This post has been updated and moved to my professional website. You can find it here: www.justinkhughes.com.
This blog post has been updated and moved to https://www.justinkhughes.com/jog/setpoints-why-being-negative-will-make-you-stable.
While purchasing my Kung Pao Chicken with steamed rice yesterday, the young lady at the counter put on gloves to handle money (she normally doesn’t). Though I always appreciate an extra measure of hygiene, she stated she was nervous about Ebola. This week, the nation discovered that the first U.S. case of naturally occurring Ebola showed up in a patient at a hospital in Dallas. Panic for some has ensued concerning Ebola- much more than other riskier conditions. But why?
Let’s look at the numbers. Tens of thousands of people die every flu-season from influenza in the U.S. This number has peaked at 49,000 people per year, according to the CDC. 0 have died in the US from Ebola so far (as of October 3rd, 2014). Zero. Just over 3,300 people have died from Ebola- over the span of 50 years! Don’t get me wrong, Ebola poses a significant threat and is not the same as the flu, but does it deserve some of the extreme responses it’s getting? Is it reasonable for parts of Dallas to become a zoo? Unfortunately, some media outlets are using fear to make a buck. And people all over social media are blowing up posts of doom and gloom. We all know the saying, “Sex Sells.” But what does that have to do with Ebola? A lot, I assure you.
I work regularly with disorders such as Panic, PTSD, OCD, Addiction, and Phobias. The reasons a person experiences these problems is multi-faceted. However, one of the commonalities of each is that they are “disorders of the limbic system.”
Neuroscience has offered some great insights into brain functioning in recent years. Our Limbic System is a section of the lower rear brain where much of our protective instincts, sexual drive, and hunger drive is thought to originate. This is different from the Prefrontal Cortex, which is where our “executive” functioning comes in- using self-control, deciding how to approach situations- rational thought. Of course both are important (these are simplistic definitions). If something triggers our fight/flight/freeze response, it is mostly originating in the limbic system. These responses can help us gear-up for survival and protection (think: Bear Grylls). Many problems that occur in life are ones born out of managing our limbic system: fear, anger, difficulty controlling desires, and an inability to regulate emotions.
A case in point, with panic disorder, a client will feel overwhelming physical and/or mental duress, and their anxiety will shoot through the roof for a short period of time- all in the absence of a threat to their immediate well-being. In counseling, my job is to help clients find hope and experience freedom in the midst of this. And this goes contrary to being controlled by the limbic system.
Back to Ebola. How do we handle a threat such as this? We face it for what it is. One of the most important things in mental health is to tell ourselves the truth. If we face reality for what it is- good, bad, and ugly- we will respond soberly. And this gives us a better ability to confront threats for what they are: to make smart decisions about health and contamination, research options available and new possibilities, accept what can’t be changed, and find peace in the midst of suffering. Then we can evaluate what is or is not a threat- realistically. This is a powerful counter for limbic system disorders.
But wait, that doesn’t sell. It doesn’t grab people’s attention. To stay rational and at peace, we usually have to go counter-cultural to messages around us. Many people get rich every day playing off of people’s limbic system reactions (remember, sex sells). If we can market to the brain’s “pleasure center,” people will crave more. If we can rouse fear, attention will be won. If we can play off of a sense of not being good enough without the newest gadget, any product can be sold.
Messages swirl around us at all times, including mixed messages about Ebola. How will you handle it? How will you respond? Sex sells. Fear sells. But you get to choose what you buy.
Possibly the simplest definition of intimacy is this: knowing another and being known. Intensity is defined as strength, power, or force- in relationship terms, it’s getting a surge of whatever makes a person feel good. Intimacy is developed over time, with patience, with love, with understanding, with compassion, with sacrifice. Intensity happens quickly and fades quickly- it is not long lasting. Those that trade it for intimacy will find themselves dissatisfied and using people like objects.
The implications of this are profound. It has changed the way I look at relationships. I have been a “thrill-seeker.” Oh no, you never would see me cliff-diving, jumping out of airplanes, or swimming with sharks. I learned to seek intensity in subtle ways- especially with people. I would feed off of the praise of others; I would pursue the “high” of new connections; I would live for recognition. I became aware of this through support, seeing my own counselor, and study. You see, I made a major error- I substituted intensity for intimacy.
They are not the same thing.
This concept is important in understanding Addiction, Bipolar, Personality Disorders, and just plain ol’ dysfunctional relationship patterns. For instance, with addiction, a person adapts to the world and copes using a substance or person or thing as if it were a relationship- gaining comfort, support, investing time and energy, and to soothe pain. I commonly hear addicts say that their addiction became their best friend. Of course, the problem with relying on an intense “high” to feel better is that our brains weren’t made to sustain constant highs. Our brains will normalize to constant surges of feel-good intensity (aka, dopamine highs), and then we naturally begin to feel depressed when we don’t have this now “normal” high. The classic term for this is ‘tolerance.’
Healthy relationships don’t run on constant highs. Hear me out: good, healthy relationships can give the greatest satisfaction and offer wonderful highs. But this is not all the time. They require consistency, work, patience, suffering, and perseverance. This goes way beyond just romantic relationships. Running after intensity leaves a person “high and dry,” trying to be satisfied in ways they were not created to be fulfilled. The substitute kills. The real thing fulfills.