Sure, we need to talk – but more importantly – we need to argue

Talking is a crucially important life strategy. People who are bullied to shut their mouths early on in life pay a huge price for being silenced. This is even though quiet people are often not aware of the cost; instead frequently thinking of themselves as the strong-silent-type, or being proud of their quiet stubbornness, or seeing themselves as easy-going, laid back, not bothered by anything – so no need to engage, step up and participate in conversations. As time passes, and verbal skills fall further and further behind other peoples’ verbal skills, then non-talkers often give up altogether on any real participation in life – it is easier to just withdraw into their own heads. Leave others to do the talking.

Yet, talking helps us work out what we really think about an issue, it helps us work out solutions to problems, and it helps us work out who we are and what we stand for. We can sometimes think about a problem in our own heads for years without making any real progress on a solution. Whereas, every time we talk through a problem, we get distance from our ideas by projecting the words outside of ourselves, and we can readily work out much more ‘objective’ solutions.

Similarly, when we express a view out aloud we are differentiating ourselves from a different view that is getting expressed by another person. This gives us information about how we are different from others and what is unique and strongly committed to, within ourselves. We also work out the ways in which we are similar to others and then how we might cooperate with them. When we realise through talking that we are either different or similar then that, in itself, prompts further analysis about why that might be the case. All of this adds up to a stronger sense of self.

Also, every time we open our mouths to talk we achieve enough distance from the words we are putting out there that we can critique our own words. It could be anything, but for example, you might start off saying ‘I hate zoos because animals ought to be free in the wild’. But as you say the words you might realise that actually it is not that you hate zoos per se but rather you would prefer that species’ were not driven out of their habitat by ever-encroaching human colonisation. Instead you realise that although you might prefer zoos did not have to exist, you see that zoos are necessary to ensure the genetic survival of many species until we can give those species back their habitat. This is how we build precision in our thinking and how we become more and more articulate over time. As soon as we talk we are inclined to refine our views. Each time we talk and get distance from our words (as opposed to thinking inside our own heads) we can gain more and more of this precision as we almost reflexively critique our own words.

Others who are hearing our words, also critique them and force us to tighten our thinking and get more precise in exactly what our view is. Over time, talking helps to build a clear sense of self (similarities with others, differences from others, clarity in our views, clarity in our goals, clarity in our skills, and progression in our own thinking as we refine all of these aspects due to further critique).

It is incredibly difficult though, to get people to talk when they have not been verbal for their whole lives. Even if they start to talk their content seems infantile. For example, if a person learned to stop talking at nine years of age, and that person decided to start talking again at 30 years of age – the conversation is more like the nine year old child – well behind more verbal peers. At least, that had been my experience until I learnt a very important lesson from one of the people I see in my clinic.

I saw a woman in my private practice many years ago for anxiety. She was a complete non-talker. Sessions were painful – she could barely string a sentence together – it was like extracting blood from a stone to get her to talk. She had been like this for pretty much her whole life. But she could take instruction and act on it very well. So, in our therapy sessions I behaved like a teacher and taught her step by step how to get over her anxiety. She took my instructions, applied them and recovered and I didn’t see her again for many years.

Then a few years ago she came back to see me because her marriage was in crisis, her and her husband were about to split up – she told me that they basically hated each other’s guts and they were at the end of the road.

At the time, I remember thinking to myself: OMG!! – how is she ever going to resolve issues with her husband when she cannot talk. Resolving issues requires talking at a highly specific level to enable the thrashing out and articulation of complex ideas and concepts until eventual resolution is achieved. Since she had been so non-verbal she did not have any grip inside her own head about many of the complex concepts relating to her marriage breakdown, because they had not yet been expressed on the outside, through speech. In other words, lack of speech had led to a lack of conceptual development in her thinking processes. I must admit that I held out very little hope. I knew from past experience with other people I had seen in my work, that encouraging people to talk more in conversation was an excruciatingly slow process that took years and still the person lagged behind their other more-verbal cohorts. In my experience people just could not catch up from so far behind. But I was wrong.

I could tell she had no time to spare, her marriage was about to crash. We didn’t have the time to gently teach her to vocalise more. So, I asked her to do some incredibly difficult homework because I knew her to be very good at implementing instructions. I asked her to sit on the couch with her husband at least three times a week for a couple of hours minimum, and argue out every issue they differed on, one by one. She was not allowed to move from that couch until she had argued for at least a couple of hours.

I heard nothing more until a few months ago when she booked in to see me again. Of course, I assumed the marriage had ended and we would be picking up the pieces. To my delight, it turned out she was seeing me for a completely unrelated issue to do with her child. What truly amazed me though, was the complete change in her presentation. She was as articulate, conceptually developed, and willing to converse as some of the most verbally-competent people I have ever met. She was warmer, happier, more assertive, and, most importantly, she had gone from being very passive in her own life to being a highly proactive agent in the driver’s seat of her own life. It was a complete turn-around.

Indeed she chatted unselfconsciously throughout the entire session as though she had been doing it her entire life. I was absolutely shocked – almost on the floor – I had never before seen that degree of change in such a short period in verbal fluency and conceptual development in an adult. Of course, I asked her what she had done and, it turned out she had done her homework – exactly as specified. She learnt to ARGUE. To my amazement, in learning to argue she found a voice that enabled her to become an advocate for her own life. The more she argued, the more she differentiated herself and became her own person. She reported that her marriage was now ‘fantastic’ and her husband and her were back madly in love with each other again, having resolved many of their differences.

What I learnt for my future work was this: People need to learn the skill of argument – not just the skill of talking. Where people are only encouraged to talk it is much less effective because it is too slow and it takes years for people to get anywhere because in general conversation they just continue to keep it safe and fail to contribute anything even slightly controversial. Meanwhile, more verbally-articulate people will intervene much more actively in the conversation and steer it to where they want it to go. The inexperienced talker will simply be over-ridden – leading to a drop in self-confidence and a reinforcement not to bother speaking again in future.

It appears to be the willingness to step up and take the risk of coming openly into conflict with others that seems to make the difference.

Openly arguing out areas of conflict teaches so many crucial life skills about self-advocacy, self-differentiation, self-confidence, independence, similarity, cooperation, objectivity, self-analysis, thinking on your feet, logical analysis, precision thinking, complex conceptual development, and inner toughness. Just to name the obvious ones.

When people learn to argue vigorously they learn that they can take the tough ‘hits on the chin’ in an argument and still keep standing. What an important lesson in life! They learn they are strong enough not to be condescended to when people stop arguing with one hand behind their back and instead take them on head to head – as an equal. This somehow teaches people that they can dig deep and come up fighting on their own behalf which fast-tracks them towards quicker and more conceptual thinking since they have to come up with arguments on the spot. Arguing seems to instil lots of confidence in people about both verbal and logical skills but most importantly about self-resilience. Coming openly into conflict helps you learn to stop caring so much about what other people think of you, and consequently stops you chasing approval from others so much. It follows that you can then develop more internal focus on your own goals in life.

BUT !!! How to argue will be what I talk about next time – because it is not just any old style of argument – it is assertive (not aggressive) argument that is required here.


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Smartherapy iphone / ipad application is available at the Apple store

Good news!!!! My iphone / ipad application is finally finished and is for sale for $1.99 through the Apple iTunes store – it is titled ‘Smartherapy’ and yes, I know it is spelt incorrectly and lacks a space – but the title is only allowed to be 11 characters! You can search for it under ‘anxiety’ as well. It is a fairly comprehensive and systematic approach to recovery, and has a nice 20 minute deep-relaxation and hypnosis exercise on it – to help you feel more calm, self-directed and in control.

More Good News!!! The Android version of my app, called ‘Smart Therapy’ has now been released and costs $1.95. It is very comprehensive, easy to follow, and much cheaper than therapy!

Now available on the Android play store!

