My new book Prescriptions Without Pills explains where negative feelings come from. It shows also how to return to, and how to sustain, a positive state of well-being. Here’s the core ideas:
• Life inevitably presents everyone from time to time with bumps in the road, that is, with challenging decisions and upsetting situations.
• Four ineffective problem-solving routes each lead to one of the four primary negative psychological states: anger, depression, anxiety and addictions
• Fortunately, if you can re-address the bump, solving your problem via effective win-win problem-solving, feelings of well-being will resume.
What are the five potential pathways for responding to problems?
Psychologists at times refer to fight-or-flight responses. In fact, there are five options for responding to difficulties:
• Fight. The Fight Road evokes anger within you to prepare you for battle. Your strategy is to win by overpowering. You believe that you can be dominant.
• Fold. The Fold Road leads to feeling depressed. You give up, feeling hopeless about winning what you want because you have insufficient power.
• Freeze. The Freeze Road creates immobilization. Staring at the problem without movement, or letting awareness of a problem stay hovering in the background of your consciousness where it is not accessible to information-gathering and problem-solving creates ever-increasing anxiety within you and tension between you and others.
• Flee. The Flee Road takes you to addictive habits that can remove awareness of a troubling situation from your conscious thought. By removing yourself, that is, by escaping mentally or physically, the problem is likely to fester. You no longer feel uncomfortable though because your attention has focused elsewhere.
• Find Solutions. The Find Solutions Road invites well-being, that is, good feeling, to surge as you face a problem and find constructive solution possibilities.
Here’s my Hand Map: a guide to feeling bad and also to sustaining good feelings—a map that you can keep with you at all times.
Put your hand out in front of you, palm facing you. Think of your extended arm as representing the road of your life. Keeping your handy “handout” map in front of you, imagine yourself traveling down this life road. Use the fingers from your other hand to “walk” from your shoulder to your elbow and toward your hand, happily journeying along your way. Then suddenly at your wrist, you hit a difficulty.
The choice point, conflict or other challenging situation represented by the bump at your wrist could be a small one. Maybe it has begun to rain and you have no umbrella. It could be a big bump like the appearance in your life of a devastating illness, an argument with your employer, or relationship woes.
From the bump on your wrist you now have five choices of where to head. The thumb route, which points upwards toward happiness, leads to the land of well-being. Thumbs up!
Your four fingers, by contrast, each detour away from well-being. These actions detour you toward the four negative emotional outcomes.
Interestingly, humans are not the only ones with these options in response to challenging or conflict situations.
A bear, a monkey, a mouse, an elephant or other mammal chooses from the four finger options any time that it sees a potential threat to its safety, survival, source of food and water, or reproductive potential. Animals however lack the ability to talk with each other, removing the collaborative route to mutual well-being. When an animal sees a problem ahead, it can choose only from the four finger routes:
• Fold like a smaller elk who defers to a larger elk, giving up on a prey because fighting could incur an injury
• Fight like a lion who attacks a small zebra grazing on the edge of the zebra group as prey for his dinner.
• Freeze like a deer who suddenly stands very still “like a deer in headlights” or
• Flee like a rabbit who dashes away at full speed to escape you or me if we walk toward him.
Note that animals often show considerable flexibility in shifting from response to response. An elk, for instance may try first one strategy, say freezing when he sees you. Then, if his first strategy seems ineffective because you keep walking toward him, he may shift to another, attacking you. Better flee, fast!
People do the same. If, for instance, you try to talk collaboratively using your best let’s-talk-it-over skills with someone who is locked in angry attacking, you may then decide to fold, giving up on trying to reach a mutually acceptable solution, or to flee. An exit from the situation would be preferable to engagement in a needless battle that will just make matters worse.
Remember though that you have one additional option that animals do not. Because you have language, you can choose to calm down, think, and talk. Those skills enable you to choose the thumb route, the road to well-being.
Next time you face a dilemma in your life, hold your hand map out in front of you. To sustain well-being, which route would be best for you take?
Hopefully you will choose the thumb route of win-win problem-solving to Find a Solution!
To the extend that whatever issues, conflicts, upsets and tough decisions arise on your life pathway, you are able to respond by looking to understand the situation from the perspective of everyone involved, listen to everyone’s concerns including your own, you then have a real chance to return to feelings of well-being as soon as possible.
Of course this route is not always possible. If someone persistently attacks you, for instance, other options may be preferable. You may be best off either folding to keep the peace or attacking back strongly enough that you become dominant, winning the conflict.
In most situations, however, Finding win-win solutions is the best way to go. That route sustains your well-being, and also the well-being of others in your life.
Here’s an example of how your Hand Map can clarify options:
In the following example, Jack and Liza choose one and then shift to others of the five problem-response options. Can you identify all five potential routes?
“Who can I talk with here?” Jack thinks desperately to himself, feeling highly anxious. His friend Liza had invited him to accompany her to a party with people he didn’t know and didn’t like.
Still uncomfortably nervous, Jack joined a group of folks talking politics. He jumped in awkwardly with a snide comment about a politician he especially disliked. Woops. He had riled up someone at the party whose political views differed from his.
A few minutes later, when they were alone for a moment, Liza turned to Jack, snapping harshly, “Why the hell did you do that?!”
Jack’s emotions flipped from anxiety to anger, lashing out, “You shouldn’t have put me in this situation!”
Later that evening, alone in his apartment, Jack felt depressed. His blaming retort had clearly antagonized Liza. He strongly regretted having hurt her feelings, felt sadness that he may have burned bridges with her, and felt hopeless about having lost her. Liza was the one person whose friendship mattered most to him.
To escape his distress, Jack opened a beer, and then another, and another. Sitting in front of the TV which also distracted him from his woes, he kept drinking until finally he fell asleep.
Demoralizing story? Did you identify that Jack already has headed down each of the four distress roads? No need for you to give up tough on Jack’s behalf though, or to get mad, get panicky, or to go get a drink! Here comes the happy ending, using the thumb route.
The next morning Jack phoned Liza. “I’m so sorry I blamed you for my political gaffe. It was a mistake on my part to assume everyone at the party shared my political perspective.”
Liza too rose to the occasion. “Thanks Jack. I agree that your contemptuous comment was a mistake with those folks. At the same time, you were right that I had put you in a situation that was hard for you. I invited you to the party when I know you tend to feel uncomfortable at that kind of event. It might have helped too if I’d warned you that a lot of the folks who’d be there have political views that are way opposed to ours.
“I see now too,” Liza continued, “that my ‘why the hell’ comment to you was out of line. I didn’t like your snide comment, but I could have said so nicely instead of snapping at you like that.”
Jack felt a wave of relief. Talking together cooperatively like this might well lead to a positive resolution of the dispute he and Liza had experienced.
“Thanks so much Liza for your sensitivity,” Jack said with true gratitude. “I hugely appreciate your acknowledgement of your part in the mishap. At the same time, I’ve learned a lesson. Sniff out the scene first before assuming that other folks’ political views will be similar to mine. And even then, I could skip the contempt and just talk issues.”
“Oh Jack,” Liza replied. “I’m so fond of you.”
The thumb route saved the day. Talking over the prior evening’s upset via the thumb route of quiet information-sharing, Lisa and Jack both learned from their mistakes.
Problem solved. Relationship repaired. Well-being returned. Thumbs up! Phew.