Have a purpose --hope and purpose enable us to overcome hardships, whether it is concentration or prison camps, serious physical or mental illness, or occupational burnout (Pines & Aronson, 1981; Frank, 1974). As chapter 3 says, a valued purpose for living saves us from meaninglessness and can provide enormous motivation. For example, religious beliefs provide a life-purpose and a refuge from the ultimate fear, eternal death.
Unfortunately, there is little scientific knowledge about how to develop faith and hope. Yet, there is universal interest in these topics and ample evidence for the power of faith. For instance, Marks (1978) compares the ineffectiveness of lengthy (1 year) therapy with transsexuals to the astonishing effectiveness of faith healing. The faith healer, in one case, took only three hours to pray, lay on hands, and "exorcise 22 evil spirits." The client, a life-long transsexual, immediately declared he was a man, discarded his female clothing and got his hair cut. Two years later he was still living as a heterosexual and planning to get married. Suggestion effects can help people have faith.
A distinction must be made between (a) passive faith or idle wishing for something and (b) working hard and wisely to help yourself achieve something. Both may work, but my bets are on (b). They are certainly different processes.
Hope is an effort to make it so, not a wish that it may be so.
-G. I. Gurdjieff
Understanding unconscious factors as a way of reducing stress
Finding the causes --if traumatic early childhood experiences have great impact on later adjustment and if we tend to forget those connections, it seems reasonable that gaining insight into the original or early sources of our problems might be helpful. Our society is enormously influenced by the idea that childhood has permanent, inevitable impact on all the rest of life. Freud said, "The child is psychological father to the adult...." Building on Freud, Erik Erikson described eight stages of life in which we, ideally, develop lasting traits, such as trust, independence, purpose, feeling of competence, an ability to love, etc. Failing at any stage is thought to cause serious problems. The early years are seen as especially crucial.
Furthermore, a massive amount of clinical experience with disturbed patients has confirmed that early psychological experiences were important causes. These include loss of a parent, intense conflicts within the family, abusive treatment or neglect, over-controlling or critical parents or siblings, stressful sexual experiences, etc. Research shows correlations between parental adjustment and their children's adjustment, even as married adults. Abusers tend (60%) to have been abused or to have seen abuse as children (NiCarthy, 1982). Sexually abused children have more stress-related symptoms than nonabused children, but 2/3rds recover in 12-18 months (Kendall-Tackett, Williams, & Finkelhor, 1993). Alcoholics tend to have a parent who drank excessively or both parents who were teetotalers (Weil & Rosen, 1993). The children's personality and school adjustment are affected for several years after a divorce (see chapter 10). However, childhood traumas are not in the history of every anxious person.
Why might early stresses decrease our tolerance of stress later in life? First, the trauma may reduce our sense of control--we feel vulnerable, we know human frailty. We may learn to see the world as uncaring or downright hostile. Second, a disruptive event might interfere with our own psychological development (as mentioned in the last paragraph). Third, early hurts and threats may leave us sensitive to later occurrences--a teenager who lost her father at age 5 or 6 by divorce may be especially sensitive to any critical comment by her boyfriend.
Contrary to the common view, however, there is evidence that early traumatic experiences are not prophetic, they certainly don't always result in a ruined life. In fact, Clarke and Clarke (1976) report that severe shocks (loss of both parents, beaten and poorly fed, rejected and hated) can be handled. Humans are pretty tough. Furthermore, the healing effects of care and love after a trauma are remarkable if we are young. The effectiveness of love and support (to compensate for trauma) decline if the victim is older, say adolescent or young adult. This research doesn't indicate that early traumatic experiences are unimportant, but rather that they could be handled if we knew and cared enough. Also, it may be beneficial to have practice handling stress (see toughness above). Certainly, being over-protected and pampered can cause problems too.
What are the implications? You should investigate your history, try to understand the source of your personality, attitudes, and problems (see Allen (1995) and chapter 15). That is a characteristic of a mature, aware, insightful, wise person. But don't stop with insight; don't think that is all you have to do. You have to use the understanding to change. That changing may also involve some of the cognitive-behavioral methods mentioned above, e.g. one may need to remind oneself "I'm sensitive about angry yelling because my father..." or "I tend to avoid schoolwork because my sister was so damned smart."
Warning: Beware of therapists, groups, and books that implant and nurture false memories, such as sexual abuse as a child (see discussion of this in chapter 15).
A compelling need to know-- there is a natural curiosity, a need to know. Not just to understand what makes us tick but also to know what really happened in our relationships. Notice what happens when a person has a conflict or breaks up with someone. Often hours are spent "analyzing" the situation: Why did he/she leave me? What did he/she really want or need? Was he/she interested in someone else? Did he/she deceive me? Why did I take him/her for granted? Where did I fail? This questioning and analyzing can be calming if the understanding can become a means for accepting what has happened and even a basis for believing we will handle the situation better next time around. The "retrospective analysis" can be harmful if we become self-critical or develop very negative views of the other person's motives or character. Psychologizing in a harmful way is discussed in chapter 9. Nevertheless, gaining genuine understanding can lessen confusion, reduce a fear of history repeating itself, and bring some self-satisfaction.