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Global Self-Condemnation versus Specific Self-Critique

Just a reminder: please go back and read previous posts in order, so that all these topics make sense and fit into a consistent paradigm for achieving recovery.

Today I want to talk, not just about what else to take off your mental repertoire as part of improving mental discipline, but also what to add to it.

Often when people are distressed they think that they are overly self-critical. Many therapists reinforce this notion by repeatedly telling people that they ‘just need to learn to love themselves more’. But this instruction is so broad that it is difficult to know exactly what you need to do in order to ‘love yourself more’. For example, do you say positive affirmations everyday, or do you treat yourself to more lollies and chocolate, or do you go easy on yourself whenever you exercise or have to do some study because you deserve a bit of a rest, or do you not bother to reflect on yourself and improve when you have made a mistake, because you think you ought not be so hard on yourself? All of these, are everyday dilemmas that people face and it is necessary to examine what is going on here in order to find a consistent, rational and effective response to resolve these issues.

From my clinical experience, it is true that following an upset, distressed and anxious people often metaphorically curl-up in the foetal position telling themselves that they are ‘unloveable’, ‘lazy’, ‘selfish’, ‘useless’, ‘stupid’, ‘idiotic’,’hopeless’, ‘bad’, ‘dumb’, ‘ugly’, ‘boring’ or ‘a loser’. Words like these are what I mean by my title of global self-condemnation. They are terms that dismiss yourself (or another person) in one single, global or all-encompassing word. The words suggest that you are irredeemable, beyond help and a waste of space.

It is important to realise though, that these global condemnation terms represent sloppy thinking. This is because they are necessarily inaccurate – in that no person is just ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘energetic’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘clever’ or ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’. There are many other factors involved in making complex judgements (such as if you love someone enough they will look beautiful to you even if other people don’t agree, and, sometimes the most conventionally ‘ugly’ things in nature are the most spectacularly ‘beautiful’ like a tiny, spindly, misshappen, deformed-looking tree that has survived against all odds to grow out of a barren, desolate landscape). Also, each of us responds overwhelmingly to context and we can, for example, be very, very smart in some situations and very, very dumb in other situations (depending on what we have practised). So it is inaccurate and misleading to use these global descriptions towards yourself or towards other people.

But then we need to ask ourselves why might people use them? What purpose does it serve to use these terms?

What I have found in my clinical work is that people use these terms because they incorrectly believe they cannot tolerate the distress (see last blog) of rigorous self-examination. Now this might sound quite contradictory because if you call yourself stupid, ugly, unloveable, bad, useless or terrible – aren’t you subjecting yourself to the most rigorous self-critique?

Well no, you’re not – and this is why.

Even though people call themselves all these hateful global terms and they feel as though they are really beating themselves up badly – this is actually a strategy that lets them off the hook and allows them to avoid having to take responsibility and reflect upon themselves and make small, effective, incremental behavioural changes and improvements. Whenever we curl up in the foetal position like a victim saying how bad we are, whether we know it or not, we are using global self-insults precisely because they are global. When the insult is global – it is by definition all encompassing – in other words, it is too big to change.

The thinking goes along the lines of ‘I’m so useless, I’m so hopeless, I’m so bad, I’m irredeemable, what’s the point, it’s too hard to change, I might as well give up, this is too painful, I wish I was dead’. At this point in the thinking process if the person is sufficiently demoralised they could harm themselves. More often though, what people do to get themselves out of this pit of despair is they utilise the anger strategy. Anger is a very motivating strategy that allows a person who might otherwise feel completely powerless, to activate into taking action on their own behalf by accessing anger thoughts towards others so that their focus is diverted externally and away from their internal self-loathing. So generally the person turns from ‘I’m so hopeless/useless/bad/irredeemable and I wish I was dead’ to ‘this world is stuffed, other people are horrible, why do I bother even trying, I’m too good for this world, I deserve better, stuff them all I’m just going to look out for myself from now on’ etc. etc.

At the conclusion of this process the person has motivated themselves sufficiently to keep going with life, but, there has been no proper reflection and no specific self-critique and therefore there has been no change and no improvement. When there is the next crisis the same global self-condemnation strategy will be employed and the same exit strategy of anger will be applied for motivation. At this point the person has, yet again, avoided having to specifically examine their own role in the original crisis.

So the self-condemnation strategy has served its purpose. The person who believes they cannot tolerate the distress of examining and improving their own behaviour has managed yet again to escape proper self-reflection.

By the way, with lots of practise people get good at taking short-cuts in their thinking. They may no longer be explicitly aware of the self-loathing aspect when they are challenged or when a crisis happens and their thinking processes often skip straight to the motivation part, of anger/blame thoughts with an external focus such as ‘other people are horrible/awful/mean/aggressive/insensitive therefore I’m not going to bother talking or arguing or engaging – I’ll just withdraw – I’ll take my bat and go home’. Notice that even though the thought process skips the self-loathing aspect the outcome is the same in that there has been no change, and no improvement because there has been no proper self-reflection or taking of responsibility. There has been a type of exiting from life without actually physically killing the body.

As you can probably see, employing the self-condemnation strategy has a huge price. It keeps distressed people thinking either that they are hopeless, useless, bad, stupid, unloveable OR that others are horrible/awful/insensitive/greedy/mean/nasty/power-hungry/unprincipled and so on. This is a victim-world that is frozen in time – where nothing changes. It is a strategy that has usually been employed since childhood or teenage years so it has the same didactic, black and white, good and evil quality of childhood thinking.

Using the global self-condemnation strategy in order to avoid specific self-critique will keep you locked into this bleak, self-loathing, powerless prison for a lifetime if you let it, and no amount of fatuous positive affirmations will change that.

On the other hand you can learn to specifically and constructively critique your own behaviour at every opportunity, which will free you from this didactic bind. Even though it might seem counter-intuitive, frequent and specific self-critique and the constant incremental improvements that come from it – enable you to actually learn to genuinely respect yourself and enable you to build strong self-esteem and confidence. This is the key to getting out of that desolate prison.

When we specifically critique ourselves we are demonstrating to our own brain that we can tolerate acknowledging our own mistakes and we can then properly take responsibility for making them and we can then make amends and improvements that will lead to better outcomes in the future. If we avoid doing this we are constantly teaching our brain that we cannot bear the distress of acknowledging mistakes (because we are too mentally puny and weak to deal with that knowledge) and that we cannot take responsibility (because we are too victim/child like to be able to cope with that adult responsiblity) and we teach ourselves that we are incapable of making changes in our behaviour. All of which is nonsense.

Specific self-critique looks something like the following example:

Yesterday when I was over-tired I behaved badly. I was impatient and abrupt with Susan. That was unfair and unkind of me and it must have hurt her. It is also unlikely to give me a good outcome since she may no longer want to be my friend. To correct this situation I need to 1. Apologise to Susan and 2. In future try not to get so over-tired and 3. If I inadvertantly do become over-tired (as will happen from time to time) then instead of going hard and rigid and trying to push myself through the tiredness I will instead slow down a bit and become softer. I’ll see if that works and gets me a better outcome next time, otherwise I will re-think it.

Some points to notice about this example:

I identify specifically when I behaved badly – it was yesterday (not everyday). I reflect on the probable cause (over-tiredness) which will help me identify future situations that I need to be aware of. I say I behaved badly – not I am ‘bad’. We all behave badly at times, that doesn’t matter since none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes – the important thing is being willing to acknowledge the mistake and correct it. I identify the specific behaviour (I was impatient and abrupt). I take proper responsibility for the problematic behaviour by acknowledging the harm done to both parties by my behaviour (it was unfair, unkind, and it would have hurt Susan, and, as a result she may quite reasonably no longer want to be friends – which gives me a bad outcome also). Then I problem-solve what action I have to take to try to correct the situation (Apologise, try in future not to get over-tired, and if I do get over-tired then slow down and go soft rather than harden up to push through it). Then I plan for a re-evaluation (I’ll see if this new behaviour works better, if not, I’ll think of something else and try that).

