Anxiety might be common but it isn’t natural. The fact that anxiety rates in present-day Africa and Asia are far lower than in the West points to this as does the fact that it is almost non-existent in so-called ‘primitive’ cultures. It is arousal that is natural and anxiety is largely exaggerated (and malignant) arousal. Anxiety disorders are created when thinking centres in the brain are allowed too much time to dwell on worry, perfectionism, guilt and other wrong thinking habits.
When we say ‘I am stressed’ what we mean is that we are overwhelmed with life-problems. Which means that we lack resilience.
Resilience is what survivors and other successful people have. You won’t hear resilient people say ‘I am stressed‘. Instead they will say something like: ‘Life’s tough at the moment but I’m dealing with it’. That’s because these people know about the power of words – telling yourself that you are stressed can make you ill, while telling others that you are working on resilience will keep you well.
My good friend and collaborator Mark McGuinness recently alerted me to a stimulating new book by Steven Pressfield called Do The Work which is about a subject dear to my heart: how to overcome Headmind when it is messing your life up.
I was doubly intrigued because Steven Pressfield once wrote a powerful historical novel about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae called Gates of Fire – one of the very few books of that kind which had me (and my wife) in tears by the end.
Taking time off from writing fiction Steven’s new, very short, book is about how to achieve your goals when you don’t think you can.
The premise is simple: whenever you work on a project that is really important to you, but which is going to take time, hard work, and personal sacrifice then you are going to hit a wave of resistance. And that resistance comes not from outside but from within; your own personal version of Headmind in fact: doubts, excuses, distractions, worries, whinges, procrastination, or so-called ‘low self-esteem’ – in which Headmind keeps on repeating the mantra that there is no point in your doing anything very much because it is bound to end in failure.
The solution is also simple: just do it. Once you have decided that the project really is important to you then you ignore Headmind when it is trying to do you down and sabotage your goals. Specifically, you ignore the Chatterbox. Or just tell it to shut the fuck up while you get on with things.
Here are some examples from the world of Therapy:
You are working on your recovery from Depression and you have decided to get out more. The Inner Voice says ‘what’s the point?’. Your response: go ahead and call a friend and make that date regardless.
You are working on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and you have decided to increase your morning exercise routine to 10 minutes. Your Internal Saboteur says: ‘you’ll make yourself ill’. Your response: increase it to 15 minutes.
You are working on Anxiety. Your Internal Control Freak says: ‘I worry that you won’t be able to stop worrying because you have been a worrier all your life….’. Your response: you focus your attention on a non-worrisome activity for the next few hours.
One difference between using Steven’s method on creative work, and using it on personal problems is this: in creative work you just get on with the project (for example: your next novel, or work idea, house redesign, etc.). In that way you force Headmind to get on with doing something useful.
Whereas if you are depressed, anxious, obsessional, etc., you may need to give Headmind some substitute activities to do. A good example relates to giving up drug/alcohol/cigarette/ gambling addictions. Whenever the Internal Saboteur twitters on about needing a fix/drink/fag/bet then you just do a 180 degree attention turn and go off and do something more worthwhile. My experience with my clients is that when they do this repeatedly, then over the ensuing weeks that Internal Voice will gradually dwindle away to a whisper.
Image by permission of Fuyoh
The first month of 2011 has come and gone and the statistics show that January is the most ‘depressing’ month, in that more people will seek help for depression than at any other time of the year. As it happens, I have been more than usually busy with depressed clients since the New Year came on; a fact which prompts me to write this article.
First, lets be clear about what clinical depression really is.
In my view, many of the people who are diagnosed by their GP as having depression are not, in fact, clinically depressed at all. Instead, they could be sad, fed up with life, or unhappy. This is one reason why anti-depressants don’t work for the majority. Anti-depressant drugs such as the SSRIs – which increase the amount of serotonin in circulation in the brain – will only work, obviously, if the patient has serotonin depletion, which will only be the case if they actually have clinical depression.
Whether you are depressed, sad, fed up, or unhappy, this article will still apply to you.
Here are the four main causes:
1. Prolonged anxiety caused by negative Headmind thinking.
If you are a habitual worrier, perfectionist, or guilt-tripper then, on a daily basis, your body will become accustomed to very high anxiety levels. Since Bodymind cannot tolerate over-arousal for too long, it will seek to reduce the problem by damping down the system. Typically, this means reducing serotonin (which elevates mood), which leads to the symptoms of clinical depression. In this respect it has been estimated that over 70% of depressed people also have high anxiety levels.
The solution is to change the way Headmind works.
2. The person has developed a ‘hopeless’ mind-set
This problem is typically developed by over-conscientious people who have not learnt how to say ‘No’ or recognise their limitations. The result is that they take on far too many burdens, obligations and responsibilities. Or else they forget to take time out for themselves and keep that crucial work-life balance. One result is burnout.
