Chapter 16: Recovery Mechanisms

Robert F.Mullen, PhD

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“Dr. Mullen is doing impressive work helping the world. He is the pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity utilizing DRNI – deliberate, repetitive, neural information.” – WeVoice (Madrid)

This is a draft of Chapter Sixteen – “Recovery Mechanisms” in ReChanneling’s upcoming book on moderating social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities. We present this as an opportunity for readers to share their ideas and constructive criticism – suggestions gratefully considered and evaluated as we work to ensure the most beneficial product to those with emotional dysfunction (which is all of us to some degree). Please forward your comments in the form provided below.

Recovery Mechanisms

“Success depends upon previous preparation,
and without such preparation, there is sure to be failure.”
– Confucius

A military strategist is someone skilled in planning the best way to gain an advantage against the enemy to achieve success. We are at war and social anxiety disorder is the enemy. Successfully challenging our fears and anxieties requires a strategy. As strategists, we identify the vulnerabilities of the enemy and our wherewithal to exploit them. We build the case and create the blueprint for successful engagement. We define the territory, develop the weapons, and propagandize our neural network. SAD is the territory, our Feared Situations Plan produces the weapons, and proactive neuroplasticity generates the propaganda. We lead the forces of recovery; no one else can do that for us. Strategist Sun Tzu wrote extensively about enemy terrain and accessibility – entangling ground, narrow passes, and precipitous heights. The hostile terrain is our enduring negative thoughts and behaviors. To successfully negotiate it we utilize our character strengths, attributes, and achievements.  

Once again, a Situation is the set of circumstances – the facts, conditions, and incidents affecting us at a particular time in a particular place. A Feared Situation is one that provokes fears and anxieties that negatively impact our emotional well-being and quality of life. Examples range from restaurants and the classroom to job interviews and social events. 

There are two types of situations. Anticipated and Recurring Situations are those that we know, in advance, provoke our fears and anxieties. Unexpected Situations are those we do not anticipate that catch us by surprise. 

Automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are anxiety-provoking thoughts, emotions, and images that occur in anticipation of or reaction to a situation. They are the unpleasant expressions of our negative self-beliefs that define who we think we are and who we think others think we are. (“No one will talk to me.” “I’ll do something stupid.” “I’m a loser.”) 

Identifying situations and unpacking associated fears and corresponding ANTs are crucial to recovery.

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As individuals living with social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities, we are challenged by a series of symptoms. Individually, we are not impacted by all of them or by the same ones as other SAD persons. Our issues are as distinctive as our experiences and personalities. The approaches to recovery are targeted to meet individual needs. Notwithstanding our differences, our Feared Situations Plan will support anticipated and recurring situations and help build our emergency preparedness kit for unexpected ones.

Moderating our associated fears and corresponding ANTs demands an integrated and targeted approach supported by personal revelation, evaluation, and implementation. Through the following steps, we learn to:  

Identify our Feared Situation(s). Where are we when we feel anxious or fearful and what activities are involved (what are we thinking, what might we be doing)? Who and what do we avoid because of these insecure feelings? 

Identify our Associated Fear(s). One way to identify our anxiety is to ask ourselves the following: What is problematic for me in the situation? How do I feel (physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually)? What is my specific concern or worry? What is the worst thing that could happen to me? What do I imagine might happen to me?

Unmask our Corresponding ANT(s). We determine how we express our anxiety. What are our involuntary emotional expressions or images? How do we negatively self-label? What do we tell ourselves? “I am incompetent.” “I am stupid.”

Examine and Analyze Our Fear(s) and ANTs. What are the origins of our fears and anxieties? Discovery approaches include cognitive comprehension, introspection, psychoeducation, and the vertical arrow technique.

Generate Rational Responses. We become mindful of the irrationality and self-destructive nature of our fears and ANTs. We discover and analyze the cognitive distortions that we use to validate or reinforce our fears. Then we devise rational responses to counter our false assumptions. The character motivations of psychobiography and positive psychology are useful here.

