Young sick woman in blanket with thermometer

Anxiety in the Age of COVID19

As human beings, we do not do very well with the unknown. Uncertainty and an undetermined future can create a level of constant worry that is often disproportionate and, at times, unmanageable. Anxiety manifests around that which we cannot control. What compounds this feeling is a sense that what is out of control should not be. When things feel uncertain, we don’t feel safe. However, it is okay to feel stressed or anxious, particularly when there is conflicting information around us.

Currently, most of us are worried about the Coronavirus (COVID-19). We may experience feelings ranging from helplessness to fear about what will happen in the weeks and months ahead. Again, it’s okay to feel this way. It may not feel good, but trying to push it away or act as if it doesn’t exist is the unhealthiest thing you can do.

In short, your mental health will likely suffer over the next several months.  You might feel on edge, nervous, angry, frustrated, helpless or sad. You might want to completely avoid any reminders of what is happening. “Normal” daily activities will alter drastically, and for those who already struggle with depression or anxiety the next few months will be quite challenging.

Remind yourself that you are in control to how you respond to any event (and anxiety thrives when you feel as though you have no choice). Yet, you are stronger than you may believe. Below are three basic things that can help you with your mental hygiene.

  1. You are not alone in this pandemic. Control what you can. Wash your hands. Remind others to do the same. Continue to exercise. Limit your exposure to the news. It’s healthy to update yourself once or twice a day, but over-consumption will have a negative effect. Checking your news feed every few minutes or every hour is not helping you stay informed, but it is helping you develop an unhealthy fixation. Also, limiting screen time is good practice regardless of the reason or situation.
  1. Social distancing does not mean hiding under a rock. Avoid crowds and close contact, but get outside. Exercise helps with both physical and mental health. Being in the sun and fresh air helps restore emotional balance and gives a boost to natural vitamin D levels. Stay grounded by being mindful to the world around you. Do this by noticing what your senses are telling you through sight, sound, taste, and touch. This will help you stay present and avoid projecting into an uncertain future. Remember, choice and change only occurs in the here-and-now.
  1. If you are feeling overwhelmed or need support, please talk to those you trust most. It’s okay to feel afraid or angry – it’s what you do with those feelings that matters. If needed, reach out for extra support or help. You don’t have to be alone, professional help is always available online with a therapist or counselor.

DUE TO THE FINANCIAL IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19), eTALKTHERAPY IS NOW OFFERING LOWER PER SESSION RATES BASED ON YOUR FINANCIAL NEED.  Contact us today for further pricing details.

Be safe, be healthy, be well,
Don

 

You Will Be Visited By Three Spirits

An Existential Yuletide Greeting
by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they the shadows of things that May be, only?”

Scrooge. A word that can immediately conjure images of a bitter and heartless man concerned more with greed than humanity; a cultural archetype of someone wanting nothing further to do with his species and one who has no use for words like “compassion” or “care.” Yet, on closer examination, Scrooge’s story reveals some remarkable insights for our modern times. There are facets to his narrative that are ostensibly universal. Yes, a harsh commentary on the mores of his time, but Scrooge is more relevant today than ever.

On its surface, Dickens’ Victorian yarn can be simply read as “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” However, there is much at stake for our cultural and individual well being in this seasonal tale. In fact, I assert to you that Charles Dickens’ seminal 1843 work A Christmas Carol remains one of the finest examples of existential psychotherapy ever written (albeit in fictional form). The tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge opens a time and space for self-reflection for those who want to examine life in a meaningful and in-depth fashion. This is not about instant transformation for the client, positive psychology to sooth the therapist’s fears, or worse, wishful thinking from both parties. It is an existential crisis that is illuminated by one of the key tenets of psychotherapy – fear of death.