Depression occurs when personal Headmind reacts to overload by just giving up (a slightly weird response, given that it was faulty thinking that gave rise to the problem in the first place). A common outcome is that the person turns into a victim of some kind.
The most common Headmind defect here is ‘Failure thinking’, which ignores realistic solutions on what to do about overload and, instead, magnifies problems, concludes that there is nothing that can be done about them, and triggers anxiety with the thought that disaster is inevitable. This leads to first anxiety and then to the ‘damping down’ response I described in the previous item.
The solution is to develop a solution-focused, or problem-solving approach to problems. I am in the middle of writing a series on this so please check back for articles on ‘success thinking’.
3. The person has lost her passion for life.
People who have become disillusioned do so as a result of trauma of some kind: the death of someone close, break-up, or departure. Or betrayal, or rejection, by someone they once trusted. Or the usual disasters which befall all of us from time to time but which setbacks the ego will not accept.
In other cases, the depressed person has simply got confused and lost his way. This could be because he has become addicted to trivialities – newspapers, games, television, the social round, internet-surfing, etc. Or is stuck in routine in which one day is more or less like the next, and which becomes a kind of living death. Once Bodymind sees what is happening here it starts to release copious amounts of the emotions known as boredom and frustration. But here is what is strange: when some people notice they are bored they don’t do anything about it. Instead, they read boredom as another sign that life is hopeless. So they stagnate, more and more.
The solution is to reconnect to Bodymind and your passion.
4. Headmind is blocking the release of strong emotions, such as anger and sadness.
A build-up of unexpressed or unresolved emotion leads to a similar effect as chronic anxiety: a dangerous level of over-arousal. Once again, Bodymind tends to counter-act this problem by reducing serotonin.
The solution is to find a way to release those emotions.
If you are not depressed right now but you think you might be going that way, then you can find out more about how to stay out of depression here.
Contrary to common belief many people do find a way to improve their mental health without needing to consult a psychotherapist and some of my articles show you how to do just that. But if you do need assistance then you can contact me over on the psychotherapy website.
Image by pinksherbet
Each cell carries, on average 7000 connections to other cells. Therefore the number of cell networks in the brain is 42 thousand billion, or 42,000,000000,000 pieces of information your brain can, store.
Yet your brain only weighs 3 pounds and uses just 10-23 watts of energy per day. That is less than the energy in three bananas.
Each year you will lose about 3.3 million brain cells. But that is less than 0.00000006% of the total. And nearly all of it is replaced, right on up until old age.
There is no truth in the myth that we only use 10% of brain power. The entire brain is being used every day, even if some areas of the brain are there only for storage or for back-up functions.
Super memory. The brain is capable of storing 10 trillion bits of information about you and your life experiences.
The brain can make its own ‘heroin’. Endorphins are released in the Hypothalamus after vigorous physical exercise, injury, meditation, laughter and chocolate. Endorphins are up to 19 times stronger than morphine. By contrast, heroin is only 7 times stronger than morphine.
Being happy is good for the brain. Happy states trigger dopamine release, a feel-good chemical. Personal fulfilment increases neuroplasticity, slows down ageing and improves memory.
Why is adolescence so difficult? One main reason is that, between puberty and early adulthood, the brain is being rebuilt. There is massive growth in the pre-frontal cortex (Headmind); connections between cell networks are being hard-wired (making emotional life-lessons more intense); and there is a temporary loss of connection between the brain’s emotional centres (the limbic system) and the intellectual centres – which means that teenagers lack the capacity to make good decisions.
New experiences are vital for improved brain function. Getting out of the rut and going for new horizons increases cell growth, delays ageing and improves cell connectivity. The same goes when you let go of the past and exercise forgiveness.
Binge-eating. Emotional self-neglect can lead to food cravings and over-eating. So-called stress triggers an increase in Cortisol in the blood stream, which stimulates Insulin release. High insulin levels are associated with a craving for sugary foods and foods high in carbohydrates.
Regular sex (at least twice a week) improves daily moods, reduces pain thresholds, cuts the risk of a heart attack, decreases menstrual pain and promotes sleep. This is because enjoyable sex fosters high endorphin release.
Love and sex can be addictive. Falling in love, like sexual infatuation) is similar to taking cocaine: the hypothalamus triggers a cascade of dopamine. One problem is that, once the dopamine wears off, a ‘down-mood’ sets in, leading to further cravings.
The brain also contains a bonding chemical: Oxytocin. During labour, female brains produce large amounts of oxytocin, which stimulates contractions and smooths the passage of the baby down the birth canal. Oxytocin also creates a primal, intense bond with the child. Adults in love (or during ecstatic sex) also release high levels of oxytocin.