Gasoline and Dynamite
When working with clients in counselling situations I use a metaphor of a smoker trying to quit smoking but doing it in a room filled with dynamite and soaked in gasoline. The consequences of failure are weighted to the extreme and not in the clients favor.
The Dynamite is the constant flow of negative self thoughts that flow up from their unconsciousness into their consciousness. Each is the byproduct of a chemical/electrical reaction within their brains. Since our thinking brain is linked to our reactive bodies these negative thoughts create negative feelings. Because negative feelings can increase the flow of automatic negative thoughts (Google ANTs or Cognitive Behavior Therapies) this can create a feedback loop similar to an electric guitar and amplifier. Both tend to get out of control quickly one uncomfortable for the ears the other uncomfortable for the psyche. Some people have hundreds of automatic negative thoughts a day, some have thousands but most people have more than they need to, especially if they ignore them. They then become like background music that we don’t even notice until it stops. This can lead to very uncomfortable feelings within our bodies and minds. It can be an incredible energy drain on us as well, like trying to jog in water up to our necks. We don’t notice it in our daily lives as it has been going on so long that it becomes the new normal.
The gasoline is the go fast chemicals that flood our bloodstreams daily as we live domesticated lives in denial of our evolved flight or fight systems. This system allowed us calorie conserving hunter gathers to respond with heightened abilities to threats or potential meals. Approximately every forty eight hours we had to run away from something that wanted to eat us or after something we wanted to eat. The rest of the time we wandered slowly gathering fruits, nuts and roots conserving our energy. Being in the middle of the food chain we had to learn how to discern a threat from a potential meal. When our flight or fight mechanism kicks in our adrenal glands and others pump an exotic mixture of go fast chemicals into our bloodstream like nitro into a dragster, giving us the ability to run away or run after. Domestication has taught us to ignore these primal urges, which may make us good citizens but this comes with a cost. These chemicals were meant to be burnt off as they occurred and are linked to a reward from our brain when they are. Spouses, bosses, traffic, bank line ups and more kick in these systems many times daily and we as good citizens just suck it up and stand in line. Eventually we are bathed in these chemicals and end up in Cortisol Response Syndrome, which leads to our immune system attacking us, with heart disease, arthritis, colitis, and other auto immune disorders, never mind anxiety and depression.
So when that smoker tries to quit smoking in a room full of dynamite and gasoline the consequences of relapse are far greater than just having a smoke. So when a client who attempts to quit smoking pot, stop using hard drugs, stop drinking, change their eating habits or deal with anxiety or depression the first thing we do is try to create a safer inner environment for them by getting rid of the dynamite and gasoline first and then worry about the presenting issue.
We tackle the dynamite through Cognitive Behavior Therapy. This begins with dealing with automatic negative thoughts, first through counting them, then naming them and then reframing them is one technique among many that will help them feel better within weeks. This then sets them up with hope to deal with core self esteem issues and more intensive therapies. If they have experienced abuse as children or young teens this is even more critical as they are probably attempting to self medicate their way through their inner pain.
Getting rid of the gasoline is best dealt with though an exercise program and diet. Burning off those go fast chemicals, getting in physical shape and adapting a healthy diet can also result in substantial changes in mood within a short period of time. I always recommend cycling or power walking but any anaerobic exercise program that they will stick to and perform at least three times a week will do. Introducing a more natural diet augmented with fish oils is a great start.
Once the room is cleared of these dangerous obstacles then the client can relax while they deal with their core issues. This is where the expression I often use comes from, “You won’t have to worry about those triggers if you first unload the gun.” Some clients see enough change with just the above that they are empowered to do more, while some are ok with just maintaining these strategies. I have never had a client who has after doing these strategies regretted it after the fact. All have reported positive results.