Reconstruct Our Thought Patterns. Through proactive neuroplasticity and cognitive approaches, we convert our thought patterns by replacing or overwhelming our toxic thoughts and behaviors with healthy productive ones. The process is facilitated by the rapid, concentrated, neurological stimulation of DRNI (the deliberate, repetitive neural input of information). 

Devise a Structured Plan for Our Feared Situations(s). Utilizing our learned tools and techniques, we develop a plan to challenge our situational fears and anxieties by devising a strategy and incorporating targeted coping mechanisms.

Practice the Plan in Non-Threatening Simulated Situations. We strengthen our rational responses by repeatedly implementing the Plan in practiced exercises including role play and other workshop interactivities. Affirmative Visualization is a valuable scientific tool.

Expose Ourselves to the Feared Situation. We challenge our anxieties and corresponding ANTs on-site in real life. This transpires after a suitable period of graded exposure to facilitate the reconstruction of our neural network and a familiarity with the prescribed tools and techniques. 

Workshop participants are asked to list their top five anxiety-provoking situations. First on George L’s list was speaking in front of a group or audience. His corresponding fears were that he would not be taken seriously and be overwhelmed as the center of attention. His automatic negative thoughts were “I will be criticized” and “They will ridicule my anxiety.” Rational responses to these fears and ANTs are multiple. Among others, George chose “I deserve to be here” and “I am as worthy as everyone else.” Using this information, he created his Plan for Feared Situations.

Coping Strategies, Mechanisms, and Skills.

A coping strategy is our plan of action, and coping mechanisms are the tools or weapons we utilize to implement our strategy. To paraphrase the strategic offensive principle of war, “The best defense against social anxiety is a good offense” There are many moving parts to a counteroffensive requiring different levels of responsibility and expertise. At the top, we have our military strategists like Napoleon, Hannibal, and Eisenhower whose roles are to develop structured plans of action to outmaneuver the opponent. In recovery, this is our coping strategy designed to outmaneuver our social anxiety disorder – to take back control.

We then identify the actions or measurable steps needed to execute our strategy. In military jargon, those are the tactics implemented by field officers on the ground. In recovery, these are our coping mechanisms. A definitive strategy also identifies what resources are needed to implement the tactics. On the battlefield, the resources are the infantry, the training, and the equipment. In recovery, we are all those.

This process of strategizing is not linear or trickle-down, but complementary to its accessible assets. A smart military strategist plots the counteroffensive around the available weaponry, the expertise of the field officers, and the numbers and capabilities of the ground troops. In recovery, our coping strategy is fashioned around our ability to execute it.

In recovery, we do not have strategists to plan our counteroffensive nor officers on the ground to tactically implement it. We are the generals, the field officers, and the foot soldiers. The onus of recovery is on us. We are in an enviable position; recovery through proactive neuroplasticity empowers us to take control of our emotional well-being and quality of life. William Jennings Bryan never became president but was the youngest person in U.S. History to be nominated – three times. He wrote, “Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

Coping Strategies

There are maladaptive and adaptive coping strategies. Until we begin to moderate our irrational thoughts and behavior, most of our coping strategies are maladaptive. Our tendency to avoid situations that provoke our fears and anxieties is maladaptive because it does not resolve the problem. Some defense mechanisms are both adaptive and maladaptive: problematic when they perpetuate our symptoms but useful in recovery. Compensation, for example, when used to replace toxic with healthy behaviors is beneficial; when used as a means to avoid confronting an undesirable situation is maladaptive. It is important to note that emotion, problem, meaning, social, and avoidance styles of coping can each be maladaptive & ineffective or adaptive & effective, depending on the outcome.

