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  • Writer's pictureLucian@going2paris.net

Nope, Not A Unicorn



Charlottesville

March 20, 2022


Churchill would refer to his "dark days" as having the Black Dog visit. He was never diagnosed with depression but the term Black Dog has come to be a metaphor for dealing with depression.


OMG! Depression. How dare you say that word in polite company! It feels like to many it is worse than talking about sex or dear God, politics.


One in 10 of us will deal with depression sometime in our lives. One in four women over 50 deals with depression. For something so common, our society has done a damn good job of assigning a big stigma to it.


The Black Dog is not a death sentence; heck, it need not be any kind of sentence. I'd like to think that I am helping remove some of the stigma attached to it -- and if I haven't to date then that is my wish for the future. Understanding what depression is is the first step in removing the stigma.


The following article is about negative thoughts which is really what depression is all about. It is an article we should all read and appreciate.

The article:

Overview


This article is not just about negative thinking – It is also about something that your brain probably ‘thinks’ that it knows (but actually probably doesn’t)! – If you are someone who struggles with negative thoughts, it is likely that your brain probably does not know the difference between the stories created by your mind in the form of thoughts, imagery, memories and predictions … vs. reality – The information flowing through your five senses.


This information applies to all of us: Being unaware of this difference and not having the skills to wilfully discriminate between these two sources of information, leaves us open and vulnerable to being ‘pushed around’ and influenced by whatever our minds are focusing on. Although this may be ‘nice’ when we are daydreaming about pleasant things – this means a whole world of suffering and anguish if we are engaging in distressing, anxiety-provoking or threat-based mental processes.


Our Threat System:


All humans and other mammals (including: dogs, cats, apes, tigers, mice, elephants, gorillas, pandas, horses, whales, and dolphins) have a pair of amygdala an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe. These form part of our limbic system (aka ‘threat system’), the oldest part of the brain that helps to protect us and keep us safe. In other words, Threat System = Survival (survival emotions and instincts).




All information being processed by your brain passes through the limbic system and this forms part of the brain’s threat processing system. The limbic system keeps you safe, by evaluating whether or not something is threatening. This includes information from both your five senses (the external world) AND all of the information generated by your mind (your internal world).


If your limbic (aka ‘threat system’) perceives something as a threat, it has the power to reorganise the mind and body by triggering a cascade of neurophysiological responses (like the fight-flight-freeze response!). This then completely reorients your mind’s focus and its attentional resources, and your motivations and your actions. These will then all work together to protect you from the perceived threat.


Without a healthy and functioning threat system, our species would be in serious trouble – we would not be motivated to protect ourselves from danger and we would likely take risks with catastrophic outcomes – humans would probably not have survived as long as we have.


However, although all information flows through this system, often your threat system does not know anything about quality or the source of the information flowing through it. Of all the information that your brain is constantly processing (i.e., information from all of your five senses AND the information being generated by your mind), your brain does not know the difference between real threats (the threats that we need to attend to – like a car speeding towards us as we walk cross a street while texting…) and perceived threats (threats that are created by our minds – such as when we imagine a future situation turning out negatively, which triggers anxiety or thinking badly about ourselves, which can cause us to feel shame).


Negative Thinking & Threat


Your limbic system (aka your ‘threat system’) is only concerned with one thing: “Is this thing a THREAT… or NOT?” As can be seen in the diagram below, if an event is considered to be a THREAT, this starts a cascade of physiological processes which have evolved to protect you from harm. These are ‘survival’ instincts (i.e., fight-flight-freeze). On the other hand, if no threat is detected, we remain calm (i.e., ‘rest & digest’, or ‘homeostasis’).


In other words, your limbic system does not discriminate between external or internal threats. Generally, people are pretty good at dealing with external threats (e.g., paying bills, crossing roads, deadlines etc.). Rather than external threats causing people trouble, it is in fact the ‘internal threats’ (i.e., the threats from our minds) that are the most problematic.


Most of the time, it is the information being focused on by your mind that triggers threat: Thoughts, imagery, negative predictions, shame-based memories, self-talk, self-criticism, negative appraisals. This is important to understand, because if we can consciously shift our focus away from our minds and back onto our five senses, we can begin to create a sense of calm.


