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Existential GPS

Shadows in the Attic

by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

Fear is one of the most potent human emotions. Primitive yet effective, it alerted us (and still does) to the presence of danger and was essential in keeping our species on the planet. Our emotional evolution with all its intellectual trappings of modern sophistication has done little to smother the reach and intensity of fear. Reduce it all we want, try to explain it away, yet we still feel compelled to whistle while passing by the dark, cerebral cemetery of unknowns. From the shadowy cavities of our minds fear creeps in two ways – emotional and biochemical. The emotional response is highly individualized, while the biochemical response is universal.

The emotional response to fear is very personalized. Fear does involve some of the same chemical responses in our brains that positive emotions like happiness do, so feeling fear under certain circumstances can be seen as enjoyable, like watching scary movies or going to a “haunted” attraction. Those who get physical pleasure from the release of adrenaline into the body by thriving on extreme sports and other fear-inducing situations would be another example of the complexity to understanding how fear works. While there are others who have a negative reaction to fear, and they avoid fear-inducing situations at all costs. Depending on the individual and the situation, fear may be perceived as either a positive or negative experience.

Fear is a natural survival mechanism. It’s been with us since , well, for as long as we have had the ability to survive as a species. When faced with a perceived threat, our bodies respond in highly specific ways. Reactions to fear may include increased heart rate and higher that usual adrenaline levels that make us extremely alert and “on guard.” This physical response is also known as a “fight or flight” response, in which your body prepares itself to either enter combat or run away.  Adrenaline as well as the stress hormone cortisol begins pumping through your body at a very high rate. This occurs so that you can react quickly to danger or a perceived threat. If you are someone who is an excessive worrier or you experience sustained fear because of your health, death of a loved one, divorce, etc., then the “fight or flight” reaction releases an overwhelming amount of cortisol into your brain, resulting in sustained worry and potentially clinical anxiety. Fear can, in fact, alter your brain’s wiring, as well as your impulse control.  There are, however, ways to counter this physical reaction. Drinking lots of cold water helps flush the adrenaline and cortisol from your system. Deep breathing exercises are another way to help slow down this process, and of course physical activity and exercise are crucial to decreasing these chemicals in your body to a much more manageable and comfortable level.

Fear is incredibly complex. Some fears could be the result of frightening experiences or even trauma, while others may actually represent a fear of something else a little less obvious, such as loss of control or meaning in life or anxiety over death and dying. Fear in and of itself is not rational. It operates at the opposite end of that spectrum and can often run up against logic or “common sense,” which in turn may cause feelings of guilt or elevated levels of anxiety.

Repeated exposure to similar situations leads to familiarity. For example: find the light switch in the dark room and all is seemingly well. Exposure reduces both the emotional fear response and the resulting biochemical reaction. Conversely, this leads adrenaline junkies to seek out the extreme – ever new and bigger thrills. Exposure forms the basis of many phobia treatments, which depend on slowly minimizing the fear response by making it feel familiar and eventually extinguishing it altogether.

However, if you are faced with a serious threat or a dangerous situation, then fear is appropriate.  It’s knowing how to manage your fear, so that it doesn’t paralyze you from living your life and from participating or engaging with others in a meaningful fashion.

The solution is to understand your situation and your fears. Therapy or counseling from a licensed professional can help if your fears become too large for you to manage on your own.

To be continued… Part 4 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.

Existential GPS

Holding Darkness Within

A brief tour inside Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

The psychological difference between horror and terror as a literary or cinematic device is that both serve their own unique function as a vehicle to elicit powerful feelings ranging from dread to revulsion. Terror is typically described as a feeling of fear, suspense and anticipation that precedes a frightening experience. It is the build toward some awful reveal. By contrast, horror is the feeling of revulsion that one experiences following a visually frightening or shocking experience. It is the result of a dreadful realization or the experience of something deeply unpleasant.

the-haunting-julie-harris-1963
Publicity still for The Haunting, MGM 1963

Yet, unpleasantness occurs in many forms. It manifests both individually and culturally and is mostly universal by its very definition. In short, we can recognize it and feel it both intellectually and intuitively. Have you ever felt lonely, out of place, a misfit? Ever wanted something new, but were fearful of what others might think about you? Are there times when you feel the world doesn’t quite get you? So, unless you are void of human emotion or connection, the answer should have been yes to all three questions.

Welcome to the haunted world of author Shirley Jackson and, in particular, her fifth novel, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Whether you are a student of literature or psychology, or you just have a morbid curiosity for all the shadowy things that linger at the top of your psyche’s staircase, then The Haunting of Hill House is a book you should read. Author Stephen King has praised it as one of the most important horror novels of the twentieth century. I would add that it is also a novel that reveals the intricate and subtle ways in which mental illness manifests, ebbing and flowing like the shadows and sounds within Hill House.

