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At The Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, our psychologists have years of experience. Unlike many other providers, our clinicians truly specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of anxiety and related problems. Our mission is to apply only the most effective short-term psychological treatments supported by extensive scientific research. We are located in Rancho Bernardo, Carlsbad, and Mission Valley.

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Filtering by Tag: psychological suffering

Part 2: Thriving through the Embrace of Life: Learning to Open through the Pain

Jill Stoddard

Part 2

Thriving through the Embrace of Life:

Learning to Open through the Pain

By Lauren Helm, M.A.

In the first segment of our blog on learning how to thrive, we explored the role that suffering may have in preventing or blocking our ability to live a valued, full life. Part two continues our discussion of thriving versus suffering, and introduces an alternative approach to responding to emotional or physical pain or discomfort.

 

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“Human beings, we have dark sides; we have dark issues in our lives. To progress anywhere in life, you have to face your demons.” – John Noble 

It can be said, in a sense, that in running away from our pain, we are metaphorically running away from our demons. These demons appear large, menacing, and powerful. They wave their limbs in frightening gestures, and offer deafening roars or shrieks when we move close to them. Our instinct is to flee – to run and escape these frightening beings – for fear that irreparable harm will come our way.  However, our constant attempts to hide away from painful events leads to the cycle of suffering that prevents a thriving, full life. Thriving is not happiness without pain. To thrive is to experience the full range of what it means to be human, and to consciously move forward on a path that is in alignment with who you want to be, and with what is important to you. Life is made up of the “good” and the “bad,” or the “pleasurable” and the “painful,” but focusing on removing the bad or the painful is likely to also prevent you from experiencing the beautiful , the awe-inspiring, and the heart-warming types of life experiences.

 

Sometimes it just takes a little willingness to open up to all that life has to offer, even when there is pain involved. This may take a certain degree of faith or bravery, because actively taking steps forward into valued territories often entails some degree of risk. There is risk in opening up to vulnerable but deep love, there is risk in pursuing an education or career path that inspires you but has no guarantees, and there is risk in boldly moving forward when there will likely be a certain level of pain (and growth) in doing so. Openness to the fullness of life on some level requires an acceptance of all that comes with it – the ups and the downs. In fact, an embracing of the twists and turns of life may very well be what leads to the transformation and growth that fosters thriving and well-being. Remember, pain in and of itself is not the problem. Suffering-caused by efforts to avoid pain- leads to the seemingly inescapable vortex of pain, and is a beast that feeds itself through escalating distress and avoidance. It requires extensive time and energy to maintain, and yet convinces us of its necessity. However, paradoxically, the way out of suffering is in “embracing the demons.” The alternative to suffering is thriving, an embracing of life.

 

Metaphorically, this cycle is like feeding a hungry tiger. Dr. Russell Harris, an ACT practitioner, explains how this works: “You discover a baby tiger in your house, and it’s cute and cuddly, so you play with it. Then it gets hungry, and restless, and irritable, so you feed it – and it settles down. But over time, the more you feed that tiger, the bigger it grows - and the more food it needs, and the more aggressive it gets when it’s hungry. Now it’s not cute anymore; it’s scary.  And you spend more and more time feeding it, because you’re terrified that if you don’t, it’ll eat you! But the more you feed it, the bigger it gets” (Harris, 2007).

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an empirically supported treatment that teaches clients to reduce suffering and truly thrive.  ACT is an experiential therapy and so relies on the use of metaphors and experiential exercises to facilitate learning in an experienced way. Metaphors can help us to really connect with concepts and ideas so that we can begin to apply these concepts; so that we can begin to more openly experience difficult life events, instead of automatically avoiding them. So that we can thrive.  Another commonly used metaphor in ACT that illustrates this point is the Chinese Finger Trap Metaphor. The more that you struggle with, and try to escape the finger trap by trying to pull your fingers out of the trap, the tighter the trap becomes. The struggle to control the situation and escape makes it worse. Instead, the way out of the trap is to yield, and bring both fingers closer together within the finger trap. And then it loosens, and you are set free.  Similarly, in the ACT Quicksand Metaphor, the cycle of suffering is represented by the experience of being in quicksand. If you struggle and try to fight your way out of quicksand, you sink more quickly. The way out of quicksand is to make as much contact with the sand as possible, lying on your back, and in doing so, you rise to the surface.

