“He who hesitates is lost!”-Harold “Grump” Walker
The first time I ever heard this quote was as a high school freshman during football practice. The quote was vigorously brought to my attention by my freshman coach, a 77-year-old coaching legend by the name of Harold Walker. Grump, as he was better known, was past his prime as a coach, but still had a lot of of enthusiasm and energy. He could quote Shakespeare, philosophy, science, and one of his claims to fame was he was once a minor league baseball teammate of the legendary Jim Thorpe. In addition to everything else, Grump was completely deaf. He probably threw that quote at me at least five times that afternoon. Over 40 years later his advice still has relevance.
One of the best remedies for many physical and mental health problems is taking action. Most of us humans have a built in denial system that kicks in when we are facing something in our life that is challenging. It can be personal relationships, job related, financial, physical, you name it, one of the first things we instinctively do is deny and wait. We suffer from analysis paralysis. Often, an opportunity is missed, a problem gets bigger, or someone else steps up and seizes is our opportunity. If you lived in the 70s, couldn’t you have thought up something better than the pet rock or the chia pet?
“Action beats reaction every time.”-Unknown
This expression about action versus reaction is commonly cited in self defense and personal protection training courses. In those venues it is applied to physical self-defense. It probably has more utility in protecting us from physical and emotional maladies. Most emotional issues that people are plagued with are more predictable than we would imagine. As a psychotherapist, I spend a lot of time with clients asking them to “tell me what goes on with you with regard to _____________.” The blank is filled in with your anxiety, depression, fear, sadness, marriage, job, etc. After listening for approximately 20 to 30 minutes a clear pattern emerges and after a few weeks a client realizes that the problem is a lot more predictable than they would ever have imagined. The therapeutic goal then becomes being prepared and/or taking action before the times when the problem, predictably, becomes difficult. The funny thing is that clients often know what to do, they simply need permission to act in the way that they intuitively know will be the most effective. The therapist, i.e. “expert,” gives them permission to take action.
When I was new in the field of mental health, I worked part-time on a locked psychiatric unit in a hospital in the greater Boston area. I worked 3 to 4 shifts per week over a three-year period, learning a lot about mental health problems of all kinds and degrees of severity. Because my shifts were spaced out over the course of a week, I was easily able to see the progress that clients made from day to day. It was fascinating to see the response that most had to their treatment. It became obvious to me that one of the major factors in patients getting well was a routine that all patients adhered to. They were encouraged to get up in the morning, clean up, eat, socialize, rest, and recreate on a regular schedule. Patients who were “too depressed to get out of bed” would be gently encouraged by staff to get moving, to take action. It became quite clear to me that it was action, as much as anything else, that brought them to a state of wellness. Action leads to wellness.
An exercise that works well to create insight and leads to the development of an action plan is to write out a history of your identified problem. This is what a therapist does in one of the early sessions of a course of psychotherapy. Writing, if you are brutally honest with yourself, can serve the same purpose as a self-help exercise. Ask yourself the tough questions.
What is the problem that I am having? Be detailed, but just identify the problem.
When do I experience the problem? Where, when, and with whom? Pay attention to particular people, time of year, anniversary issue, and environmental details. If possible, detail the last few, specific times you’ve experienced this difficulty.
What are the patterns? If you are honest with yourself and have done your introspection diligently, you will probably notice that some patterns have emerged. You may notice, for example, that you almost always have difficulties in a particular month of the year, at a particular place, or with the same people over and over again. This exercise done carefully virtually always will create insight.
What actions can I take? What thoughts or behaviors are in my capacity to change? How can I view this differently? What can I focus on to feel differently? Can I view this more productively? Can I quit the job, leave the relationship, plan things out better etc.? Writing out the pros and cons of a course of action usually leads to clearer, more well thought out decisions.
After engaging in this self reflection, you will more clearly see what your best options are. It is necessary that this activity be done in writing. There is something brutally honest about the written word. You see your own thoughts, on paper, in black and white, in your own handwriting. Your words become your own call to action to initiate change.
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