Why? This is because our ‘focus’ is finite. Our attention is limited – we simply cannot attend to all things at the same time. If we use this knowledge to our advantage and fill up our focus with non-threatening information (by focusing on neutral information such as the information from our five senses), there is no room for the mind to get us stuck in threat.


So, the threat system is ‘always ON’, meaning that it is always monitoring – it is always scanning (!). We can’t turn it off, and although sometimes it can be helpful, most of the time we need to be deliberate and conscious about how we use our minds – what we attend to, and how we use our attention can either trigger threat systems or can keep our threat system at bay. The following diagram explains this, visually:



The above process is neither good nor bad – It is simply how our threat system works. But it is extremely powerful. An important question you should be asking yourself is: Is it helpful? In other words, is what you are attending to (in your mind) activating your threat system, or is it helping you to keep calm and soothed?


There is a strong mind-body feedback loop in that what we focus on results in feelings in our body. For instance, daydreaming about something positive might make you feel calm, optimistic, or motivated. Similarly, daydreaming about eating your favourite food might make you salivate. This is because there is a strong relationship between how we think and what we feel. Thoughts are simply propositions (or ‘invitations’) that our brains can utilise to stimulate physiological processes that result in emotions and motivations to act on our thoughts. However, this can work against us when our minds think up negative, frightening, or painful thoughts / situations and this can interfere with – or stop you from – going after your goals and your heart’s deepest desires.


E.g., “I’m not good enough”, or “There’s something wrong with me!” (feelings = defectiveness, shame)



E.g., “I can’t be bothered” or “I can’t do it” (feelings = defeat / hopelessness)



E.g., “If I don’t … then something BAD will happen!”, or “Even if I DO … then something BAD will happen!” (feelings = anxiety / hopelessness)



E.g., “Nothing will ever change or improve”, or “What’s the f*cking point?!” (feelings = hopelessness / anger / despair)



E.g., “I can’t, because what if … happens?” (feelings = anxiety, trapped)



E.g., “I really AM not good enough, and there’s NOTHING I can do” (feelings = hopelessness, shame, defeat)



Cognitive Fusion & our ‘tricky brains’


From the most recent scientific estimates, humans on average have over 60,000 thoughts per day and many of these are automatic and are unrelated to what we are actually doing. This means that there are plenty of opportunities for our minds to ‘hook’ us or ‘trick’ us into thinking that there is actually a real threat to attend to – that the pictures and stories that our minds are painting are in fact real.


We can get side-tracked by the mind’s thoughts and images about the past, or its predictions and images about the future. And if we are unaware that we are engaged in this process – because we often feel consistent with what our minds are focusing on – we can hijack our present emotional state with painful images about the past (leading to anger, sadness, or regret) or frightening thoughts about the future (leading to anxiety, fear, stress, or panic). This is what psychologists call: ‘Cognitive Fusion’.


For example, although all animals have a threat system, one major difference between animals and humans is that we have a much more fully developed cortex, which allows us to solve complex problems in the present and in the future. Our sophisticated brains have been able to build and fly airplanes, create the Internet, build ‘smart’ phones and create self-driving cars – our human brains can solve many amazing complex problems. However, compared with animals, our more sophisticated brains also have tricky ‘bugs’ built in them…


A zebra uses its five senses to see a lion, hear a lion, smell a lion – it will likely then run for safety. However, once it uses its five senses to asses if there is no evidence of a lion, the zebra will calm down and resume eating grass. Unlike a human, the zebra won’t have nightmares about lions or lie in bed awake at night imagining how much more scary it would have been if there were 3 lions! It won’t become depressed about being a zebra that lions like to eat. And, it won’t develop an anxiety disorder where it feels scared and hopeless about being a zebra for the rest of its life. No - This is something a human brain would do.


A human brain may replay with the mind, images of lions. It would likely ruminate about the past lion sighting and would likely become preoccupied and fearful about encountering a lion in the future. Due to cognitive fusion this would trigger anxiety and a cascade of associated physiological arousal – it may even trigger a panic attack – even though there is no lion actually present! Worse – A human’s brain may even calculate from its memory all of the salient features about the environment containing the lion and respond with stress and trepidation to anything in the future merely resembling the experience containing the lion (the green colour of the grass, the time of day, the day of the week, what we were wearing, what we’d done earlier the day we got chased by the lion, what we were thinking immediately prior… etc.). The human would then be motivated to avoid all of these cues. This is how anxiety functions.