On the surface, the story of Hill House seems fairly pedestrian. A group of individuals participate in a paranormal study at an alleged haunted mansion (back in the day when those sorts of studies could still be sponsored by a university). Dr. John Montague, a professor and investigator of all things supernatural; Eleanor Vance, a withdrawn and timid young woman who resents having lived as a recluse caring for her invalid mother; Theodora, a bohemian, performer and artist (It is implied that Theo is a lesbian, but indirectly so because this is still 1959); and Luke Sanderson, the young heir to Hill House and resident playboy.

The novel, intentionally guarded in its prose, explores the supernatural while finding common ground with psychology. It takes on each of these subjects with equal amounts of care and skepticism while never fully arriving at any conclusion or endorsement of either. Unseen forces hammer on doors and ceilings, mysterious and pleading messages for the main character, Eleanor Vance, are written on walls, and the ghostly laughter and cries of children are heard in the night. If you want a good scare, Hill House won’t disappoint.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Top that for an opening paragraph to any novel. Indeed, this sets the tone for what Hill House is and how it will expose the reader to the haunted and fragile psyche of Eleanor. Hill House is indeed the fifth character in this novel; an eighty-year-old mansion, “born bad,” in a location that is never specified built by a long-deceased and cruel millionaire named Hugh Crain (painted on the ceiling of his only child’s dreary nursery are the words “Suffer the Little Children.”)

Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” This description is not only how Jackson presents Hill House to the reader, but how the character of Eleanor moves through her life, guarded and lonely. Things are not as they seem within the walls of Hill House and they are certainly not well beneath the outwardly modest walls of Eleanor, either. Still waters do indeed run deep, and dark.

Terror, not horror, is on the menu at Jackson’s café macabre, and she masterfully knows which ingredients will pack the most punch. Told in the tradition of a Gothic horror novel, Hill House, has been made into two feature films (the original 1963 version directed by Robert Wise is a faithful and absolutely splendid adaptation of Jackson’s ghost story – see it – now), and is the basis of an upcoming television series on Netflix. Jackson’s tale relies solely on terror rather than horror to elicit emotion in the characters and the reader; manipulating the relationships between the characters’ psyches and the mysterious events in the house, while leaving the reader to determine what may have really happened inside the “wood and stone of Hill House” as well as what occurred in the mind of Eleanor.

With Eleanor, Jackson offers the reader a female character who embodies depth, dimension and mystery. Psychologically wounded by her fear of loneliness, fear of others, fear of self, and a fear of the unknown, Eleanor is at once recognizable and common, yet Jackson keeps her slightly detached, slightly off, so that we understand the metaphor being presented to us as we simultaneously walk the lonely corridors and rooms of her psyche and of Hill House.

As Jackson wrote, “Hill House, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within…And whatever walked there, walked alone.”

To be continued… Part 2 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.

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Everyday Therapy

Part 2: The Essentials of Developing Quality Relationships

by Mandi C. Dalicandro-Turk, MSPC

A Series of Articles: 2 of 6 –  How Respect & Appreciation Increase Rewarding Relationships.  

This is the second in a series of 6 articles relating to developing quality relationships.  Developing quality relationships is complex, layered, and many times, grappled with throughout life.  Respect and Appreciation are the focus of today’s article.

Respect is an important factor in each relationship throughout life. First, consider the importance of respect for yourself.  A strong presence of respect centered internally assists with understanding and valuing yourself and others; and dually, with developing quality relationships.  At times, an individual may grapple with respecting one’s self; if this occurs, it’s important to invest time and the work associated with learning ways to develop a high level of respect for one’s self. In addition, this process assists with developing capacities to give respect in each relationship and in a variety of environments.

At times, it is important to consider the differences and many similarities in regards to how each individual gives and receives affirmations of respect and appreciation.  For example, showing appreciation for a partner fixing the vehicle and/or making dinner on a busy evening is an important aspect of daily life.  Therefore, giving your loved one positive verbal affirmations assists in showing respect and appreciation; for others, physical engagement, a hug for example, or an act of encouragement supports this intention.  In each relationship, it’s important to take inventory of your thoughts, feelings, reactions, behaviors, and words; and to ask yourself where the motivation for your words and behaviors are coming from.

