By Dr David Laing Dawson
On Monday morning this week, driving to the clinic in minus 14 degree weather, while I was stopped at a light, a well dressed woman pulling a large suitcase hurried along the edge of the ice-filled gutter toward me. She waved at me. I rolled down the window on the passenger side. She told me in thick Spanish accent she needed a ride to the center of town. I unlocked the door. She clambered in, pulling the suitcase in after her. She talked quickly about many things. I dropped her off near the bus stop in the center of town. She blessed me profusely and I drove on to work.
At the end of the day as I walked to my car in the carport another woman flagged me down and hurried toward me, this time a Chinese woman wearing a dust mask to ward off the cold or viruses. She asked to borrow my cell phone. I dialed for her and watched as she told her husband where she was and that her car battery was dead. The call ended successfully and she smiled and waved at me as I drove away.
In between these events, during the day, while walking from the secretary’s desk down the hall to my office, I noticed a large group of people in the boardroom standing in a circle with arms raised above in that position of lordly praise. I turned to the secretary and said, “My God, we have a revivalist meeting going on in there.” She said, “That must be the CBT group.” And I said, “Let me know if they start speaking in tongues.”
All of which got me thinking about what, besides pharmacological tweaking of the neuro- hormones in our brains, makes us troubled humans feel better.
Last time I looked there were literally hundreds of varieties of counseling and therapy, each with its own proponents and economic systems. But might not reality be simpler than that? Much like all that we know about good nutrition can be summed up in one short sentence: “Eat, not too much, mostly plants.”
Here is my short list of things that help us feel better when we are sad or depressed, worried or severely anxious, mildly distressed or in a state of panic.
- Help others. I am sure it is simply in our DNA and one of those traits that allowed us to grow our tribes and dominate life on earth. And this is why becoming an addiction counselor is one of the most successful ways of overcoming addiction.
- Do something in a group. I suspect it doesn’t matter if it is CBT, RTB, ABC, curling or building an ark together. It is being part of, participating in a group activity that helps us feel better.
- Touch. Hand to hand, hand to body, body to body. Within a consensual primary relationship of course. But failing that, perhaps a pet, a friend. And failing that, a massage therapist and even a chiropractor.
- Talk to someone who is actually interested in your life. The best counselors, therapists, professional or not, besides being empathic and non-judgmental and possessing some wisdom, have one other important trait. They are very curious about other people’s lives. They listen.
- Share a laugh. Laughter is probably not really the “best medicine”, but it is a signaling system unique to our species. (Hyenas and Kookaburras “laugh” for other reasons). For us it is a shared moment lacking in threat, caution and animosity, a moment of letting down the guard. And we always feel better for at least several minutes afterward.
- Understand. Have a way of understanding, or organizing, or thinking about, yourself and the world around you. Again I am sure it doesn’t matter a great deal whether it is a profoundly complicated mix of anthropology/neurology/evolution/ and quantum mechanics or the AA 12 step program, or the teachings of Buddha or Jesus or Mohammed, as long as it is not rigid, nasty, nihilistic and exclusionary. But the brain demands organization of its experiences, its sensory input. It need not be true in any absolute sense to be helpful. And this is probably why we have so many theories of psychology, so many forms of therapy and counseling. So if you want to believe in astrology and it gives you a way of understanding your friend’s behaviour, go ahead.
- Move. Exercise. Long before we knew anything about the dopamine, the serotonin in our brains, and the manner they are influenced and, in turn, influence our sense of well-being, Hippocrates proclaimed his treatment for depression: “Go for a walk. And if you are still depressed upon returning, go for another walk.”
- Quell the Inquisitor in your brain, at least for part of each day. By “inquisitor” I mean that brain mechanism that, at its best, allows us to plan our day, govern our behaviour, censor our worst notions, doubt and second guess our poor ideas, and at its worst tortures us obsessively with fears and follies. Find a way of taking a holiday from this. Preferably not with alcohol or marijuana. But rather with real holidays, meditation, yoga, playing a sport, playing music, engaging in an absorbing activity. For me it is painting, art. You will know when you have been there because you have lost track of time.
- Get a good night’s sleep. Our biology is probably programmed, for optimal performance, to stay active and outdoors through the daylight hours, and then go to our mats, our caves, our beds shortly after the sun goes down. This leads to two sleeps of about 4 to 5 hours each, with a period of semi-wakefulness in between. But then we discovered fire and telling stories around the fire, and Mr. Tesla and Edison came along and we never really adapted. So, turn off the lights and the electronics, use, within reason, whatever aids you require, and get some sleep. The cleaners can’t come through and remove the debris if everybody is still working in the office.
- Make something. A birdhouse, a cake, a sous vide prime rib, a back porch, a fire pit. I suspect again that it doesn’t really matter what we make, but we are undoubtedly programmed to be rewarded (internally at least) by our own productivity. It is how we survived to become the dominant species. Of course this making of things has included making better and better weapons, which is in part, I think, the source of the current puffery of Kim Jong Un, Donald J. Trump, and Vladmir Putin. Okay. That last thought means it is time to revisit item 8 on this list.