Tuesday, August 16, 2016

On Feelings

I was thinking about the fact discussed here that we only started acknowledging feelings as something to be concerned with or a measure of well-being when soldiers returned from WWII, a good half of them with shell shock. Freud had us actually ask people about what's going on in their heads, and this basic technique is with us today augmented with Aaron Beck's Cognitive Behaviour Therapy that digs for and replaces negative self-talk.  The Humans of New York series is currently focused on soldiers with PTSD. The soldiers who have had some therapy, some ability to talk through their past experiences, have been significantly helped by the process.

But I've been thinking of a side-effect of becoming aware of our feelings and how our experiences affect us: Some of us are becoming hyper-aware of every moment of fear or disappointment or grief or sadness to a debilitating degree.

Years ago I went on a road trip with some friends travelling from concert to concert around Ontario. Just before leaving, the driver of the wreck we were travelling in was cautioned to make sure it didn't overheat. Just that one word of warning from a random bystander sent us to the side of the road every couple of hours to open the hood and stare inside. The temperature gage never got anywhere close to the danger zone, but every time it moved, we had to pull over. Sometimes too much attention can be as bad as not enough.

After thousands of years of stoically forging ahead despite flashes of anxiety, in just 70 years we've shifted to a point in which every fluctuation in mood might be fodder for medical help. Instead of ignoring nervousness or sadness, we fixate on them, allowing them room to blossom, like a scab that won't heal because we can't leave it alone. Sometimes hyperawareness of anxiety can make it much worse until it becomes paralyzing and pleasurable events become mired in painful feelings of stress. Can something actually be enjoyable if we're barrelling through a sea of tumults, trembling with a heartbeat that is curiously inaudible to others in order to just get through it all? Does it really make sense to feel the fear and do it anyway when the dread of doing it might override the pleasure of having it done?

My youngest asked me recently, "When were you most afraid?" And I couldn't really remember ever feeling afraid. It seems to be like pain. During each childbirth, I got to a point when I was quite certain I was going to die. How can we possibly live through such a bodily trauma? But I can't actually remember what it felt like. I remember talking about it at the time; I remember my postures and my words and some of my thoughts, and they all lead me to believe I was in a ton of physical pain, but I don't remember the pain at all. How quickly the human race would diminish if women could physically remember the pain of childbirth.

Then a group of friends were recalling myriad scars and surgeries, and I had none to offer. Later I remembered getting many stitches in my thumb just last fall. You'd think it would be part of our survival instincts to remember trauma more immediately, but it seems a far more important survival instinct to forget. Remembering pain would keep us locked in our homes inert and lifeless.

Similarly, there are many times I remember exhibiting the actions of one who's afraid, of clasping the person next to me during a movie or speed-walking through bear habitat. But I don't remember how the panic felt, certainly not enough to avoid it.  I remember it intellectually, able to describe the events going on in my body and thoughts in my head, but I can't relive the actual feeling. It's different from anger, for instance. If I start to describe an injustice from my childhood, I can easily re-experience the rage first hand. Describing a sad tale can have me in tears, and a hilarious memory can leave me gasping for air. But, I'm guessing for most of us, fear and anxiety seem harder to re-establish emotionally. When I describe a frightening experience, I don't revisit the fear in the same way; it's more of a giddy excitement after the fact. Imagining a scary event about to happen has a much more intense effect than the memory of an event that ended. And pain seems completely impossible to re-live. Just as well. So, if fear is short-lived, and enjoyment has better sticking power, then the pleasure of a fearful event can far outweigh the pain in retrospect. And retrospect lasts a lot longer than the moment.

Often the fear I remember isn't even from the event itself, but from my perception of a potential worst-case scenario that typically never comes to pass. During a scary event, we're too busy to register our fear. But the anxiety anticipating the event can produce in our heads, merely from our perception of an event that we're not actually experiencing at the moment, and that might not even happen in such a dramatic way, isn't tempered by busyness. Before an event, we have all the time in the world to stew. But we mustn't. Not much anyway. If we can remember, like Epicurus would have us do, that it's ridiculous to worry about an event, to feel pain from something that isn't actually happening to us right now, it can help reduce the level of anxiety. We're safe at home but all tied up in knots - how silly!