There are multiple coping strategies utilized to alleviate stress including problem-focused, emotion-focused, social, and meaning-focused. They can be adaptive or unhealthy depending upon how they are utilized. For our purposes, we emphasize response-focused and solution-focused strategies, but all options are considered and incorporated into a comprehensive recovery program. Strategies determine the coping mechanisms used in our Feared Situation Plan for anticipated and recurring feared situations and our emergency preparedness kit for unexpected ones.

Strategizing how to combat our feared situation is a crucial element of recovery. When we are facing anticipated and recurring situations, we know what to expect. We have advanced knowledge of the logistics of the event or occasion and have identified our associated fears and corresponding automatic negative thoughts.

Knowing how to effectively respond to anticipated situations is challenging enough. Devising fluid strategies to help us moderate unexpected situations is comparable to planning for the tactics used in guerilla warfare. Our social anxiety will use any means to control our emotional well-being including ambushes, sabotage, raids, petty warfare, and hit-and-run tactics. These are the elements of unexpected situations. Guerilla warfare is conducted by a lesser force to subdue a stronger, more formidable force. SAD’s devious, manipulative tactics are no match to our inherent and developed character strengths, virtues, and attributes.

Coping Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are tools and techniques that we consciously or unconsciously use to moderate stress and reduce the neurotransmissions of our fear and anxiety-provoking hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. They range from practiced skills we learn in recovery (e.g., slow talk and progressive muscle relaxation), to instinctual reactions to stress like going for a walk or listening to music. Healthy coping mechanisms are adaptive – positive contributions to our emotional well-being. Cognitive coping mechanisms include introspection and affirmative visualization – ways to mentally improve our response to situations. Behavioral coping mechanisms are interactive distractions – activities to moderate our fears and anxieties.

Defense Mechanisms

Unhealthy or negative coping mechanisms are called defense mechanisms – unhealthy safeguards against the thoughts and emotions that are difficult for our conscious minds to manage. Defense mechanisms are mostly unconscious psychological responses that protect us from our fears and anxieties. They are methods of avoidance – unhealthy responses to SAD-induced conflicts – that offer temporary respite but do little to moderate our anxieties in the long term. Substance abuse, denial, projection, regression, sublimation, and cognitive distortions are common defense mechanisms.

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Without coping mechanisms, healthy or otherwise, we can experience decompensation – the inability or unwillingness to generate effective psychological coping mechanisms in response to stress – resulting in personality disturbance or disintegration.

Those of us living with SAD are preoccupied with the future, predicting how things will go wrong. We avoid situations because we anticipate making a fool of ourselves. We dread exposing ourselves to criticism and ridicule. Not only are we consumed with anxiety during situations, but we confront it days in advance. We create self-fulfilling prophecies of miserable and lonely solutions. Before recovery, I recall repeatedly circling the block before a social situation to bolster my courage. More often than not, I ended up in the bar rather than the event. Not only did I fear letting myself down, but I guaranteed it through my avoidance. I had no strategy.

There are literally hundreds of coping mechanisms that can make those stressful moments in life easier to handle, including yoga, dancing, meditation, eating, painting, writing, and streaming a movie. Anything that takes us out of the stress of the moment and reduces the flow of those pesky chemical hormones. The mechanisms detailed in these chapters are designed specifically to moderate the symptoms of our social anxiety in feared situations.

Going into a problematic situation without a strategy and functional coping mechanisms is jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. In the words of the master of moderation, Benjamin Franklin: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” 

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Comments. Suggestions. Constructive Criticism

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WHY IS YOUR SUPPORT SO IMPORTANT?  ReChanneling develops and implements programs to (1) moderate symptoms of emotional dysfunction and (2) pursue personal goals and objectives – harnessing our intrinsic aptitude for extraordinary living. Our paradigmatic approach targets the personality through empathy, collaboration, and program integration utilizing scientific and clinically practical methods including proactive neuroplasticity, cognitive-behavioral modification, positive psychology, and techniques designed to reinvigorate self-esteem. All donations support scholarships for groups, workshops, and practicums.  

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