A friend recently remarked that after briefly browsing CNN’s website she felt as if the world was coming to an end. Perceptions of apocalypse prevail when at every corner a natural disaster, shooting, rape, gang violence, or drug cartel event explodes from the screen complete with special effects and action packed cinematography! It would be too easy to blame the news media for the drama-addicted hype that has replaced the “good ole days” of reporting just the facts without the inflation for emotional appeal. But lets be honest, this blame would be tantamount to blaming the egg for being born a chicken. While the media does amplify tragedy, the media is the crack dealer selling to an ever eager addicted society that is perpetually bored when life isn’t exploding or the world isn’t ending. After all, there would be no amplification if we weren’t craving it.
Yet this craving for well packaged and entertaining presentations of suffering has a negative impact on those demanding it. In session recently this dusty topic of media hype came up when I was surprised to discover that the majority of my client’s anxiety originated from their television viewing habits. The drama that is the news was felt as a personally invasive experience for this individual to the degree that they felt their life destabilized and their livelihood threatened. This phenomenon was observed for many who met the DSM-IV-TR criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD following endless hours in front of television broadcasts of the two towers tragedy on September 11th. I found it surprising because while the 9/11 event was an unusual experience of terrorism (for many in other parts of the world such terrorist experiences are a “normal” part of daily life), the news that my client was watching was your usual rape and pillage variant. Yet nonetheless it causes significant harm that now was manifesting as clinically significant anxiety.
This raises an interesting dilemma. We crave the excitement that the amplification of media provides, yet at what point is our entertainment at the suffering of others justified, in particular when it causes significant harm to the viewers? For now I have no settled answer to this question. What I found fascinating as the clinical work proceeded with this client is that they were unable to pull themselves away from the stressor that was causing so much distress. Like an alcoholic lapping up another drink, this person couldn’t pull themselves away from that root growing their anxiety. While I don’t mean to equate the self-harm extending from watching the nightly news with addiction, there does seem to be a parallel in that both the alcoholic and my client were unable to stop the action that was creating their suffering.
While at first a foreign concept, with further reflection out-of-session, this seems to be a common occurrence. How many times do we continue doing things that cause great harm to ourselves while cognitively knowing that we should not do such actions? This all-too-often occurrence seems to be at the root of a great deal of suffering. Consider addiction for example. Many addicts I have worked with seem far more educated on the harmful effects of their drug of choice than their helpers. Yet how many persist in shooting up, while knowing cognitively the harm and suffering this will bring? We humans are strange creatures that know the harm we are creating yet persist nonetheless in doing these harm-creating actions.
In my own life I can see these tendencies clearly. So while I am trying to help a client with anxiety catalyzed by dramatic news broadcasts, I am also confronted with the many actions I do that cause harm in my own life, yet persist unabated. How many burgers will I eat resulting in how many pounds gained before I will cease this masochistic self-harm? Sometimes understanding helps, but as long as the behaviors serves a purpose, they seems incredibly powerful in their persistence.
Recently I was vacationing in Italy for two weeks. Following my return I found that some good habits such as going for long walks everyday and eating a healthier, more Mediterranean cuisine had persisted. I have tried to create these habits in a behavioral manner for some time in my life to no avail. Solid behavioral strategies and self-condemnation (I should eat healthier or exercise more) never persisted in their effect. It seemed that only when I engaged in these tasks out of a hedonistic motivation (I felt good doing them so I did them more), did they persist with ease. Yet upon my return I found that the habits themselves were not enough to keep away the burger muncher when I didn’t simultaneously attend to the emotional angst that had previously fueled that nasty burger habit. It seems that something of the vacationing aura had inspired me to look at the emotional reinforcers of my bad habits with loving kindness while simultaneously enjoying the reinforcing pleasure of healthy habits.
As I eat a wonderful salad or go for my daily walks now, it is no longer out of some obligation but because these things make me feel good. Perhaps it will be the same for my client as well. Perhaps it will be the same for all of us. As we stop beating ourselves with “shoulds” and rather seek to love ourselves in an accurate manner, the need to persist in self-harming habits dissipates as the goblins chasing us are confronted in a loving manner. May it be for you, dear reader, as you continue in your own healing and helping art.
Stephen Ratcliff is a Counselor in private practice in Albuquerque, NM. He specializes in helping Children and Adolescents with Addiction, Psychological Trauma, and Attachment Disorders. For more information or to contact Stephen, please visit www.familiesfirsttherapy.org