Nearly all Misery Arises from Losing Control

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.

All drugged-up and nowhere to go

In my work at the Smart Therapy Centre over the past 25 years I have often seen the alarming results of medication on people’s capacity to recover from distress.  In my experience, this distress could almost always have been resolved in a matter of days or weeks with intelligent, targeted intervention.

Instead many people unwittingly get caught in the revolving door of the psychiatric system where they are usually medicated. 

Sadly, medication tends to take the frontal brain off-line and in so doing removes much of what makes us attentive, rational, imaginative, empathic and socially sensitive beings. 

Moreover, medication tends to make us passive, reducing our capacity for mental control and ‘free will’ thereby reducing our likelihood of making well-judged decisions and being able to act as agentic advocates on our own behalf.  We can quickly become bystanders of our own lives.

To make matters worse, often when people are too drugged-up, others just don’t want to hang out with them because the lack of social nuance is just too limiting.

Saddest of all, once people are medicated, they are usually seriously disempowered because they nearly always come to believe (totally incorrectly) that they cannot survive (let alone, recover) without their tablets.  This is how the most vulnerable people can so easily become supporters of the (often inhumane) role of big pharma in mental health.


Loneliness – How to Survive It

One of the most common problems I see in my clinical work at the Smart Therapy Centre is loneliness.  Every day, men and women struggle with lack of connection, alienation and desperate feelings of despair.

Yet, most people think that they (as individuals) are the problem – that there is something wrong with them for being lonely and that everyone else out in the wider world is happy and engaged.

But nothing could be further from the truth.  Loneliness is a problem associated with wealthy, first world countries where it is experienced in epidemic proportions. 

This is mainly because advanced industrialisation means we no longer live, work and play within our local communities like we used to – which in many ways is good.  For example, breaking out of these small local communities broadens our horizons, enables us to see larger goals, reduces conformity and allows individual difference to flourish unhindered by small-minded social pressures to fit in.

But we also lose something in the process.  Our friendships become less embedded in knowing the ‘whole’ person in depth. 

Also, once we are ‘extracted’ from local communities that still do exist (like schools and small towns) those friendships will frequently, over time, become eroded and empty because there is no longer any regular interaction with daily problems we need to cooperatively solve. 

We can however get around loneliness to some extent, but it often involves letting go of the notion that friendship is forever and has some personal, intrinsic, deep and individual meaning.  Instead we must accept the reality that once the shared activity is over, usually so too is the friendship – since we are no longer involved in the side-by-side shared social process of working on daily concerns. 

Quite reasonably, many people do not want to face this reality and they continue to hold onto outdated friendships from old local communities where everyone is increasingly irrelevant to each other as time passes.  This is fine, so long as you don’t expect anything too deep and satisfying from these occasional encounters since what creates the depth is the process of day-to-day interaction. 

On the other hand, if we want the advantages of extraction from local communities (bigger visions) but fewer of the disadvantages (loneliness), then we can join interest groups that are relevant to our current lives and where we are keen to solve the same problems as other group members. 

It is in these places where we will find people with whom we have more in common.  Also, with the focus on frequent contact and the side-by-side shared activity we can gradually delve deeper into other shared interests allowing us to know more of the ‘whole’ in other group members over time.

I generally find in my clinical work that it is helpful for people to join groups that meet often and are purposeful.  Such ‘groups’ could include paid work; dance groups; political groups; volunteer work; reading groups; running groups; science clubs; migrant groups; orienteering clubs; bushwalking clubs; business groups; community service groups; gardening clubs; choirs; chess clubs; travel groups; art groups; ukulele clubs; tennis clubs and so on. 

In these contexts, people engage in vigorous participation in order to achieve common goals and in order to improve and increase understanding, while having great fun and deriving ‘meaning’ doing the much-loved activity.

It is particularly beneficial if there are opportunities within these groups for smaller gatherings as well as a larger pool of people nearby coming in and out to bring in fresh ideas and help prevent stagnation and conformity.  An example of this might be learning to dance at several venues (to increase frequency and closer connection in smaller groups) while sometimes attending large dance gatherings where all venues come together to compete and/or just to dance the night away.

Build A Smart Not Domestic Brain

In my clinical work I often see women who are incredibly bored and angry about their domestic lives.  They cook, clean, wash, ferry the kids, plan and organise all aspects of the home.

Meanwhile, these women say that their male partners ‘get it easy’ off at work all day barely having to ever consider any domestic challenges.

