Turning Distress into Joy, Part II:  Channeling


“A fine line separates our angels from our demons.”

Shane Neimeyer had just tried to hang himself.  It, too, had failed.  Like much of his life to that point, which had been spent in and out of state custody since his adolescent years, his road had hit a dead end.  But in the depths of his despair, thoughts of a different kind surfaced, with one idea in mind:  Ironman.  Sitting in his straight jacket, awaiting sentencing as a homeless heroin addict, he had turned the pages of an endurance magazine to pass the time.  As he began to read more about triathlons, there was something about the discipline, the drive, the pursuit of a difficult goal, which began to consume him.  The thought entered his mind.  Maybe he could be one of them.  Maybe his life could change forever.

His troubles began as a teen in central Illinois.  By the time he was 18, he had already been arrested for theft, burglary, and driving under the influence.  After skipping out on college at Colorado State University, his drug addiction only worsened as he found himself on the streets of Boise, Idaho.  By the time all of his sentencing was over, he would land in jail 25 times.  He began exercising intensively during his stays, often running laps around the small courtyard.  In 2005, he placed 50th overall in his first half Ironman held in Bend, Oregon with a time of 5 hours, 8 minutes.  In 2010, he landed himself in the granddaddy of all triathlons, the World Championships in Kona.  It was the year he finally said goodbye to official state supervision of any kind.

Today, Shane is a strength and conditioning coach in Boulder, Colorado.  He has now done eight full Ironman triathlons, and continues to train intensively.  In talking about his life, he often discusses how the “neurotic, excessive personality traits” that fueled drug addiction and a life of high-risk crime are the same kind that enabled him, like others, to become an elite athlete.    Although he acknowledges that he still thinks about his former life, he credits his dramatic change to triathlons.  As he said, “Triathlons gave me what I desperately needed:  a purpose.”

Beneath each purpose that propels our lives, we are driven by a daily source of energy that is difficult to define, but impossible to ignore.  Bred of genetic underpinnings, individual experiences, immediate surroundings, collective culture, and other influences, this unique energy begins to manifest itself early in our lives.  Expressed as desires, urges, compulsions, curiosities, drives, interests, or any other given name, this energy gradually becomes known as part of our personality.  In actuality, it is a dynamic, daily interplay of what I simply will call drives (for ease of communication) that is an ever-evolving, unique sense of self that interfaces with the world we live.  Often, our varied drives are easily satisfied in ways that are considered acceptable by us and others.  Sometimes they are not.  When a particular drive reveals itself within us that can result in negative consequences, like in Shane’s situation, we find ourselves a serious quandary.  Although directions from caregivers or peers may be to simply squelch the desire, this may not work.  If not, we are left with two primary options, although these are not always consciously chosen. The first is to
continue with similar behaviors as before, and accept the possible consequences as Shane did with his drug use and criminal activity.  The second is to find a more acceptable outlet for the particular energies that exist.  This is where channeling becomes crucial.

Channeling as used here is defined “a way, course, or direction of thought or action” as in “new channels of exploration.”  It is the process by which we define novel pathways and new outlets for a specific drive or state that may otherwise be undesirable.  Although channeling could technically occur in a negative way, the focus here is on using energy in a positive, productive manner.

In some ways, we do this every day probably without even realizing it.  If we are feeling stressed after work, we may channel this into a run.  If we are worried about an upcoming event and can’t sleep, we may get out of bed and clean.  We might use a journal entry to create a narrative to channel our sadness.  We might mow the yard to harness the “edge” we feel after a long day at work.  But, for more chronic states of drive that can cause us or others harm or disruption, it is critically important to figure out a way to transform this energy in a way that will do good, or at least, not wrong.  In some ways, channeling is closely related, but not synonymous with sublimation.  Although sublimation is often associated with a psychoanalytic perspective, the broader meaning of the term is “to divert the expression of (an instinctual desire or impulse) from its unacceptable form to one that is considered more socially or culturally acceptable.”  It applies to any drive that may consume or divert us to behaviors that contradict our particular values or calls.  In Shane’s case, he literally created a new pathway, a new life from the same drives and compulsions that almost destroyed him.  The drive never left, but the way in which he satisfied the drive changed dramatically.

