Contrary to popular belief, if I were to say what single issue not only causes, but keeps misery alive for decades longer than necessary, it is that of giving ourselves permission to mentally lose control.
Over and over in my work as a clinical psychologist at the Smart Therapy Centre I see people who are giving themselves permission to lose control. We give that permission when we mentally abdicate responsibility, take drugs, drink excessively, eat excessively, become full of rage, collapse, smoke, engage in self-harm, become helpless and passive, ruminate endlessly on depressive mentations or give ourselves over to sheer, unrelenting anxiety and panic.
So why does this happen? Well, I can tell you from my 30 years of work in the field that this occurs when people have come from difficult childhood backgrounds where they have experienced lots of stressful life events (SLEs), often without adequate parental guidance, love or assistance.
We know that all SLEs cause large releases of CRF, a brain hormone that activates our main threat detection parts of the brain called the amygdalae. This causes our reactive limbic system to become highly agitated and often dominant over our larger, more objective and more sensible frontal brain.
When we have lots of SLEs in childhood and the limbic system is therefore being constantly recruited to dominate, we frequently move into adulthood with very hyped-up, agitated, hyper-sensitised or sometimes excessively passive brains.
Over time, we often become tremendously reactive and labile in our entire mental and physical physiology. Our heart races so fast; we shake so much; we feel so stressed; we feel so angry; we feel so helpless and so passive; and we feel so despairing and so very miserable.
Worst of all, these mental ‘excesses’ (reflecting an out-if-control childhood) become habits that we generalize, leading us to adopt other out-of-control behaviours (like losing our temper or drinking too much or being excessively anxious) and then we repeat them over and over.
With time and practice these out-of-control behaviours not only feel normal but deep down we come to believe that we cannot control or alter them since they feel so much a ‘natural’ part of us.
But nothing could be further from the truth. We can virtually always maintain complete mental control over our brain and behaviour. We know that our frontal brain has the capacity to send signals to control outcomes in other brain areas and alter their neural firing patterns, slowing them down or speeding them up or interrupting them entirely. Our frontal brain is the ‘boss’ whenever we insist.
Sadly, every time we give ourselves permission to lose control, we re-traumatise our brain and repeat the out-of-control experiences of all those previous SLEs. Essentially, we keep teaching our brain that we will always be out-of-control, allowing the brain patterns to stay alive and maladaptive.
Instead, we must stop paying any attention at all to our old, useless reptilian limbic brain with its excessive emotional responses and physical reactions. Instead we must recruit our much larger, far more powerful frontal brain into our daily lives 24/7. We must override our excessively hyped-up limbic system and ensure that we flatline emotionally by refusing to allow ourselves to lose mental or behavioural control.
So for example, if you are trying to stop losing control with anger, then clearly decide (a frontal brain ‘function’) to stop ruminating over and over on angry themes, decide to stop using extreme words like ‘bitch’ or ‘hate’ or ‘loser’, decide to stop closing down your facial expressions in a mask, and decide to stop talking through clenched teeth, decide to soften your voice tone, decide to stop paying attention to feelings of hostility or anger, decide to reflect on your own contribution to situations, decide to stop putting in the mean ‘barb’ or nasty joke, decide to stop raising your voice and decide to stop getting agitated. Especially, decide to never again get violent.
Instead focus on being friendly, relaxed, calm and in-control (irrespective of whether you actually feel it). Decide to flatline all of these nonsensical, out-of-control emotions and behaviours. Make a clear decision: No ifs, no buts, no exceptions!
Very quickly you come to realise that you do, in fact, have 100% control over your mental state. Then, as a welcome bonus you suddenly notice a few months down the track that you feel so much happier and more confident than you have ever felt before about your future. Well done! Your brain has just learnt the wonderful power of control.