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What is the Unconscious Mind — and Why Should You Care?

April 11th, 2016 · what is the unconscious mind

What is the unconscious mind?  Is it just a woolly idea… or does it make some kind of concrete difference to your real life?

what is the unconscious mind

Like an Iceberg, Most of the Mind is Below the Surface

Depth psychotherapists emphasize what’s going on “in the unconscious.”  Well, where the heck is that?  And how does what goes on there make any real difference?  To answer “What is the unconscious mind?” we first need to be aware that…

…The Unconscious is Largely Inaccessible to the Ego

“The ego” is that part of the mind that you’re consciously aware of, that’s subject to the control of your will.  It’s mostly what we know of our minds.

Yet, the ego is not the sum total of your mind.  Modern neuroscience shows us that a huge amount goes on in the unconscious parts of the brain.  James Bursley, David Cresswell and colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University’s Scientific Imaging and Brain Research Center used MRIs to establish that unconscious thought and decision-making really does occur in the brain.  This supported the research of Prof. Dijksterhuis (Radboud University, Nijmegen) on unconscious thought and decision-making.  As Bursley tells us,

…the idea of the brain processing complex information unconsciously is hardly new: Freud and Jung posited a complex unconscious… mind [which influences] our conscious thoughts and behavior. With elegant continuity, then, modern techniques in neuroscience and psychology are beginning to reveal the brain’s unconscious inner workings, bringing today’s scientists… face-to-face with the progenitors of our field.

As depth psychotherapists assert, the unconscious exists.  It “thinks” and influences us as part of our mind — beyond conscious control.

what is the unconscious mind

The Unconscious Has Its Own Characteristic Ways of Functioning

Jung, and some other depth psychotherapists believed that the unconscious possesses a special kind of knowledge, and even of thought.  The evidence tends to confirm that this is correct.  As psychiatrist and researcher Erik Goodwyn, surveying the scientific literature on “unconscious systems” puts it,

Unconscious systems are therefore capable of perception, symbolic processing, social judgment and motivated action, which becomes “activated” by the internal or external environment, and… works to orient and bias conscious processing [italics mine] to “serve its own ends” so to speak.

This means that the purposes of the conscious mind are strongly influenced by the unconscious — for its own purposes.  This is something we should care about.

what is the unconscious mind

The Unconscious is Primarily Creative

The unconscious is not just a pit of refuse, as Freud often seemed to believe.  Rather, as archetypal depth psychotherapy affirms, the “sake” or reason something happens in the unconscious is to further the expression and meaning of a person’s individual life.

If the conscious mind is working at cross purposes to the unconscious mind, however, the result can be chaos and stagnation, even decay.  It’s essential for the conscious ego to understand the concerns and purposes of the unconscious, and to align itself with these more fundamental goals.

Example.  Sue’s in Corporate Finance.  She’s worked long and hard, learning her field and working tirelessly to get ahead.  She’s succeeded, but at the cost of her health, her relationships and badly disrupted sleep. When she remembers dreams, they’re of titanic struggles and battles, where she is defending against huge, overwhelming armies.  Yet, in recent dreams, the opposing army’s battering ram is gradually breaking down the main gate of her castle.

Psychotherapeutic work revealed that Sue had deep conflicts between her conscious goals, and what the unconscious was actually seeking.

Depth psychotherapy is concerned with understanding the voices of the unconscious, and aligning the conscious ego with its underlying creative purposes.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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Dealing with Death of a Parent

April 4th, 2016 · dealing with death of a parent

Dealing with death of a parent in adulthood is a process that often fundamentally alters the lives of those who experience it.

dealing with death of a parent

Psychotherapists know that experiences of the death of a parent will vary widely.  In this post, we’ll confine ourselves to the situation of adults losing a parent.  But, even so, there’s immense variation in peoples’ experience.  Furthermore, as University of California psychologist Robert E. Kavanagh reminds us, there is great importance for us in being honest about our unique emotional response in the face of death.