One way in which this can be important for some is in regards to hostility and aggressive behavior.  Hostility has long been shown to be associated with negative health outcomes, including heart disease (Smith, T. W. (1992). Hostility and Health: Current Status of a Psychosomatic Hypothesis. Health Psychology, 11(3), 139–150). Some research (Frost, B., Implicit and explicit personality: A test of a channeling hypothesis for aggressive behaviorJournal of Applied Psychology. 2007, Vol. 92, No. 5, 1299–1319 0021-9010) has indicated that we can channel aggressive or hostile impulses.  But, it appears that our ability to do this is affected by our conscious beliefs about how aggressive we perceive ourselves to be, and our implicit acceptance of rationales for a particular aggressive act.  In other words, if we believe we are an aggressive, hostile person, and rationalize why another person or entity deserves our hostility or violent behavior, we are less likely to channel these behaviors to more acceptable, and at times, useful alternatives.  Therefore, in order to channel aggression, we must first address the beliefs and assumptions that we hold about ourselves and others.  As with forgiveness, channeling does not mean that we forego a courageous, and at times, militant pathway toward undoing wrongs being done.  But it does mean we attempt to harness this energy in a way that is productive, not destructive, in a manner we do not intend.

This seems very much what John Walsh did, after the brutal murder of his six-year-old son, Adam.  He went from building luxury hotels to a lifetime of anti-crime activism.  Although not without his own controversy, it appears that he channeled his rage towards a murderer never convicted (the alleged killer died in prison on a life sentence for other crimes before going to trial) in trying to help others avoid a similar fate.  His ability to channel his anger productively was a key in aiding justice for many people.

Another form of channeling is also used to treat tics in children and adults in the empirically-supported method of habit reversal training (HRT).  Once a person recognizes a premonitory urge that immediately precedes the tic, they are taught how to channel this involuntary urge into a voluntary behavior that closely resembles the original tic, but draws less attention from others.  For example, a tic that involves shaking the head side-to-side repeatedly may be replaced with tensing the neck in place, and pushing the chin towards the chest while deep breathing.  Gradually, these behaviors are often shaped into other actions that become manageable and less frequent.

Over the past few decades, studies have increasingly shown just how predictive self-control in youth is when it comes to almost any important outcome as adults.  Studies have also shown that self-control, unlike intelligence and other factors, is very malleable and sustaining.  With our own kids, my wife and I try to teach awareness and self-discipline daily.  But as I watch them grow, and I see the various drives and urges spring forth, I am become increasingly convinced that the formation of self-control and self-channeling are, and must be, intertwined.  Whereas one may sit through a church service without much challenge, another one really struggles to inhibit the instinctive urges that come with an hour in the pews.  Simply rehashing the same old redirections about willpower or consequences may not be enough, for them or for us.  We must get creative and persistent, in teaching a skill, however challenging it is now, that could spawn a lifetime of promise.  No matter the age or circumstance, like Shane, it is never too late to channel our drives in a manner that not only benefits us, but also others as well.  In doing so, we may do much more than avoid potential negative outcomes.  We may begin thrive in ways we would have never dreamed even if life gets really trying.



Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Hi James,

    can’t help but wonder where someone with sadistic drives might seek a socially acceptable outlet with no negative consequences. Maybe someone here can give me some advice on a career where it would be seen as an asset rather than a liability.

    Just kidding.

    I saw a good example in the documentary “Did you used to be R D Laing” of a woman who suffered from catatonia becoming an artists model. Laing used it as an example of ‘co-existence’ in the therapy process. Certainly channeling is worth considering when behaviours seem to lead to consistent negative outcomes.

    Look forward to the next in your series.

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    • Hi Boans, a delayed thanks for weighing on this topic, even partially in jest. It is difficult to see exactly how someone would channel or sublimate sadistic urges, whether you are speaking of related to sexual impulses or just cruelty. But I actually think it happens everyday in many ways (although the line between morphing it appropriately or not is very thin, just the quote of Shane’s I used at the beginning indicates). I think many people that go into law enforcement or armed forces or even physically-natured professional sports probably are in some ways trying to channel urges to be violent in an appropriate way, although obviously sometimes negative consequences ensue. As with anything, though, it seems the process definitely involves daily, conscious decisions to use the energy well and not fall prey to temptations that abound.

      Thanks again for your interest in this article, and the series in general.

