I recently came across an article that described a man’s experience with bipolar disorder. I was struck by his reported shift in his relationship to the disorder from one of fighting it to one of embracing it and learning how to live with it as opposed to against it. This is such a powerful and difficult transition; one that can almost seem paradoxical.
Imagine that you are out on the beach on a very windy, blustery day and your are holding a large piece of cardboard that spans from your waist to above your head and is as long as your arm span. What do you imagine would happen if you hold this piece of cardboard out in front of you hoping the cardboard will block the wind as you walk against it? My guess is that the wind would push against you and you would quickly feel exhausted not to mention frustrated! Alternatively, what do you imagine would happen if you turn and walk sideways toward the wind? My guess in this case is that the wind would pass by you, you would feel less tired and you might even feel less distracted so that you might even be able to enjoy a glimpse of the beach (and possibly annoyed that you are carrying a huge piece of cardboard!).
We learn from very early on in our lives to try to avoid pain and discomfort. To either fight against it or run from it. It seems like that should be an effective strategy and sometimes is…at least temporarily. The problem is that this strategy almost always leads to postponing having to deal with the pain and leads to more longer-term consequences. In the end, trying to avoid our pain often leads to feeling tired (because we have to keep running from it, otherwise it could catch up!), defeated, and less competent in dealing with our experience (“I can’t handle it!”). Alternatively, if we shift our perspective to one of accepting reality-as it is, not as we wish it was-and learn how to cope with this reality we might feel more capable and confident in responding to stress, overwhelm, and shifting mood states both as they are happening and anticipating more windy days in the future.
This past week I met with a woman who was in the midst of a severe depressive episode; I was so impressed and humbled by her strength and her willingness to continue to show up and work toward wellness—in the face of deep pain and grief. She had previously explained that she learned from prior episodes that if she runs from her reality and stays in bed, drinks alcohol, isolates, and does not go to work, she only prolongs her pain and creates additional consequences that she has to face later. As such, she instead chooses to turn sideways. She chooses to show up for another session—WITH her pain–to continue to obtain support, and to learn and practice strategies to help her cope with her pain and in turn, lift her mood. I am honored to have a job that allows me to sit beside her and all of those who are navigating and learning from their own journeys.
– Kelsey Schraufnagel, PsyD