It is through the willingness to make full contact with life, the embracing of the many possible experiences that make us human, that we thrive. There is richness and fullness of life to be found when we creatively choose to embody meaningful living. We can start this process by letting go of trying to control the pain, and committing to act in ways that allow us to thrive.

 

Clinicians who wish to incorporate metaphors and experiential exercises into their therapy practice can check out Dr. Jill Stoddard’s The Big Book of ACT Metaphors here.

 

 

If you'd like to speak with Dr. Stoddard or another professional at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management for help learning about how to “embrace your demons,” please click here.

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References

Harris, R. (2006). Embracing your demons: an overview of acceptance and commitment therapy. Psychotherapy in Australia, 12(4), 70.

Harris, R. (2007). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) ADVANCED Workshop Handout. Retrieved from: http://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/2007_-_advanced_act_workshop_handout.pdf

Hayes, S. C., & Smith, S. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.

 

 

Tags: anxietyanxiety therapyacceptance and commitment therapyACTstress and anxiety in san diegoCenter for Stress and Anxiety Managementmental healthemotion regulation,anxiety disordersfulfillmentsufferingthrivingpainpersonal values

Modern Metaphor: Tapping into the Power of the Superhero to Turn Struggle into Triumph

Jill Stoddard

By Lauren Helm, M.A.

 

“At their best, superhero origin stories inspire us and provide models of coping with adversity, finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for good purpose.” Dr. Robin Rosenberg

Mythology has long shaped and been shaped by our human experience. Myths are stories or legends that typically include fantastic, colorful, and powerful individuals and events. Different cultures have different perspectives and ways of understanding the human experience, and thus cultural myths vary. There are unifying themes, however. Mythology makes use of symbols and metaphor, both of which represent and communicate significant, underlying meaning that may help us to understand ourselves better. They serve to illustrate a message and to explain the wide range of human experiences, on a collective or individual level, that may occur in life. In a mythical story, such as a fairytale, certain characters may symbolize different aspects of ourselves.

 

The journey that the mythical hero embarks on is often filled with adventure and fraught with challenges.  Many lessons are learned along the way, and growth is often the result. The mythical hero’s journey serves as a metaphor for what we ourselves may encounter; metaphor can be a guide. Joseph Campbell identified recurring, core themes that characterize both ancient and modern mythology, which tend to follow a pattern that he called, “the hero’s quest.” The hero’s quest and journey can also be seen as a metaphor for our own inner, psychological journey of growth and change.

 

 

“A hero is someone who rises above his or her fears and limitations to achieve something extraordinary ... a hero embodies what we believe is best in ourselves"  - Danny Fingeroth

Whether we are aware of it or not, mythology continues to permeate our society today, and even influence how we think. In fact, our society’s modern-day myths may even help us along the path towards healing.  Where might one look to find the mythology of our current times? We can look to our movies, our books, even our comic-books. Modern day mythical heroes take on all shapes and sizes.

Most easily recognizable are the superheroes that we find in comic books, but we also find heroes that may look differently than we expect. Mythical heroes are abundant and appearing regularly: Think of The Doctor of Dr. Who, Harry Potter of Hogwarts, or Katniss from the Hunger Games, for example.