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

We all know the story, so it is here that I wish to briefly highlight the other side of Scrooge. No one arrives at a certain point in their development without a back story, and Scrooge’s history is one filled with disappointment and neglect. He is an ignored and isolated child, abandoned even at Christmas by his family and friends. Scrooge knows pain all too well at an early age. The world around him and its inhabitants are not to be trusted. People, above all, should be shunned. They are to be feared as they need and require emotional attachment and engagement. These qualities are easily dismissed by a young man whose growing trust in currency and greed will engulf his life for years.

In the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge exemplifies one of the central canons of existential depression and anxiety, that one has always been this way, and one always will be. There is a loss of agency and caustic determinism quickly fills in this void. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come points at the tombstone, Scrooge understands for the first time that life can be written differently: what seems to be etched in stone isn’t. The specter’s message is powerful; an opportunity for Scrooge to see what life on earth would be like after his death. Scrooge observes his own forgotten corpse as his peers minimize his demise. He watches in horror as strangers quickly sell his belongings, while mocking his death with no regard or mercy. In death, he can no longer be an agent of change. He is a spectator to a cruel and vicious world he created.  Yet all Three Spirits show him that he was and is agent of change as long as he is alive. It is through an encounter with one’s mortality that a fuller life may occur – to know death is to know life. Scrooge accepts the significance of death, so that he may live his final months and years embraced in the richness of his relationships with others.

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

Death anxiety is real; despite those in modern psychology who often relegate the subject of death to the closet of “let’s not go there unless we have to” (even by some seasoned practitioners who should know better). In short, beware the therapist who professes that the exploration of death anxiety is not particularly helpful in therapy. Yes, therapists can spend far too much time focusing on one area while neglecting another. It happens. Not every therapist is well-rounded enough to create a new therapy for each of her or his clients. However, that shouldn’t allow for a wave of “positivity” to sweep us away from Otto Rank’s maxim, “Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death.” Exploration of death and dying serves as a profound catalyst toward some remarkable life changes. It is the confluence of both past, present and future; an investigation of life by way of an awareness and acknowledgement of our finite time here on Earth. In this way, we are all a reflection of Dicken’s vision.

Thus, A Christmas Carol calls us to embrace some definitive questions, “How would the world be different if I were to die today?” and “Do I ever have a true sense of how many lives I’ve touched?” Scrooge’s story may, in fact, provide the answers. Our relationships with others are so intrinsic that our absence creates an entirely different existence – a ghostly existential vacuum, if you will.

In the Victorian era, people saw ghosts and had premonitions. It was a system of supernatural beliefs that was not uncommon. Freud came along and said that this was the result of repressed memories. The dead were reduced to misleading or damaged recollections that resulted in certain beliefs and behaviors. Ghosts haunted the mind, not the house. Yet, there is something within Scrooge’s narrative that calls to us, pushes us beyond cause and effect, beyond determinism, and reminds us that we can be responsible and compassionate with our life choices and that no person is indeed an island.

Be well, and remember to keep the spirit of this season in your heart today and throughout the year.

In good health,
Don

Photos courtesy http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/furniss/xmas.html#cc

woman walking on a back road

This is where I draw the line

Someone asked me recently for a short list of things that would be helpful in leading a happier life. I explained that happiness, like all emotions, is fleeting. Yet, I started thinking more about her inquiry. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked for such advice.  As therapists, we are trained ad nauseam that giving direct guidance of any kind is frowned upon and unwise.  However, there is a time and a place for directive counsel and the positive effects it can have for a person who just wants her mind to be quiet for a bit.  Often, people are so busy trying to change others around them that they forget that a firm set of boundaries will help settle even the most tempest mind.

So here listed are ten boundaries, not in any particular order, that can act as reminders. Think of them this way; if happiness is indeed fleeting and not a fixed destination then how I am opening myself up to the possibility of happiness, satisfaction and a quieter mind? These are not intended to be a road map, but rather some markers along your path that may be useful.

