt you? Remember that overt anger is more likely to engender defensiveness and hardening of the other person's position than to cause change. And anger is less likely to be perceived as passion and commitment, and more that you’re a jerk. (While that term has come to be used more to describe men then women, jerks come with XX as well as XY chromosomes.) Additionally, for people who worry about their health, it’s well-established that anger is unhealthy. It can’t hurt to remind yourself of that when you're at risk of blowing up.

Avoid triggering situations. If you're prone to anger, avoid work requiring patience: tutoring or teaching reluctant students, customer service, counseling people with significant deficits, speech pathologists dealing with slow-progress conditions such as developmental delay or post-stroke swallowing. Or we may have a relative, co-worker, or friend who can be challenging. Or there’s an issue that’s a hot button for us, for example, a political issue or an unfair implication we’re unintelligent or narcissistic. Of course, we can’t always avoid triggering situations but even reducing some of your anger is worth it, psychologically, practically, and healthwise.

Self-therapy. What is the root cause of your free-floating or situational anger? There may be a physiological basis such as an adrenal gland that secretes an above-average amount of adrenaline in response to a given stressor. But it’s not all in the genes. Are either of these foundational cause of your anger?

  • Resentment of the world: You feel you’ve gotten a bad deal in life so you walk around with a chip on your shoulder, on a hair-trigger ready to be tripped by even a minor stressor?
  • A sense of impotence: that you’ll be taken seriously only if people are afraid you’ll explode. Of course, the reality is you’ll be taken seriously only during that inciident. After you blow, you’re more likely to be dismissed, literally or figuratively. More potent is to develop your influencing skills. For example, when presenting an idea, it’s often wise to couch it, for instance, “I’m wondering whether X is a good idea. What do you think?”

For sub-clinical distractibility

Create a reduced-distraction environment. Could you and should you set up a cardboard privacy partition on your desk? Should you have a "do not disturb" sign on your door? Should you turn off the music?

Accept yourself. Some people can be sufficiently productive even if distractible. They may have to put in more total hours, but they might think of those distractions merely as distributed recreation: mini-breaks in their workday.

Medicate? Okay, this isn't a sub-clinical recommendation but because medication such as Adderall or Ritalin are effective for many people, it’s worth mentioning. Many distractible people find such medications sufficiently beneficial to outweigh any side effects. Of course, consider trying coffee first. As the old commercial used to say, “Coffee: It’s the think drink.” For many people, including me, coffee improves focus. Besides, I like the comforting feeling of, while working, sipping that sweet, warm drink.

The takeaway

Of course, sometimes, it's wise to see a professional for your mental health problem. But if you sense your issue is sub-clinical, it may be worth trying or revisiting one or more of these self-help tactics. They've worked for many of my clients and me. Is there one or more you’d like to try or revisit?

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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