 

 

“[Superheroes are a] modern day iteration of our ancient mythologies. There isn’t that much difference between the story of Icarus and that of Iron Man… They have seen prior incarnations in mythology to help explain the world around us or to teach instructive lessons…I think it is an important way to think about how fictional superheroes can make useful additions to our real lives. Not to literally become superheroes, but to use their context as a way to extend our abilities.” – E. Paul Zehr

Not only do fictional comic book superheroes, sci-fi, or fantasy characters represent our personal or collective values, they tend to be relatable on some level. Despite their supernatural or unusual powers or gifts, they also have uniquely human characteristics and flaws. The hero does not go through his or her journey unscathed; rather, the hero seems to step more fully into his or her power by transforming struggle into triumph. This is not done easily. There are losses, and there are gains. However, the hero continues forward, connecting to, and representing, a system of values that allows the hero to be successful.

 

“Some sort of strength of character (though it may be buried), some system of positive values, and a determination to, no matter what, protect those values ... the superhero—more than even the ordinary fictional hero—has  to represent the values of the society that produces him” – Danny Fingeroth

 

Dr. Janina Scarlet of CSAM knows firsthand the powerful role that superhero/fictional characters can play in helping certain individuals along the path to healing. The relatable nature of our current mythical heroes help us to connect with them, and access our own inner “hero.” Since the story of the modern-day hero’s journey can act as a metaphor for common human experiences, it can remind us that we are not alone in our suffering, Dr. Scarlet says. It can also provide us with a bit of a road map, helping to remind us to tap into our core values as we learn how to overcome our own life challenges and obstacles. The very idea of relating to superheroes in order to turn struggle into triumphs is what draws Dr. Scarlet to superhero mythology, and why she uses these metaphors in her practice of psychology.

This perspective is mirrored by other psychologists who use superhero mythology as a way of understanding the human experience. In a similar fashion to Joseph Campbell’s identification of core psychological themes and processes that underlie most mythical stories, psychologist Dr. Robin Rosenberg writes in her Smithsonian magazine article that “superheroes undergo three types of life-altering experiences that we can relate to. The first is trauma, which lies at the heart of Batman’s origin story, in which Bruce Wayne dedicates himself to fighting crime after seeing his parents murdered. In real life, many people experience ‘stress-induced growth’ after a trauma and resolve to help others, even becoming social activists. The second life-altering force is destiny. Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer, about a normal teenager who discovers she’s the ‘Chosen One’—endowed with supernatural powers to fight demons. Buffy is reluctant to accept her destiny, yet she throws herself into her new job. Many of us identify with Buffy’s challenge (minus the vampires) of assuming a great responsibility that compels her to grow up sooner than she wants to. Lastly, there’s sheer chance, which transformed a young Spider-Man, who was using his power for selfish purposes until his beloved uncle was murdered by a street thug. Spider-Man’s heroism is an example of how random adverse events cause many of us to take stock of our lives and choose a different path.” When we identify with these characters, we may better come to understand our own difficult life experiences, and what we want to stand for. It may lead to increased insight, growth, and healing.

 

 

“[The story of The Doctor of Dr. Who] is about love, it is about courage, it is about honor, and it is about pain - deep, emotional, psychological, inexplicable pain, that many of us, despite not having been in exactly the same situation can still very much relate to on a very deep, very personal level. And through this connection, we heal.” – Dr. Janina Scarlet

Indeed, the use of metaphor as a tool for psychological healing can be powerful. Metaphor is regularly used within Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a modern behavioral  theoretical orientation, as a way of assisting people in achieving a greater understanding and experience of the core processes that comprise ACT. These 6 core processes (acceptance, cognitive defusion, mindfulness, self-as-context, values, and committed action) are theorized to lead to psychological flexibility and optimal well-being (read more about the 6 core processes here). Since language (i.e. verbally thinking, explaining, or talking about these concepts) can interfere with direct experiencing (and learning and true integration of these processes into one’s life), metaphors and symbols can serve to bypass this issue and help us to dive into the underlying meaning and message that the metaphor communicates.


