The more I work with depression, anxiety and obsessional disorders, the more they display a mystery about the human mind. How is it we are so easily hijacked by depressing thoughts, anxious thoughts, obsessional thoughts? On average, each human being has at least 50,000 thoughts per day. Some are trivial, some constructive, some are funny. 6,000 of them are repetitive thought chains, focusing on the same issue. Yet the anxious person will keep coming back to the same twenty or thirty negative thoughts. Every hour, every day. That tiny group of worries, self-judgments and catastrophic predictions creates her mental health problem.
What is it about the human mind that makes it so easy for us to be taken in by thoughts?
The answer lies in how consciousness works.
From a few weeks after birth to the moment of death, consciousness runs on like a continuous cinema reel, recording every event, every sensory experience, every thought, and every emotion. To which we add our ever-changing story.
In consciousness, we also connect to the outer world: people (and the things they say), rooms, food, drink, atmospheres and (if outside) woods, trees, lakes and skies. Also, recording the inner world of thoughts, emotions, sensations, and reactions.
And here lies the flaw: that consciousness gives the same reality to thoughts as it does to experience, and on (factual) written or spoken words. We come to believe that what thoughts tell us are as real as the instructions in a manual. When in fact many thoughts have no referent.
I am going to fail (anxiety)
Life is terrible (depression)
I have to keep washing in case I catch a disease (obsession)
Notice that the first and third are catastrophic predictions, the second is a global judgment. None of them are factual statements.
Another reason we take alarming thoughts seriously is because they come with a charge. Meaning a bolt of anxiety. Surely a thought that is so unpleasant has to be taken seriously? The answer to that is that, if a thought has an anxiety charge, it is by definition unreliable. Because anxious thoughts are simplistic, global judgments, or else they are catastrophic predictions.
If you read the first three sentences in the last paragraph again, you can see a thought chain forming. Like this:
Catastrophic thought: ‘People will laugh at me’ > Secondary thought: ‘I am anxious’ > Tertiary thought: ‘That means something terrible is going to happen’ > Panic
These thought chains occur by a jump in reasoning from one false premise to another. The mind, when it processes information, cannot tell the difference between garbage and gold. It is you who has to do that.
To go beyond this flaw in the mind requires that we change our relationship to it. Becoming more sceptical about the thoughts that present themselves to us, and more selective in those we give attention to. Taking ownership of the thoughts we allow into mental space, and those we refuse.
Because the mind is a good servant, but a bad master.
Are you master in your own house? Do you run your mind, or does it run you?
In the next article, I will describe some ways to defuse from thoughts you have no further use for.