FROM HELPLESS DISASTER TO SOLVABLE PROBLEM
When we approach any problem, how we approach it begins with an idea, a belief, a story about what that problem is, and what needs to be done about it.
To considerable extent, we can choose the fundamental belief or premise from which we approach any problem… and how we frame a problem can be the very key to success or failure.
In the movie Apollo 13, when the spacecraft was in grave peril, and people at Mission Control were freaking out expecting disaster, Gene Krantz (played by Fred Harris) stopped them and said, "What do we got on the spacecraft that works?"
With that one powerful question, he reframed the situation from helpless disaster to solvable problem. Everyone immediately shifted from disaster mode to focusing on the strengths and resources available to bring the astronauts home safely – which they did. The story would probably have ended much differently – and tragically – had they stayed in disaster mode.
How we approach our psychological challenges also begins with an idea, a premise, a story.
Currently, the widely accepted premise is that psychological problems – depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), addictions et al – are abnormal phenomena.
They don’t belong here. They were brought to us by some unfortunate circumstances – an unhappy childhood, a personal weakness, a society that’s sick. They’re polluting the system, like a harmful bacteria or virus, and we want all trace of them eliminated immediately.
What if that premise is wrong?
I’ve been working with people as a teacher, a marriage and family therapist, and a life coach for 35 years now. I started with that premise of problems as aberrations – the "disease model" of psychology. I don’t buy it anymore.
Let’s explore a different premise, and see where it takes us. The explorations starts with asking certain questions.
What if the underlying tendencies of these trouble are naturally occurring variations in human experience? What if they are not aberrations or pollutants, but challenges to overcome? What if their severity can be intensified or minimized depending on our experiences, thoughts and actions?
What if depression is largely a natural response to feelings of helplessness, too much passive activity, or an unnatural lack of physical activity?
What if a certain percentage of us come into the world with a tendency toward depression, and part of our challenge is to master that tendency – just like any of us has to master other physical and intellectual strengths and weaknesses?
We might find that the most effective interventions for depression involve more exercise, identifying effective actions to take, and discovering, in a very personal way, what sort of thoughts and behavior help us move away from feelings of depression.
This is exactly what researchers have found. In fact, physical exercise is the most effective treatment for depression – 2 ½ times as effective as medication (currently the most popular treatment).
We also know from Martin Seligman’s work that depression is often a symptom of helplessness, and that actively changing how we think and what we do can move us strongly out of depression. (There is also some fascinating research now about diet and depression that I’ll talk about another time.)
Even something as simple as regularly thinking of three good things at the end of each day can move some people out of the depressed range.
What if OCD is not some reaction to awful parenting or trauma, but instead a glitch in a part of the brain that occurs naturally in a few percent of the population? Then we’d be likely to see this as a quality that can be inherited, and, with our current understanding of neuroplasticity (the ability for us to effectively rewire our own brains with our minds), we’d also see that we could rewire our brains around that glitch, with some effort.
That is exactly what Jeffrey Schwartz of UCLA Medical Center has found and described in detail in his book Brain Lock.
What if ADHD isn’t the purely negative diagnosis that everyone thinks it is; what if there are strengths associated with it?
That too is what we see. Many highly successful, creative people have a mind that works like this; many successful CEOs flourish in their roles in part because of their continual search for something more interesting and the hyperactivity of their minds.
The challenge is to be able to focus, to choose to enter a less distractible state when needed, particularly in relationships.
But as Ned Hallowell, a leading expert on ADHD, has said, the best treatment for ADHD is… love. Relationships help these folks to settle down long term more than anything.
Of course, psychological challenges aren’t trivial, and they aren’t to be taken lightly or discounted. Depression, anxiety, addiction, OCD, ADHD… can vary in severity, and can all be horribly debilitating. Severe trauma can profoundly wound and harm us, and can exacerbate any underlying troubles.
But that said, I also believe that most of what we now diagnose as psychological trouble is well within the normal range of human functioning.
It’s just that that normal range isn’t the ideal perky perennially joyful image we’re encouraged to compare ourselves to from media depictions; the idealized vision of pop psychology tomes; or the romanticized primitivism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and some noted anthropologists like Margaret Mead.
Rather, they may be normal genetic and behavioral variations that have served our species as a whole in our rise to our current humanity.
And the good news is now we have more understanding of how to master them than ever.
This is easy to say but can be very hard work to attain; and at the severe end they can be as devastating as any severe physical trouble, if not more so.
Further, there are afflictions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that we really don’t have a good enough understanding of yet to approach in quite this way. I’m not trying to sugarcoat anything here.
But there is a big difference between facing a mysterious invasion of normal life, and facing a predictable and natural challenge of normal life.
It’s the difference between seeing ourselves as damaged goods or seeing ourselves as human. It’s the difference between going into disaster mode and going into problem-solving mode.
If it’s not abnormal, if we’re not afflicted with a personal weakness, but rather faced with a statistically predictable challenge, then we can face that challenge, look for the resources — the support, the tools and the internal strength — we need to help us, and do what we can to master and triumph over that challenge.
That’s a very different belief, and can lead to a very different story… and a very different outcome.
P.S. My new Master’s Course in Happiness is designed to help you learn the skills and habits that will help you build a flourishing life now. For a limited time, I’m offering this to TTPers at a special discounted rate of $39 a month.
Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website, www.drjoelwade.com.
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