  1. It is not my job to fix others.
  2. It is okay to say “no.”
  3. I am responsible for supporting others, not servicing.
  4. I can only make myself happy.
  5. I am not responsible for the happiness of others.
  6. Not everyone has to agree with or like me.
  7. I have a right to my own feelings, including anger. It’s how I express those feelings that counts.
  8. I can search for my meaning and purpose without permission from another.
  9. I do not have to put the emotional needs of others ahead of mine.
  10. I am responsible for my feelings and actions.

Living a life worth living shouldn’t include sacrificing your happiness for others. Learning to value and be responsible for yourself and your feelings is not selfishness, it is an act of selflessness that is affirming and empowering. The worth of your day should not be contingent on whether those around you are “happy.” Yes, we do influence others just as they influence us, but their feelings are their feelings, nothing more you can do here. Being supportive and caring is not the same as being in service to another.

We often cling to unhappy lives because change is too frightening, but setting boundaries isn’t as scary or as complicated as it may sound. In short, real change only occurs when you attempt something different. Practicing the above list is by no means a sure bet toward a healthier or happier life, but it is a step in that direction.

If you’d like to discuss boundaries and relationships further or any other mental health concerns, please feel free to contact me or you can schedule an appointment with me.

In good health,
Don

Teacher and pupils

Back to School: A Mental-Health Check List

It’s that time of the year again. When a simple three-word phrase evokes dread for most school-age kids and relief for most parents: “Back to School.” Yet, ask any parent, child or teacher, heading back to the classroom is not without its challenges. It can be an exceptionally difficult time of transition for children who suffer from a mental health or learning issue.

Anxietyespecially unrealistic self-expectations and generalized fear of the world at largeis growing among school-aged children and adolescents these days. Potential root causes for this are both broad and complex, and worthy of a separate, stand-alone article. So returning to school can be an enormously challenging task for any child. Let alone one who struggles with anxiety.

Let’s look at it through a practical lens. Children are away from home and routine, and the rules have changed. The school environment requires certain demands that a typical summer setting does not. Summer rarely needs a child to sit still, stay organized, remain focused and on task and adapt to an extremely structured schedule.

Here are five things you should keep in mind before the first homeroom bell rings:

  1. Anxious Parents, Anxious Kids.

Modeling confidence and calm behaviors are central to most parenting situations, particularly when preparing a child ready for school. By fostering structure and daily routine in family life (bedtime, homework, etc), parents will find this transition period to be much smoother. Giving your kids too many choices about routine can backfire and ultimately put them in the seat of control. Remember, you are the parent.

Anxiety issues and traits can run in families. Children with anxious parents run a greater risk of experiencing anxiety themselves. It is still debatable (just read all the conflicting studies when you are having trouble sleeping) as to whether it is genetics, environment, both or something else, but there is no smoking gun when it comes to the root sources for anxiety.  Yet, it is quite observable that children – and most adults – can be like energy sponges, absorbing energy and assimilating behaviors. Remember, a child is usually no calmer than his or her least-relaxed parent. Anxiety can impact someone’s ability to focus, stay on task and is generally categorized by a state of unrealistic and persistent worry.

Sometimes it can be difficult to vet between what is age-appropriate behaviors and anxiety, but if you have concerns you should first discuss these with your child’s teacher and then a mental health professional should the behaviors continue to escalate.

  1. Teachers Can Be Your Best Ally.

Teachers get to know how a child behaves without family being present. Thus, parents can gain information about learning difficulties and peer problems and friendships. Teachers are your closest allies when it comes to your child’s success in school, and you should talk to them regularly. You will learn more about how your child is navigating his or her world, both academically and socially, by talking with the teacher.

  1. Routines Are Crucial.

Above all, be positive and encouraging. Examples of some good routines might include creating an uncluttered work space in the home; organizing a backpack, reviewing assignments; and discussing homework. You can observe your child’s strengths and weaknesses this way while also establishing and fostering good study habits. Also, be sure that your child is staying hydrated with lots of water and has the recommended amount of sleep for his or her age group.