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Forms of Grief

dealing with death of a parent

Adult loss of a parent takes many forms, and many, but not all occur during the mid-life transition or later.

Now, certainly, an adult may experience the loss of one or more parents while still relatively young, often with a great sense of  loss, grief — and unfairness.

Or, perhaps the parent may pass away in later life, possibly after a short illness, leaving us with a grateful sense that he or she lived a good, long life.

Then again, there are many instances where the person passes after a prolonged difficult physical illness or after suffering from a debilitating condition such as dementia/alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s, or Parkinson’s disease.  Such a condition may require intense care-giving, and may result in burn-out, exhaustion or illness, and/or even in outright trauma in an adult child who is a care-giver.

In any of these cases, the adult child undergoing the experience will likely feel that they have undergone a major life transition.

Loss of the Same Sex Parent

In particular, loss of the same sex parent can have a profound effect.

In important ways, the child models her- or himself, consciously and unconsciously on the same sex parent.  This means that her/his persona, the way he/she presents to the world, has been formed greatly by the same sex parent.  It also means that the shadow, those parts of ourselves that we prefer not to acknowledge, has similar linkages and congruities to the way that our parent was with us, and the way that we perceived them interact with others.

In the loss of a same sex parent, the individual may end up acutely feeling his or her own mortality.  It can be as if we see a kind of an image of our own passing, in the same sex parent.  It may also mean that we feel a certain sense of aloneness in the world.

dealing with death of a parent

The Orphan Archetype

If the parent who has passed away is the last living parent of the individual, this may be the occasion of the activation of the orphan archetype.  The individual may confront aspects of him- or herself that are like an abandoned child.  As James Hillman tells us, this

…implies a collapse into the infantile realm of the child.  Our strong, ego-centered consciousness fears nothing more than just such a collapse.

Yet such an emergence of the adandoned child in us may be just what we need. It can be very hard to feel such aloneness, and to feel that we now exist fully in our own right in the world.  Yet, simultaneously, it can mean that we have the chance to determine our own direction in life, and to live out our own most basic passions, in a way that is truly and uniquely our own.  Grief and the opportunity to live out our own legacy may be woven together.

Dreams and the Reality of Death

Depth psychotherapy recognizes that it’s not unusual or abnormal to encounter a deceased parent in our dreams.  Certainly dreamwork seems to have some important connections with the ways that we undergo the process of grief work.  Dreams of our parents may also have very important roles in the individuation process, as we work through the true — and often very complex — meaning of who a parent was for us, and the impact they have had on us, in both conscious and unconscious ways.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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The Meaning of Severe Situational Depression: 4 Solid Insights

March 28th, 2016 · severe situational depression

Severe situational depression differs from clinical depression, but psychotherapists know it can greatly impact the individual who is experiencing it.

severe situational depression

Often, today, the attention of the public and of the media is on long-term, chronic depression, which truly is a serious issue.  However, we can often lose sight of the fact that an intense situational depression can have a huge impact on a person’s life.  Here are four solid insights around coping with severe situational depression.

1.  Just Because Depression is Situational, Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Severe

We tend to contrast depression that is caused by some specific event or situation in our lives with “clinical depression”, the on-going depression that can be a nearly constant factor in the lives of those who struggle with it.  While clinical depression is often severe, it would be a mistake to think that there is no such thing as severe situational depression.

Severe situational depression exists because severe situations exist, such as job loss, difficult marital breakdowns, failure or setback in a major life goal, serious illness in a child, loss of a loved one.  Any of these or many other circumstances can lead us into a situational depression that is severe, and that finds us asking very major questions about our lives.

2.  Severe Situational Depression Needs Attention — Not A “Stiff Upper Lip”

severe situational depression

“Solitary Stoic Soldiering” Won’t Help!