This specific self-critique is crucial for making progress in life – it is crucial for self-improvement. The more you do it the better. At least several times a week ask yourself how you could have done things better. Acknowledge your errors, but do it constructively by being specific (not global). So many people are trapped in the prison of self-loathing or hatred or distrust of others as a means of avoiding self-critique. Global insults have often been used by parents (like you’re so ‘selfish’ ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’) so that the children, as adults, have internalised these global terms and used them against themselves. Forget the global terms – they are inaccurate and sloppy – instead critique yourself often so you can achieve hundreds and hundreds of small incremental improvements that make all the difference over a lifetime.

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Distress Intolerance

Today I want to talk about distress intolerance. This is another type of thinking that you may like to understand a bit more about, so you can remove it from your mental repertoire along with all the other ones I have talked about over the last several weeks.

This is a bit similar to collapse thinking (last blog). However, where collapse thinking tends to lead to feelings of powerlessness and then collapse-type behaviours (like going passive and not being instrumental or verbally proactive in changing outcomes), distress intolerance arises from feeling unable to bear or tolerate certain feelings and therefore needing to exit the situation. Exiting behaviour can mean leaving the distressing situation physically (by running out of a supermarket for example) or it can mean leaving the situation mentally by dulling or deadening the brain through something like alcohol, medication, over-eating or drugs.

Distress intolerance thinking is about saying things to yourself like ‘I can’t bear this’ or ‘I can’t stand it’ or ‘I’ve got to get out of here’ or ‘I cannot get through this situation without alcohol or drugs or over-eating or similar’ . Once people have practised this type of thinking for a long time the brain becomes super-efficient at the exiting habit and it develops short-cuts whereby any distress (even tiny, miniscule amounts) simply lead directly to the exiting behaviour without awareness of the intermediate thoughts.

If you have awareness of the distress intolerance thoughts then you can, of course, just slip them off to the side and pay them no attention – and engage instead in a engaging, constructive activity. However, if you have become very brain-efficient and you just move straight to the exiting behaviour without awareness of the thoughts – then there are two main things you need to do. Firstly, know that the distress intolerance thoughts are there even if you are not aware of them. (They will be there under decades of synaptic-connection remodelling as habits are consolidated and made more precise even when they are based on an incorrect initial assumption.) You know this because you can always read your own (and others) thinking patterns by observing your own (and others) behaviours. Our (unreconstructed) behaviours reflect our thinking patterns – so, as I said in an earlier blog, if someone says they love you but they behave in a way that clearly contradicts this (by constantly being late, or not consulting you over relevant matters, or spending disproportionately large amounts of time away from you, or telling you lies, etc.) you can read their behaviour and be pretty certain that person does NOT love you – despite what she/he is saying to you or themselves. So, read your own behaviour – if you exit (physically or mentally) too readily then you are doing so because somewhere way back you learnt that you cannot tolerate distress.

Of course, when you learnt this lesson you were probably a child and you did not yet have your full brain development in order to be able to bear or tolerate the distress. As an adult you do have your full brain – so you can now tolerate distress as well as the next person – and it is important to do so (this is because it is important to demonstrate to your own brain that you actually can tolerate distress, which allows you to eventually overturn the initial incorrect assumption). So even, if you have no awareness of the distress intolerance assumptions or thinking patterns be clear that they are what started your distress intolerance exiting behaviours.

So, of course, the second thing you need to do is stop the exiting behaviour. This means no longer allowing yourself to have escape routes: you just have to stay put and learn to bear it – learn to tolerate it. No exiting by getting drunk, or by using drugs or medications to dull the distress. No exiting by over-eating to keep propping up the endorphins so as to make it all a bit more tolerable. No exiting by just dropping out of the conversation and going passive and not talking because you couldn’t tolerate the distress of taking the risk of being in the spotlight. No exiting by leaving the distressing event and curling up in the foetal position at home.

Not exiting teaches you that you can actually cope very well and without any props. Indeed, your brain is beautifully adapted to dealing with distress – you will find that with hardly any practice at all, that your brain doesn’t need anything apart from itself. Everything it needs is already within it. Tolerating distress is so much easier than you might have imagined. The more you tolerate distress, the less sensitised you become to distress. In other words, the more distress you allow yourself to encounter without exiting, the more easily you can tolerate it – and the more resilient you become in life.

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More types of thoughts to take off your mental repertoire

Right – so last time I talked about removing certain thoughts from your mental repertoire, particularly anticipatory thoughts (where you anticipate bad outcomes if you take minor risks like getting in a lift or going to the supermarket or talking at a meeting). I also talked about removing catastrophic thoughts (where you add catastrophic words, like ‘OMG!!! wouldn’t that be just the worst thing that could ever happen’ when talking about something fairly trivial like blushing or feeling slightly anxious. There are also inflexions that then often go on top of the catastrophic words, like a really exagerated tone (often high-pitched terror) that is played out either in your own head or verbally conveyed to another person. As well as that there is usually body language and gestures that support the catastrophic analysis, like grimaces of horror or frantic hand movements. I also briefly mentioned body scanning (where you scan your body to see if you have any ‘unusual’ feelings – like your heart beating too fast, or sweating, or feeling nausea, or trembling, or physical feelings of dread).

As I said last time it is really important to just stop all of these and remove them from your mental repertoire. Making the choice to remove them is a completely voluntary decision – you just need to notice your own thinking behaviour and stop bringing these thoughts into your attentional focus. This won’t turn you into a zombie it will just make you more realistic and less catastrophic!

Today, I want to add another type of thinking that I would also like you to remove. In ST, I call it collapse thinking. This is where you allow yourself to have thoughts along the lines of: ‘I can’t cope’ ‘what’s the point’ ‘I can’t do it’ ‘this is all too hard’ ‘I can’t control it’ ‘I don’t have the strength’ ‘I’m powerless’ ‘I’m weak’ ‘I can’t do it’. These sorts of thoughts are all about passivity, powerlessness, and giving up. They essentially lead to a type of mental collapse which can often be observed in the body language of the person. When people are having a lot of these types of passive thoughts, they can actually go weak and passive-looking in the body (a bit like a wet dish cloth that lacks a strong self-supporting structure) – I guess this happens because body engagement often reflects mental engagement.

Thinking you are incapable and without power as an individual, goes right to the heart of sense of self (or identity) because it invalidates you as a person who is able to influence outcomes, generally leading to non-assertive behaviour (either compliant or aggressive) which then generally doesn’t get you good outcomes (so it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle). When we engage in collapse thinking, we become passive, and we lose our connection and engagement with the wider world – seeing ourselves as passive victims of that world and therefore perceiving ourselves as being unable to properly participate or act strongly or advocate in our own best interests. This type of thinking stops you building a stronger sense of yourself.

People who are anxious almost always see themselves as passive in terms of ability to control outcomes. That is, anxious people often think that anxiety thoughts simply take them over as though they are passive victims of their own thought processes. While this is absolutely not true, and as adults with their full brain capacity, they have excellent control over their attentional focus (and therefore more broadly over their mental events), it is not surprising that anxious people often think this way.

This is simply because all of us build our brain as children exactly in accordance with whatever environment we find ourselves born into. When people have come from difficult backgrounds (see earlier blog), as most anxious people have, they have objectively lacked control. This is partly because their environment had objectively more threat events (which gave them more negative assumptions) and partly because, as children none of us have our their full frontal lobes of our brains, and in particular our PFC region, so our ability to control mental events is severely compromised as children. As we all do, people from difficult backgrounds take their earlier assumptions (in this case, about being powerless victims who are unable to control outcomes and unable to control mental events) forward into their adulthood as part of their internal dialogue, often in the form of collapse thoughts.

On the other hand, people who, through sheer luck were born into less difficult circumstances will also take their childhood assumptions forward in their internal dialogues. Their assumptions though, are more likely to be about being capable and powerful enough to fully engage with society and influence outcomes, and, as a result, they will be more likely – since they know they can control most aspects of their lives – to later assume control over their own mental events.

