We have been naturally selected to use fight, flight, freeze, or get help responses when we feel threatened. That fourth one is often overlooked and underutilized. When we choose an ineffective strategy such as “flighting” or avoiding our taxes we experience the pain of that poor selection, namely in the form of a visit from the IRS. When we choose and utilize a skill well we experience a decrease in distress and an increase in self efficacy. We pay our taxes and move on with our lives having managed that situation well. Next year at tax time we can remind ourselves that we managed that well last year and will probably do the same this year.
One of the challenges is that we have also been naturally selected to quickly categorize our environment and people into categories such as “safe and unsafe, rewarding and unrewarding, or good and bad.” This works when it comes to avoiding dangerous plants and predators. This strategy of black or white thinking is dangerous when we oversimplify our categorizations. I like to say that “most things are both things.” We all have varied traits to varying degrees. We tend to overgeneralize when we are overstressed, tired, or have experienced learned helplessness in the past. One example of learned helplessness occurs when we are not able to get out of the way of a toxic relationship. We take the abuse and learn that we can not effect change. We stop trying and become a victim of not only that relationship but future similar relationships. When we generalize in the interest of self-protection and efficiency we do not accurately appraise the situation and our options. This contributes heavily to depression, anxiety and other disordered thinking and behavior such as addictions and eating disorders.
Part of successful treatment entails challenging our beliefs and patterns in order to discover more efficient solutions. I call this “updating my map.” When I navigate my world with a current map I find the entrance to the highway with ease. When I use a map from 20 years ago I find I am frustrated and confused by my surroundings. I drive in circles and say colorful things. I have forgotten to update my map and ask for better directions. Depression and anxiety usually make sense in context of past and current life events. Part of effective recovery entails listening to ourselves and effectively utilizing our skills. This is work and requires that we become more conscious consumers and participants in life. When I was working in construction, 20 years ago, I learned from a seasoned journeyman to “work smarter not harder.” There is nothing wrong with hard work. However, sometimes we struggle when we could get better results from working smarter.