So you see – our ‘tricky’ problem-solving brains may try to eliminate any future ‘threat’ by motivating us to think (or act) in ways that might avoid these situations. But, avoidance actually increases anxiety. So we will do our best to “try not to think about it”, which almost always backfires – and so we will remain anxious – despite all of our brain’s amazing problem-solving abilities. So have we actually gotten rid of anxiety by thinking about the lion attack, or future lion attacks? – No. And although anxiety is part of us and being anxious may lead to behaviours that appear to us safe, the downside to living in a perpetually heightens state of threat is that it causes us difficulties which rob us of an opportunity to live a full, rich, and meaning life.


More on Negative Thinking


Although in the example above I have focused on ‘anxiety’, cognitive fusion can also can trigger other emotions – think about a time from the past where something happened that made you really, really ANGRY! What happened back then? Who was involved? What did they say/do? How did you feel? – You probably already know from previous experience, the more you think about this event and how angry it made you, the more you can again start to feel angry, right now! (or if you regret something that you did, focusing on this might lead to you feeling regretful or sad!). The same process applies to other emotions: Shame, Embarrassment, Agitation, and so on.


Threat-based thoughts and emotions are very powerful. These processes can reorganize our brains and our bodies to take charge and deal with the source of the threat. But when it comes to situations in the past, or situations that haven’t even happened yet, we experience strong emotions that we can’t get rid of or fix. People often try to get rid of these strong unpleasant emotions – and this makes sense. It makes sense to not want to feel unpleasant emotions. However, can we really permanently ‘fix’ or permanently get rid of anger, anxiety, sadness, stress, and be happy and free forever?


However, how often do we go to war with our emotions and try to ‘not’ have them? This makes these emotions – which are inside us – the problem. So, now we have yet another threat: ourselves, because we are the one’s having the emotion that we don’t want to have. In other words, the problem-solving logic that we use to fix things in the outside (physical) world, actually does not work for our inner world of emotions and the processes our mind’s engages in. When we are having problems due to threat-based emotions and threat-based mental activity – this is when we need to use skills like mindfulness and defusion, discussed below.


What does this all mean for you?


If you want to develop peace of mind and become freer from negative thinking, difficult emotions or unnecessary stress, the important thing to take away from this is: It is essential to learn to distinguish between real vs. perceived threats. This requires a solid understanding of and an ability to notice the difference between real threats from your 5 senses vs. perceived threats (the threats that are created by your mind via the processes of cognitive fusion). This is a discrimination task: “Is this actually happening, or is this happening in my mind?”


From here, you then need to learn to practice ‘unhooking’ or defusing from your mind’s thoughts. This means learning to ‘look at your thoughts’ (seeing thoughts as simply thoughts), rather than seeing the world through your thoughts (which will get you ‘hooked’ by your mind).


It would also be helpful to develop a detailed and compassionate understanding of your mind’s threat system, learning about what your threat system is designed to do, what triggers it, and how it is essentially just trying to keep you safe or tell you that you deeply care about something. This understanding includes keeping in mind that when your threat system has been triggered, that you will likely feel strongly motivated to protect yourself from whatever threat your mind has created, even if it is not based in the present moment. And even though this may have negative consequences for you and how you’re feeling – it involves understanding that your brain is simply doing what it was designed to do: to ‘keep the organism safe’. However, as previously discussed, our minds are powerful and can make us feel like there is a threat or an emergency that is real – much of what our mind thinks is not actually based in the present moment and is merely a construction of some other period in time (eg, thoughts about the past = can trigger sadness/regret, whereas thoughts about the future = can trigger anxiety/hopelessness).


Developing skills in Mindfulness is essential in increasing your awareness of your mind and what it is focussing on. Mindful awareness can help you differentiate between 5 Senses information and information from your mind – it can also help you develop skills in noticing (vs. reacting) to the contents of your mind (which includes thoughts, predictions, memories, images, and ‘stories’ we tell ourselves about the challenging situations we are facing). However, Mindfulness is not enough. We also need to develop skills in ‘unhooking’ from the narrative and images of the mind – this process is called ‘defusion’.


