When the dog bites, when the bee stings...

“When I’m feeling sad…” Everyone has painful memories. For the luckier among us, they aren’t bad enough to affect present-day life too adversely. For others, some memories and the dark thoughts they generate can really hang around, cause trouble and generally make life hell.

The physical expression of mental distress is usually extreme tension, which may lead to all kinds of further unpleasant conditions: headaches, back problems, high blood pressure, auto-immune disease, to name but a few.

Is it possible to live with deep-rooted anxiety or distress without it overpowering and impairing the life you want to lead today? And if so, how? Painful memories can’t be just erased. It would be dandy if we could wipe away our anguish merely by knowing what caused it; but life isn’t like that – and we’d learn nothing.

Of course, it can be helpful to identify the causes of our suffering, if only for the comfort of knowing that there’s reason behind our constructing (sometimes extreme) coping strategies like surprising or bewildering hypersensitivity, or disproportionate reactions to apparently random things.

But coping strategies often outlive their usefulness, cause their own problems and become very life limiting in their own right. Despair may ensue (none of this has anything to do with weakness, incidentally; many strong, courageous people - often the strongest, most courageous - struggle with such problems).

What can we do?

Maybe we can learn how to stop; just a little bit at a time. Stop what? Stop it all. Stop trying. Stop struggling to maintain a façade of coping. Stop battling on bravely. Just - stop.

If we can stop everything - even just for a moment - we can, maybe, create a little window to see what’s going on, what we are doing. A chance to reason out what to do - or to stop doing. A chance to see that present stimuli may have nothing to do with past stimuli; to recognize that those long-seated response patterns aren’t working; and a chance, maybe one day, to not employ them… starting with the ‘default’ tension we create when we’re not paying attention.

Then, when that old dog comes around to bite us and the bee’s about to sting, we’ll have a new string to our bow: the knowledge that there is an option not to respond in the usual way; not to let our sadness overwhelm us. Even if we’re not successful every time.

In 1976, Frank Pierce Jones wrote a book called Body Awareness in Action, later republished under the much cooler title Freedom to Change.

Freedom to choose one’s responses? Yes please. It’s so worth making a practice of reasoning out how to just stop unwanted things; easily, consistently and at will.

This may seem very remote, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth setting off, and nobody’s too old to start. Practise the reasoning process (and of course remember your favourite things) and you absolutely won’t feel so bad.