False Coping Skills and Elephants

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Hound dog knows when I’m “finished”

Ever wake up just feeling completely whipped?

I feel like I’ve developed GREAT coping skills. After all, you either learn to cope or you’re “done”. So the options are pretty clear cut IMHO. Two coping skills I learned early on in adjusting to my “new normal” as a person who is “differently abled”, include:

1. Start each day new. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow will come without my worrying about it now. Handle today and today only.

2. Stay busy. Staying busy helps to keep your mind off your troubles and focus on the here and now. It can be busy-ness towards important things, or even the mundane.

The second one I use a great deal, but I’ll be honest. It isn’t exactly a HEALTHY coping mechanism. I don’t do well with a lot of down time. A perfect day for me is getting up (safely – believe me, it can be hard when you have a balance disorder and go VERTICAL for the first time that day), taking my dog for a walk while planning my day, re-enter the house in high gear without stopping until bedtime.

Yeah. Not always healthy. The problem with staying BUSY in order to cope is that it is a false kind of coping. This type of coping skill isn’t actually a coping skill at all. It is called avoidance. And friends? I do this really well. Some of you do too. (You know who you are…)

Staying Busy to Avoid

Do you “do busy” really well? It may be time to stop to discover WHY you stay so busy. Do you strive to remain busy to avoid unpleasant thoughts, actions, environments, even people? Don’t confuse healthy boundaries with avoidance. One is – well… HEALTHY. The other? Not so much. As a matter of fact, avoidance can lead to a number of physical and emotional problems. Psychologists have recognized avoidance for what it is for decades now. Yes, in the right context it can be healthy. But it is easy to AVOID to the point of harm. Spira, Zvolensky, Eifer, and Feldner (2004) explain that being busy to avoid our problems is actually a predictor of panic disorders. You see? The problem with staying busy to avoid something is that eventually you really will run out of things to do. Worse? Your body physically screams, “ENOUGH ALREADY!” and shuts down.

I am finishing up the last of numerous classes in my doctoral work and have already begun the very long process of dissertation study. This work keeps me really busy and it is work I actually enjoy because psychology is what I “do”. I work part-time as an adjunct professor and this helps to keep me busy. I love my work, love my students, and love to teach. The problem with working as part-time faculty at a community college is that it is impossible to predict how many courses you will be teaching semester to semester. For example, I taught the first summer school section, but not the second. I used the extra time in the beginning to catch up on some of my own school work and to do some “Spring cleaning” that had been long delayed… seeing as how it is SUMMER. These past few days though I’ve found I have had some down time. *grimace*

Forced Mindfulness

When I am forced to the point of literally running out of things to do… even for just a day or so, I find it debilitating.

Scan 3

Whoosh.

(Hear that? That was the air being sucked out of my lungs when the elephant in the room finally sat. On. My. Chest.)

I don’t do “mindfulness” well. I’m learning though.

Brown and Ryan (2003) explain mindfulness as being AWARE and ATTENTIVE. Let me explain on a more personal level and maybe you can “see” yourself somewhere in this:

Avoidance:

My new normal of hearing with a cochlear implant and living with a balance disorder is not easy. I’ve adjusted. Only to have to re-adjust. That’s OK. I’m flexible. Most of the time.

I work at a job I love and navigate life safely with a service dogMost of the time.

I am optimistic, cheerful, can poke fun at myself and enjoy busting my butt to help others. Most of the time.

I’m very busy and drop exhausted into bed each night and sleep well. Most of the time.

I have taken control of chronic depression and don’t let it control me. Most of the time.

I don’t feel sorry for myself. I like me. I recognize that I am doing well. Most of the time.

Truthfulness:

My new normal of hearing with a cochlear implant and living with a balance disorder is not easy. I’ve adjusted. Only to have to re-adjust. That’s OK. I’m flexible. Most of the time. 

Some days having a CI and Meniere’s disease sucks. I don’t hear perfectly. I feel left out. I’m tired of falling. I’m tired of running into things. I hate long-sleeves and high collars since they only hide bruises. I’m tired of adjusting. I’m going to cry. I’m going to scream. I may swear. 