Open-mindedness --knowing a few psychological theories and self-help techniques should never lull you (or any therapist for that matter) into believing you know all about how to understand and deal with a certain kind of problem. For example, suppose within someone's mind the urge to kill him/herself gets diverted into a fear of knives. It is obvious that the problem is much greater than avoiding knives. The underlying problem needs to be faced. In a similar situation, Wolpe (1973) reported a case of an 18-year-old male who, after urinating, washed his genitals 45 minutes, his hands 2 hours, and his body in a shower for 4 hours. The compulsive washing was apparently connected with sleeping with his sister until he was 15 (she was 17) and having severe guilt about sexual thoughts and reactions. Wolpe reduced the time the young man spent washing by using desensitization to urine so that eventually he could tolerate touching urine without anxiety. That's fine, but it's a typical behavioral solution to a problem, i.e. superficial. An aversion to urine may only be part of the problem. What about the young man's sexual adjustment, his guilt about sexual thoughts and urges, and his relationship with the sister?
Suppose Little Hans, that Freud wrote about, came to you for help. Besides reducing his fear of white horses with black mouths, what would you want Little Hans to understand and handle better? His guilt for fighting with his little sister? His interest in sexual parts? His belief that women may have been castrated? His jealousy of his father's relationship with his mother and ways of coping with that? His concern about being loved? His transfer of interest away from his mother? His self-acceptance?
It may seem silly for me to encourage you to explore your own unconscious. You might ask, "How can I do that?" I'd like to give you some suggestions. You could read accurate descriptions (not stories by novelists) of the needs, urges, motives, and interactions of others and see if they apply to you or give you any insights. You could ask yourself probing questions and look for the answers. Examples: If you are afraid of serious dating or intimacy, ask yourself: Am I afraid of being hurt (rejected)? Am I afraid of emotional or physical closeness? If yes, emotional closeness, what is the source of that fear? If yes, physical closeness, what about my body or my history causes me to be uncomfortable? Is the Oedipus or Electra Complex involved at all in my case? Am I more interested in keeping my same-sex friends than in having a love relationship? If so, is that an escape from something scary and/or is there no one of the opposite sex available at this time and/or are there some homosexual tendencies involved here? If simple questions like this make you uncomfortable, and you want to rush on to another topic, it sounds like you haven't learned to accept all of yourself yet (see chapter 15). Of course, the secret is learning to ask serious, "on target" questions that demand thoughtful answers. This takes time.
Any person who is serious about understanding him/herself should also try some of these things: keep a journal, record your dreams, use awareness exercises, take psychological tests, use imagery techniques, talk with others about their psychological needs and motives, watch psychologically oriented talk shows, read a lot of clinical psychology, and seek therapy if needed. See chapter 15. Don't get uptight about exploring your psyche. It would be unwise to dwell on your unconscious, but even more foolish to not consider these factors at all. Think of it as an adventure, have fun. Every mind is fascinating. What a shame that many people never explore their unconscious at all.
Summary of How To Handle Stress, Anxiety and Fears
A. The behavioral-environmental part of the problem--
1. Exposure--confront the scary situation over and over.
2. Analyze the situation--log and assess the possible causes.
3. Avoid the stressful situation or person, change your environment.
4. Seek support from friends, counselors, self-help groups, etc.
B. The emotional part--
5. Learn to relax--counter the tension directly.
6. Desensitization--reduce the fear or anxiety response.
7. Flooding or venting feelings--get strong emotions off your chest.
8. Stress inoculation--learn to "stay calm" or to "talk yourself down."
9. Channel "nervous energy" into fruitful activities.
10. Develop psychological toughness--take on stressful challenges.
C. Skills for reducing insecurity--
11. Actually having more skills makes you feel more competent...you are!
D. Cognitive part--
12. Observe and model a person successfully handling the scary situation.
13. Recognize that faulty thinking may be the cause of your stress.
14. Correct misperceptions--consult with others; test out your views.
15. Challenge irrational beliefs and demands of how things "should" be.
16. Right wrong conclusions--check with others, test your reasoning, learn to think logically.
17. Intentional thorough planning of how to cope.
18. Healthy attitudes--face problems squarely, commit yourself to action.
19. Build your faith in your ability to handle stress and other problems.
20. Find an inspiring mission in life and nurture an optimistic attitude.
E. Unconscious factors--
21. Explore your history--for traumas, stressful emotions, and beliefs.
22. Utilize natural curiosity--ask relatives and friends about childhood.
23. Read psychological literature and case studies: Q: "True of me too?"
Now you are prepared to plan your attack on tension and fears that hold you back. Based on what you know, select the best two or three methods and give them an honest try. If they don't work, try something else. Good luck.