Because situational depression stems from something that has happened to us, it’s easy to tell ourselves to “just toughen up.”  We often feel that we should be able to simply power through these kind of setbacks by strength of will alone.  On the other hand, we may tell ourselves that no one is going to be able to understand or feel what it is that we’ve been through, and so we just stay silent.  These attitudes are widely present in our culture, but given the kind of socialization that boys receive, they are particularly prevalent amongst men.

Yet, it may not be easy or even possible to “power through” the wounds and the feelings that lie behind situational depression.  Often, it’s essential to open up to another, in a safe environment such as therapy for depression, as  a way of moving forward.

3.  Severe Situational Depression May Well be Telling You Something Important About Your Life

The meaning of severe situational depression may not be what it initially appears.  When a life event triggers severe situational depression, the depression is often connected to other important factors in life, and to the core ways in which we perceive and understand ourselves.  It can be very important to examine the depression, and what it might be “saying to us” about how we approach our lives as a whole, especially where major life transitions are concerned.

4.  Situational Depression Has An Unconscious Dimension

Often, severe situational depression can be connected to important and powerful things going on in the unconscious mind.  Prof. Calvin Colarusso, of U. California, San Diego, and others have documented how deeply held beliefs and experiences in the unconscious mind can have a profound impact on depression that occurs when our life situation changes.  Getting to the bottom of these unconscious factors can often enable the individual to move beyond the depression, and may bring very significant change to how the individual approaches life.

A severe situational depression may be more than just a liability or an obstacle.  If dealt with appropriately, it may open important doors in a life, and show the way to renewal, as depth psychotherapists such as Jungian analysts are well aware.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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“I Feel Trapped in My Life”: A Common Midlife Sentiment, Part 2

March 21st, 2016 · i feel trapped my life

As we saw in Part 1, “I Feel Trapped in My Life” is an all-too-common sentiment in the second half of life.  People very often feel the need for some difficult-to-define kind of freedom.

i feel trapped my life

It’s all good to “normalize” the feeling, to recognize that many people, to varying degrees encounter this feeling at some time in their lives from the late 30s on.   But other than just passively bearing the feeling, how should we react to it?  What can we possibly do about it?  Can we possibly get beyond the sense that life is an inescapable trap in the second half or life, or, are we just — stuck with it?
i feel trapped my life

FORK IN THE ROAD –YOU MUST CHOOSE!

To a Certain Extent, the Feeling of Being Trapped is Unavoidable

To a certain extent, the sense I have that I feel trapped in my life is an unavoidable one.  Life, by its nature, confronts us with endless choices between mutually exclusive options.  If I take a job in Toronto, I can’t simultaneously be working at a job in Sydney, Australia, to choose an extreme example.  Every time I make such a choice, I cut off one or more possibilities.  On the one hand, it can feel like being trapped.  On the other hand, if we never decide anything, we never are able to live out anything — which is an even worse trap!

Can You Accept The Flow of Life?

Depth psychotherapists know that one of the crucial parts of the life journey is accepting where it is that life has taken us, when these are things that occur and we have no control over them — the whole range of fateful happenings that we didn’t plan, and that didn’t want.  They can range from the merely undesirable, straight through those things that are completely devastating.  The most difficult of these things are such that no human being could feel glad about them — or understand why they occurred.  You probably have your own examples, but premature loss of a loved one, and the life-changing illness of a child would be two profound examples.

While it can never take the wound away, there is an important and profound kind of healing that occurs when the individual is able to accept in a fundamental way what has occurred.  When the individual can simply let what has happened be, and stop resisting it.  In my experience, such acceptance tends to happen most frequently in the second half of life.

