Recently, Carol and I discussed “adaptation” after hearing a report on National Public Radio (NPR) concerning elderly people with dementia. I asked her, “Would I recognize that I had dementia if I had it? What if I’m living in a dementia right now? How would I know?” I certainly have plenty of delusions that might or could fit the diagnosis.
As we talked further, I asked if I might normalize my experience, regardless of its reasonableness. That is, would I use a strategy to either adjust my values or the threat level to lessen my stress? For example, I value my family and they are under threat. To mitigate the stress I feel, I will tend toward either lowering the value I assign to my family, “They don’t mean THAT much…” (so I can run away…); or, raising the level of threat necessary to invoke my action, “It’s not THAT bad…” (so I can just ignore the threat). Either way, I lower my stress level.
What happens when I perceive that someone or something I value is under chronic threat? Well, let’s say the threat is real and significant enough (to me) to warrant action. Being chronic, I’d have to be actively fighting or flying all the time. I don’t know about you, but I can tell you that I can only do that level of activity for a while before I get tired – at which time I’ll initiate one or more strategies to relieve the pressure I feel. I may:
- lower the level of threat
- Deny, ignore, or downplay the threat (“I didn’t see that…” and/or, “It’s not that bad…”)
- Seek to redefine the threat relative to another (“It’s not as bad as [some other threat]…”)
- Lower harm expectations (“It [the threat] won’t hurt all that much…”)
- lower the value of the threatened
- Give in or give up (“meh, whatever…” or “It just doesn’t matter [that much] to me…”)
- Re-evaluate (“Maybe it’s not all that important…”)
- Seek to redefine the situation (“…this isn’t really about my family…”)
I’m sure there are many more examples of strategies for adapting to a stressful situation. However I do it, I seek to normalize or balance my values-threat seesaw to a manageable level.
Once I’ve normalized – adapted to – the stressful situation, I’ll resist questioning it – replacing questions with a sense of accomplishment. My defenses go to work making the accomplishment right, justified, and/or proper.
Perhaps I’ve completed my normalizing when I fully adopt my abnormal stressful situation as my normal situation and stop asking questions concerning it. I’ve satisfied the equation and balanced the scales – I’m done. Although I may feel a sense of satisfaction that I’ve “risen to the occasion” and/or “faced the demon and won” – I may still hold within me the conflict inherent in the stressful situation. I may FEEL that I’ve become stronger against a stressor, yet I may be weakened overall as a result of the conflict. No one comes away from a battle stronger – in every case, combat weakens and destroys.
To actually “rise above,” I’ll have to do something other than fight or fly. Perhaps the essential question then is “What else is there?” What else, indeed.