Of course, it is all very hit and miss in terms of what we get born into, but if you came from a more difficult background, and you find yourself entering into collapse thinking, now is the time to re-evaluate it, and make a decision to stop this type of self-sabotaging internal chatter. You can reliably influence outcomes (not all, but very many). Let go of the ones you cannot control like whether the plane will crash (because ruminating on these types of events will not affect the outcome) and instead increase drammatically the control you exert over outcomes that are able to be influenced.

Most specifically, you can exert enormous control over your own mental state. Be disciplined and stop allowing yourself to pay attention to collapse thoughts, just gently slip them off the repertoire and instead you might like to engage in a constructive activity which builds your sense of self and demonstrates your skill and power to your own brain. A couple of off-the-top-of-my-head suggestions are: start learning a musical instrument and then form a band and advocate within it to influence the direction of the music you would like to pursue. Alternatively, you could join a recreational club, political group, committee, environmental group, charity, sporting club or similar that aligns with your own values and advocate within it for improvements. Notice both of my suggestions are about engaging (not passive withdrawal) and they are about stepping-up and influencing outcomes within society. These sorts of constructive activities demonstrate to your own brain that the old, self-sabotaging thinking styles are outdated and obsolete and do not accurately reflect your new sense of self.

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Even more on mental control

OK – last blog I talked about how according to Smart Therapy – if you want to strengthen some aspect of your mental experience, you pay lots of attention to it. So if you would like to build a stronger identity (for both yourself and others) as someone who is smart at mathematics then you pay heaps of attention to maths: you sit there and study algebra for hours on end, you do maths puzzles, you enrol in maths courses, you talk endlessly about maths equations, and you read tonnes of maths books. Very soon you become a unmitigated nerd and feel extremely proud of being so!

On the other hand, if you want to reduce an aspect of your mental experience (like urges to smoke cigarettes) then you pay absolutely no attention to those urges whatsoever. Every time one of them comes up you simply slip that urge off to the side of your awareness – you don’t struggle with it, you don’t argue with it, you don’t think about it – you just gently slip it off to the periphery showing complete disinterest in it, and instead, bring your full attention to some other constructive activity (like having an intense conversation or reading a book or going for a run).

Very importantly, there is no thinking about the urge – it is just immediately slipped aside. Of course, the urge will still be there, but it won’t be in your focussed attention so your brain will not consolidate it into long-term memory (LTM) storage. Because it has not been laid down into LTM it will not be retrieved as often by little reminders or triggers. As time goes on, you train your brain to pay less and less attention to the urges and consequently they become fewer and fewer – until they either disappear completely (in most people) or very close to it (in people who have had an extremely entrenched habit – say 60 cigarettes a day for 30 years – where the urges will reduce to perhaps one 10-second urge of very weak intensity every 2 years, which is no problem at all to resist).

Today though, I want to give even more information about achieving mental control. From my experience in my clinical work I am aware of various types of thoughts that are generally self-sabotaging and which you might want to slowly remove from your mental repertoire as part of becoming more mentally controlled or disciplined. I will just cover a couple of these today, and I will continue to cover a couple more each blog.

Firstly, get rid of the anticipatory anxiety thoughts. These are the ones where you anticipate something dreadful happening if you take a risk. For example, if you are anxious you might say to yourself ‘if I go to the supermarket then I could have a panic attack and have to run for an exit’ or ‘if I drive the car I could become so anxious that I crash it and kill someone’ or ‘if I speak at a meeting I might blush, forget what I’m saying, and embarass myself’ or ‘if I walk on the beach I might stand on a syringe and catch AIDS’ or ‘if I walk too close to another person I might inadvertantly hit them with something’ or ‘if I go in a lift I might become so anxious that I go mad and have to be hospitalised in a mental facility for the rest of my life’ and so on and on.

Think back to previous blogs and recall that these types of thoughts are simply a result of too much CRF in your amygdalae giving rise to more threat-related thoughts. Ensure you understand that they mean absolutely nothing other than that. Your limbic system is just mistaken, it is too over-wrought with the effects of CRF and everyone has scary thoughts following a stressful life event (SLE) when more CRF is released from the limbic system.

Now, keep in mind that if you are trying to recover from too much anxiety – then all behaviours need to be brought back into the ‘normal’ range. So if most other people do things like walk on the beach, or to go to the supermarket, or speak at meetings, or walk close to others, or go in lifts or drive a car – then you need to do those things as well. But doing them, does not mean worrying in advance – you can cut out the anticipatory chatter. Just do all those normal things.

But while you’re at it – remove the catastrophic thinking also. That would be what might follow from the anticipatory thought. For example it probably won’t just be ‘if I go to the supermarket I could have a panic attack and have to run for the exit’ you will likely add: ‘OMG!!! – wouldn’t that be terrible or horrible or terrifying or shameful or hideous or sooooo….embarrasing’. These catastrophic thoughts will of course be accompanied by the relevant body language such as internal or external grimaces, putting the head down in shame or covering the face in shame or facial expressions of horror or terror. Your whole body may cringe with the mere thought of the catastrophe! These sorts of thoughts are pretty much always accompanied by strong visceral feelings that encourage you to think even more catastrophically!

Not only this, but you may very likely be telling someone about the perceived anticipatory catastrophe (which you should not be doing, BTW), so not only are you reinforcing your anxious thoughts internally to yourself, but you are also hearing yourself say these things out aloud which doubly reinforces the importance of them – ensuring your brain lays them down particularly strongly in LTM for fast and easy retrieval next time there is even a slightly similar situation.

In any case, whenever you have these types of thoughts, all you have to do, is slip all aspects of these thoughts off to the periphery of your awareness. Slip off the anticipatory thought (before you have even finished the sentence in your head) and you will often then miss the catastrophic thought that typically follows. If you still have the catastrophic thought – don’t worry – just slip it off also (again, try not to finish the sentence). Also, slip any of the feelings or images off to the side and resist the urge to do any of the catastrophic gestures – like grimaces or other face contortions and definitely don’t mentally scan the body to see if there are other symptoms of distress, like ‘is my heart racing’ or ‘am I feeling faint’. Instead, just soften the body by doing a quick body flop (see previous blog) and immediately focus on some constructive activity.

Remember, every time you do this you get a little less anxious and a bit more constructive in your life – over time it all adds up!

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More on Mental Control

OK – last blog I talked about how we have the capacity to have exactly the same amount of control over a ‘body’ event (like lifting a finger) as over a ‘mental’ event (like a scary thought, feeling, memory or image). Now I want to go some way towards explaining how we can achieve the high levels of mental control that I am describing.

The first thing to note, is that none of us is born with a ‘perfect’ brain. All brains are limited. We are all born into imperfect environments and we build our brains exactly in accordance with that environment. While we have reflexes in the womb we have absolutely no dendritic spine growth in utero – whereas as soon as we are born our dendritic spines (the material representation of learning and memory in our brains) start popping up trying to make connections (synapses) about the material in our environment. Therefore, as soon as we are born we start learning and absorbing language, culture and knowledge from our immediate environment.

Since our environment is always ‘imperfect’ – and will be limited to varying degrees by things like brawling or critical parents, alcoholic aunts and uncles, bullying siblings, insufficient resources, unemployment, unwanted sexual overtures, screaming, violence, sulkiness and silence, passive-aggression, stubborn resistance, poor role models and the like – these factors will influence how we build our brains and what assumptions we form about the world, other people and ourselves.

Since all our brains are an imperfect work in progress we all have mental events we would like to reduce or eliminate (such as anger, anxiety, depressive or agitated rumination) and we all have mental events we would like to expand in our heads (such as self-confidence, calmness, rationality and happiness).

To do this, there is a very simple rule which comes out of my Smart Therapy neurological theory and method. If you want to increase a mental event – then pay strong attention to it. If you want to decrease a mental event – then stop paying attention to it.

