Emotional Alarms: Pay attention!

posted by Bryan Landaas, LCSW

As a psychotherapist, most of my clients enter therapy with a desire to feel better and rightly so. Stress, depression, and anxiety can all feel devastating and inescapable. One of the first things I encourage people to consider is why they are experiencing the distress. I don’t mean why in the explanatory sense. That can lead to unfruitful discussions of brain chemistry, hormones, and reason-giving. None of which is really that helpful in psychotherapy. When I ask why I am referring to purpose or function. This encourages my clients to reflect on what potential benefits there may be to having the symptoms.

This discussion is often quite difficult.  A person in the throes of a deep depression understandably has a difficult time finding the benefits of their depressive symptoms.

So I offer a metaphor. Imagine sitting in a building, perhaps at work, when all of a sudden a fire alarm goes off (I’m talking the new kind of fire alarm that makes it feel like your ear drums are going to burst!). In that situation, what would be your primary objective? Would it be to stop your ears from hurting? That would be reasonable, wouldn’t it? Hey, maybe you were in the middle of drafting an important memo. If so, you could simply put some headphones on and go about your business. There is, however, one obvious problem with this response; you are left vulnerable to the flames that are potentially engulfing the offices down the hall from you. Kind of ridiculous, right? Right. Most people would choose to exit the building to remove themselves from the blazing inferno that was once their office while also gaining some relief from the deafening alarm.

In this situation, it’s easy to recognize that the discomfort associated with the alarm is meant to alert people to a far greater danger….fire. However, in my office it is common for people to view their distressing emotional experiences as fires when in fact they should be viewing them as fire alarms. Anxiety and depression serve useful functions in that they are protective, but even more so in their ability to orient us to what is truly of value in our lives. An individual who is laid off of work and unable to find employment can easily become vulnerable to depression. Why? Not because being out of work somehow causes depression, but because we have a built in alert system that tells us when we are straying from a valued life direction. Work = money = being able to support family. In this scenario providing for the family is what’s really important, not the job. If I were to help this individual only reduce his emotional symptoms he and I would have completely missed the point.

So, the next time you find yourself feeling stressed, anxious, or a bit depressed, take a few minutes to reflect on what these feelings might be pointing you towards and challenge yourself to take a step forwards.

Bryan Landaas, MSW, LCSW