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parke@parkeburgess.com



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Monday
Sep022013

One Post Everyone Should Read

If forced to say one and only one thing that would be most helpful to most people struggling with the vicissitudes of emotion and mood--in other words, to most people--this post is what I would choose to say.

Sometimes we feel bad. No one really likes this. In fact, our whole nervous system is set up to get out of bad feeling as quickly as possible and restore a sense of feeling good. But, as it turns out, feeling bad is part of what it is to be human. If we can orient ourselves to this crucial fact and its many implications, we can avoid a lot of unnecessary and fruitless suffering.

The nervous system is designed by evolution to maintain homeostasis--that is, to keep the body in the range of conditions wherein it can continue to live. A simple homeostatic mechanism is the common household thermostat. Its function is to keep the interior temperature within a certain range. The thermostat will monitor room temperature and turn on the furnace if the temperature falls below a certain point, turn off the furnace when the temperature gets to a certain point; or turn on the cooling system when the temperature goes above a certain point, and turn off the cooling system when the tempterature falls to a certain point. All of this produces the following cycle:

At the top of the cycle, the temperature is in the ideal range. Gradually, the temperature moves one way or the other, in the direction of too hot or too cold, until, at the bottom of the cycle, the thermostat is triggered to activate the mechanism to restore the desired temperature (furnace or cooling system). Gradually, the temperature returns to the desired range, at which point the corrective mechanism is switched off. The cycle repeats.

The human central nervous system does the same thing on many different levels at the same time. It monitors our blood oxygen and C02 levels, our body temperature, our blood sugar levels, hormonal levels, and so on. At an aggregate level, all of these factors and many more contribute to our overall state. We experience well-being when all these systems are in their optimal ranges, and some kind of discontent when one or more of these systems are sufficiently out of whack. Because the total system is much more complex than the thermostat example given earlier, there is often a lag time between when we experience discontent and when we start to feel better. This is the time when our central nervous system (CNS) is re-organizing itself on various levels to coordinate a re-regulation of the total system. Thus:

 

This cycle operates continuously virtually from the moment of conception until some time after we exhale our last breath. It never stops. At any given moment we are somewhere, as a total system, in this cycle. This is true for every one of us, all the time. As sentient beings capable of self-consciousness, we experience this cycle profoundly. It first impresses itself upon us early in infancy, if not before, and never releases its grip. We are thus always involved in the following drama:

Because our CNS is oriented always to restoring a good feeling, most of this cycle can be experienced as a problem, even as it is a perfectly inevitable part of any homeostatic system. Tragically, we can become so concerned with not wanting to feel bad that we become stuck in the lower regions of the cycle. Various psychological mechanisms can develop that, in effect, block our ability to round the corner and move back toward feeling good. Shame, a topic of special interest to me and much discussed in this blog, is one of those mechanisms that keeps us locked into perpetual states of feeling bad.

Therapy is especially effective in helping us see how we get stuck in feeling bad, and how we can unblock ourselves and keep this cycle flowing in an optimal way. Part of it, an important part, is recognizing that feeling bad is not a problem so long as we have some confidence that feeling good is just around the next bend.

Of course, I don't mean to minimize how profoundly difficult it can be to work through the impediments to a smoothly flowing homeostatic cycle. There are many thorny issues that can be involved, including trauma, organic (genetic) predispositions, and attachment dynamics of all kinds. But, as I say, if I could impart but one idea that is potentially most helpful to the largest number of people, it would be the idea of this dynamic cycle as a basic rhythm of human life.

Reader Comments (1)

It occurred to me it might be helpful to mention that "recognizing that feeling bad is not a problem so long as we have some confidence that feeling good is just around the next bend," indeed the whole content of this post, is homologous to the Buddhist concept of impermanence.

September 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterParke

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