  1. Don’t Worry.

Kids grow, learn and develop at different rates. A delay in one area of development doesn’t necessarily mean your child has a disorder. There needs to be significant evidence and some testing to reach any firm conclusion. However, if you suspect there might be a problem with your child’s development, talk to her teacher and consult with a mental health professional.

  1. Leave Them Alone.

This may sound counterproductive or even counter intuitive, but a child needs downtime. A schedule that is bursting at the seams, with little or no room for relaxation is also ripe for an anxious or depressed child. Give them time. Life is short, sometimes hard. Don’t unpack your stuff on that person who happens to be your child. Give them breathing room, and let them find out that the world can be a secure and inviting place without regimented schedules.

If you would like to continue the conversation or discuss more techniques to overcoming anxiety, contact me to schedule an appointment or free phone consultation today.

In Good Health,
Don

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How Healthy Is Your Relationship?

By Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

As a therapist and relationship coach, I all too often watch couples fighting against their relationship instead of for it. The reality is we often fall short when trying to communicate our needs and wants to others. Instead, couples waste energy and time focused on each other’s flaws rather than ways they can repair or foster their relationship. Indeed, if you are waiting for the other person to change then you better pull up a chair, grab a snack and settle in for a very long wait. Rather than giving up on your relationship, why not focus your time and energy on getting it back on track by trying something different?

If you don’t take some new and different approach on your own behalf, no one else will. For example, instead of pointing out your significant other’s flaws, why not try some positive reinforcement? Highlight your partner’s positive qualities and things you appreciate about them. It’s not a way to avoid issues in your relationship, but an effective way of starting the healing process. Keep this thought in mind, “Change begins with me.

Here a few key items to try when working on your relationship:       

  1. Remain present and focused: Don’t allow your emotions to steer the ship. Above all, avoid name-calling and personal attacks. Remember anger is a symptom of hurt, fear, and frustration. It’s never about the dishes or trash or being late. It’s about being heard and understood. Do healthy things to deal with your anger such as physical exercise, yoga, creative endeavors, or meditation.
  2. Don’t blame your partner: Concern is fine, but criticism is damaging to a relationship. It’s okay to express a specific complaint such as, “I was worried when I couldn’t reach you by phone and it was getting so late. We had agreed to contact each other if one of us was running late.”  Verses “You never call or text me, you’re always so selfish and uncaring.”  Also, using the word “I” is much more effective than using the word “You.” It’s about communicating what you need versus what you don’t need in your relationship. This is a great first step toward a healthier partnership.
  3. Unplug: Look at your partner, not your phone or other devices. The table and bed should always be device free areas. In fact, your bedroom is designed for two things: sleep and sex. So check your devices at the door. Try new activities that you both find interesting and pleasurable. You fell in love with this person without the device, why allow it to divide you when you could be using that time to strengthen your bond?
  4. Increase touch: Studies show that physical contact always helps in a relationship. Holding hands, hugging and touching can release chemicals in the body that cause us to be calmer, connected, and more attentive. Whether through touching or the act of sex, physical affection also reduces stress hormones – such as cortisol.
  5. Compliment your partner: Express your positive feelings out loud every day and say something kind about your partner. Don’t reserve these niceties exclusively for birthdays, anniversaries or holidays. Practice flirting with your partner. Let them know that you desire them through both your words and actions.
  6. Be vulnerable: In other words, don’t hold your hurt inside. Be open about your thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful and constructive way. Resentment and frustration build when couples avoid communicating, so don’t bury those negative feelings. Make sure to use those “I” statements and not the “You” word.
  7. Take responsibility:  The old saying holds true, real change starts with you. Own your feelings without pointing out your partner’s flaws or going on the attack. To be ready for love you must become the person you want your partner to be.