Normally (i.e., without defusion) we can easily become fused (‘become one with’) whatever our mind is doing. This means we accept what our mind is telling us as the present reality – as if what our mind is saying is literally true. This then leads to feelings that support our mind’s narrative. We often then feel overwhelmed, controlled by our minds, and stuck. Defusion is a way to disrupt and unhook from unhelpful thoughts, memories, images and stories.


Learning about defusion means learning about thinking and this gives you a better understanding of the way mind your mind works. This means understanding that thoughts are just thoughts – they are not real, you do NOT need to accept the literal meaning of anything that your mind thinks and that nothing that your mind is thinking is necessarily actually happening right now. Again, this means you are learning about how to ‘look at’ your mind’s thoughts vs. looking through the lens of your thoughts.


It may also help to remember that you are not your mind or the thinking that it does – thinking is merely a process that your mind engages in. Just like you are not your eyes or your eyelids blinking – and just like you are not your heart or its beating – you are not your mind or its thinking. Thinking is merely something your mind does, just like blinking is something your eyes do, and beating is something your heart does. None of these things ARE you, they are simply parts of you.


Thinking is not something that you need to accept at face value – The process of thinking is simply something that the mind does. Do you really want to be pushed around by every single one of your mind’s thoughts ?


Here is a demonstration of how thinking is not something that you need to accept at face value. TRY THIS: In your mind, repeat the following phrase: “I can’t stand up…. I can’t stand up… I can’t stand up…!” Keep repeating this phrase and STAND UP! (And… what did you notice….?).


If you already were standing, do this with ‘I can’t sit down!’ And sit down (And… what did you notice?).


(I’m assuming you realised something that you already knew on some level – that is, you can do something even though your mind says you cannot. If not, repeat this exercise until you realise what is being said here.)


Hopefully, although this is a simple example, you can acknowledge and agree that it is possible to have thoughts that do not necessarily have to control us. This is very important to understand because we have 60,000 thoughts per day! After all, do you really want to pushed around by your mind and believe everything that your mind tells you? If not, it will be helpful to learn how to defuse (aka ‘unhook’) from difficult thoughts (and memories, predictions, judgments and images!).


How to ‘Unhook’ from negative thinking (cognitive defusion)


This brief exercise gives you a glimpse into the real-life practice of getting ‘unstuck’ from your mind. Instead of arguing with your mind, we want acknowledge and accept that our minds are very busy and are capable of all kinds of unhelpful thoughts, while at the same time cultivating a posture of detached curiosity. Ultimately, this will help us to make use of what is workable, and to let go of the rest.


The first step is to become aware of the automaticity of your thought processes and what makes negative thoughts / images / predictions / judgements noisy and confusing (vs what makes having all kinds of thoughts a simple, non-issue). You can do this right now, and right here. All you need is a pen, a paper, and a few minutes (~5 mins) to spare.


First, simply write down the string of thoughts that emerge when you give your mind free reign for one minute. Just sit there, notice, and write them down. Do not be concerned with spelling, or the details. Simply document in bullet-point each thought that your mind has, and move onto capturing the next. We are not interested in the content (the meaning) of your thoughts – we are interested in something else… For now, JUST ‘GO’ – write them all down!


Second, repeat this exercise for another minute. But this time, we ARE interested in the meaning / content of your thoughts. See if you can figure out whether a thought is true, correct, or appropriate? This might involve weighing and evaluating, or judging and criticizing.


‘GO’ – write them all down & figure it out!


Third, repeat this exercise for one more minute, but this time imagine that your thoughts are like the voices of little kindergarten children. To do this, adopt a posture of curiosity and amusement as you listen, while not engaging them. Just notice what these little kids say – quarrelling one moment; saying something interesting the next.


Now – Self-reflection time! What did you notice?


In the second exercise (compared to the first), you may have noticed that the loudness of your thoughts increased, relative to the first exercise. In other words, you got more pulled into your thought networks; you experienced cognitive fusion with your thoughts.


In the third exercise, you might have noticed more the flow of your thoughts, because the specific content of the thoughts became less important. You also may have noticed that you had a little more freedom to move. Some of what your mind thought may be useful, yet much of it is not.