Superheroes or modern-day fictional characters often embody or live out the 6 core processes of ACT, acting as a guide or compass, and helping us to better understand what ACT is all about. A major piece of ACT is committing to live a life that is guided by your values (i.e. what is truly important to you) instead of living a life guided by avoidance of fear or discomfort. Our values also act as a compass, showing us the way to go, and what action to take. This is easier said than done, however. “ACT allows you to be the kind of person that you want to be…. [but] ACT is a bit abstract and people can get overwhelmed when they are asked to talk about their thoughts and feelings. They have a difficult time identifying what they are going through. However, most people have seen or read Harry Potter. People understand what he is going through when he has the flashback of his parents dying. He has a really hard time coping with that, and this is where the concept of acceptance may be introduced….Depending on the patient and which favorite character they relate to, I will use The Hunger Games, The Golden Compass, or Harry Potter to help them understand these core processes. For example, in the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, the main characters are really nervous, but they valued completing their mission and they did so. [This illustrates how] ACT allows people to see that you don’t have to be brave in order to act bravely if you value something, such as helping your friends and helping get the treasure back from the dragon,” Dr. Scarlet says in her interview with Geek Therapy.

Thus, Dr. Scarlet regularly incorporates superhero-informed metaphors in her therapeutic approach. Superheroes and other modern-day mythical heroes can be used as metaphors in therapy in a uniquely useful way because they remind us that “in our deepest darkest moment when we feel like no one gets us, when we can find someone to relate to [like a superhero]; we then feel less alone, we have hope to go on, and we feel more connected to others,” Dr. Scarlet says. Superhero metaphors can be a way of accessing ourselves, when we don’t yet know how to. They can even act as a roadmap for becoming our own superhero.


Stay tuned for our next blog, which will interview Dr. Scarlet about how she uses this innovative approach to therapy, and about her upcoming book! Dr. Scarlet will also be featured on a panel at Wondercon in Anaheim on April 19th.

You can also follow Dr. Scarlet on Twitter @shadowquill!


More about Dr. Janina Scarlet:

Dr. Scarlet earned her Ph.D. from the City University of New York. Her clinical experience includes using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help individuals with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, sleep, and other mental health and medical conditions, as well as using Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD. Dr. Scarlet also has experience working with a variety of mindfulness and meditation techniques, as well as compassion and self-compassion and is certified in biofeedback. In addition, she is fluent in Russian and can conduct therapy with Russian-speaking clients. Finally, Dr. Scarlet is a proud geek and is able to incorporate clients' interests into therapy, including but not limited to Batman, Iron Man, Green Arrow, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, and many others. She was recently interviewed by an award winning podcast, Geek Therapy, about her use of fantasy and geek culture in therapy. Above all, Dr. Scarlet believes in establishing an active collaboration with a client and working as a team in targeting the presenting problems.

If you'd like to speak with Dr. Scarlet or another professional at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, please click here.

Follow us! Subscribe to the CSAM RSS feed, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter (@CSAMSanDiego).


References


Cardona, J., & Scarlet, J. (2013, October 18). Episode 25: ACT and Using Fantasy in Therapy. Podcast retrieved from http://www.geektherapy.com/2/post/2013/10/episode-25-act-and-using-fantasy-in-therapy.html

E. P. Zehr (2012, September 28). The Superhero in You. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/black-belt-brain/201209/the-superhero-in-you

Fingeroth, Danny. Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society. New York and London: Continuum, 2005. ISBN: 0-8264-1540-7

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. Guilford Press.

J. Scarlet (2014, March 04). What's wibbly wobbly, timey wimey, and goes EERRWhooSShhEEERWhooSShhhEEEEERRWhoooSShhhWhoooshhee. Retrieved from http://shadowquill.com/1/post/2014/03/whats-wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey-and-goes-eerrwhoosshheeerwhoosshhheeeeerrwhooosshhh.html

J. Scarlet (2013, August 22). Geeky Therapists Take Over Comic Con. Retrieved from http://shadowquill.com/1/post/2013/07/geeky-therapists-take-over-comic-con.html

R. Rosenberg (2013, February). The Psychology Behind Superhero Origin Stories: How does following the adventures of Spider-Man and Batman inspire us to cope with adversity. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-psychology-behind-superhero-origin-stories-4015776/#yLSvAEA5qhzq4oKK