Consider the following:

  1. Seek out relationships with a give-give ratio: Having respect for one’s self assists in setting healthy boundaries and seeking out healthy and enjoyable relationships. Consider if you feel supported by and support the other individual. The deeper meaning here is that each person supports the other’s gifts and differences- each person has a different set of gifts in life. Respect and appreciation assist in supporting, nurturing, and balancing values, goals, and the complexities of change throughout; even positive change has the propensity to be difficult without each.
  2. The flexibility to grow as a human-being, with mutual trust, support, respect, and appreciation throughout life’s natural changes: Change is inevitable and extremely difficult for some. For many, this brings an uncomfortable awareness and vulnerability. During times when a person has difficulty with feelings of vulnerability and/or experiencing fear and the unknown, engaging in disrespectful behaviors erode the relationship.  At times, the trust and safety factors an individual desires to feel are diminished over time; which destroys the relationship. Many times, each person is left confused as to what happened. Engaging in a consistent respectful dialogue and behaviors, while showing appreciation during change and stressful times, increases feelings of trust, safety, and love, while strengthening the relationship long-term.
  3. Disappointment, Fear, & Frustration: In a relationship it’s important to refrain from engaging in critical, blameful, and harming behaviors where the probability of pain and isolation is evident. The mentioned behaviors destroy individuals and the relationship as a whole. Each person may experience loneliness, and engage in the relationship while tolerating stress and frustration. There are times however, where difficult transitions may assist in grappling with deeper issues, which has potential to increase awareness, life satisfaction, and create new opportunities moving forward.
  4. Implement a balance of strength: At times, it’s vital to express feelings and emotions even when it’s uncomfortable or difficult. In other situations, a level of graciousness and acceptance is inherently beneficial to the self, the person being engaging with, and to the relationship as a whole. With this, it’s important to ask the difficult question of what is driving the decision to share or avoid sharing. The motivation in itself has the potential to change the outcome of whether to share and in what manners.
  5. Respect and appreciation ‘look’ different for each individual and has shifts throughout the lifespan. Reflect on each relationship; if you’re in a relationship where respect and appreciation are lacking, it’s important to address the issues and move forward from there. Many times, this involves adjustments in how a person approaches her/himself, how each individual approaches the other person, and by learning healthier ways to communicate. Therapy is beneficial to assist with working through current and/or old and outdated behaviors that are void of benefit and hindering to growth and the development towards giving and receiving respect and appreciation.

In conclusion, developing respect and appreciation are part of a complex process of behaviors that work towards increasing the quality of intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, mutual understanding, support (including during difficult times), and enjoyment.  When coupled with communication, a relationship has the capacity to be mutually satisfying and full of support, caring, and positive interactions. COMING SOON: article 3 of 6 in the series: How to Increase Healthy Communication

Learn, grow, & enjoy,
Mandi

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Existential GPS

Send In the Clowns

Our Collective Fascination and Fear of Big Top Tricksters
by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

Pennywise.

The name conjures a certain image of how we see clowns in our modern age. In his tale, “It,” Stephen King introduced us to a very dark world in the shape of Pennywise and the public’s perception of clowns has never quite been the same.

Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns (of course psychology/psychiatry birthed a label for it), appears to be more common than we once thought.

A BBC News article in 2008 article cited a study conducted by the University of Sheffield. Researchers there polled children in several British hospitals about redesigns to the décor within the pediatric units. According to the story, all 250 children expressed a fear or strong dislike of clowns.

The full results of the study were apparently never published…Cue the screeching violin music…

More recently, fear gripped certain regions of the country when sinister looking clowns began making random appearances near playgrounds, secluded wooded areas, and old dark roads, just where you would expect to find them or vice-versa, right? Creepy and, in most cases, not very funny.

In a 2004 article for Trinity University, researcher Joseph Durwin explained two theories regarding our fear of this otherwise innocuous subject. He stated that the fear we experience when exposed to tricksters with names like Bozo, Slappy or Chuckles could possibly be based on a negative personal experience with a clown at a young age. The second theory is that television and film has produced a certain fear of clowns and clown existence. That is, even children who are not personally exposed to clowns are taught to fear them.

Court Jesters were the original clowns, often rude, often pushing the limits of good taste in a world that had little to laugh about. Jesters eventually morphed into the Trickster, and the modern circus clown is the result of the “tramp” or “hobo” clowns of Depression era America. Clowns during this time shed light onto the seedy underside of clown life. They were not “evil” per say, but were seen as “lower class,” “poor souls” and reflected a slightly unpleasant slice of American life in the 1930s. Later, and in the real world, we see the clown emerging with its most disturbed, perverted and horrific persona in the evil shape of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

To take on the kind of popular mythos that evil clowns have enjoyed over the past several decades then perhaps there  is something more afoot than a passing, albeit morbid fascination. Could it be argued that the fear of clowns is much more deep rooted in our psyches than once thought? Are they the manifestation of a shadow side within each of us? A morbid reflection of all the thoughts and things we keep in the dark, and for good reason?  Is there something relatable for all of us beyond the creepiness, the gore, and the malevolent intent?  A clown, after all, is a just clown. By definition it is “someone who performs in a circus, who wears funny clothes and makeup, and who tries to make people laugh. Someone who often does funny things to make people laugh.”

