Along Came a Spider…
by Debbie Joffe Ellis
One of the many things I am grateful for is my love of nature, and the restorative and uplifting effect it has on me.
Whenever I am away from my home in NYC, presenting at conferences, universities or to other populations – I have never, so far, failed to discover either lovely locations close to wherever I am staying, by ocean, lake, river, or by parks or forests, or charming areas in cities – perhaps with pleasant tree lined streets: places where I can walk, reflect, look around and admire the beauty around me.
This happened in May, when I attended and presented at the annual Adlerian conference which was held in Minneapolis.
Though the hotel in which attendees stayed was surrounded by roads and highways, just a 10 minute walk took one to a lovely lake and areas near it with beautiful trees and other plants growing, melodic birds and tranquil calm.
That’s where I took myself on the Sunday afternoon, sunny and mild after previous days of some cool and rainy weather. I felt very warm after about an hour of my walking, so I removed my hoody and rolled my jeans up to below my knees, more comfy in light t-shirt and cooler calves. As I walked around the lake, admiring its shimmer, color, resident ducks, geese, goslings and many ducklings, I saw close to the banks of the lake and very close to the path I walked on, a number of low lying branches and logs on which a good number of tortoises sat, dozed, played, procreated (at least I think that was what they were doing or attempting to do!). So nice to see these tortoises doing that which their inclinations dictated they do in the balmy warmth of the sun. Wanting to get a better look at them and take photos, I moved slowly and quietly, positioning myself closer to them, treading on the tough grass-like plants between me and them.
Snap, snap, snap went my camera as I took some photos of these contented reptiles, until – OUCH – I felt a swift sharp pinching pain on the lower part of my calf. As I looked down I saw a spider scamper away. It was of medium size – shiny black body, and long thin legs.
Allow me please to share some background with you about me, for those readers who know little or nothing about my past, as this writing cannot reveal to you my Aussie accent. Yes, I was born and raised in the remarkable continent down under. You may have read, learned or heard about some of the unique creatures there, for example, the platypus: the only mammal that lays eggs, has webbed feet and a bill like that of a duck, a tail like that of a beaver, and a body shape and fur like that of an otter. The male is venomous. You may have also heard, read or learned that many other Australian creatures are venomous. Particularly some of the spiders.
Given that background, it would not be unusual for any Aussie, former Aussie, and non-Aussie alike, to feel far from apathy following such a nip by a fast moving, shiny, 8-legged creature.
There were at least 4 probable reactions a person might have had in response to such an event:
- See the spider waltz away and think something like: “ It is probably poisonous, I might die”, and through ensuing panic, develop symptoms such as increased heart rate, fever, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, trembling, and fall on the path shaking in fear till some kind person finds them and calls 911.
(Though the symptoms described above are those brought on by panic, they can also be symptoms associated with some spider venoms).
Rushed to the ER, one is found, after close examination and blood tests, to be free of spider, or any other, venom in one’s system. One also then realizes that simply as a consequence of thinking fear-inducing thoughts there can be a most dramatic impact on the functioning of the body.
- Rushed to the hospital…venom is found, and one survives thanks to the body’s immune system and/or anti-venom treatment.
- Rushed to the hospital…venom is identified but too late to remedy and death ensues.
None of the above. (Spoiler Alert – I didn’t die.)
Here is what happened in my case:
I didn’t panic. I breathed deeply, calming myself, and thought about my options. Instead of catastrophizing, I thought along the lines of: “Ok, so I have been bitten, this isn’t Australia, I don’t know whether it is or isn’t poisonous and I have heard that very few spider bites here in the U.S.A. result in deaths of reasonably healthy people. What can I do to find out how safe or not I am? I am not shaking, trembling, fainting or frothing at the mouth, I am steady and the puncture mark is not changing its color from red to plum or black. Encouraging. What now?”
Does that sound too stoic, fantastically far-fetched, fictional and lacking in credibility?
It may come across that way for some of you, but I promise you, it is the truth.
I was able to reason with myself, stay steady, and seek productive action. Which in this case was asking some of the locals who were walking around the lake for their knowledge and suggestions about what to best do. I was indeed fortunate that it was a time of day when others were around and I was able to reach out.
