The Best Kept Secret I Know
Something I am constantly in search of as a mental health professional are good self-help groups. No treatment professional can be everything a client needs, though some of us would like to believe we could. Every client who comes for help also needs to establish a network of support. This network helps change behavior, fills the void left when therapy is ended and assists in helping the person to grow.
Healthy marriages, strong family love, good friends, and religious affiliations all provide effective support. In addition, there are support groups that are often able to do for our clients what the more traditional avenues of support cannot. There are two reasons for their success: each member of the support group has something in common with the other group members, and some of the other members have already successfully worked through the problem.
Most people are very familiar with the success of groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and the many spin-off groups that are based on the 12-step model. What surprises me is that more people are not aware of the most effective support group I have found for treating anxiety and depressive neurosis, and even more serious forms of these conditions. The group I am referring to is Recovery International (fka Recovery Inc.)
Recovery International is not intended to supplant the treatment professional; it is expected that members will discuss major decisions with their therapists, and that they will abide by their treatment professional's recommendations regarding issues like medication and hospitalization. Recovery leaders make it clear that as lay people they have no expertise in these areas, and discussions between members regarding these matters is strongly discouraged.
Started in 1937 by the late psychiatrist Dr. Abraham A. Low, MD, the group uses his book Mental Health Through Will Training as its basic text. Low believed that it is not a major event which causes the “nervous patient” (Low’s own words) to relapse into his symptoms or fail to show progress in recovery. Instead, Low thought, it was the failure to handle the trivial matter—the broken shoe lace when he is late, or the caustic look, gesture, or word from a boss or fellow employee—which incites feelings of fear and anger, feelings which the average person would throw off without a second thought, but which the nervous patient will “work up” or “process” into a major source of discomfort, including emotional and/or physical symptoms.
Low developed a system by which the nervous patient could “spot” these “trivialities” and discard them before they become major problems. His method is simple but effective. Members are taught to spot that their symptoms are “distressing but not dangerous.” They come to realize that they can “excuse rather than accuse” those who offended them and that they can accept themselves as average human beings who do not have to be “exceptional.” He instructed members to “endorse” themselves, or give themselves credit for the effort they make and not to focus exclusively on their shortcomings.
At each Recover International meeting, a trained leader assigns a reading from Low’s book, after which members relate personal experiences of how they use the Recovery method to deal with “trivialities” in their own daily lives.
The effectiveness of Recovery International has been proved to me by the speed and extent of progress toward improved mental health made by my clients who attend (or, in some cases, just read the book), and by the fact that they are less likely than other clients to regress. This program could be to mental health what AA has been for alcoholism. With no cost but a free-will offering, it is the best kept mental health secret that I know.
Recently, a friend of mine who has had considerable success as part of the British music scene contacted me to say she was struggling a little with health concerns and that she'd like to hear from me. I said it would be helpful to know a little more about what she was going through, and based on what she told me, I would try to be helpful.
She said me she was experiencing a lot of back pain, but mostly since she was told by a questionable authority her scoliosis was worse, indicating suggestibility. That is to say, someone suggested something of questionable validity, but because her predisposition to being fearful, she accepted it as fact, though it was contrary to the best evidence of her senses and even more reputable medical opinions.
Most nervous patients have default fears and this seems to be hers. It may be that the reason she began to obsess and ask questions about her back is that she was experiencing stress in some other area of her life and that triggered her favorite obsession. Economic insecurity is a common default fear, and, of course, it can also be very real, but if you’ve got a million stuffed in your mattress and you’re eating cat food, it’s not healthy. Other fears can seem to have a rational basis, but don’t stand up to closer examination. I have a friend who won’t fly, but, at 60 years of age, drove his motorcycle 5,000 miles round trip back to Detroit from Southern California. I’ll take my chances with Delta.
I asked if there was something going on her life that was causing stress. Business? Finances? Marriage? The specifics don’t matter, but if she could see a real or perceived threat from somewhere else, that might be it. As we get older we learn that there is not as much to fear from death as there is from the aging process; something is going to break down, but we don't know what or when. I smile when I think of what Zorro once said, "Death is as certain as life is uncertain."
The only thing to do about that is stay in today. She’s relatively young and takes pretty good care of herself, so she could spot there is a possibility of becoming disabled in the near future, but it is not probable. As far as pain is concerned, she knows how people manufacture pain from nothing all the time; we saw a close friend of ours do it for years, when the real problem was that she was willing to go to almost any length and put up with anything from her SO as long as she didn't have to face reality. Now she is facing reality, feels better, doesn't need opiates or benzos, and may reach a point where she doesn't need any medication some day.
Dr. Low says we become more comfortable by pushing up the will to bear discomfort. He urges us to make a business of our mental health. My friend is successful in a tough business; if she were upset by every adverse circumstance she'd have quit what she was doing and come home long ago. We can bear discomfort, and lower our standards a bit, but keep functioning. We can endorse ourselves for our effort. It’s nice to be endorsed by outer environment (other people), but it’s not essential. We can find the positive in the situation and stop scaring ourselves. Realistically, we don't go from invalid to functional after one doctor visit, but we can keep going one day at a time, one task at a time. We can “move our muscles to reeducate our brains.”
Obsessing about the origin of a problem is still obsessing and feeds the fear. The only way to kill an obsession is to starve it, but one can't just not think about something, we have to replace the fearful thought with a secure thought. I encouraged my friend to look at all the success she’s had in life and all her focus and self-control, and bring that to bear on the problem.
I suggested she read Low daily, not just read, but study it. It is a text and one has to keep reinforcing the positive self-talk techniques until they become second nature; after the original response of fear, start spotting. Both AA and Recovery International work on this system of--call it brainwashing your mind of toxins. For years our mutual friend couldn't get either one because she had too much trust in her intellect. The brain doesn't work that way. Every time we nurse a fear we are reinforcing a negative habit. We have to reinforce the positives the same way.
I tried to rapid fire some help and hoped I was getting through. (Knowing she is a spiritual person) I encouraged her to make sure she got her meditation in; to read something positive, like the Bagavad Gita, the Bible, or Hafiz and keep steering her mind back to what she can do in this moment; and to remember that humor helps restore perspective, so laugh. It’s the simple ideas that help; things one can call on in a moment of need. Complicated insights may be more interesting, but they have little practical utility in real life situations.