 

 

The Great Journey of Self Acceptance

Depth psychotherapy is aware that, combined with these two issues, is the great journey of self-acceptance that Jungian psychotherapists like Robert A. Johnson call shadow work.  One of the things that can trap us most completely is an inability to accept, or even acknowledge those parts of ourselves that do not fit well with our self-understanding, or the ways in which we feel that we “should” or “ought” to be.  Very often these aspects of ourselves will appear in our dreams, in situations where we feel ourselves gripped by compulsions,

Working with the shadow can bring a great sense of freedom.  Having compassion and acceptance for the wounded and unacceptable parts of who we are can oftentimes open new possibilities in our lives.  The shadow, which we often repress so hard, may often be a source of genuine creativity, when it comes into dialogue with the conscious self.

“I Feel Trapped in My Life” — But Paradoxically, A Journey May Await

In midlife and the second half of life, meaning and movement in our lives may well come from sources that are different than we might expect.  Accepting who and what we are as fully as possible may well bring us to a surprising renewal.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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“I Feel Trapped in My Life”: A Common Midlife Sentiment

March 14th, 2016 · i feel trapped my life

“I Feel Trapped in My Life” — Have you ever said this to yourself?  It’s a sentiment to which many people in midlife and later can relate.

feeling trapped my life

Depth psychotherapists know that these feelings will be recognizable to many in various life stages, but they can become overwhelming acute in the later parts of life.
The sense of feeling trapped at midlife manifests in various ways.

I Feel Trapped in My Life from Brian Collinson

The Feeling of “Having Settled”

During “the first adulthood”, the period leading up to midlife, we often make choices that seem reasonable or good, which have binding effects far into the future.  They can seem good at the time, and, all things considered, they probably are.  Yet, they can often have a huge impact in the midlife transition of our lives and beyond.  We may well feel that these choices are much less of a fit at that stage, but, by then, the cost of altering them may seem prohibitive indeed.

We may experience these high consequence choices in many areas of our lives, including:

  • relationship with a spouse or partner:
  • binding choices around career path;
  • in some cases, just generally settling for a low gear, possibly low risk, life, or,
  • a thousand other possible variants.

As we confront our lives, if we can be honest with ourselves, we might feel a sense of being trapped by our decision, whether they occurred very intentionally and deliberately, or just as a matter of events simply taking their course.

The Feeling of “I Could Have Had More, Accomplished More”

Whatever form the fateful choice takes, there may well come a point in our life journey when we feel pain and regret associated with these choices, as depth psychotherapists well know.  The individual may feel that he or she has somehow missed their life.  Consumed with regret, his or her experience of life can seem like hollow play-acting.

The individual is often filled with a deep yearning for more.  To have accomplished more, perhaps to have had more, to have had different experiences, and possibly even different relationships.  For the individual having such an experience, life may feel excruciatingly painful, empty and hollowed out.

Perfectionism

The individual’s inner perfectionism can often spur these feelings.  Perfectionism may savage the individual’s sense of accomplishment, telling him or her that anything and everything done is worthless or simply “not enough”.  For the perfectionist, life can start to seem like an endless and inescapable series of brutal reminders of his or her own inadequacy.  And as researchers like UBC’s Prof. Paul Hewitt point out, often, every new success simply raises the bar higher — so that happiness, or joy of accomplishment, is an eternally receding target.

Avoidance of Persons, Places and Things

The individual who feels trapped by life, who feels that his or her accomplishments are negligible, and that he or she has made choices that have put life on fundamentally the wrong track, may start to avoid persons, places and things that remind him or her of these painful feelings.  When this happens, we know that we’re taking ourselves out of the mainstream of our lives.

feeling trapped my life

The Power of the Unconscious

In the midst of our feelings of trapped-ness, we may resist things being any different in our lives.  As painful as the trapped sensation is, it may feel better than taking the risk of letting alternatives to our current life experience enter our lives.

Yet, something may be trying to emerge in our lives, if we can have the courage to be open to it.  Meaning and purposefulness may be found in listening to those parts of the self that are unacceptable to the ego.  This is the part of the personality that depth psychotherapists and Jungians call the shadow.