One very stressed 26-year-old woman even said that she makes her partner ring her 20 minutes before he will arrive home so she can have dinner on the table, exactly on time for him. 

Needless to say, he earns nearly all of the money and she handles the domestics. 

Fair split?  Not even close.

In Smart Therapy, I often point to the neurological evidence that whatever we pay attention to becomes a larger and larger part of our brain, because as soon as we pay attention, we are biologically ‘directing’ our brains to learn, consolidate and retrieve targeted information. In other words, WE ARE WHAT WE PAY ATTENTION TO.

This means that every day, he is off paying attention to interesting work challenges, solving problems, creating new brain synapses specifically devoted to all that novel material.  He is literally filling his brain with new skills and solutions, forming useful career networks that will expand his future options and meanwhile he is fast-tracking and growing his income potential. 

On the other hand, she is training her brain in repetitive domestic drudgery.  While many household jobs are menial (like cleaning the toilet, doing the washing, talking to a 2-year-old or doing the shopping) they still (unfortunately!) require paying attention.  So, billions of synapses become devoted to often trivial, boring tasks that no one in any social network ever wants to hear or talk about. 

Basically, time spent on domestics is time not spent on more creative pursuits like career, financial literacy, or attainment of meaningful life goals. 

In short, a domestic focus generally does not build powerful networks, increase income potential or build interesting new life skills.  Most particularly, it DIMINISHES income potential and thereby, the ability to be an independent, free and self-directed individual rather than a servant.

The saddest thing is that I often see older women in my clinical work who have invested all their energy, time and suffering into domestic duties over a lifetime, only to find that he leaves her anyway (with his increased career options) when he meets someone with a more curious and interesting brain.

It goes without saying that the obvious way around this dilemma is for women to take their own careers and aspirations much more seriously and equally to men.  Women must not give up on themselves and stay at home the moment domestic ‘bliss’ presents itself via husband or children. 

It is only when women invest equally to men in paid work, that the domestic drudgery can be split exactly 50:50 creating no bias (advantage or disadvantage) in brain attentional focus between men and women. 

Once women have their own genuine financial equality, they will then have the leverage (so badly needed!) to ensure this fair and equitable 50:50 domestic split.  

Reduce bullying by raising a capable child

Children are great learners and what they learn has a profound effect upon their trajectory in later life.  Doing jobs around the house helps make children both capable in their own personal activities of daily living, while also teaching them the importance of cooperation and contributing to the overall running of the household.

For example, by standing on a chair, children can learn how to wash dishes, make their own breakfast, cook simple meals and wash their own laundry and do their own ironing.  Without the chair, they can feed pets, navigate digital devices, mop floors, clean cars, mow lawns, fix basic IT problems, do gardening and vacuum the house – all by about the age of 6-8 years.

If children cannot do these tasks by this age they may be at a disadvantage amongst their peers and more prone to getting bullied.  As a clinical psychologist with 25+ years’ experience I see huge discrepancies in children’s levels of capability.

Children without these types of skills at young ages tend to struggle more with self-esteem, physical coordination, taking initiative, social interaction and mental organisation and discipline and they are more frequently bullied. 

On the other hand, children who are highly capable at young ages get into a socially reinforced cycle of good outcomes. 

They learn to lead the way and teach other children how to develop these skills, earning them respect and better self-esteem while providing them with important practice at leadership, clear communication, planning, physical coordination and mental precision and coherence.

Flat-lining Emotions

Frequently when people have come from traumatic backgrounds, they have quite sensibly trained their brains to be hyper-alert to threat.

The problem is that when these people become adults, the threats that they faced in childhood are no longer present, and yet their over-sensitised brains are still ‘reading’ threat everywhere. 

This results in lots of unnecessary stress, hyped-up emotion and exhaustion.

I’ve noticed in my over 25 years of clinical work at the Smart Therapy Centre that people in this situation simply think it is ‘normal’ to be so labile in their emotional responses.  And it is true that this heightened emotion often produces very charismatic, motivated and genuinely passionate individuals.

But it can also be a burden that constantly ‘alarms’ and activates problematic emotions like fear, anger, self-doubt or hostility.  These emotions can get in the way and stop people progressing well in their lives. 

What I have often found to be very useful for these people is to get them to simply STOP expressing and paying attention at all to any extreme emotions for a few months.  In other words, try to flat-line their emotions.

To do this, people first notice when they are starting to get intense and then do a long exhalation with their breath and simply relax their bodies physically, meanwhile refusing to focus mentally on the emotional drama. 

