I composed a song today that I’d like to share with you. It’s called Shifting States, and it is my musical representation of something that happens in all of us all day long. Hope you enjoy it!
Every year, I have about 2000+ visits in my private practice office with the people who are my patients. I meet with some people more often than with others, but in general, I have the honor and privilege of working with many people from all walks of life. In meeting these people, and getting to know them, I also learn a great deal from them.
Many people in society think that psychiatrists only manage medications. The people with whom I meet seem genuinely surprised when I tell them that I provide psychotherapy as an integral part of my practice.
The longer I practice, the clearer it is to me that the majority of suffering comes from people being unaware that ‘who’ they are is just fine. At the core of everyone, there is health and well-being. There is a big difference between ‘who’ a person is, and what they are experiencing.
I’m certain that you, like me, have had times when you have felt stressed and upset, (help me out here…it’s not just me, is it?). Likewise, I’m certain that you have had times in your life when, on the whole, life seemed pretty good and a feeling of peace and calmness would describe your state of mind. Isn’t that true?
What we sometimes miss is the realization that our state of mind is changing all the time, even in the course of one day, (I would argue even in the course of one hour).
We are never one mood for hours or days at a time. Take a moment to reflect and see if this is true for you. Consider how you were feeling yesterday afternoon. Now, how were you feeling two nights ago? How about this morning? How about right now?
Even the most depressed person I have met with in my office will have some variation in the intensity of their mood symptoms throughout the day. The person with intense anxiety will admit to some periods of time during the day or week when they are less tight. People with psychosis, who are hearing at times threatening and critical auditory hallucinations, will report that sometimes it is easier to deal with the voices, and they don’t feel as frightened of them during those times.
I do not recall a single morning where I have gotten up, grabbed a piece of paper and started making my to-list: I need to get frustrated at least twice today. Remember to feel insecure for at least 15 minutes. Don’t forget to feel proud and confident once in the morning and then from 3-4pm. Oh, and make sure that some time is devoted to ruminating about a wrong someone did, and make sure I stew about it, maybe even give the other person the silent treatment, that will show them!
No one makes these kinds of lists, but that’s what shows up as we go through the day, isn’t it? All day long, our mood is shifting up and down. When our mood is up, there really is nothing to do, is there? Simply enjoy it. But then what happens? We like the feeling of the good mood, and we want to keep it.
During a good mood, (it might be peace, joy, happiness, gratefulness), have you ever had the thought, “Hey, I finally got it figured out. I’ve arrived! No need to ever feel down again.” (Honestly, it is the same thing when I hit a good golf shot…“There we go! I knew I could hit good golf shots! I’ve got my style down now. It’s going to be all fun and enjoyment from now on.” Until it isn’t, and then I’m tromping around in the woods, fighting with frustration, finding it difficult to understand what happened, and difficult finding my golf ball!).
Well, if there is nothing to do when our mood state is good, what’s the key to dealing with low moods? Would you be surprised if I said, “Nothing to do,”? I know it surprised me when I first started to understand the nature of moods.
The world around us has about a zillion approaches to getting away from low moods and into better mood states, doesn’t it? We can buy stuff. We can recite positive statements to ourselves. We can visualize. We can get the right relationship. We can work out and eat the right diet. We can mediate and pray. We can work towards goals and get awards and create a reputation. We can surreptitiously elicit approval from others, (sometimes we just demand it). We can also drink booze, smoke cannabis or throw back a few pills as we drink and smoke! The list is really too long to include here. Perhaps you have your own approaches to change the way you feel?
There is nothing wrong with any of the approaches listed above. Our old friend Shakespeare would say, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
However, here is something worth considering: when experiencing a negative state, a low mood, there really is nothing to do.
Have you ever held a snow globe and given it a pretty vigorous shake? What happens? The snow inside flies around every which way, doesn’t it?
The snow is like our difficult thoughts and feelings. When challenging thoughts and feelings are flying around in our head, we get pretty busy shaking the snow globe harder trying to get the snow to settle down, don’t we? “If I could just get rid of these thoughts/feelings! Then I could feel better and get on with my life!”
How do you get the snow to settle down in a snow globe? The answer is simple, isn’t it? You need to put the globe down, and then the snow settles by itself. In fact, if you do anything with the globe, the snow will start to fly again. It’s the same way with the difficult thoughts and feelings we can experience. Simply leave them alone, and at some point, they will move on. The entire body, including that mysterious thing called our mind, is designed for homeostasis, a term that means ‘getting back to the norm.’
There is an oft cited study from 2005, the National Science Foundation that stated that we have about 70,000 thoughts a day. That is a lot of thought, isn’t it?
It is the nature of thoughts that they come and go. If we leave them alone, they arise and then they move on. Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. Notice in this moment what you mind is doing. What thoughts are arising? Are they the same thoughts that you were having earlier today?
When we begin to see that ‘who’ we are and what we are experiencing are two different things, it becomes easier notice thoughts and feelings and not be as frightened of our own experience, because we understand that a new thought or feeling is already on its way.
Some psychotherapy approaches encourage people to get good at spotting dysfunctional thoughts. People are encouraged to look for evidence that their cognitive appraisals are either true or false. Homework is assigned where people are instructed to identify difficult thoughts and then pull them out like you would a weed in a garden and then actively plant more realistic thoughts. Time is spent learning how to reframe the cognitive distortions that arise and try to arrive at a more empowering way to deal with the thoughts and feelings that arise.
Is there anything wrong with this, or the nearly 400 different modalities of therapy currently used in psychotherapy today? Nope. But it does sound like creating a dam in a river that would otherwise be flowing, doesn’t it? Keep holding on to thoughts, and treat them like Play-Do…eventually they’ll improve and you’ll feel better.
Don’t take my word for it. Consult your own experience. What happens if you are simply grateful for the ‘good’ moods that arise, and do your best to be graceful when the ‘bad’ moods show up?
There is nothing to do. You are the experiencer. You are not the thoughts or the feelings that arise and then depart, to be replaced by other thoughts and feelings. When this simple relationship is seen, how much easier it becomes to see that trying to change negative thoughts and feelings is like trying to prevent storm clouds from moving into the sky. Good luck!
The sky has room for everything: clouds, storms, birds, planes, fumes, buildings. None of these things change the sky at all.
You are the sky, and whether presently your mood is up or down, there really is nothing to do in order for your mood to change. See if this isn’t true for you as you go through your day.
When we give up spending time and effort trying to get rid of difficult thoughts or feelings so that we can get on with our life, we more easily see that we can use our time and effort in this moment in the pursuit of doing things that really matter to us.
Right now is the only moment there is. Our life is happening right now, not in a week from now, and not a year from now. Similarly, our life is not happening yesterday or even earlier this morning when we were eating breakfast.
When we devote each day to taking action in service of our freely chosen values, we experience more engagement, more vitality and fulfillment, not because we got rid of bad thoughts or moods, but because we are living the life we have chosen for ourself. Meanwhile, clouds float by, storms advance and then pass along, planes and birds fly by, noxious fumes float up and then away, and Sky says, “You are all welcome. Stay as long as you’d like. I have room for you all!”
Please feel free to forward this to someone you think might find it helpful.
I’d be interested in hearing your comments, (so, I guess there might be at least one thing to do!).