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Archive for the ‘This Too Will Pass’ Category

 Carla sat in our waiting room, flicking through one of out out of date magazines.  (Every waiting room has them!)  She was a beautiful young woman, barely out of her teens.  I wondered what problems someone so young and lovely and vibrant could have.

When I spoke with her a little later, I discovered that her parents had belonged to the “bash them and humiliate them” school of child rearing.  This had left Carla with a substantial legacy of severe anxiety and with very poor self-esteem.  Unfortunately, she had found a way of managing her anxiety.  Pulling up the sleeve of her jumper, she showed me a half healed cut on her inner fore-arm.  I could see several older scars, fortunately fairly minor. When her anxiety and distress became unbearable, she had begun to cut herself.  Alas, this is quite common. 

During the years that I worked in prisons, I saw many people with lattice-works of scars from self-injury on their arms, legs, chests, even throats.  These were ugly and disfiguring and sometimes the injuries were life threatening.  Unfortunately, in a horrible way, self-harm to relieve anxiety and distress can work – but at a price.  It tends to work like this:

The person suffering from anxiety, which is often mixed with anger and feelings of hopelessness, emptiness and frustration, experiences a build-up of these feelings until they reach unbearable levels.  Sometimes there is then a loss of sensation and dissociation (or depersonalisation) which is a horrible feeling.  Often too they experience an inability to feel pain.  They then self-harm by cutting, scratching, burning, stabbing etc.  This tends to relieve the symptoms they are experiencing and re-connects the person with feeling. (I once had a man tell me that when he cut, it was like watching a big dial on his chest, with the needle in the red zone and that when he felt the blood on his arm, he felt as if the needle on the dial was being turned quickly back to green.) 

Once this form of self-harming becomes established, it can be very hard to stop.  You will notice that the diagram above is a circle.  Relief from the symptoms tends to be temporary, the feelings build up again and around and around it goes.  With each cycle, it becomes easier to self-harm, self-esteem drops lower and lower, tissue damage and scarring increases and it gets harder and harder to break the cycle.

I talked with Carla about this and where she was likely heading if she continued doing as she had.  I suggested that she work hard on other ways of managing her distress.  I gave her several strategies for managing anxiety and improving self-esteem, one of which was the approach to managing unhelpful thoughts, which can be found on this site.  At the end of one of our sessions, however, I told her about a simple little saying from Buddhist psychology:

“This too will pass”

This is based on the Buddhist principle of non-permanence, or transience of all phenomena.  Everything passes eventually, some things pass quickly, some slowly, but sooner or later, everything will pass.  If we try to cling to things that are transient, we inevitably suffer pain and distress.  I invited her to consider that the next time she was in the midst of bad feelings and distress, that they would pass if she allowed them to do so and if she reminded herself that they would indeed pass. 

A fortnight later, she returned to see me and told me that she had had an argument with her boyfriend and was feeling very upset.  All the old feelings returned and she went to the drawer and got out a knife.  As she sat down with it, she remembered our conversation and said to herself – this is going to pass.  And it did.  She calmed herself down, put the knife back in the drawer and later felt proud of herself for having broken then habit.  After a few more visits, she told me she didn’t think she needed to see me anymore.  Several years have passed now and I have not seen her again.

 I often relate this simple saying to people in counselling and many have told me that it has been one of the most helpful things they have heard.  I often explain that our strong emotions and unhelpful thoughts are like a cloud that passes in front of the sun.  There is thunder and rain and cold, but in a short time the cloud passes and the sun shines again.  Dark emotions and feelings will pass – if we allow them to.  We don’t have to act on them.  We can also realise, that when we are happy and everything is going our way, this too will pass and we are sure to experience pain, distress and upset again.  This is not being gloomy or negative, but facing the realities of life.  When we understand this, we can rejoice in our times of happiness, but not cling to them and pretend unrealistically that they will never fade.  And, of course we can accept our times of pain and discomfort and sadness, realising that this too will pass. 

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