Don’t fight the Weather

Have you ever had one of THOSE days? One like this:

You probably have. Most of us have at some point, some more than others. They are no fun. Miserable, even. Everything seems cloudy and dark. Some times these moods come out of the blue, with no explanation. Other times they seem to be the result of a specific event or situation. Occasionally they settle in for a while and darken the skies for an extended period of time.

For the purposes of illustrating a specific point, I want to run with the metaphor of mood as weather. Like weather, our mood changes over the course of days, weeks and months. Sometimes it changes rapidly, other times it changes very slowly, like a slow-moving cold front.

Weather changes in response to events, but it is not easily controlled. For instance, this winter wind currents created the now infamous (at least in this part of the world) “polar vortex”. Our local weather here was dramatically influenced by this event, resulting in weeks of uncharacteristically cold sub-zero weather. Now, no one around here really liked it, but we were powerless to do anything about it.

If we look at mood as the all-encompassing conditions of light or dark, gloomy or cheery, stormy or calm, we are faced with two different approaches to dealing with it. These approaches fall into two basic camps. The difference between the two is fundamental, and represent the two basic approaches to the treatment of psychological suffering that are prevalent today.

The first approach is to try to change the weather itself. This has a great deal of appeal, because when the weather is cloudy, who doesn’t pine for a sunny day? This approach views psychological suffering as a problematic storm system, and seeks interventions that will manipulate the weather to make it more accommodating. Pharmacological interventions fall into this category, as do many forms of cognitive behavioral therapy that seek to alter the difficult thoughts that are believed to negatively impact mood.

This approach has its virtues, and can work in some circumstances. Unlike weather, we have a bit more ability to influence our mood. But only a bit more. Sometimes, we seem to have very little ability to change our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, we find that it is possible to change the weather, but the cost is fairly profound.

The second approach does not focus on the weather. For pragmatic purposes, this approach regards the weather as largely intractable, and focuses instead on one’s reaction to it, and on the way in which one functions in the face of difficult weather. When taking this route, the focus is not the weather, but on the action taken. There are a range of options during bad weather, from staring out the window dejectedly to taking a walk with a raincoat and umbrella to curling up by a warm hearth with a good book.

This approach hinges upon a particular quality that can best be described as acceptance. In this context, acceptance means that, rather than fight the weather that currently exists, one focuses instead on how to live well within the confines of the current weather. One learns to accept the weather as a given.

One advantage of this approach is that it is far more adaptable. Instead of having to reshuffle one’s priorities every time there is a cloudy day, one can maintain continuity in their priorities. When a storm blows up, we don’t drop everything to manage the storm, we instead stay focused on the task at hand.

The other advantage, at the risk of overextending the metaphor, is that when we release our impulse to control the weather, which will only ever be tenuous at best, we gain increased influence over the climate. When we maintain commitment to a particular set of priorities over time, through sunny and stormy weather, we create an internal climatic environment that is maximally resilient, reinforcing, and meaningful.

This approach is characteristic of most so-called “third-wave behavior therapies”, which focus on, you guessed it, behavior. Mindfulness-based approaches take this stance as well, and are increasingly influential and effective.

The range of human experience is astonishingly broad. Humans successfully inhabit parts of the world with widely divergent weather, from the tropics to the arctic, from the four-season Midwest to the perpetually mild San Diego. By embracing the full range of our experience and learning to build on our tremendous capacities for adaptation, we can learn to thrive in a wider variety of circumstances, rather than constantly striving to create San Diego-type weather in, say, Iowa.

 

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