This comes from a very simple neurological principle which I have already written about in a previous blog but which I will briefly recap here. We know that if we pay stong attention (with the PFC – the blue bit on my brain sketch in a previous blog) then we are directing our brain to learn and remember. When we pay attention, the PFC acting with executive function over the rest of the brain, responds to agitated sensory input (often CRF-driven) by signalling back to those distant neurones, nudging them towards their firing threshold making them more likely to fire, and, fire-in-unison. The more we pay attention the more this happens – leading to lots of synchronous neural firing.

When our neurones fire synchronously, dendritic spines pop-up at a disproportionately fast rate all over large connecting (pyramidal) neurones activating not just other neurones, but whole assemblies of neurones. When we pay attention this is played out materially in the brain by neural networks in our learning, thinking and memory brain areas getting far more traffic and, because synapses are traffic-dependent with high-traffic leading to consolidation and low-traffic leading to degeneration, then when there is more traffic we see synapse consolidation occuring through gene activation and protein synthesis leading to long term memory (LTM) formation. Once we have formed LTM then we can easily retrieve those memories and think about them, or worry about them as the case may be. The more we retrieve the memories and pay further attention to them, the more we further strengthen the neural architecture and make it even more likely we will be triggered by some lateral connection in the future, thus giving us a sense of ‘spontaneous’ memory retrieval.

So what we pay attention to matters – because it will become a bigger and bigger part of our mental landscape. This is why people often strengthen their habits more and more over a life-time: a slightly odd aunt becomes a seriously eccentric aunt in later years.

To develop the type of mental control that I am talking about here, so you can recover from clinical problems like an anxiety or depressive ‘disorders’ (I strongly dislike that term because it wrongly suggests a pathology whereas we are really just talking about a well-practiced mental habit like being good at mathematics or being good at smoking or being really good and well-practised at anxiety), you have to learn to stop paying attention to the anxious or depressive thoughts, feelings, images or memories.

This is not so hard as it might seem. The key factor here is not to think about eradicating the ‘scary’ or ‘depressive’ thought, feeling, image or memory. Instead what you have 100% control over is whether or not you allow yourself to focus your attention on the scary or distressing mental phenomena. All I am asking you to do, is to ‘slip’ the scary or depressive self-sabotaging thought off to the side (or into the periphery of your attention). When say, an anxious or perhaps shameful thought comes up from the limbic system (and you know it because it is always accompanied by distressing physiological symptoms like a sudden sweat or increased heart rate or a feeling of nausea or dread) – then just immediately say to yourself, ‘No – I’m really not that interested in that thought, it’s a bit of a silly thought – instead I would rather go and do some constructive activity’ (like read the newspaper, do a crossword puzzle, do a sudoku, go for a run or swim, do some mental maths, read a book, focus on a work task, talk vigorously to a friend, listen to talk-back radio -if you happen to be in the car for instance or play a musical instrument etc.etc.) Of course, the unwanted thought will still be there, chattering away for a while, but you are not paying it any focussed attention. Instead you shift and immerse your full attention into the constructive activity. Everytime, your brain throws up another similar limbic thought, just again slip it off to the side (no effort, no struggle – just slide it effortlessly off to the side) and immerse again in the constructive activity. Don’t engage at all with the unwanted thought – no disputing or internal discussion or examination of it. This matters because when you don’t bring material into your focussed attention it is only weakly stored and easily lost from memory storage.

To explain this, think about going for a walk. Imagine that you walk the same 4km walk everyday for 6 years. Although you will have done the walk over 2000 times, you would still not be able to tell me the paint colour of the 4th house on right-hand-side-of-the- road of the 3rd block along. This is because, even though you have seen the house everyday it has only been in your peripheral (or ambient) attention, and you have not brought it into your focussed attention – therefore you are unable to remember it. We know that if we do not pay focussed attention, then information is readily lost from LTM (if it makes it that far) as the dendritic spines only briefly pop-up, only have a spindly shape not conducive to long-lasting connection with axons, and those weak synapses are easily degraded, broken apart and their parts recycled for future use.

One way you could think of it is a bit like being near the edge of a swimming pool. When the mental phenomena come up it is like you have dipped your toe in the water. You could either be drawn into the water and completely submerge yourself by diving into the thoughts and images or you could flick the water off your toe and walk away and do something constructive. Although it may not have felt like it – it is always your choice how you respond.

If you stop repeatedly bringing all these unwanted thoughts into your attentional focus, then what happens is that gradually the synapses weaken (even if you’ve been over-worrying for decades) and they slowly break apart. Our brains are very efficient, if we don’t use it we lose it (and we lose it surprisingly quickly!) So, if you stop practising your anxious or depressive over-worrying and instead, start filling up your life with more and more constructive activities (like getting fit, getting on with your career, improving your relationships, contributing to worthwhile organisations, taking up new hobbies and interests and so on) – then the connections will weaken and the intensity of the connections will also weaken over time resulting in less ‘fraught’ emotions. It takes about 6 weeks to be well over the worst of changing a habit. As a result you will have fewer scary or depressive thoughts and fewer scary images and so on. After about 6 months there will be very little resurgence and after a year hardly any at all.

Of course, expect them to pop up again following your next serious stressful life event when, like there is for all of us, another outpouring of CRF from the amygdale creating more brain agitation. The difference is, that next time you will know how to deal with this brain agitation and you will know that your limbic system is simply mistaken – it is just hyper-reactive due to additional CRF. From the outset, you will know NOT to pay attention to any of those silly, scary or depressive thoughts, and then next time it won’t get a proper grip on you and the distressing thoughts and feelings will just petter out over time if you don’t pay attention to them. So, don’t just do it now – make it preventative for next time too!

By the way, remember the red line that I drew in my brain sketch? What that red line is symbolising is that we always have the mental control to just kind of disregard those agitations coming up from the limbic system – we basically don’t need to engage with them or pay any attention to them whatsoever. We can simply realise that we all have more scary, threatening, depressive, self-sabotaging, worrying types of mental phenomena following a stressful life event where our brains pump out more CRF from the amygdale making the neurones fire more readily and leading to increased brain agitation. This simply means that our limbic system is giving us a lot of chatter about threatening and scary events – but you need to remember that the limbic system is basically over-wrought, hyper-reactive and sensitised due to CRF – therefore, it is detecting threat where there is none. In other words, it is simply mistaken.

As I have said, this happens to us all following a stressful life event, but not everyone develops an ongoing, self-perpetuating cycle of anxiety or depression (where it is then often referred to as a ‘disorder’). Only some people do – and what I have seen in my clinical practice over nearly two decades is that it is people who have already come from a difficult background that are more prone to entering into these cycles. I think there is an easy explanation for this, and it is that when people have come from a more difficult background, they have already experienced more objective threat and SLEs in their lives – so they are, of course, more practised and ‘primed’ to respond more vigilantly to the scary and threatening limbic material (since they have learnt on many previous occasions to do this) by paying it immediate and focussed attention by straight away examining it and worrying about it – thereby strengthening their already somewhat established neural architecture. In addition to this, when people have come from more difficult backgrounds they already hold more negative assumptions about themselves, others and the world. So they have already more established neural connections related to self doubt, others hostility or dangers in the world.

But much of this can be overcome. Stopping paying attention to the mentations you would like to be free of is all you need to do. Remember, there is nothing wrong with your brain whatsoever, it is just that you have been directing your brain (by paying attention) to learn and get very good and practised at anxiety or depressive rumination. If you now stop paying attention to those unwanted mental events then your brain will lose practise and connections will break apart and fade, losing their intensity and you will instead be much more intense and interested in the constructive activities you have been paying attention to. It takes a bit of practise and I will give you many more pointers as we go along…

Next time I will talk about what type of mental events it might be useful to lose…

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Developing Mental Control Over Psychological Symptoms

Learning mental control is going to take quite a few blogs – so that you fully understand it and how to achieve it. I cannot get everything written in one posting, so stick with it.