I work at a job I love and navigate life safely with a service dog. Most of the time.

I love my job but it is really hard when the hallways are crowded. It can be overwhelming to have to rush from one side of campus to another. Crap. It’s raining? Really? *waves white flag*

I am optimistic, cheerful, can poke fun at myself and enjoy busting my butt to help others. Most of the time.

Sometimes I want to change my “… I’m fine, how are you?” to “I’m having a sucky day. And frankly? I don’t care how you are doing if you want to know the truth!!!!”. I’m going to have to ask for help. After all, Chloe cannot 1) retrieve a bag of dropped potatoes in the grocery store, 2) pick up that tiny paperclip without risk of swallowing it, 3) get the umbrella I dropped in a puddle without getting really muddy, 4) tell me EVERYTHING WILL BE OK.

I’m very busy and drop exhausted into bed each night and sleep well. Most of the time.

I can lay in bed and worry. 

I have taken control of chronic depression and don’t let it control me. Most of the time.

It’s hard when I have to “own” the knowledge that I will always “deal” with depression. 

I don’t feel sorry for myself. I like me. I recognize that I am doing well. Most of the time.

uh-huh. Ri -i -i -i -i -i…ght.

So yeah, sometimes I’m forced to pay attention and be aware. How is that helpful? Well, for starters attentive awareness facilitates choices of behaviors that are consistent with my needs, values, and interests (Brown & Ryan, 2003). It is healthy to really navigate personal feelings, thoughts, and even pain. David Cain wrote about mindfulness in a way that really “stuck” with me. It changed the way I view “forced attentive awareness”. Check out this great article, “How to Make Mindfulness a Habit With Only a Tiny Commitment“.

For me, mindfulness means being truthful with ME. I am learning to be mindful even when I am super busy. I do this because there will be days I am NOT busy and I want mindfulness to be an invited friend instead of unexpected guest. As a person of faith, it is also super helpful to be frank with God. In doing so, I am actually able to recognize false coping skills that in the long run are not healthy for me.

I’ve heard some folks say, “Oh golly. I can’t go there and allow myself to FEEL. You don’t know what I’ve been through“.

No. No I don’t. But I do know that pretending those feelings don’t exist do not change the fact that the elephant is THERE. At some point in time it’s gonna sit. On your chest. You won’t be able to breathe.

Be Mindful of Your Pachyderm

It is healthy to habitually and mindfully pay attention and be aware of what and who you really are. What are your struggles and successes? Where have you been, where are you now, and where are you going? Who is helping you get there?

What is really hard for you? What have you learned to do well? What do you need to change?

WHO ARE YOU? 

Don’t pretend that being mindful is the same thing as having your mind full. The latter is just another form of busy-ness on the cognitive level. Be attentive. Be aware. Do this with enough frequency that you can be mindful each and every day – for even just a few moments. I make it a priority to be mindful for a longer period of time – like a whole DAY, at least once a year.

But the elephant “sat” without invitation for me this past week. It took me by surprise. That is going to happen. However, if you’ve practiced mindfulness, you are going to discover…

YOU CAN BENCH PRESS AN ELEPHANT.

Denise Portis

© 2014 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Brown, K., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology84(4), 822-848. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.4.822

Cain, D. (2013). How to make mindfulness a habit with only a tiny commitment. Rapitude.com. Retrieved July 20, 2014, from http://www.raptitude.com/2010/03/how-to-make-mindfulness-a-habit-with-only-a-tiny-commitment/

Spira, A. P., Zvolensky, M. J., Eifert, G. H., & Feldner, M. T. (2004). Avoidance-oriented coping as a predictor of panic-related distress. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 18(3), 309-323. dii: 10.1016/S0887-6185(02)00249-9

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One thought on “False Coping Skills and Elephants

  1. What a brilliantly-written narrative! I relate to much of what you describe. .. enough so to say you are awesome for sharing this.

    Folks, you need to bookmark this one. It will speak (Advise) to you someday when you need it.

    Well done. As Dr. Brene Brown would say: ” You are Daring Greatly ”

    WOW.

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