In the parts of the psyche that Jung called “the undiscovered self”  may reside a very different image of who we really are, and also a way forward into a meaningful life in midlife and the second half of life.  We’ll explore this in the second part of this post.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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Dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome : A Very Major Life Transition!

March 7th, 2016 · dealing with empty nest syndrome

Dealing with empty nest syndrome often doesn’t get the respect it deserves in psychology and psychotherapy circles.

dealing with empty nest syndrome

It often gets treated rather indulgently, as if the pain associated with children growing up and leaving the family home is really about parents who just need to mature and get on with life.  The only thing wrong with that idea is that it’s completely false.
As psychotherapy, the idea that empty nester parents “just need to get over it” would betray a real lack of understanding of the power of the psychic forces that are at play in the drama of parenting.
dealing with empty nest syndrome

We’re Invested!

Parenting: An Enormous Life Investment

Parenting is highly involving and emotional.  Our culture places many demands on parents, even before the child arrives.  The process which many parents go through prior to the arrival of a child is intense indeed.  The birth process itself is extremely demanding and involving for parents.  When the child arrives, in today’s world, a whole vast array of challenges open up before the parents.  Developing social skills, successfully, navigating the various stages of development, completing all the stages of education, fostering interests and extra-curricular activities, helping the teen gain some orientation around sexual and relationship issues, gaining some sense of vocational direction and possible post-secondary studies, getting finances in order to make those studies possible — the list goes on and on!  A tremendous investment of feeling, effort and value is required of the parent, whether mother or father.

The Archetypal Power of Parenthood

In addition, the parental archetypes are among the most powerful.  As Jung himself put it,

The deposit of mankind’s whole ancestral experience — so rich in emotional imagery…. has exalted this group of archetypes into the supreme regulating principles of religious and even political life.

The same, it almost goes without saying, is true of family life –and, at certain stages in life, the life of the individual.

When these parental archetypes truly manifest in our lives — as they do for very many parents — they call upon us for a tremendous investment of self and energy, often, for many parents, virtually without limit.

So we make this huge investment, we’re all in — and the child does well and grows up.  What then?

Who Am I, Post Empty Nest?

Given the tremendous investment of the self that goes into parenting, depth psychotherapists cannot be surprised that, when the child reaches a point of no longer needing this kind of intense parental involvement, and is even at the point of moving geographically out of the house, the parent often suffers a profound sense of loss.  This may include an actual loss of identity.

After the Kids Leave: Mother and Father Archetype

So the major life transition of the post empty nest parent may very well be about finding post-parental meaning, identity and purpose.

Dealing with empty nest syndrome may very well involve addressing how the creativity and potency of the parental archetypes manifest in us.  That question takes us into areas central to our own depths and creativity.  In later life, we seek to discover:

  • How shall I give birth?
  • How shall I nurture?
  • How shall I be potent?

The answers to these questions take a myriad of forms, and although they are archetypal in nature, they may lead us more and more into our unique individuality.

Reinvestment: Meaning and Creativity

The major life transition known as the empty nest requires that we metabolize the past, digesting our experience as parents.  It requires that we celebrate all the good things that we have experienced with our children to date, acknowledging the changes in our relationships with our children, as we move into the future.

As with all good depth psychotherapy ,  we are called to move into our future with feeling, questing for creative ways to respond and to discover the meaning in our emerging lives.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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Is Looking for Meaning in Dreams, Well, …Silly?

February 29th, 2016 · meaning in dreams

There are many people, psychologically trained and not, who will tell you that they know the truth of meaning in dreams: “They’re absolute rubbish!”

meaning in dreams

“I dreamt I was in a hotel in Venice…”

“They’re just meaningless drivel”, they confidently assure us, “…pay them no heed.”
Well, are these people correct?  Are depth psychotherapists who strive to identify the meaning of dreams the psychological equivalent of the members of some misguided cult of extraterrestial worshipers, who stand, staring hopefully (pathetically) into the heavens, waiting for the saucers to land, but alas, –They just aren’t coming!
meaning in dreams

Any day now!

