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…