Does taking action based on a negative thought such as: “I’m not smart enough” enrich your life? If the answer is YES, then great! DO IT! But, if the answer is NO, this is an indication that you need to simply take a step back, and notice your thoughts with detached posture mindful curiosity. It is ‘simple’, but that does not mean that it is easy. Due to processes under the control of the threat system, thoughts can trigger emotions, urges, and physiological processes that can push us around (which is why it can be helpful to have some guidance around how to work with the mind).


Note. For some people, particularly if you are feeling lethargic or flat, doing each of these 3 exercises for just 1 minute may not be a long enough time to have many thoughts. If this is applies to you, then you may wish to try each activity for 3 minutes each.


Unhooking from thoughts


Although the above activity helps show you ‘formally’ what defusion and unhooking ‘is’ it is not very portable, which is not very practical. By far, one of the most portable and practical ways you can practice unhooking from your mind’s thoughts are to make use of the following (very useful) defusion phrase: “I am noticing my mind is having the thought that… (insert the thought verbatim)”.


This phrase is fantastic in being able to help you begin to understand and learn how to make use of defusion within your own mind. You can practice this skill anywhere – and I strongly suggest that you DO. For instance, while walking down the street, while standing in a line, while waiting at a traffic light (etc). Be creative – develop your awareness and skill in being able to notice and ‘unhook’, and then return to the present moment. This is essentially what you are doing when you are engaging in Mindfulness (!). once you are able to do this, move onto the next step: Unhooking from unhelpful stories.


Unhelpful ‘Stories’


In general, the most troubling threat-based mental events and their related threat-based emotions are not simply caused by one negative thought. Rather, difficult threat-based thoughts and emotions are generally triggered by a dense amount of mental processing – processes that start with a thought, but one that might trigger an image of the past / future, which then triggers predictions or judgements, which then triggers an emotion, which may then trigger more thoughts, judgements or predictions (and so on…).


This is best referred to a ‘story’, which is shorthand for ‘a narrative’ (a narrative that completely ‘makes sense’ if we reflect on and consider our developmental histories). Understand that we all have stories and there are 2-3 main ‘stories’ that each of us will continue to return to during times of challenge, distress or uncertainty. Know your stories, and you will know thyself… the contents of your threat system, the topography of your mind, and what you care most deeply about.


Stories can take an infinite number of forms (because they are based on our histories), but they often contain over-arching themes such as ‘I’m a failure’, ‘I’m unlovable’, ‘I’m not good enough’ etc. When we buy into an unworkable story we identify with it, and even if it is inaccurate or completely not true getting hooked by an unworkable story will often limit what we are capable of doing in a given situation.


Unhooking from Stories


What to do about it? When we learn what our stories are, we will be in a better position to understand our mind’s threat system and predict what stories it will likely generate in stressful situations. To do this, we can use mindful awareness to notice what stories show up. We can write them down, and we can look for themes. Then, we can decide upon a label to give to the story. We are then well-placed to use the following helpful phrase: “I am noticing that my mind is doing the … story again” whenever this story (or a related theme shows up).


By unhooking from the unworkable story using the phrase above, we thus begin to create distance between what our mind is doing and what we want to be doing. We can use mindful awareness to return our focus on the present moment by focusing on all of the information available to us (eg, from our 5 senses). And we will then be in a better position to choose what we want to do instead of our story.


None of this is a ‘magic trick’ – you may still feel strong negative emotions, but mindful awareness is an important first step in helping you to raise your awareness of the difference between what your mind is doing vs. what is actually happening. Practising unhooking (defusion) can create just enough space between you and what your mind is doing for you to be able to refocus on the present moment & choose what your next move will be (vs reacting to a difficult situation and making things worse).


Sometimes we need more skills than just mindful awareness and defusion. Sometimes we can get very triggered by our stories, memories, or emotions. When this happens, we need to draw upon soothing skills (emotion regulation skills such as Soothing Breathing and calming imagery) to soothe ourselves and to increase our window of tolerance. This can be trick and it requires practice. This is not a ‘magic trick’.


