Should you or should you not take something for that thing you're dealing with

by phil on Thursday Mar 4, 2010 1:18 AM

The Coping vs. Solving debate is one I personally wrestle with often. Should I cope with something or fix it? If I have a headache, should I take an Advil or just "deal with it." If I hate my job, should I search for another one or learn to "deal with it."

Most people use a combination of social norms and intuition to determine what to do. Which isn't satisfying at all. And this post won't satisfy it, but it may get the topic circulating in your consciousness. The New Yorker brought this up with an article by Gary Greenberg about what to think about anti-depressants. I've highlighted two paragraphs that show the thought entanglement:

The decision to handle mental conditions biologically is as moral a decision as any other. It is a time-honored one, too. Human beings have always tried to cure psychological disorders through the body. In the Hippocratic tradition, melancholics were advised to drink white wine, in order to counteract the black bile. (This remains an option.) Some people feel an instinctive aversion to treating psychological states with pills, but no one would think it inappropriate to advise a depressed or anxious person to try exercise or meditation.


What if your sadness was grief, though? And what if there were a pill that relieved you of the physical pain of bereavement--sleeplessness, weeping, loss of appetite--without diluting your love for or memory of the dead? Assuming that bereavement "naturally" remits after six months, would you take a pill today that will allow you to feel the way you will be feeling six months from now anyway? Probably most people would say no.

What is "natural"? I dealt with a micro version of this issue as recently as today. I was handed an unexpectedly high medical expense after a visit today, and I was livid. I didn't get angry at the receptionist or the doctor (although, they should have went out of their way to tell me the costs), but I was angry at myself for not checking the price beforehand. When I left the office and got into my car, I found my mind overflowing with negative thoughts. And so a few options came to mind:
  1. Turn on the radio and distract myself until I forget about it
  2. Get angry about it all day
  3. Or get temporarily angry and try to learn a lesson, and then snap out of it
Which one is more natural? For many neurotypicals, Option 1 is the most natural. For depressive types, Option 2 is unfortunately their response. I chose the last option, which I think was the optimal solution, because I accepted an appropriate level of pain for that kind of event, and stayed within those bounds. Oh, I also didn't include Option 4, Pop a Xanax. Increasingly, people are choosing that.

If I get muscle soreness after playing rugby, and I take an Advil after it, that means I can play more rugby. But maybe I shouldn't be playing rugby in the first place.

If I'm having a bad day, I can turn on the radio and forget about my problems. But maybe I should be working on them.

Is it, or is it not, okay to drink alcohol every now and then to soothe your nerves?

After reading that New Yorker article, I tried to grope at an answer, and I think it depends on what your ultimate value system is. If, for example, you place being a productive worker at the top of your list, you may decide it's okay to take NyQuil if you have a cold, or coffee if you're sleepy. Yes, those have short-term and long-term side effects, but most people seem to be okay with that, and find the sacrifice worth it. Me, personally, I don't think work is important enough to require detrimental chemicals to make it tolerable.

I don't know. I want to know. Someone figure this out. This is what I expect Philosophy department types to be working on.


Wollff said on March 29, 2010 6:26 PM:

I have a few things to say, even without the backing of a philosophy department.

"The Coping vs. Solving debate is one I personally wrestle with often."

That implies there is a problem and there is the option to solve it or to cope with it. In this case the answer is easy: If there is a solution, solve the problem.
Simple, isn't it?

Not quite so... Even if you frame it as the "Coping vs. Solving"-problem, in my mind it seems to have two different aspects:
There is a problem and different solutions. Which one do I pick?
There is a situation. Is it even a problem?

It's often a quite difficult decision to pick out alternative solutions:
Find a new job or adapt? Take painkillers or heal up naturally? Rest up after a bad day or wrestle with the problem? Have a drink for your nerves or come to a solution without it?

As you rightly suggest, the decision about which of solutions to choose, depends on the value system of the person, but also on the specific circumstances in each situation.
As a general guideline I'd propose that if a problem is recurring and begs to be solved over and over again, the solution was probably not the right one.

Which brings me to the use of meds. Just one quote from the article sums up the situation concerning depression for me: "The authors of the meta-analysis also assert that “for patients with very severe depression, the benefit of medications over placebo is substantial”"
I'd guess those are the only people for whom depression is the right problem, while the others don't actually suffer from depression as a disease, but from depression as a symptom.

This is related to the much more difficult question you pose: What is natural?
Or, in connection with depression the other way round, what is pathological?
When is the point when we should medicate ourselves in one way or another?
The answer to those questions is, while at its borders quite clearly stated by society and medicine, in its essence a deeply personal one. A state begins to be pathological (or more generally problematic) and with that worthy of extraordinary countermeasures, when it begins to interfere with our lives in an unacceptable way.
Here the example with the "anti grief pill" comes in. Most people still see that kind of grief not as interfering with their lives, but as part of them.

What we decide to accept as parts of our lives, or what we instead consider as intrusions into it, is that deeply personal decision.
Can you take something from the struggle? Will that uncomfortable situation make you a better person, a stronger person? Or so you just want to live it through for some reason, or for future benefit?
Those would be the guiding questions to reach a decision, about whether something is part of your life, or only interference.

This brings me back to the very beginning, with a more complete and concise answer to the two ponged "Coping vs. Solving"-problem:

When it's a part of your life, it's not a problem. Cope with it.
When it's interfering with your life, it's a problem. Solve it.

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