Coping Skills Series - #1A - Monitoring Your Interactions with Others

Robin Cunningham Health Guide


    On December 30, 2007, I submitted a SharePost about the bedrock on which all of my coping skills have been constructed and then went back to work on my most recent series of blogs called Choices. I've been asked to set the Choices series aside for a few weeks in order to write about some of the other coping skills I employ, which today are quite different from the norm. This will a miniseries entitled Coping Skills. For you to fully appreciate the nature of these coping skills, a little background would probably be helpful.


    Therapists today have little baskets, each filled with a selection of coping skills, each appropriate for a specific diagnosis, type of crisis and situation. These are all well and good and have helped many of us. [The one I've always found fascinating is the snapping of a rubber band around one's wrist to deal with anxiety. It would seem to represent an attempt, through distraction, to substitute minor physical pain for mental anguish. I think this is a bit of a stretch even for a rubber band.]

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    When I developed schizophrenia over 50 years ago, these little baskets of coping skills didn't exist. Almost all psychiatrists in the U.S. thought schizophrenia was caused by bad family dynamics, especially those involving the patient's mother. [The title of "consumer" had not yet been adopted.] They even used the term "schizophrenogenic mother." No one back then really believed that recovery from schizophrenia was possible, and in the absence of effective medications, by in large they were right. This rendered coping skills superfluous.


    No one believed in recovery, that is, except for my first psychiatrist, Dr. Sol Levy.


    Dr. Levy had trained for psychiatry in Germany and Switzerland, and believed in the medical model of mental illness to which virtually everyone subscribes today. He employed both medications and therapy. We met for an hour each week. When I first became ill, there was only one medication, Thorazine, and it didn't work very well for me. Given this, he taught me coping skills to tide me over until the right medication was developed. Remarkably, the type of therapy he employed could today only be considered cognitive behavioral therapy. [Keep in mind that cognitive behavioral theory per se was not developed and widely employed as treatment modality until 25 or 30 years later.] As a consequence of all this, beginning in 1956 and continuing to the present, I have received what is today considered "best practice treatment."


    In my early years, this was treatment very few received. [I have yet to encounter anyone else.] I am, therefore, an anachronism among my peers. On the other hand, individuals recently diagnosed with schizophrenia and their loved ones can look at what has happened to me and find reassurance that full recovery is possible.


    All the coping skills that Dr. Levy taught me during these early years, one way or another, were designed to reduce stress. As we all know, stress can be dangerous for consumers. Once a medication that worked for me was finally developed, these stress-reducing coping skills morphed into guidelines, or aids, for living. When I first began using the skills Dr. Levy taught me, it required a conscious, deliberate effort on my part because it involved going about my daily life in new and unfamiliar ways. This process of change took years, consumed a lot of my energy, and was often frightening and sometimes painful. However, with Dr. Levy's encouragement, I have long since internalized my coping skills, which means these have become the norm for me, i.e., I no longer have to think about employing them, they now come naturally.


    Enough background, already.



    Coping Skills - #1A - Monitoring Your Interactions with Others


    Dr. Levy taught me to constantly monitor my mental, emotional and physical condition, as well as my immediate environment. This is the foundation on which all my other coping skills have been constructed. If I had been unable to execute this foundational coping skill, I would not have been very successful in developing or implementing any of the others. Below is one example of how I learned to monitor my surroundings. More specifically it describes one aspect of how I monitor my interactions with others.

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    In conversations, most, if not all, individuals with schizophrenia find interpreting the voice inflections and body language of others a significant challenge. I was born and raised in a small town in Washington State. Despite the fact that I knew the customs involving communications in the place of my birth, I still found reading non-verbal forms of communication difficult. This was especially true when I ran head-first into the stumbling block of adolescence.


    Experts in communications say up to 85% of all effective communication is non-verbal. Individuals without schizophrenia have discovered that the complete absence of non-verbal forms of communication, such as in e-mail and text messaging, can lead to catastrophic misinterpretations both in business and romance.


    So, how did I learn to deal with this disadvantage [or if you insist, this disability]? I developed my monitoring skills by constant practice. In conversations, I learned to look on the spot and in real time for alternate interpretations of everything that everyone else said. I evaluated each alternate interpretation for reasonableness given my surroundings and circumstances. I would then mentally test each response I might make against each of these interpretations to fully consider the consequences of my reply. The process is very much like playing chess or bridge when a player examines each of their potential current moves in terms of how their opponent is likely to respond, carrying this analysis forward many iterations into the future, before deciding on their current move.


    In my early years, this often led to a delay in my responses to others. I still use this coping skill after some 50 years of living with schizophrenia, but I have internalized the process so that I do this without thinking about it and with little or no delay. This coping skill worked very much to my advantage in business when I was negotiating very large and complex financing transactions.


    Stigma, as we all know, is an impediment that prevents many people with mental illness from seeking help. Not being advised of the importance of monitoring skills, or the inability or unwillingness to invest the time and effort needed to master these skills, in my opinion, is responsible for the failure of many to move forward from acceptance of their mental illness to the first milestone in the journey of recovery, i.e., to functionality.

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    Please remember, this writing reflects my own experience and opinions. If you, or a loved one, are experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, you should seek professional assistance.


Published On: January 28, 2008