Just to humour me – I’d like you to do a little exercise:

Put both your hands flat on a table and then just lift up the index finger of your dominant hand while you keep all your other fingers flat on the table. Now, stop lifting up that finger and place it flat again. Then lift up that same finger one more time, and then stop lifting it and place it flat again.

What you have been doing could be described as a ‘body’ behaviour. That is, your body is doing a voluntary activity that you are instructing it to do. You’ll notice that (unless you have an injury or a disability) you have very close to 100% control over this activity. That is – you can move your finger or you can stop moving your finger at will and with precision.

This is actually no different to the level of control we can exercise in a ‘brain’ behaviour. All psychological phenomena – that is, thoughts, mental imagery and memories are all just behaviours of the brain. They are simply the material ‘output’ from a physical brain process that is occuring (see other blog posts for details, but these outputs arise from processes such as synchronous neuronal firing when we pay attention, leading to dendritic spine protrusion, leading to axon connection and synapse proliferation and amplification of downstream signalling to reinforce the experience). This is not really much different to what is happening when we move our index finger – where the moving of the finger is the material ‘output’ occuring from a set of physical processes (both within the finger muscles and tendons and within the brain to direct it to move). Of course, the more we practice the more precision we get.

As it happens we tend to mostly be pretty reasonable at lifting and stopping a finger. Children have to practice these outputs, they have to develop the dexterity so they can feed themselves, learn to manipulate toys, tie up their shoe-laces, or, learn to write. These sorts of ‘ouputs’ are easy to see and they are measureable – so they feel very controllable.

On the other hand, mental outputs, such as thoughts, images and memories are less overt, less concrete – harder to grapple with, because they are ‘privatised’ within our skulls. Since these psychological phenomena appear to be less material and harder to get a grip of – they exert an element of ‘mystique’ appearing less as objects that we can control. This is reflected in the brain/mind split – where the mind was seen as different and more mysterious than the brain.

Not only this, but it has only been relatively recently that advanced microscopy techniques have allowed researchers to get a really good look at what is happening within the brain when we learn, concentrate and lay down memories. Until about a decade ago, most researchers still believed that we were born with a pre-wired brain that did not change appreciatively over life. Now we know, that parts of our brain (attention, cognition, learning, memory and connecting pathways) are very plastic and changing constantly as we learn.

Even though our mental phenomena seem harder to get a grip on and are hidden away within our heads – they actually are no different and they are able to be controlled with the same level of dexterity and precision as any other ‘body’ behaviour (which is directed from the brain in any case).

Now, you might think that everyone knows this. But believe me, most people do not really know it. I say this, because I look at peoples’ behaviour and whenever people are stuck in ongoing patterns or habits of anxiety, depressive rumination, anger, aggression or compliance it is precisely because they have not yet learnt that they can exert massive levels of control over their own internal mental events.

Exactly what we need to learn to achieve mental control will be talked about in the next blog…

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Some neurological aspects of anxiety

At the end of my last blog, I talked about how taking charge and taking control are at the very heart of recovery of almost all ‘clinical’ problems. The most essential way of taking charge and ensuring strong mental health throughout life is through exercising mental control.

To help you exert the level of mental control you need for recovery, it is important to understand how your brain works at a physiological level.

As you will see in my biography, I came out of a background in brain research where I was studying aspects of normal learning and memory. This background encouraged me to think about how our brains work and led me, about 16 years ago, to develop a neurological theory and a set of solutions which I called ‘Smart Therapy’ about how we ‘learn’ anxiety or depression or anger or other forms of self-sabotage, and then how we ‘consolidate’ those anxious, depressive or self-sabotaging thoughts, feelings and images, over time into long-term memory (LTM) which then become very easily retrievable. The more retrievable these anxious or depressive thoughts and feelings are, the more they pop-up in consciousness and fill-up our mental space and the more we then see ourselves as ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed’ in our overall personality or identity.

For almost everyone, anxiety (or depression) starts following some type of stressful life event (SLE). It might be losing a job, divorce, moving schools, migrating, being bullied, developing an illness, losing a loved one, parental separation, being assaulted, or failing an important exam. When any of us experience an event that is going to have some pretty serious or threatening ramifications, our brains will pump out more of a certain hormone known as corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF) from the amygdale. Mostly CRF is released in the brain from the anterior pituatory gland, but when we encounter a SLE it is also released from the amygdale.

This is probably not that surprising, because our amygdale are the main areas of fear and threat detection in our brains, and we have just encountered a serious threat – so our brain would not want us to miss the next threat due to lack of attention. Indeed, when CRF is released from the amygdale it has a direct effect upon neurons, dropping the level of stimulation required to make them fire – so the neurons influenced by CRF fire much more readily than usual. The neurons become hyper-reactive, firing much more easily than they would without the presence of CRF.

The release of CRF in the amygdale causes a high level of brain agitation leading to the sorts of symptoms people typically experience following a SLE such as difficulty sleeping, reduced appetite, increased anxiety, lowered mood, lowered confidence and increased rumination on scary or depressive thoughts.

It is important to realise that this happens to everyone on the planet – whenever any of us experience a serious SLE our brains will have this physiological response. It is a normal response to deal with an abnormal threat – that will resolve of its own accord so long as undue attentional focus is not given to those scary or depressive ruminations (more on this in a moment). But, if it is the case that this is a normal response to an SLE then it is important to think about why only some people develop ‘clinical’ anxiety or ‘clinical’ depression following a SLE.

The answer that I have found to this question in my clinical practice of having seen more than two thousand people over the last two decades – is that it is people who have come from difficult backgrounds who are more likely to develop the ‘clinical’ symtoms of a self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety or depression partly because of the negative assumptions they hold about the world, themselves and other people (see last blog) and partly because they are already very brain-practised at encountering threat.

For example, people who have come from more cushioned backgrounds will still have SLEs, still get the CRF response of intense brain agitation, leading to trouble sleeping, increased heart rate, nausea and more scary or threatening thoughts, such as ‘what if…I stab you in the eye with my pen’. However, because people from more cushioned backgrounds have had less CRF-activation of the amygdale in the past and are therefore less practised at a hyper-vigilant brain response to threat plus their assumptions are generally positive, like the world is safe, others are friendly, and I am a good and capable person – then these people will dismiss scary thoughts as ‘silly’ and show absolutely no interest in them – recognising that all healthy, imaginative people have silly, scary thoughts from time to time.

On the other hand, people who have come from more difficult backgrounds will be more ‘primed’ towards threat (having experienced many more threats) so they will more readily, tune-into the CRF-activation of the amygdale and become quickly hyper-vigilant since they have learnt from their previous experience. On top of this, they will (also as a result of their earlier learning experience) hold more negative and self-doubting assumptions like people can be hostile and I’m a bad, untrustworthy person – leading them to take the same silly, scary thoughts more seriously.

In taking the thought more seriously, what I mean is that more attentional focus is brought to bear on that scary thought. This is the theory at the centre of my Smart Therapy approach. This attentional focus might involve examining the thought (to try to disprove the ‘scary’ thought) and this could take the form of mentally checking back over old memories to see whether there have ever been any other similar ‘violent’ instances. If other (even slightly similar) instances are found in LTM (such as I did elbow Vanessa is grade 5) then those scenarios will also be examined and ruminated upon at length. When these other similar instances are found they induce high levels of fear in the person, causing strong physiological sensations of anxiety and exacerbating self-doubt. Once frightened like this, it is easy to take the next step of behavioural avoidance by thinking ‘well, if I can’t be trusted not to stab you with my pen then I had better not go near any other possible weapons, I must stay right away from the knife block or I shouldn’t even be within reach of this stapler – in case I belt someone over the head with it’.

