This has been a difficult year for many people and , as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, I believe that its message is needed more now than ever. Let me place the emotional impact of hard times and the reports of never ending tragic events in the context of other psychological problems .
Sometimes people become overly anxious or seriously depressed because of a traumatic history or other organic reasons. There is either a corruption of the neuro-pathways in the brain, some type of neuro-chemical imbalance or some other medical condition that that causes the dysphoric mood and feelings. Clinically, these are referred to as mood disorders. At other times, the events in a person’s environment which are uncertain, frightening or discouraging are responsible for one having disordered thoughts and feelings.
In the former situation, the individual’s experience is distorted or exaggerated and does not correspond proportionately to reality. In the latter, the person’s unpleasant experience is a consequence of the difficult conditions in which the person lives. Clinically, this circumstance is classified as an adjustment disorder .
Also, although more rarely , there are societal situations when living conditions are so stressful and uncertain that significant segments of a population experience a collective distress and exhibit the symptoms of anxiety and depression. In these situations, the persons are not disordered, the society is.
Such is the situation America faces today. The impact of the media reporting the frightening threats of such things as nuclear war, international terrorism, domestic gun violence and unstable political leadership, on a round the clock daily basis, has raised our stress levels to an unprecedented and emotionally dangerous level.
With mood disorders, the standard treatment is psychotherapy and sometimes medication which are employed to heal old emotional wounds, to restore neuro-pathways and to develop more adaptive response patterns. With adjustment disorders, treatment consists of combination talk therapy and education/skill training to help the person gain a larger perspective on their life and to learn coping skills to elevate their mood and lower their stress.
Although there is no treatment, as such, for living in a disordered society, there are certain societal events and rituals which can help. Holidays such as Thanksgiving provide an opportunity for folks to step back, turn off the news and realize that despite the many absurdities and threats, life also has many blessings and moments for which to be thankful.
If you have become overwhelmed with bad news, take some time this year to reflect and discover that there is more to your life and more to the world than the negative and the bad. Think of and put your personal story in context. Think about the past as well as what you anticipate and strive for in the future. Remember and reconnect with the people, relationships and even the animals, about which you may have forgotten about or have taken for granted but which mean so much to you.
Likewise, remember the great stories where hardships have been overcome. Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims’ story is particularly inspiring because it reminds us that, although our times are difficult, our ancestors faced and overcame almost unimaginable hardships. What is so amazing about their journey, was that , in the midst of uncertainty and suffering, they were able to hold on to a larger perspective and give thanks for the blessings they enjoyed .
Buoyed by their example and inspired by their spirit of resiliency, we must re-discover our own inner strength and resolve. Thanksgiving can be an occasion for us to remember our heritage, to give thanks for our blessings and to recommit our efforts to push back against the darkness and resist evil.
Technology has bombarded us with so much information that it is easy to become overwhelmed and paralyzed. The information highway has also exposed the vast complexity of the world and given us access to the good as well as the bad. But, in fact, this is nothing new and the encouragement of Deuteronomy 30.19 (RSV) is as important today as ever:
“… I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live …”
Rev. Michael Heath LMHC, Fellow AAPC 11 17 2017
*Photo courtesy of Hale Kao Hotel