The first time I had this thought it came in a very basic form. Discussing someone with a colleague I said, “Do you remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books?” These were books where the story could end in different ways depending what actions you took and what pages you turned to. I went on to describe someone who if her life was written as a Choose Your Own Adventure you’d want to know why the book was so short. She lived like she had only a few options to choose from and they each led to the same predictable ending. Whatever life threw at her she did the same things over and over.
If someone walked into the room and fired a gun you would startle and immediately focus on escape. You have a narrow repertoire of responses and only specialist training gives you more options. For me, if a spider scurried into view I had few options. I would startle and immediately focus on escaping the stimulus by safely removing the spider. It is possible to change spider phobia by repeated exposure to the stimulus and learning different responses. You have to be willing to experience unpleasant feelings in order to learn how to gain a larger repertoire of more flexible responses.
It’s sometimes a lot less obvious that being verbal exposes us to different sorts of stimuli which also produce behaviour from limited response options. If you notice a flutter in your chest it’s a physical sensation. But what if your mind links that sensation to a memory of a panic attack? Or perhaps you know someone who recently went into hospital with a heart problem. What if your mind focuses on these verbal stimuli and powerfully connects them to feelings of danger? You’ve had a brief physical sensation but language has a special ability to create terror. Gunshots and spiders are on the outside but language lets us create them on the inside. It’s not just fear either; it’s any yucky feeling like depression, OCD, focus on food, focus on alcohol/ drugs/ gambling. Our mind can do it 24/7 pausing only for sleep, or numbing, or other escape.
This brings me back to where I started this piece with the person living in her half-written Choose Your Own Adventure book. Her real life had few choices because fear limited her options. We don’t get to control our stimuli, and it’s very difficult to control a startle response. But consider that one can learn different responses to other stimuli which exert control over us. Like spiders — and actually all those other sorts of yucky stimuli.
What I’m offering here is a perspective. When we have only a limited repertoire of responses then our Adventure book can seem like it’s not working out for us. One idea, perhaps, is to consider what it might imply if psychological health could be thought of as having a flexible repertoire of responses. This idea of getting unstuck by learning new responses guides me.
A Moodscope member.
PS. I've recorded a short YouTube video to clarify my blog: https://youtu.be/S0V72vhiEks
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