Then other attentional focus strategies can easily come into play. The anxious person might visualize themselves having committed a terrible assault on another person, and examine whether or not they feel ‘sufficient’ regret or remorse. If there is any room for doubt then this will be examined over and over each time leading to higher and higher levels of anxiety or distress.

This is how you build a self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety. Although the original frightening thought will vary person to person, I am describing here the usual way ‘clinical’ anxiety develops. What is important here is to know what is happening in the brain and why, and therefore how to stop the development of anxiety in its tracks.

According to my Smart Therapy approach: Whenever we pay attention to something we are telling our brain to learn it and remember it. If we pay attention to maths for 10 hours per day, we will lay huge amounts of maths equations and maths theories down into LTM. The more LTM we have laid down the more likely we are to access and retrieve those memories and therefore the more maths thoughts seem to just ‘pop’ into our mind with barely any provocation. Not only this, but the more we have maths thoughts and images, the more we would regard ourselves as a maths type-of-person – over time, maths would become a deep part of our identity.

This is no different with anxiety or depressive rumination – we can learn them just as effectively by paying them undue attention. In this way, anxiety and depression are not brain dysfunctions, genetic mutations or pathologies that need fixing up with medications – they are simply well-practised brain habits that we have learnt. We can learn maths, or reading or to play the guitar and we can learn anxiety or depression or anger just as effectively.

Indeed, it is not just that there is no pathology – it is that our brain is doing exactly what it ought to do – that is it is learning what it is being directed to learn. It is paying attention and then laying down traceable memories that are able to be easily retrieved. It is just that we are learning and retrieving distressing material that we would prefer not to learn or recall. But, our brains will learn just as effectively whatever we focus upon, whatever the targetted material.

It is important to understand this process from a neurological perspective also – so please bear with me through some of this information.

Although some areas of our brains are not flexible, much of our thinking, attentional and memory areas are highly flexible. With better imaging techniques we are now able to observe brain changes at the single synapse level.

For example, we know that when we pay attention (represented in the brain by synchronous neural firing between PFC areas and distal brain structures) then dendritic spines pop-up all over our dendrites in large ‘spiny’ neurons. The more we pay attention, the more they pop up.

These dendritic spines are thought to be the material representation of actual learning and memory in the brain. Each one, as soon as it pops up and sends attractor chemicals to draw an axon in its vicinity to synpase with it, has the machinery to function as an independent synapse – then capable of inputting (or not inputting) charges into the main body of the neuron and thereby influencing whether or not other neurons are activated further downstream.

Dendritic spines are made of Actin-F (the most flexible and ‘plastic’ material in the human brain) and they can pop-up for seconds and then retract and disappear or they can last for minutes, hours, months or years depending upon the amount of traffic they receive. More traffic leads to more robust shapes and higher levels of consolidation. With stronger learning, gene activation will occur and proteins will be synthesized resulting long-term potentiation and the formation of LTM. Whereas less traffic leads to more spindly and less robust shapes, where spines are easily dismantled and retracted and the synapses broken apart, with a corresponding weakening of memory.

Of course, in a sense we already know this. Even if we are extremely good at statistics and consistently get over 90% we only have to stop practising it for a few months and we can barely remember anything about it. If we don’t use it we lose it – even with extremely well-practised childhood memories they lose their detail and become harder to access over time – developing an ‘unreal’ aspect to them where we might not be sure if we remember something happening or if we were told it happened or if we saw a picture of it happening.

This has some relevance to ‘clinical’ anxiety or depressive rumination. As I have already outlined, after a SLE and a CRF response we all get more brain agitation and that culminates in more scary and threatening thoughts. People from a more difficult background are more likely to take these scary or depressive thoughts more seriously and they then pay excessive attention to them, examining them, checking them, recalling them, picturing them, feeling them and generally worrying about them. They often do this for hours everyday. As would be expected, their dendritic spines are madly popping-up all over the place, making endless synaptic connections all about anxiety. The more connections are built and the more they are retrieved and practised over and over in a constant anxiety rehearsal – the more anxiety is seen as part of the identity of the person. The person will say things like “I’m just an anxious person – I’ve always been like this”.

Of course to fix up this problem, we have to learn the mental control to stop focussing or paying attention to all these distressing thoughts, images, memories or feelings. How to do this, is what I will talk about in my next blog.

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Some thoughts about coming from a difficult background…

One thing that I think needs to be noted is that it is not a coincidence that almost every person I see in my anxiety clinic has come from a ‘difficult’ background. A difficult background simply means that objectively a person has, on average, experienced more distressing events in her or his childhood than other people have experienced. These events could be all sorts of things, like parental separation or divorce, death of someone close, serious illness, school bullying, excessive parental criticism, physical or sexual assault, excessive moving from place to place, or over-protection from parents (which teaches children that the world is a frightening place that they need protection from, and, which also teaches children that they cannot trust themselves and depend upon their own resources and, therefore have to be rescued or over-protected).

Although a difficult background can definitely have some good outcomes where people have to develop the motivation and depth to overcome tricky obstacles, it can also result in thwarted outcomes often due to self-doubt, missed skills and lower levels of confidence. If a child is having to focus on staying alive or not rocking the boat with a critical or aggressive parent then that child will be unable to focus on other important life skills and will later, as an adult, feel as though they are missing half the rule-book of life.

As part of this, a difficult background teaches a child to develop negative assumptions about the world, other people and self. This is simply because we build our brain exactly in response to whatever environment we find ourselves born into. So, if you happen to be born into a situation where you are terrified of one of your parents or you get bullied consistently by someone else, then you will form assumptions like: ‘the world is dangerous’ or ‘other people are hostile’ or ‘I am a powerless victim’. Since our brains don’t like cognitive dissonance (internal conflict), if we hold one negative assumption we tend to hold them all, although some will be more salient to us than others.

We all have to form assumptions early in life, as a basic organising principle of our brains – so our brain can direct our behaviour in situations we encounter. If our brains didn’t do this, then we wouldn’t be able to respond in the real world and we would be paralysed and unable to decide upon what action to take in different situations.

The assumptions we form in our brains are quite basic but once they are formed we tend to not review them and just act in accordance with them. This is simply because we are very brain-efficient and once we think we have learned something we don’t want to keep re-inventing the wheel, so to speak.

Once we have formed assumptions then our behaviours reflect those assumptions, even though we are not usually consciously aware that we hold them. For example, usually a person is not aware that they see themselves as a powerless victim. If you look at your own or others’ behaviours you can accurately assess the underlying assumptions even where the assumptions are not overt or obvious – because the behaviours are logically consistent with the assumptions.

I learnt very early on in my clinical work to read peoples’ behaviour and not necessarily to accept what they were saying (since we are all very good at lying to ourselves and repeating those lies out aloud to others to try to strengthen their intenal validity). Whereas when we look at behaviour it generally tells us what assumptions a person is acting upon. This works in life generally too. So, if someone is telling you they ‘love you’, but in their behaviour they treat you with contempt (like consistently arriving late, preferring to spend time with their friends and not you, or they fail to consult you about important decisions that are relevant to you and so on) then you can be pretty sure that despite what they are saying (and despite what they are telling themselves), they DON’T love you… believe me, you should trust that…

But, back to difficult backgrounds and the long-term effects of forming negative assumptions. If you hold the assumption that ‘the world is dangerous’ then your brain will have worked out a strategic response to that objectively real danger (when it first happened and you were a child) and depending usually upon the level of danger you learnt to either withdraw or approach. If possible, people generally try to withdraw and attempt to hide or diminish themselves so as not to aggravate any perpetrator or threat – since this usually keeps them alive.

Sometimes though, especially in very volatile situations it is not possible to withdraw, so a child can be forced to use an approach strategy in a dangerous situation. When this happens the child has to approach despite ‘the world being dangerous’ and that child has two choices: approach compliantly or approach aggressively. There are other choices but the child or teenager does not yet have the brain capacity for more sophisticated choices and will not have their full pre-frontal cortex area of the brain until about the age of 25.