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  2. Hi Jim,

    I was wondering if you had heard about the forgiveness program By Dr. Frederic Luskin of Stanford Univerity:





    Since I was familiar with the above work and your latest articles inspired me to continue the struggle against any lingering resentments or lack of forgiveness, I got a copy of this book for further inspiration and am trying to read it and take it in again. Dr. Luskin also has many YouTube videos about forgiveness available on the web and there are inexpensive copies of his books including the ones on forgiveness and stress at Amazon.

    I know what you mean by channeling, but a problem with this term is that it is identified with a great deal of New Age type people who claimed to “channel” spirit or voices from other worlds that they reveal to us.

    Am I right in thinking that your notion of channeling is along the lines of Dr. William Glasser’s Positive Addictions?


    (I am not recommending any of the bogus DSM stigmas in the above blog that contains the article).


    I am just sharing these sources with you in case you haven’t seen them.

    Your second part of your forgiveness article is very good and I believe that you are saying that if one wants to turn a troubled life or poor lifestyle habits around one has to “channel this energy” into more positive, wholesome, healthy things as substitutes for the old bad habits/behaviors.

    The book, The Pleasure Trap, does a good job showing how our old limbic brain hijacks us to make poor food choices rather than letting our more intelligent brains rule with healthy food choices.

    Since I wrote so much on my struggle with forgiveness in your last post, I will end by saying I really appreciate your devoting these last two posts to the topic of forgiveness and how to carry it out. I am sure that I am not alone in continuing the struggle with forgiving, so your posts were an inspiration to me to reconsider the whole issue while inspiring me to look further.

    And you had me when you quoted C.S. Lewis on the topic of forgiving because he always knows just the right and most convincing thing to say that is just about impossible to dispute or write off since he is such a spiritual giant. I also highly recommend his fantastic book, The Problem of Pain, which make me marvel at his pure genius while finding him so persuasive in just about everything he says. Unlike many priests and other supposed experts I’ve met, C.S. Lewis nails the “problem of pain” quite amazingly in my opinion.

    I also appreciate your struggle to come up with posts that involve typical human struggles without resorting to the bogus DSM and its very annoying labels and fables with even Dr. Thomas Insel, Head of the NIMH, admitting their invalidity.

    I hope to hear more from you soon along with your great adventures with C.S. Lewis.

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  3. Hi Donna,

    Your comparison to Dr. Glasser’s theory is very astute, and although there are slight deviations in what I am describing, there is definitely a significant overlap. I will focus on one paragraph in the link you provided:

    There is much debate about what makes a negative addiction ‘an addiction,’ but in general terms I think we can all agree an addiction is something we repeatedly do that negatively influences our lives or the lives of those around us. (I’m sure that is already sparking debate in your minds but I am talking in extremely simple terms so just please bear with me.) So a positive addiction would, generally speaking, be the opposite – when something we repeatedly do has a positive influence on our lives or the lives of those around us.

    Channeling is certainly doing things repeatedly for the purposes of having a positive, not negative effect on our lives. When he speaks of building a repository of strength that can be used at later times, this is very central, too, to the idea of channeling. I liked the example used of running because that is exactly how I feel when I run – it is the simplistic movement of a time-honored tradition of human meeting earth, over and over, that in some indescribable way channels positive energy that comes through a certain degree of suffering (running is never completely effortless, of course, and at times is very difficult). I have written a fair amount about this (some of which I have yet to publish), but if you are interested in it more, check out the series on my column (www.stmarys.org/articles-1) entitled “In Search of a Hundred Miles of Gratitude”. You will recognize one of the article from here on MIA, but the other two were not posted here.

    Yeah, in regards to your comment about the term “channeling” and New Age, I obviously don’t mean it in this way, but it is difficult to find terms that sometimes denote a larger idea of practice that unfortunately, at this point in history, don’t overlap with another connotation.

    Thanks again for all your comments about forgiveness, and no, I was not aware of the Stanford program, but look forward to learning more. And the Problem of Pain is definitely on my list. You are right in saying that CS Lewis continually captures in words that so many others fail to articulate well.

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  4. Hi Jim,

    After reading your response, I felt somewhat bad in that it may have appeared that I was picking at straws, so I googled the term, “channeling” to see if I had overreacted when associating it with New Age people claiming to channel various wise gurus. Here is what my google search for “channeling” revealed:


    As you can see, most if not all the entries on the first page on channeling have to do with communicating with various spirits, interpreting them, etc. I recall feeling somewhat creepy about many of these so called spirit guides with tons of books on this topic being promoted by various authors given my Christian background.