The Materialistic, Brain-as-Computer Model

There are some in modern psychology who, right up to the present day, would understand dreams as some sort of byproduct of an essentially physiological function in the brain.

In 1977, the famous Harvard dream researcher J. Allan Hobson proposed a completely neurophysiological theory of dreams in which a “dream state generator” in the brain stem bombards the forebrain with random nonsensical misinformation, of which the forebrain (vainly) ties to make sense.  Similarly, British psychologist/computer scientist  Christopher Evans proposed that dreams were simply the brain’s “off-line time”, analogous to that of a computer.  In much the same vein, Crick and Mitchison held that dreams were simply the brain dumping redundant information.  None of this would suggest that dreams are much use to depth psychotherapy.

The Age of Neuroscience & More Holistic Understandings of Dreams

However, as time has gone by, neuroscience methodologies have supplied new tools and perspectives to psychology, and evolutionary psychology has created new conceptual frameworks, as has a more holistic understanding of the human psyche.

By 1988, formerly hardcore materialist researcher J. Allen Hobson had changed his view of meaning in dreams:

I differ from Freud in that I think that most dreams are [not] obscure… but rather are transparent and unedited.  They reveal clearly meaningful, undisguised and often highly conflictual themes worthy of note by the dreamer….  My position echoes Jung’s notion of dreams as transparently meaningful…

Or, as prominent Stanford dream researcher, William Dement, put it,

Only the dream can allow us to experience a future alternative as if it were real, and thereby to provide a supremely enlightened motivation to act upon this knowledge.

What We Know Now About Meaning in Dreams

Long before CT scans and fNMRs, pioneer psychotherapist Sandor Ferenczi told us “Dreaming itself is the workshop of evolution”.  But modern neuroscience techniques now confirm that dreaming enables us to enter into and share the phylogenetic programming of both the human and the mammalian past.  Anthony Stevens marshals an array of evidence in support of this conclusion, including:

+ The emergence of dream sleep 130 million years ago, and its persistence across a wide range of species demonstrates that it is a neuropsychic activity of the greatest biological significance.

+ The findings that EEG theta rhythm, originating from a specific part of the paleo-mammalian brain, namely the hippocampus, is associated with the performance of crucial survival behaviours and memory storage, as well as with REM sleep lends weight to the additional hypothesis that in dreaming sleep… the human animal is updating strategies for survival in the light of its own experience and in the light of all the potential for experience specific to the species [italics mine].

In other words, there’s meaning in dreams, and both connection to the human past and to resources for dealing with the human present. As such, dreams have a meaningful place in depth psychotherapy.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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Dealing with Stress & Anxiety: Tips from Our Inner Neanderthal, 2

February 22nd, 2016 · dealing stress anxiety

As we saw in the first part of this post, we stand to learn important things about dealing with stress and anxiety by looking at our evolutionary heritage.

dealing stress anxiety

       Some modern hikers… looking a little bit Neanderthal!

This post builds on Part 1, focusing on what evolutionary and archetypal psychology can teach us about dealing with stress and anxiety.

3. Nothing’s Too Modern about “Modern Anxiety”

While modern life may provide many stressors and sources of anxiety, the actual mechanisms of anxiety have their roots in our biological self, and are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years old.

As Prof. Anthony Stevens states, “to be in the grip of a phobia is to realize the power of an autonomous complex operating at an ancient and unconscious level of the brain.”  In the last post, we looked at the evolutionary basis of some of these phobias.  Similarly, we can see the evolutionary roots of many other types of experience that are related to anxiety.

Panic, for instance.  Researchers such as Prof. R. M. Nesse and Columbia’s Dr. Donald F. Klein have made good cases to establish that panic is an evolutionarily-programmed response to situations such as suffocation, or, in fact, to any situation which requires escape via energetic flight.