Instead, they re-focus their attention onto an unemotional task or activity at hand.  They certainly do not ‘act out’ the emotion, say by screaming or telling someone about it.  

This works very well, actually adding to these peoples’ already charismatic character as it introduces another interesting layer of complexity to their personality – where they always know how to be intense at the right time, but also how to be disciplined enough to control their responses when excessive emotion will just get in the way.

It’s not you, it’s the sugar!

So often people come to the Smart Therapy Centre saying they cannot stop ‘comfort’ eating and they need to see a psychologist to help them work out why they overeat.  They often think there is something mentally wrong with them compared with other people.

But, in my more than 30 years of clinical experience, I would say that it is usually just that they are having too much sugar!

Therefore, the first question I ask these people is what quantities they eat of sugar and other complex carbohydrates like white rice, bread or pasta (that get broken down quickly into sugar giving them a high GI or Glycaemic index).

In our western society, the answer is usually far too much!  Even with children.  Complex carbs (even fibrous, wholemeal ones with a low GI that are slower to break down to sugar) ought not exceed 15-20% of a meal.  Most of any meal should be vegetables.

Having been a registered nurse before becoming a clinical psychologist, I know that when we eat sugary foods or foods that break down fast into sugar, our bodies are forced to release large amounts of insulin from the pancreas to cope with the onslaught.   

The pancreas pumps out large amounts of insulin because our blood pH MUST remain quite neutral (even slightly alkaline) or we die, and sugar is highly acidic.  Releasing large amounts of insulin helps to transport the sugar inside the cells and gets it out of the bloodstream quickly before it does too much damage.

This sudden burst of insulin means our blood sugar levels fall sharply from their ‘spiked high’ (immediately after food intake) as the excessive sugar is pushed rapidly into the cells.  (This toxic acid is often stored then in our ever-expanding fat cells where it perhaps does the least damage.)

Now, with suddenly low blood sugar, we become ravenously hungry for even more food despite having barely finished eating the last lot!

This quickly becomes a vicious cycle of overeating sugar, followed by ‘extreme’ hunger, then followed by more overeating of sugar (to try and get blood sugar up), followed by more ‘extreme’ hunger (as the insulin pushes the sugar out into the cells), and so on – maybe for decades or until our digestive organs tire and fail. 

People often feel completely out of control.  Here they are, stuffing masses of food into themselves only to feel like they are desperately starving soon afterwards.  To make matters worse, while their insulin levels surge, they biochemically cannot access their stored fat to burn it and so the fat continues to increase over time.  

But, like I said, this is NOT usually a psychological problem at all.

It is a physical addiction to sugar.  Remember that rats will choose sugar over heroin in experiments.  So, sugar is very appealing!  Keep in mind too, that alcohol is full of sugar and therefore highly attractive also! 

It is important for people, especially in our ‘over-sugared’ society, to stop focussing on their weight and instead focus on WHAT they are eating:  TOO MUCH ACID (sugar, alcohol and high GI foods). 

Overall, people need to try and ‘flatline’ their insulin levels by choosing more alkaline and low GI foods.  This opens the fat stores for burning and stops people becoming excessively hungry, allowing them to finally break-out of this vicious cycle of compulsive overeating.  


Raise a smart child not a boy or girl

So often in my 25 years of work at the Smart Therapy Centre I have heard parents tell me slightly different versions of the same story about their children.  It goes like this: our girl and boy children were different from the start – she liked dressing up, drawing and reading whereas he just wanted to be outside playing rough and tumble with a ball – yet we raised them ‘exactly the same’.

Despite what people ‘believe’ they do, we know from decades of research that people do not raise their girls and boys the same.  Far from it.  Here are a few examples out of the many hundreds of differences. 

From day one people handle boy babies much more roughly than girls, they encourage toddler girls to be appearance focussed, quiet, contained and helpful to others and toddler boys to be scruffy, noisy, uncontained and please themselves.

Boys are encouraged to be physical and play vigorous sport whereas girls are encouraged to be emotionally responsive (especially to others) and sport is almost always undervalued.  Boys are given more freedom to act out and girls are more restricted and tightly controlled.

In fact, far from being ‘neutral’ on gender, people are so eager to know how to ‘think’ about and ‘treat’ a newborn that they ask its sex before even checking about the welfare of the mother or child following delivery. 

Strangely, if these behavioural gender differences were actually ‘in-born’ we would not need to know the sex – as any ‘intrinsic’ differences would reveal themselves automatically without the need for any social intervention.