Most importantly, do your best to remember why you fell in love with your partner. Instead of focusing on her or his flaws when you have an argument, examine your own words; check your own body language. Focus on repairing hurt feelings and creating a relationship worth being in. Breaking the cycle of an unhappy relationship requires you to make a shift in your mindset. It starts with you.

If you would like to continue the conversation about your relationship or marriage contact me to schedule an appointment or free phone consultation today.

In Good Health,
Don

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Boosting self esteem and body image in boys

By Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

The phrase “poor body image” is typically thought to be a term exclusive to women or adolescent girls. However, in recent years we have seen a growing number of adolescent boys and even adult men reporting poor body image. How can you help teenage boys develop a positive outlook with the way they feel about their physical appearance?

Talk about it. Don’t pretend as though he’s just “going through a phase.”

The effects of poor body image among boys tend to be internal and are usually associated with reduced confidence and low self-esteem. Poor body image is often much more difficult to identify in boys than in girls. Teenage boys’ issues are usually not physically apparent or outwardly excessive, although some may engage in extreme exercise and/or develop an eating disorder.

If you suspect a problem, ask questions. Then be patient and listen without judgment, criticism or using minimizing statements such as, “You just need to stop always comparing yourself to other people,” or worse “Be a man and suck it up.”

Indicators of a poor body image in adolescent boys are often subtle and may include:

  • Unrealistic expectations for body type.
  • Excessively conforming to others expectations.
  • Having low energy.
  • Poor diet.
  • Becoming withdrawn or demonstrating a low mood for an extended period of time.

Model healthy behaviors. We’re all in this together.

Kids and teens gain knowledge from their surroundings. They observe much more than we give them credit. Consequently, make every attempt to model healthy behavior by eating a balanced diet and making those foods available to your kids. They may not want or like them, but you are setting the bar for how they forge their relationship with food and themselves. In addition to focusing on his nutrition and physical activity, pay attention to his exposure to media.

Just like girls and women, the media exposes boys to continuous messages about an ideal body image. During the teenage years, this can be damaging because teen boys are undergoing dramatic body changes. They are vulnerable to holding themselves to unrealistic standards and often feel bad about who they are because of what they look like. Obviously there is no way to escape all media influence, but you can engage your children by teaching critical thinking skills without passing judgment on them or others.

Talk with your son’s doctor or a professional counselor.

If in doubt, or if you notice your son is growing more obsessed with body image, talk with your teen’s doctor about your concerns. He or she can discuss these issues with your son, such as what is the meaning of body image, proper nutrition and skin care, and what should his expectations be for himself.

In Good Health,
Don

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31 Days of Change

by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

Ah, keeping our New Year’s Resolutions. We all talk a good game, but by the second or third week of January it all quickly goes downhill. So, what are your obstacles? How many of them are self-imposed? Are you better at making excuses than creating solutions? You’re not alone. Research demonstrates that most people fail to keep New Year Resolutions. Perhaps this year you can take a different approach.

Commitment is a choice. The moment you allow an excuse to become an obstacle is the moment you rob yourself of choice. And a life without choice is not really worth living. Rather than set some lofty resolutions, plan to use each day of January to think about and implement one lifestyle change that is realistic and obtainable. Meeting a goal, even a simple one, requires a major mind shift. Take a look below at my plan for the first 31 days of 2019. Perhaps some of my goals match yours? Join me. Email me at etalktherapy@gmail.com to let me know how you are doing throughout 2019 with keeping your resolutions. If some of my ideas don’t fit, then tweak them to suit your lifestyle. Keep them moving forward and never allow them to be far from your daily routine. Remember, most obstacles are self-imposed.  You have only yourself to blame if you can’t follow through.

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Download the 31 Days of Change Calendar and best of luck!! Happy 2019!! Feel free to drop me an email if you need clarification on any of these resolutions or goals. If you wish to explore or tend to your mental health needs in 2019, please reach out to me through email, phone or this website.

In good health,
Don

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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.

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.

Creepy clown mask with purple smoke

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.