Again, people generally choose to approach compliantly because it is lower risk and more likely to keep them alive. But, once this type of brain-pattern is set up, it results in passive, powerless-types of behaviours in life in general over the longer term. For example, where a person has learnt to see themselves as a compliant victim, then later when they experience a major stressful life event (that causes more outputting of corticotrophin releasing factor known as CRF in the brain – leading to more agitated, threatening and anxious thoughts and feelings), then that person is likely to respond to those anxiety-provoking thoughts by believing they are powerless to stop them. Such a person would see themselves as a victim of their anxious thoughts and feelings. These scary and threatening thoughts might then feel so overwhelming that the person is likely to start to avoid situations where the anxiety might be worse in case the feelings and thoughts just took them over. Whereas, realistically, we all (by virtue of being human and having a brain that exhibits executive control) have the capacity for excellent control over all our thoughts and feelings once we understand how to do this (more on this in another blog).

Not only does a compliant response lead to more problems with anxiety because of the underlying assumption of being a powerless victim, unable to control mental and physical behaviours, but it leads to all sorts of other difficulties too.

For example, if you fundamentally see yourself as a powerless, passive victim then you are likely to behave in other passive types of ways. Once you are holding the assumptions that the ‘world is dangerous’ and ‘other people can be hostile and scary’ then any conflict will be perceived as threatening – even when it is not. The compliant response then produces a myriad of similar expressions of passivity, such as a passive-aggressive response to conflict (where you can insert ‘barbs’, indirect criticisms, jokes, resentments, or put-downs into conversations without having to take the risk of taking responsiblity for the these mean comments) or it might lead to stubborn responses whereby you might appear to agree with a plan but then passively resist and sabotage the plan. It might just result in you rarely (if ever) expressing a controversial opinion in case it aggravates another person, or it might simply stop you in your tracks from properly learning to verbalise or take a proper role in conversation (the silent type).

Often high levels of compliance lead to deep, festering resentments and bitterness because passive responses tend to achieve lose-lose outcomes rather than win-win outcomes, so when you lose enough you naturally get deeply resentful. On the other hand, win-win solutions generally arise from clear, direct, friendly, non-defensive communication (more on this in another blog).

These passive behaviours, although learnt in response to legitimate threats initially, have now become part of a brain set-up (or brain pattern or habit) which will severely limit good outcomes for yourself (or others) for the rest of your life unless you decide to change them.

Sometimes though, a person is forced to respond to ‘the world being dangerous’ by becoming overtly aggressive. In this case, the threat is usually so severe and dire that the person feels they have nothing to lose by becoming overtly aggressive. This is pretty rare to see in children because it is just too risky to get physical when under threat when you are physically very small – especially if that threat comes from an adult. Children would usually only become overtly aggressive if there was absolutely no other choice (and their life depended upon it) or if there are no limits placed on their behaviour (absolutely no trace of threat) and the child simply acts out increasingly badly because they are allowed to get away with it. This is just poor parenting (excessively libertarian) – and is a separate problem to the one I am discussing in this blog.

However, teenagers often come up against threat and have to produce a response. They are different to children, in that they are physically bigger (often bigger than an aggressive parent) and they have had some significant neural changes where much more frontal lobe in the brain has come online. More frontal lobe gives the teenager more capacity for independent/autonomous thought so they can more readily differentiate themselves from the perpetrator by holding a stronger self identity.

If the teenager is sufficiently threatened and thinks that the danger is so great that he/she has nothing to lose, then the teenager may be forced to dig deep and for the first time in life, aggressively fight back against the perpetrator verbally or physically. If this strategy or response appears to work, then the teenager has just learnt a new brain pattern – one of aggression. If there is a lot of subsequent threat encountered and therefore many situations in which to practise this brain habit then the strategy will be reinforced and become more entrenched over time. This is how ‘bullies’ are formed and it is also how ‘psychopaths’ are formed. On the other hand, if there are only rare threats then the strategy will not become excessively dominant.

This act of aggressive survival does have a useful side to it – it forces self-differentiation – where the teenager clearly defines what the perpetrator stands for and, in differentiation, what she/he stands for. It forces the teenager into clear opposition: “I stand for this, and you stand for that”. This is why people who are aggressive often appear to have a strong sense of self – they know what they want and they don’t mind telling you and they don’t mind going after it (aggressively). Whereas someone who has used the compliance response for a lifetime will have very little idea of what they stand for, what differentiates them from others, what they want in life. They often have to attach to an aggressive person as a partner to guide them through life. This is why you often see a passive person partnering with an aggressive person.

Notice though, that both the compliance response and the aggressive response came out of seeing the world as dangerous (and it was, in order to form that assumption in the first place). In both cases, fear is driving the response – thinking this is so scary I have to hide and minimize myself or this is so scary I have to pull out all stops and crush the threat through aggression. Fear is the driving force.

This results in problems for both responses. Compliant people are too passive as I described above and aggressive people are often rigid, inflexible, black and white thinkers – going on the aggressive without due self-reflection or without proper attention to consequence. Without due self-reflection we cannot learn properly because we fail to acknowledge our own role in problematic outcomes. We can get frozen in time, repeating the same useless pattern over and over.

Someone who is aggressive might have altercation after altercation for which they blame others, not realising that they are the common denominator. In this profile it is common to see very low trust (almost paranoid) towards others’ ‘hostile’ motives. There are many physical displays of aggression that the person is often unaware of simply because they still fundamentally perceive themselves as a victim, so much so, they see themselves as having to very aggressively defend themselves.

Aggressive people often feel enormous levels of anger and it is often the main (or sometimes only) emotion they can access. Even in the most minor conflicts they frequently adopt highly hostile body language, closing down their face and speaking between clenched teeth, clipping short their words, needlessly escalating situations and so on. Of course, the more scared they get the more ferocious and one-dimensional – becoming closed down and rigid, hardening the body, face and the mind, using it like armour to defend against the threat. The more we perceive the world as threatening, the more we persist with these self-sabotaging strategies.

Fundamentally though, both these responses of either compliance or aggression (and so many other problems I see in my work like anxiety, depression, relationship breakdown) often arise from these negative assumptions about a dangerous world, hostile others and a powerless self. They lead people to think that negotiation is pointless and that conflict cannot be resolved. People assume that real fairness cannot be achieved through open communication and direct strategies. These negative assumptions lead people to behave by either concealing the self and manipulating outcomes through passive-aggression or to adopt an overtly aggressive response which results in ‘my way or the highway’. Both signify no trust and both result in lose-lose outcomes.

In light of all this, it seems important to question these assumptions in case they are not correct. For example, what if, the assumptions were correct when you were young and your brain was forming itself – but what if that is not actually how the wider world works now?

If you were to start to flip over your assumptions so that you behave as though the world is safe, as though others are cooperative and friendly, as though you are strong, secure, capable, and able to act as your own advocate – then your behaviours would start to reflect that. Instead of shutting up but then being resentful, stubborn and withholding or instead of getting aggressive, threatening and cruel when you feel scared you could just relax, soften and interact with others in a friendly way – not being scared of conflict is the important thing – seeing conflict as something playful – welcoming it as a way of resolving problems. Of course, this involves an assumption of fairness, equity, being on the same side and just having a mutual problem to solve – it assumes that all problems can be resolved transparently (without hiding from or crushing the other person ). In other words it requires a non-oppositional approach: where differences are openly acknowledged but not seen as rigid barriers. It assumes that with enough discussion, complexities can be worked through – all interests can be heard and taken account of – all parties can be engaged and involved rather than alienated to a fixed position of either compliance or aggression.

Overturning these negative assumptions helps enormously with anxiety also. As you come to see yourself as an active agent in your own life – not a victim of your scary thoughts and feelings – it is much easier to take charge of your life and impose the discipline, direction and structure you want to take in your life. As you will see in further blogs, taking charge and mental discipline are at the heart of recovery of almost all ‘clinical’ problems.

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