It is the very fact that these behavioural differences are not intrinsic that we are hell-bent (yet largely unaware) of our ‘socialising’ practices that are ‘absorbed’ by children in the same way language is ‘absorbed’ and we do not have to teach our children explicitly how to talk. 

Yet our complex society now more than ever, demands greater gender  flexibility, where we all have skills and character traits that cross the dichotomous male/female divide. 

People do best in modern society when they are not restricted and forced to conform into narrow and prescribed female and male roles.  These very limited gender behaviours lack subtlety and breadth and do not result in adaptive, smart people.

In fact, so many social problems could be helped and possibly rectified by changing our child-rearing practices. I often notice in my clinical work that people really struggle with life when they are either too ‘masculinized’ or too ‘feminized’. 

For example, when people are too ‘masculinized’ they often want to blow things up, drink excessively, resolve differences with physical violence or need to put on women’s clothes in order to be able to cry.  On the other hand, if they are too ‘feminized’ they are inclined to collapse into anxiety, become full of self-doubt, lack any serious career and lack the mental toughness to push through hard situations.

Yet, despite the gravity of these problems, we still do not even have a gender-neutral pronoun for person (such as per) rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ and we continue to say things like ‘chairman’ even though it requires more effort than simply saying ‘chair’.

If we are serious about improving many ongoing societal problems (like violence against women) then we need to raise children differently, so they have ‘androgynous’ brains, where they are encouraged to adopt the wonderful and highly functional attributes of both genders within the same brain and discouraged from adopting the less functional aspects. 

Our society desperately needs children (and later adults) who are emotionally responsive, socially intelligent, aware of others, cooperative, have an inner-world and can self-reflect and self-critique, yet at the same time are independent, mentally tough, career-minded, self-respectful, can shoulder responsibility, are not appearance focussed and are physically capable.  That is, a smart, all-rounder type of person. 

The Importance of Raising Strong Girls

In my clinical psychology work at the Smart Therapy Centre over the past 25 years I have found that girls fare much better in so many ways if they continue to play vigorous sport and are discouraged from quitting (typically) at puberty.

Sport allows girls to feel capable, coordinated and strong in their bodies and teaches them the importance of motivation and perseverance.  It teaches them to push through tough times and to get up and keep going even if it hurts.

I’m not just talking here about the gains in physical attributes but also the psychological attributes like mental toughness, individuation, cooperation and resilience.  Research shows that girls who play sport have higher self-esteem, do better academically, are less likely to respond to peer pressure to take drugs and have higher confidence in their abilities than girls who do not play regular sport.

Of course, men have known this for generations and sport has been a training ground and metaphor for going out into the real world where resilience and toughness are often required and where ‘collapse’ is simply not an option. 

It is so wonderful to finally see girls and women learning these skills that will empower them like nothing else and help them pave the way towards true gender equality.  

Unhappiness is a learning opportunity

Cartoon 1871 ridiculing Charles Darwin

Most people who seek therapy are unhappy in one way or another. As they say to me, ‘I just want to be happy’.

In turn, many therapists adopt the view that everyone is entitled to be happy and take steps to remove unhappy feelings. Doctors do this through the prescription of drugs, which flatten affect. Psychologists prop up clients’ self-esteem, reassuring them that they are okay.

I don’t agree with this approach. I see unhappiness as a fantastic learning opportunity. In propping up the self-esteem of their clients, therapists can inadvertently rob them of an opportunity to reflect upon their lives, recalibrate their habits, learn new skills and change their way of being in the world.

After all, there may be very good reasons that clients are unhappy. Perhaps they have poor skills in forming relationships. Perhaps they cannot hold down a job. Perhaps they do not know how to assert themselves in social situations. Perhaps their aggression drives away the very people that they love.

When people tell me that they are unhappy, I try and figure out the underlying cause of their unhappiness. There are many possible reasons: poor social skills learned in childhood, insufficient marketable skills, bad diet and unhealthy habits, and so on. It sounds basic, but we only have one brain, and we often do not recognise our skill deficits because they occurred at a time when our choices and opportunities were very different.

When people tell me that they are unhappy, I also think of Charles Darwin. Darwin was deeply unhappy. He suffered terrible anxiety, three of his children died in childhood and he was vilified and ridiculed for his radical theories of human evolution. Yet he is nowadays revered for his profound contribution to human knowledge.

Perhaps aiming to be happy is aiming too low. Whatever the case, it is not an end in itself. It is better to think about how we can take care of ourselves, form good relationships and make a worthy social contribution, and let happiness look after itself.