Larry M. Berkelhammer, PhD

Change in Response to Discomfort

Discomfort or new signs or symptoms are often warnings that something needs to change. The reason for this is that all pathological conditions, no matter how minor, have come into existence in a very specific physiological environment. Although it is often difficult to uncover the cause of the new symptom or condition, by changing the internal milieu, we can often change the course of the symptom or condition without ever knowing the cause. Of course if we know the cause, we will want to eliminate it if possible.

What follows are a few examples of uncomfortable symptoms that indicate the need for obvious changes. Unfortunately, what we need to change is not always as clear as it is in these scenarios, but these are simple solutions to simple problems that improve the odds of living with greater health and well-being, and they can give you the general idea of approaches to change.

Symptom: During the night, you experience a cramp in your calf. Change: You roll onto your back and place your calf on a warm spot in the bed while relaxing your leg. The muscle spasm immediately quiets down.

Symptom: You experience abdominal cramping. Change: You lie down in a certain position that has worked in the past, and the cramping abates.

Symptom: You feel a serious headache coming on. Change: You sit quietly and imagine your feet getting very warm and your head getting cool. The headache abates before it has a chance to become severe.

Symptom: You become aware of sadness beginning to descend. Change: You sit quietly and allow yourself to fully experience all your thoughts, sensations, and emotions. The sadness does not develop into depression, as it might if you tried to push the feelings away.

Symptom: You become aware that you are feeling anxious. Change: You take a minute to tune in to your breathing in order to slow it down, and you make sure you are breathing diaphragmatically. Your anxiety begins to dissolve.

Symptom: You become aware that you are engaging in a certain anxious habit. Each time you give in to it, you reinforce it. Change: By allowing yourself to fully experience the uncomfortable impulses that normally drive you to act, you practice observing them without acting upon them. The urge to practice the anxious habit diminishes.

Symptom: Lethargy Change: Exercise. As important as it is to do an hour of exercise each day, it’s been five hours since you worked out, you’ve been sitting at a desk since then, and now you feel very lethargic. You get up and go for a fast walk around the block. This is healthier than reaching for the caffeine, it re-energizes you, and it builds mastery. Relying on a drug—even one as seemingly benign as caffeine—builds dependence rather than mastery. Mastery results from the cultivation of skills rather than pills and increases psychological flexibility and resilience.

Symptom: If you are working on any project and begin to feel stuck, frustrated, sleepy, or some other symptom that you know isn’t caused by lack of sleep or exercise, it may be time for distraction. Change: Do anything that completely takes your mind off whatever project you were working on. One possibility may be a project that you had planned to start after finishing the current one—especially if it’s radically different. In my own case, when I find myself nodding off while writing or while doing an internet search, I sometimes get up from my desk and vacuum the house or work in the garden. Usually, after only about twenty minutes or less, I feel refreshed and look forward to returning to the project in an energized and enthusiastic state of mind. It’s remarkable how thoroughly I can alter my state of mind in a short time.

One more tool: Distraction: When you’re experiencing a troubling symptom and you begin to obsess about it, one of the fastest-acting remedies is to go somewhere else in your mind. Most people who practice mental imagery do so in a quiet place where they can be free of interruptions and external stimuli. Although it’s important to practice in a quiet environment in order to learn how to go to a deep state, it’s also valuable to practice in a noisy environment and where there are interruptions. That way, when you find yourself in a very anxiety-provoking situation, you’ll be better equipped to go to a deep place despite disturbing external or internal stimuli. As I stated before, in the long-term, mindfulness is the very best practice for cultivation of psychological flexibility and resilience, but it is helpful to have additional mastery tools at your disposal.