    I went back and re-read your article and checked your link to the Merriam-Webster definition and as you can see it is far different than google’s links to the term “channeling.”

    I hope you realize I am not trying to nitpick here. This may be a matter of our age difference in that I am somewhat older than you and the New Age and channeling of various spirits was a huge phenomenon a while back, but it seems to be less so now unless I am just less aware of it and don’t notice so much due to lack of interest. For this reason, the term, “channeling” probably didn’t have the same impact on you as it did on me initially. Reading your definition of channeling was helpful in reminding me of this alternative interpretation and your article does an excellent job of explaining how one can use this latter interpretation of channeling or substituting good habits for bad ones or sublimation to enhance one’s life and make it better.

    Actually, the term I have seen used a great deal lately is simply that of “habits” with a ton of books on that topic recently. In fact, I just bought another one that got great reviews called, Habits and Happiness by Braco Pobric, which promotes the idea that we are creatures of habit and quotes many highly regarded people, past and present:


    “Everything you want to achieve in life–from a successful career, thriving relationships, improved health, or simply to increase your happiness and wellbeing–everything starts with habits. Everything!

    Habits and Happiness combines years of research by experts in the field of habits, neuroscience, traditional and positive psychology, and teaches you how to apply this new information in a very simple and practical way. This book will help you understand your habits: why you have them, why you can or cannot change them, and how they can work to help you live a great life.

    Implementing habitual behavior in accordance with this book will help you become happier and more successful, will improve your wellbeing, and will assist you to live the life you’ve always wanted to live.

    We can learn so much about ourselves by learning about our habits. Our wellbeing increases significantly when we understand the reasons we do certain things, when we learn how to change and introduce new habits if necessary, and when we apply that knowledge effectively in our lives. My goal is not to present a scientific research paper that few will understand, but rather to help you improve your wellbeing by introducing good new habits and changing bad old habits. At the same time I will provide the research supporting these ideas: ”

    William James, the father of psychology, stressing that it is crucial for people to develop good habits:

    “When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits.”

    Or Aristotle:

    “We are what we repeatedly do. Exellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

    Or Benjamin Franklin:

    “Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”

    Or Psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz:

    You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life:

    Two neuroscience experts explain how their 4-Step Method can help identify negative thoughts and change bad habits for good.

    A leading neuroplasticity researcher and the coauthor of the groundbreaking books Brain Lock and The Mind and the Brain, Jeffrey M. Schwartz has spent his career studying the human brain. He pioneered the first mindfulness-based treatment program for people suffering from OCD, teaching patients how to achieve long-term relief from their compulsions.
    Schwartz works with psychiatrist Rebecca Gladding to refine a program that successfully explains how the brain works and why we often feel besieged by overactive brain circuits (i.e. bad habits, social anxieties, etc.) the key to making life changes that you want—to make your brain work for you—is to consciously choose to “starve” these circuits of focused attention, thereby decreasing their influence and strength.
    You Are Not Your Brain carefully outlines their program, showing readers how to identify negative impulses, channel them through the power of focused attention, and ultimately lead more fulfilling and empowered lives.

    I am happy to say that Dr. Schwarz recommends mindfulness and changing one’s brain by changing habits without the toxic drugs and other “treatments” of mainstream psychiatry.

    Your habit reversal training sounds similar to this. You speak of the importance of self control, but from what I’ve read, our will power if that is the same thing can be very limited at certain times if our will power has been tested or strained too much per many books on the topic. Also, studies show that our will power can be more or less effective given the time of day, how much we’ve had to exercise our will power already that day, how tired we are and many other factors:

    Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Dr. Roy Baumeister:


    Dr. Baumeister sounds like you here:

    “Pioneering research psychologist Roy F. Baumeister collaborates with New York Times science writer John Tierney to revolutionize our understanding of the most coveted human virtue: self-control. Drawing on cutting-edge research and the wisdom of real-life experts, Willpower shares lessons on how to focus our strength, resist temptation, and redirect our lives. It shows readers how to be realistic when setting goals, monitor their progress, and how to keep faith when they falter. By blending practical wisdom with the best of recent research science, Willpower makes it clear that whatever we seek—from happiness to good health to financial security—we won’t reach our goals without first learning to harness self-control.”