So, what happened?  Perhaps the answer to that lies deep in our unexplored fears.

To be continued… Part 1 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.

Sources:
Durwin, J. Coulrophobia and the Trickster, Trinity University. 2004.
Merriam Webster Dictionary, 2016.

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eTalkTherapy

The Accidental Existentialist Issue 4

Read the FALL 2018 edition of The Accidental Existentialist now or download it to read later. In this issue you will find great articles by mental health professionals Morgan Roberts, Christina Pettinato and Don Laird, as well as freelance writer Aurora Starr. We would love to hear from you, please leave a comment below – Enjoy!

Through autumn’s golden gown we used to kick our way. You always loved this time of year.
Those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now that you’re not here…”
~ Justin Hayward

The Accidental Existentialist Fall 2018 Issue 4

A crisp autumn sky, crackling bonfires and brilliant colors floating delicately toward the ground, inspire many people to gather and celebrate the season. Yet, as always, there is a twinge of bitter-sweetness and sorrow as the year takes one final and glorious bow before it fades into the darkness and isolation of winter. Logically, we know that with spring new life will emerge from death.

Still, autumn is a conscious (or perhaps unconscious) reminder of our own mortality. A time when in spite of the colors and all the pumpkin deserts and drinks, we must acknowledge the brightness of our days is framed by the vividness and wisdom of our nights. The youthfulness of spring and summer now give way to the remembrance of all things lost, but not forgotten. All things must pass, and we are fortunate enough to recognize this as we move forward to the end of the seasons and ultimately the splendid finality of this mortal coil.

Enjoy the season. Drink in its grace and grandeur. Winter is indeed coming, but life continues.

Peace,
Don

In this issue:


Alice
by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC, DCC

eTalkTherapy - talk with a counselor onlineAlice was dead. A client I had known for only a short time, but her words still drifted across my consultation room as if they were just spoken. A slight, yet radiant smile, matched by hands confidently holding a mug of tea as she imparted the bittersweet details of a lifetime, mere shadows; wistful ghosts conjured on cue. Somehow, Alice had it figured out. Centuries of philosophical thoughts, tomes of written conjecture, all debating the questions of life and their ultimate meanings, yet none of it seemed as authentic or grounded as a 68-year old woman’s journey from Point A to Point Z, and all stop in-between. Read more…


Q&A with Therapist Christina Pettinato

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Christina (pictured above) adds her personal message to a “Before I Die…Wall in Cleveland, OH. This Wall is part of a series of interactive public art projects created by artist Candy Chang to encourage and inspire communities to share their stories and dreams in a public forum.

Through meaningful conversation and mindful discourse, you and I will embark on a journey toward change and purpose. Together we will navigate your issues in life through problem-solving techniques, self exploration and reflection. With you, my hope is to map out opportunities for growth, awareness, authenticity and mindfulness.” Read more…


Navigating the World in the #TimesUp Era
by Morgan Roberts, MSPC

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After The New Yorker and later The New York Times published bombshell reports of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and assaults, we have been in the midst of a paradigm. A paradigm is a major shift in thought and behavior. Biological science was drastically changed by Darwin. Psychics was drastically changed by Hawking. Likewise, there are social shifts which have caused dramatic changes in society. We live in a different era with a different mindset than we did pre-Vietnam, pre-Columbine, pre-9/11, pre-Obama, pre-Trump. Yet, there has been no paradigm shift that has directly impacted me as the Weinstein allegations and the events which followed. Read more…


5 Films with an Existential Motif
by Aurora Starr

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Existentialism is an analysis of human existence and the value and consequence of human choice. “Existence proceeds essence” with an aversion to any method designed to define humankind in a systematic or empirical way. In short, it is a philosophy concerned with finding meaning through free will, choice, and personal responsibility; a confrontation with existence by an exploration of death and meaning.

Hereafter, through the beauty of Netflix and Hulu, is a list of five films that highlight existential motifs in pure celluloid magic. Read more…


Do you have an idea for an article or would you like to contribute to our magazine?

This is your opportunity to submit educational and informative content that promotes growth in all aspects of mental health issues from an existential or humanistic perspective. Upon publication of your article, you will receive a $25 stipend.

Submit your queries at eTalkTherapy.com/submit.