When life is difficult, thoughts can appear like trains running off the track:
“I quit my job; I’m terrified. I broke up with my partner and don’t know what’s next. I am retiring soon, and I feel like my life is over. College is not going the way I planned, and I don’t know what to do next. I did not expect my panic attacks to become every few hours. When I first started using it to help, it was only a little bit every once in a while; now it’s every day. I can be so stupid! When I think about life I feel like it’s all unfolding on top of me, and it’s all out of control, and so am I! Why do I feel so uncomfortable in my own skin!? How do I get these negative thoughts to stop? I wish my family would just accept me the way I am. Why is this so hard? I can’t take it anymore! I feel like something has got to give.”
Dealing with Stressors
These cascading thoughts are an example of an overload of thoughts. Or maybe only one of them is apparent, but it is still troubling to the core. Often known as “stressors,” they are the building blocks of anxiety. And with every building block and stressful moment comes “dysregulation” or imbalance. But usually, the stress we face in our life is not only mentionable, it’s manageable. And as we are able to talk to ourselves, our spouse, our family, and our close friends or associates, we can come to a conclusion. But when stressors grow to a size beyond our normal coping mechanisms and well beyond the help of the advice of well-meaning loved ones, we hit a wall. The balance, or equilibrium, becomes unequal. We need a life change, and we need an adjustment.
Life changes and life adjustments come in a number of twisting forms. Sometimes they gradually build, moment to moment, decision to decision. Eventually, we look back and wonder not only “how did I get here?” but “how did I not see it was going this way?” Then there are the ones that happen all at once, things that throw us into turmoil overnight, and we wonder how did we ever act strong enough to escape the last great tumult we faced? Without addressing stress, it can feel that this unanswered change can become a behemoth, and we begin to show symptoms of what is known in psychotherapy as “adjustment disorder.” Life seems to take a pause, and all our adventures and the quests we were on become lost or interrupted to the pesky need to re-balance – to re-adjust.
The thing about adjustment though is none of these things are done in a vacuum. When clients and I work together, some of the most important things we discuss are how we relate each of these issues to all the other issues. The interconnectedness between these issues can become complex, but it is through taking it apart, little by little that we discover the adjustment necessary for each issue. With each new discovery of power that a person finds they still have, they become aware that they are more in control than they once believed. And with each admission, our selves begin to reconcile these disparate pieces of power and combine them to reintegrate toward goals, adventures, and rejoining our quests.
One of the most powerful steps is aligning our values with concerns for change and concerns for well-being. Neither can exist without the other. This is because without well-being, we do not seek to form foundations of value. And without value, we cannot find the meaningfulness that leads to well-being. Cyclical, they are like the two hands M.C. Escher created that show each hand drawing the other. When we work to overcome adjustment disorder, we are in fact working to order our life in conjunction with our values and our needs for well-being.
Balance Between the Mind & Body
Another factor that must be integrated is the mind-body effect on well-being. The complexity of our issues are often magnified and maligned by the nature of neurochemicals, sensory organs, the central nervous system, and the brain. When our mind and body are working as they are supposed to work, they release the needed chemicals and mechanisms to react to stressors. But because of overwhelming stress and anxiety, especially when traumatic events are involved, our body can create habits and long-term biophysical consequences even when the body and mind are doing what they are supposed to do. Unfortunately, when we are stressed these consequences happen automatically, and they lead our bodies to reinforce stress. Without coping mechanisms in place and an understanding of the body, it is hard to manage these symptoms and make a change. But the brain and the body are amazing, and the brain especially because it has an elastic nature that can bounce back, also known as “neuro-elasticity” and “neurogenesis”. As psychologist Dr. Jennifer Sweeton puts it in her book Trauma Treatment Toolbox: “In fact, every experience, sensation, and interaction with others or the environment changes the brain, even if just to reinforce pre-existing networks. Since the human brain has approximately 86 billion neurons, each connecting to thousands of others, our capacity for brain change is enormous.”
Recent evidence-based practices incorporate mind-body techniques to help the process of restructuring parts of the brain responsible for continued stress reactions. Slowly they are changed bit by bit and day to day. Seeming like a lot of work, it is a daily task that involves commitment. But once a guide-map is set, that is the beautiful nature of therapy. A counselor is there with a client all the way to guide week to week and help bring values, well-being, and the mind-body connection all into alignment. The amount of each part needed is dependent on the concerns presented, but each part usually makes an appearance in the healing process even if only briefly. And when they come together the disordered can become ordered, and the new journey begins with all the needed safeguards and techniques firmly in place for success.
Pain can Heal
It is a journey from unbalanced to balanced. From feeling stressed to making quests. But remember, everyone eventually experiences adjustment issues. Because life is complicated. Things can get very difficult. They can seem impossible. But with deep support and a relationship between counselor and client that provides meaningful therapeutic change, the steps needed to act often become apparent. And the painful growth that was at one time concealing answers transforms. In time this overwhelming and inescapable pain finally shows it was in fact an opportunity disguised as pain to get our attention.
When pain is acknowledged for its healing qualities, we realize, “I answer my own questions. I listen to my inner self asking me to find the best possible way forward.” And with time, support, and self-care, we do.
Ryan is an LGBT allied counselor. Ryan believes the space between our relationships is where the most vulnerable expressions of ourselves often are, whether that is our relationship to our family, friends, work, spiritual or secular communities, even to our pets. The more important relationship of all, with ourselves, reflects itself in all other relationships. Ryan enjoys working with his clients as they get free from anxiety, depression, addiction, and the stressors associated with life transitions and adjustments.