Troubleshooting – The thoughts keep coming back


You may find that you can ‘notice that your mind is having a thought’ and from this observing position that you can successfully unhook from that thought. But if you are particularly triggered, you may find your mind keeps having more unpleasant thoughts. This is normal and is to be expected (after all we have 60,000 thoughts per day, remember?). This not a sign that ‘defusion does not work’. Rather, this is a sign that you need to work hard to keep unhooking, because you have been particularly triggered.


Why? Consider the following ‘Hot Stove’ example: If you saw a red hot stove and someone just turned it off – even if it was disconnected from the power at the wall – would you touch it ?




HOT STOVE! Even if this had been turned off at the power – Would you touch it?


How about NOW … Would you touch it ?


… What about NOW ?


– Why not ?


– because the stove is still hot! (obviously)


But how long would it remain hot for?


(Really, it would depend on many factors – how long it was on for, the ambient temperature of the room, whether the room was ventilated etc. So, ‘when’ it is safe to touch depends on many factors, and it is clear that it will take some time before it has cooled down. This is just like when you get triggered by difficult thoughts or emotions…)


Your mind and the emotions that it can trigger in your body are exactly the same – unhooking from one thought is not going to be enough to soothe you if you have become emotionally ‘hot’ (triggered by a cascade of painful or threatening thoughts/ images/emotions). It will take time and will require you to keep unhooking, and to keep coming back to the present moment (your five senses) in order to cool yourself down. Depending on what triggered you and how ‘hot’ you got, you may even need to work with your body and do some soothing breathing, to soothe your threat system and signal to your body that you are safe.


And all of the above processes need to happen in tandem – unhooking on its own is not enough. It also helps to know why you would even bother to learn about how to use your mind in this way (!). Consider: Why would you want to invest in learning to respond to your mind in this new way – what is in it for you? How might it help you if you were be able to have any thought and be literally un-phased by it? How might this help you deal with some of the difficulties that you commonly experience (predictions, judgements, self-criticism, anxious thoughts, anger, depression, anxiety)? How might these skills help you behave more like the person that you truly want to be? (do you even know who you truly want to be?)


To conclude, unhooking (defusion) is a way to help you distance from your mind’s thoughts. On its own, it is simply an exercise that demonstrates how we can get stuck (and unstuck) from thought processes. However, when combined with deliberately shifting your attention back to the present moment, grounding yourself in the present moment by focusing on the information from your 5 senses, self-regulating with self-soothing skills, and connecting with the deeper reasons ‘why’ doing all of these things can benefit you – this is where you can take an exercise and transform it into an arsenal of tools that can help you break reactive patterns and take actions that move you towards the things that are most important to you.


Defusion is not just ‘an exercise’. It is one of many evidenced-based ways to using your mind to increase your capacity to choose how you want to respond when challenging thoughts / stories show up. Used consistently, these skills can help to you self-regulate, which is essential when dealing with life’s challenges.


Summary:


There are two sources of information that your brain is constantly processing – information from your mind and information from your 5 senses.

Most problems occur when we attend to what the mind is thinking and accept this as reality. All of our brains work this way!


Information from your mind is: Thoughts, Memories, Predictions, the narrative (or ‘story’ we are telling ourselves), judgements / evaluations, and mental imagery.


Being able to re-focus on the present moment via your five senses is an important skill so you can return to what you would like to be doing. Focusing on your five senses can deactivate your brain’s threat system because information from your five senses is generally free from threat. This is how to feel calm and at peace.


Even if you find it difficult initially, learning to differentiate between what your mind is doing vs what information is coming to you via your five senses is a skill that can be learned.


Mindful awareness can help you notice the source of information that you are focusing on.


Defusion can help you unhook from the literal meaning of your thoughts / the imagery in your mind. This can create the necessary distance between you and your mind which can free you up so that you can respond differently.


Following defusion with awareness of your five senses can help bring you back to the present moment (e.g., ‘what can I smell…?’, ‘what can I hear?’, ‘which parts of my feet are in contact with the floor?’ , ‘what am I doing?’… etc)


Combining the above with soothing breathing, can help you to self-regulate (to stay ‘cool’ when you have become emotionally triggered)


I have attempted to explain several interrelated concepts. It is one thing to read the words on this screen and understand them intellectually; it is another to be able to put them into practice. I appreciate that it can be challenging to implement mindfulness and defusion skills with very difficult and long-standing struggles, particularly without help (and practice).




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