Somehow it's heartening to know that, even thousands of years ago, people still worried over stupid things, and they were counseled to actively stop themselves from having those thoughts. We've come full circle again to recognizing that dwelling on our feelings just exacerbates them. Talking over trauma, over feelings around events in the past, can be life altering and miraculous, but scrutinizing emotions created from perceptions of potential experiences we haven't actually had, can be debilitating. Epicurus, William James, Aaron Beck... all recognized that a shift in perception and active shutting out of stressful thoughts is necessary to get on with thing. We will be scared and offended and enraged. Sometimes we just have to ride it out.

The trick is to figure out which emotional upheavals are better examined and which are better ignored. We don't quite know what a minor trauma is. Working in a high-school, there's been a clear change in the amount of attention and concern we give to heartbreak, for instance. It's par for the course in adolescence, but now we're understanding to a fault, postponing due date to allow extra time for students to process, which, I believe, makes that trauma larger than life. It hurts; there's no denying that. But is it a pain that will dissipate faster it it's attended to or ignored? And if we attend to lots of everyday traumas, will we be able to cope when something huge hits us? Suggesting as much is painted as heartless, so we get the illusion of the benefits of an immediate salve but no immunity in the longterm.

A bit of worrying can be useful if used to our advantage. That anxious hyperawareness we experience might help us ensure we don't miss a detail. I've written papers that I wasn't stressed at all about, and my over-confidence almost always led to a lower mark because I didn't have that adrenaline boost of stress forcing me to re-check everything a few more times. We need just the right amount of anxiety to help us rise to challenges, yet actually go through with them.

I'm thinking a lot about anxiety today because I'm off to Temagami on a canoe trip in the morning. I'll be in bear territory, and I'll have bear spray at the ready, but that's not the scary part. I rent a car only twice a year or so, and I always avoid driving on major highways. I'm picking up a fellow traveller on the way, so I'll have to manage the 401, and then it only makes sense to continue on the 400. And on the way back, I'll be desperate to be home before sunset so that I'm not driving in the dark. Backroads won't get me there in time. My passenger has no idea what she's getting herself into, how silent and still she'll have to be for me to manage all the lanes and signs and so many cars and trucks all over the place!

I've had one accident, and it was on a side road. It was a clear day, but snow was blowing across a field rendering the road indistinguishable and other vehicles invisible. I followed the line of hydro poles to try to stay in my lane, but I still managed to clip the front bumper of an on-coming car that materialized before my eyes. I partially blame having a passenger who kept leaning between the bucket seats to rifle around the back for another CD. There has never again been rifling around in a car I was driving!

I've driven myself to Parry Sound and back over and over, sometimes three trips in a day, but always on the back roads as far as I could, but I used to drive back and forth to Ottawa on the highway regularly when I had a friend living there. That was 20 years ago, but at least I know it's possible. It's something I was once able to do pretty fearlessly, like a normal human being.

So for the rest of the day, I'll be actively ignoring the waves of panic and shaking off the burgeoning flood of tears. There will be no blowing snow tomorrow, and it might not even rain. In the right-hand lane, doing precisely 3 km over the speed limit, and staying well back from other cars, I'm unlikely to have or cause an accident. I'll have a passenger to help navigate the signs for most of the trip.  If I miss an exit, I'll have plenty of time to take the next one and turn around. And my anxiety has done me the great service of forcing me to write out my planned routes and an alternative route, to mark a map with sticky-notes, and to print off magnified areas of concern from google maps. Handy!

And I'd rather die on my way to a canoe trip than slipping in the bathtub. There's always that.

Just imagine how good it smells there. Like suddenly breathing real air.

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