    That’s why it is so important to establish those good habits that we can do almost mindlessly without inner argument like brushing our teeth even though tired at night, etc. I have also read that it takes about 30 days to establish a new habit, which I find to be pretty accurate.

    If I sound like a fanatic on this topic, I have had the misfortune of struggling with weight control since childhood, quitting smoking and other gems due to various stressors in my life as well as being born in another generation when such things were viewed quite differently. These struggles also allowed me to work full time while earning all the money necessary to complete three college degrees with honors. Since my parents didn’t believe in girls going to college or having careers I got to be the lucky one to pave the way in my family. Psychiatry also created the junk science DSM and sold out to Big Pharma after I earned my third degree making me wish I had been born in an even earlier time when things were not in such chaos and uproar. Did you ever see the Aviance (perfume) commercial about how women could bring home the bacon, cook it too and be gorgeous goddesses all the time with no problem and have it all?! Boy, were we ever sold a bill of goods! Of course, my young adult son has certainly kept me on my toes and up to date on various issues and even music, so I’m not living in a cave. Ha Ha

    Thus, I think all of these approaches using various words or definitions come down to pretty much the same thing: that changing self destructive habits or life styles is almost impossible unless we substitute uplifting, healthy, inspiring habits for positive change or channeling those negative energies into positive ones as you say. It’s like the parable in the N.T. whereby a man’s house is cleared of an evil spirit, but since it remains empty (i.e. he doesn’t fill it with good spirits, thoughts and actions), a more formidable group of nasty demons take over the house and the man is worse off than he was before. This can be applied in a metaphorical sense to our topic of changing bad habits into good ones.

    I realize the information on forgiveness may have seemed out of sync with this post. I was going to post it at the end of the first part of this post on forgiveness, but since you said you were doing a two part post on forgiveness I decided to wait until this second part to share this information not realizing this one wouldn’t focus so much on forgiveness, so I regret if it seemed out of place. I just thought you might want to know about the Stanford “forgive for good” program since it seems to be a successful program.

    Finally, once again, you’ve given me much food for thought and lots of inspiration and I thank you for that. As you can see, your two part post got me thinking about many different things for the better as usual.

    Take care.

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    • “Thus, I think all of these approaches using various words or definitions come down to pretty much the same thing: that changing self destructive habits or life styles is almost impossible unless we substitute uplifting, healthy, inspiring habits for positive change or channeling those negative energies into positive ones as you say.”

      Very well said. And it is funny what you mentioned about channeling, because either due to my age or just my life to this point, I hadn’t ever thought about channeling any other way than I wrote about, and am clearly very ignorant of the New Age/channeling connection. Just one more example about how much the connotation of a word is affected by the zeitgeist and ortgeist that coincide with our personal experiences.

      Add “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg to your wealth of knowledge about this topic. Definitely an interesting read.

      Such a critical topic that unfortunately bores many people and consequently, is often left by the wayside of discussion for more intriguing, controversial matters. But obviously I keep putting the material out there because of its importance. More to come on “Turning Distress into Joy”…

      Thanks again for your interest.

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      • Hi James,

        Couple of things that I wanted to convey.

        As a direct result of your first article, I re examined a situation that has been causing me some pain, and made a conscious decision to forgive the person involved. I have literally “let it go”. I’ll see where that leads with time.

        The second thing related to the notion of habit you mention above. I don’t know if you have read any of Pierre Bourdieu on the notion of “habitus”. Not an easy read but he deals with a collective notion of habit that adds significantly to what you are discussing here.

        The example of Shane that you give is, as Bourdieu would have it, limited by an individual perspective, when he is part of a larger group with collective habits (ie a sub culture of drug takers who share certain values etc). So the ‘channel’ is not only an individual one, but also a shift from one sub culture to another. I’m not a good communicator but it’s a perspective worth considering if you haven’t already done so.

        Kind regards

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        • Hi Boans, I am always moved when someone like yourself feels that what I have written is relevant enough to apply it to his or her life. I hope that the decision to “let it go” pays dividends for you and others over the next days, months, and years.

          In regards to your thought about Bourdieu, I am not familiar with his work but you have raised my curiosity enough to seek out further information. I think your comment is spot on, as channeling is certainly significantly affected by the larger subculture that a person is a part of. No doubt that Shane not only had to harness his energy in a different way, but also had to surround himself with others doing the same, and not connected to his previous lifestyle. I really appreciate you bringing this to my consciousness here.

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