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You Can’t Always Control What You Want!

Give it up, boys and girls!

Our society places great emphasis on control and fears things that we can’t, e.g. anxiety, death. We clearly believe in behavioral control… If you kill someone no one cares if you had a lousy childhood. You are going to jail. However, we literally cannot control our thoughts and feelings. Many of our emotional problems are actually caused by our rigid attempts to do just that.

About twenty years ago, I had a panic attack after smoking some pot and running to the opera. We were late and a combination of nose bleed seats and a pounding heart resulted in a week of trying to make the feelings go away. All of my doctor friends threw Xanax at me and I went for a ten mile run with the implicit goal of making the fear go away. I realized that I was going nowhere quickly. I was actually best advised to stand up to the bully, bring on the fear and try to make it worse. I taunted the anxiety to hit me with its rhythm stick and “you can do better than that.” After laughing my skinny ass off, life went back to normal.

It finally hit me that it was my visceral reptilian brain that had been conditioned and all the neocortical wisdom in the book was not going to eliminate the anxiety. Conditioning theory tells us that fear is nothing more than preparing for action, based on past actions in similar situations. I needed to introduce a new and different response. Namely, stop running and feel the fear.

I started getting interested in why only a small percentage of the many people with panic attacks develop panic disorder. People who catastrophize the experience, start to worry about it happening again, and avoid and/or escape situations, reliably get worse. The people that see the panic as an unconditioned response to a stressful situation carry on and are just fine. I see parallel themes in insomnia and sexual dysfunction. Everyone sleeps poorly from time to time. Why does only a subset of people develop insomnia for instance? Obviously, they catastrophize how they are going to feel or function the next day. They often change their sleep habits: go to bed earlier, engage in pre-sleep rituals that they think are going to help and try too hard to sleep, all of which backfires. You see a similar thing with sexual dysfunction especially with men. Everyone drinks too much, is too tired or is in bed with someone that they are not enamored with once or twice in their life at the very least. Whether it is Ogden Nash’s line of “The Penis Never Lies” or variables like fatigue or blood alcohol level, only a small subset of people flip out when they lose their erection. These dudes end up with erectile dysfunction as it is termed. Try harder get softer.

The next blog with drive this simple but profound message home… You got to give it up!

More from Stephen C Josephson Ph.D.
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