Also, as far back as the 1920s, researcher W.B. Cannon showed that anxiety itself is a form of vigilant response that enables us to be alert to changes in our surroundings, preparing us to meet any emergency situations that arise.  He showed the connection between anxiety and the body state of arousal which is activated by centres in the limbic system of the brain.

dealing stress anxiety

                                              VIGILANCE

 

4. Dealing with Stress & Anxiety: Getting the Balance Right

Emotions are adaptive responses that evolution has provided.  They serve to keep us safe, and get us through demanding situations.  We now know that we experience anxiety when cues associated with a possible danger have been perceived, but before we get an accurate picture of the real nature of the danger.

This is important, because, as Hans Selye, the famous stress researcher established, organisms perform best when subjected to moderate amounts of stress.  We need to be conscious of this, and avoid putting ourselves into states where the level of stress is so high as to be noxious, even possibly dangerous.  But by the same token, we need to find ways to avoid getting ourselves into a headspace where any amount of stress seems intolerable, as this, too,  is going to keep us out of the mainstream of our lives.

5. Don’t Just Smash the Warning Light

Self-acceptance and self-knowledge are the heart of depth psychotherapy, and have a lot to do with dealing with stress and anxiety in ways that work for us.  We have a choice to listen to the wisdom of the 2,000,000 year old man when it comes to stress and anxiety, or to ignore his wisdom and basically go to war with him.  That last thing is likely not going to go well.

Anxiety is like a flashing red warning light.  The best way to deal with such a flashing light is not to smash it, or just figure out how to turn it off, but to figure our why it has started to flash.

As Prof. Nesse puts it, “The capacities for anxiety and mood were shaped by natural selection because they have been useful….  [S]ome conditions that seem like diseases are actually defences.”

Our anxiety is telling us something essential about our lives.  If we can listen, hearing our own being and our unconscious mind, anxiety may well lead us toward something that can gives a greater sense of harmony and completeness in our lives.  However, there is no alternative to doing the hard work of getting inside our anxiety, understanding why it’s there, and how it actually affects us.

Finding ways to listen to our own being, and understanding what really motivates us, are key part of our journey to wholeness.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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Dealing with Stress & Anxiety: Tips from Our Inner Neanderthal, 1

February 8th, 2016 · dealing stress anxiety

Dealing with stress and anxiety is a crucial topic in our time: do evolutionary and archetypal psychology have anything helpful to say about it?

dealing-stress-anxiety

Your Neanderthal consultant

Well, it turns out that they do.  Learning to acknowledge our anxiety, and to give it its appropriate due, is an important exercise in self-acceptance, as a part of psychotherapy.  It amounts to acceptance of part of what Jung would call our inner “2,000,000 year old person.”
Anxiety has evolved as part of our psyche for some pretty good reasons.  Just what exactly does it do for us?

1. You Need Your Anxiety

Much as many modern people feel that their lives are riddled with useless anxiety, the fact is, that we do genuinely need our anxiety to survive.  As psychiatrist Anthony Stevens puts it:

Psychiatric emphasis on anxiety as a classifiable “illness” has given rise to the erroneous belief, current through most of [the last 100 years], that anxiety is “neurotic” and that no well-adjusted person should expect to suffer from it.  In fact, the capacity to experience anxiety is indispensible to survival….  An animal without fear is a dead animal. [italics mine]

Evolution has developed anxiety as a means of helping organisms to survive and thrive.  In fact, anxiety is a special form of alertness that helps humans and most of our animal kin to register when there are changes in our environment, so that we can respond appropriately to any type of emergency that might arise.