A kind looking woman, a local, Linda, was the first person I saw and reached out to, explaining what had happened, and describing the spider as well as I could. She told me that she that she had lived in the area for decades, didn’t think it was poisonous, and reassured me that few local spiders were so. She shared with me that her understanding was that sometimes local spiders bite, but don’t always inject venom when doing so. Looking at the puncture marks, she said the bite didn’t look too bad, but suggested that if in some hours the area became more inflamed and the area around bite looked black – to go seek treatment.
Listening to her gave me realistic hope that I would recover from the bite, and I felt grateful to her and for the fact that the situation did not seem too dire.
All the while I remained mindful of my breathing, pulse and temperature, attempting to stay alert to any striking changes in any of the above.
As I walked back to the hotel, I noticed that the bite area ached more, and thought it would be good to seek more information if I could. Heading towards me I saw a calm looking man and woman walking their dog, and I spoke to them.They looked at the bite, and said it did not look too bad.
The woman immediately Googled venomous spiders known to inhabit that area – which only revealed the Black Widow spider, and when I saw a picture of it on her Smartphone l felt relief as it didn’t look like the one that had sunken its teeth (do spiders have teeth?), fangs or whatever, into my flesh. Her husband suggested my going back to the hotel, icing the affected area, elevating my leg – and if there was an increase in swelling or redness or the color turned dark and black – to quickly go to an emergency treatment center. We exchanged names, and to my sweet surprise, some hours later they emailed to check on me. Such care and kindness. I found out later that he is a surgeon at the Mayo clinic. I was indeed very fortunate to have met these three kind and knowledgeable people.
The calm and steadiness that I experienced, which surely prevented any intense fear, panic and panic attack symptoms, was not a result of being born with the stoicism of Epictetus and the courage of lions.
It came as a result of years of ongoing application of the principles of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).
In other words, it came as a result of practicing healthy thinking, in times of ease and times of challenge.
It came as a result of being mindful, thinking about my thinking on a regular basis, CHOOSING to dispute irrational beliefs and then replace them with healthy rational ones.
It took me making regular and frequent effort to keep things in realistic perspective when challenging things were happening, to zap any awfulizing tendencies, to keep myself largely in the present – and not allow myself to adopt a catastrophizing manner of worrying about “what will or would or could eventuate”.
The result of exercising the brain and thinking process in this way with strong determination, instead of succumbing to panic-inducing thoughts, is not apathy – but healthy motivating concern, and a clarity of mind that encourages life-enhancing actions in just about any given circumstance.
The more we practice mindfulness, thinking about our thinking, and choosing to think in healthy ways which create healthy and non-debilitating emotions, the easier it can be to remain steady, stable and alert during times of concern.
It is possible for most people who are not cognitively impaired to choose to practice watchfulness of thoughts, emotions and behaviors, and to make ongoing effort to eliminate self-defeating and panic-inducing thoughts and attitudes.
This can benefit us in practically any circumstances – even those of extreme brutality such as the mass murder that took place in a club in Orlando. Perhaps I will write about that in a future blog.
My main point here is that the sooner we start practicing healthy thinking, during both times of ease and times of challenge, the better equipped we can find ourselves to handle difficult events of varying degrees, from mild to extremely bad.
The stoic attitude I benefitted from as described here, is not one I am recommending that we aspire to creating in every situation and circumstance.
What I recommend is the embrace of the variety of non-debilitating human emotions, both pleasant and less pleasant. And to realize that it is not circumstances that will create what we feel, but the perspective we choose to take about those circumstances that will do so.
We have the power to create our emotional destinies.
I am not always “stoic” – far from it.
I choose to feel joy, grief, concern – depending on the situation and circumstance. At times I shed tears of joy, and also tears of pain when cruel things happen. That’s healthy. Doing so doesn’t debilitate, and is enriching. And when it can literally save my life and enhance my well-being to be stoic, I can choose to focus my mind and not let catastrophizing thoughts create swirling streams of fear and panic that spiral me down to debilitation or worse.
With discipline, thanks to prior practice, I can focus my mind in such ways that allow practical thinking and productive actions when scary stuff happens. So can you.
Start NOW. (And keep jean or trouser pants at ankle length, not knee length, when walking in grassy areas by lakes!)
This essay was originally published in Psychology Today.
Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis is a licensed Australian psychologist, licensed New York MHC, and adjunct professor at Columbia University TC. She presents and teaches in her home city of New York, throughout the USA and across the globe. She is also one of the featured speakers at this year’s STOICON.