Building resistance to distress

Elizabeth Ellis Square“We are the results of every human possibility that has touched us, no matter its point of origin.”Stanley Crouch, African American writer, b. 1945

“When something [bad] happens,” psychologist Martin Seligman writes in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, “men act, women think.” Paralyzed by the intensity of our worries, we need to gain perspective. He recommends that you gauge the proportion of worry to reality, reduce rumination, minimize catastrophic thinking, and counter with an action plan. As soon as I read that, I got up and did the laundry.

Did you ever feel so bad you couldn’t get off the couch? “Only a woman,” my neighbor Mario answered, “could make me feel that way.”

“The majority of suicides by our soldiers in Iraq,” Seligman wrote, “involves a failed relationship with a spouse or partner,” and feeling “abandoned, lonely, and alienated.” Trust and betrayal are at issue.

“Learn to control what you think,” urges Seligman. “We create our own reality,” psychologist Susan Jeffers wrote.

People need something (“ikigai” in Japanese) to live for. Amos Oz described the absence when “your actions and feelings have no worth and your joys have no meaning,” where even your life and death leave no trace. “People cannot live without their sense [of worth],” James Baldwin wrote. The basic needs of safety, satisfaction and connection comprise our state of mind: emotion, engagement and meaning.

“Minimize catastrophic thinking” (Seligman) when distracted by mental chatter. “When the Chinese feel anxious they say, ‘There is a tiger in my heart.’” (C. Brown). Use perspective and optimism to change thoughts and to recover quickly from the negative, Rick Hanson, Ph.D. advises in Hardwiring Happiness: The New Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. Contain and calm reactive states when they occur, he continues, by remembering good strong times and savoring physical pleasure in order to feel safe, satisfied and connected.

Seligman tells us that feeling fear signals danger; sadness signals loss; anger, trespass; each of these a threat to our needs. Anxiety (danger and worry), anger (mood), and depression (sadness) are painful (Hanson).

“Depression marks the loss of something very dear to us; urges us to fall out of love, mourn, and resign ourselves to its absence.” (Seligman)

In order to build resilience to counter and heal distress (“Your feelings result from the meaning you give to the event, not from the event itself,” says A.I. Ellis), we need to call on our inner strengths: a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart.

“If there is no happy ending,” Cooper Edens (b. 1945) wrote, “make one out of cookie dough.” These nubbins from good times and compliments are like warm cookies. “Joy represents a satisfied state.” (Seligman)

Women are often given pills to get them through crises — “Only until you feel better” — but getting off the pills tests her again. Pills don’t cure anything, they’re a palliative. When a former female college basketball player attempted suicide, she was given a choice of ECT (electro convulsive therapy) or pills before she could be released from the hospital.

Mental illness, according to Seligman, cannot be cured. “Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.” (A General Theory of Love, Thos. Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon)

“Knowing [a good experience] without feeling it is like a menu without a meal,” Hanson writes. We avoid harm (threat, danger and rejection), approach rewards, and attach to others to avoid isolation. He recommends that we rest and digest before we act rather than react to our innate fight-flight-fright response. 

Pain is a symptom, not a cause. Negative thoughts dig a hole. The more you dig, the deeper the hole gets.

Gwendolyn Brooks said, “When handed a lemon make lemonade.” With positive thoughts, the more you add to your pile the more positives you have and the more positive you get.

We need to wean positive aspects out of negative experience: Re-frame them, incorporate the good, enrich it, install it in our brain for a lasting neural brain structure (Hanson) by re-living it, seeing it, writing about it.

Judge its duration, intensity and relevance to you. Mentally replay it to take in the good again and again. “Feelings,” psychiatrist Willard Gaylin writes, are contagious.”

 Metro Lutheran newspaper found this blooper in a church bulletin: “Low Self-Esteem Support Group: Please use the back door.”

Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to

Good wife.23