In fact, evolutionary psychologists can demonstrate how irrational fears, or phobias, are linked to appropriately adaptive responses that have somehow been blown out of proportion.

dealing stress anxiety

2. Many Anxiety Disorders are Out-of-Order Forms of Adaptive Strategies

Depth psychotherapists well know that, when anxiety gets out of whack, it doesn’t help us to respond to situations properly.  Yet, even then, we can see how phobias get their start from an appropriate response that has a basis that facilitates our survival:

We need to deal with stress and anxiety in an appropriate and complete way, that accords with depth psychotherapy.  To do that requires coming to terms with parts of the psyche that are rooted in our evolution, and fixed in responses to the world that date right back to our early human and proto-human ancestors.  In speaking of contemporary research into anxiety and panic, Dr. Stevens tells us, “[All researchers] agree that the physiological and psychological components of anxiety, fear and panic galvanize an organism to adaptive action.”

3. Personal & Archetypal Dimensions of Dealing with Stress & Anxiety

A key concern for therapy, then, is to understand how stress and anxiety in the individual have been distorted into forms that keep them from helping to “galvanize an organism [ourselves!] to adaptive action.”  To understand that fully in the life of the individual means examining both the personal roots of their anxiety, and the ways that archetypal elements of the psyche come into play in that person’s particular situation, and understanding the role that all these factors play in our journey to wholeness.  We’ll be opening this up more in Part 2 of this post.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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© 2016 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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What is My Life’s Work? — A Vital Second Half of Life Question

January 25th, 2016 · what is my life's work

“What is My Life’s Work?” might be a question we expect from those in their 20s, but it also matters in midlife transition and throughout the life cycle.

what is my life's work

It may not be obvious to everyone, but we have a life’s work — something that we do and live as an expression of who we most fundamentally are.  As James Hillman suggests in his book The Soul’s Code, there are things for each of us that are simply a natural expression of the inherent way we are in the world.  The trick is to keep others peoples’ images of ourselves, expectations and prejudices about us at enough of a distance that we can begin to see what it is that really expresses us.  And, as depth psychotherapy knows, there is another whose images, expectations and prejudices are potentially even more destructive — and that person is found right in the mirror.

The question “What is My Life’s Work?” only gains in importance as we move through adulthood:

Don’t Assume That It’s Your Career!

It would be a very big mistake to assume overly quickly that your life’s work is your career.  Some careers are true vocations; many are rather partial things.  Often people will like their career, or tolerate it, but that is not the same thing as finding oneself  in the grip of the passion of one’s life’s work.  The question “What is my life’s work?” is only answered when one feels that “Yes!  This is why I’m here!  I was born to do this!”  It may well take psychotherapy to help people find this place.

Don’t Assume It’s Over If You Retire

Some plan to retire, and have a life of relative leisure, living as if their “life’s work” is over.  However, as Jung put it, it’s good to retire, but not into nothing.  If retirement is to be good, it mustn’t just be fun.  It must be meaningful and engaging.  That means that there must be involvements in retirement that have soul in them.

Don’t Expect to Find It Just By Thinking About It

Answering the question”What is my life’s work?” is not going to be accomplished by just sitting around reflecting on it in the abstract.  It’s necessary to try things, to do things, to have experiences.  If you feel something beckoning to you through a feeling that it would be good, joyous or meaningful, then it’s essential that you go and do it.  Only by trying it will you know whether it’s truly you or not.  Your unconscious mind will have something to say on the subject, also.

Your Life’s Work May be the Same Thing as “You”

Sometimes, a person’s life work may be something they do so easily or naturally that it doesn’t seem to have particular significance.  I can think of a letter carrier who used to deliver mail in my area, a man with such a natural gift for connection with others that everyone in the area knew his name.  I don’t think that he was aware, but I believe that his uncanny capacity to bring about connection may have been his life’s work.

what is my life's work

Wholeness and the Self

The call to wholeness may have a great deal to do with our life’s work.  That which we do with a natural creativity, and that continually opens new doors may be both our life’s work and a key part of our journey to wholeness.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

PHOTOS:  Attribution Share Alike ©  Mike Beauregard
© 2015 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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