Friday, December 30, 2005

Thoughts, Depression and Fear

Science has bought the whole "depression is a result of a chemical imbalance."  We have whole theories about how a low level of serotonin in the brain leads to depression.  So, we have a whole medicine industry that is caught up in the pursuit of healing depression through a chemical intervention.

Yet medication has failed to bring about healing.  Why?  We missed the boat.  Depression is rooted in our thoughts.  Our minds become our own worst enemy.  And we even have a theory about how to heal this:  cognitive therapy.  But a cognitive approach is not enough.   It makes one central mistake. It keeps us rooted to our thoughts.

You see, cognitive therapy is built on the idea that our thoughts are skewed.  So, a cognitive therapy approach tries to help people look at how a thought is skewed, and then uses logic to help "fix" the thought.  For example, a person notices a strange spot on his chest.  He begins to think "something is wrong."  He continues on with "this is cancer."  And quickly arrives at the idea that "I'm going to die from this."  All of this without a visit to a doctor!  

A cognitive therapist would point out that the person is "catastrophizing."  In other words, his thought is being skewed from noticing a strange spot on his chest to seeing himself dead.  So, the therapist would help the person begin to use some rational thought:  at this point, there is a spot on his chest.  Nothing more.  And until there is more information, and other thought is dangerous.

You may wonder what is wrong with this approach.  And there is nothing wrong.  It simply falls short of the real issue.  Because a cognitive approach simply seeks to exchange a skewed thought with a more correct thought.

But a thought is still the issue.  The truth is this:  A Thought Is Just A Thought!  Some thoughts may be more useful, more helpful.  But that makes it no more real.

Our minds are designed to create thoughts.  And our minds are incredibly capable of doing this.  Sometimes, our minds come up with useful and helpful thoughts.  And sometimes, our mind churns out painful and hurtful thoughts.  But in the end, both are merely thoughts.

When we buy into the thoughts, our mental health becomes more and more threatened.  And that is the problem with the cognitive approach.  It still leaves us believing our thoughts are real -- that they have some inherent truth or reality.

The way out of this trap is both simple and difficult.  Imagine a continuum, a line between two extremes.  At one end is the idea that "A Thought Is Reality."  At this extreme, people believe that whatever pops into their head is real.  In other words, "if I think it, it is real."  The extreme is what we know as psychosis.  An example of this psychosis:  if I believe the "World Army" is coming in black helicopters, then it must be true.  No matter what others tell me, I simply choose to believe my thoughts.

At the other end of the continuum is the idea that "A Thought Is A Thought."  A person at this end is always aware that a thought in his or her head is simply that:  a thought.  And if a thought begins to torment him or her, then that person is able to take a step back, remember that a thought is just a thought, and let it go.

"Let it go" is impossible, you think?  Yet we do it every day.  I am sitting in an important meeting, when suddenly my mind creates a thought about the fact that I have something very important to do.  I follow that thought, but then remind myself:  I am at an important meeting, and I need to focus on that.  I refocus on the meeting, and indeed, I let the thought go.

So, there it is, proof that a thought can be released.  Thoughts really only have as much power as we give them.  No more, no less.

Become aware of your thoughts, and you master your universe.  Fail to recognize that a thought is just a thought, and you are at the whims of your mind, a very difficult taskmaster!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

What Of The Future?

Yesterday, I sat with a couple and heard something I have heard over and over. The wife expressed her concern that she would start to work on the relationship, things would get back on track ("a patch on the inner-tube" was her expression), and then in 5 years, everything would fall apart ("another blow-out" was her expression). Fear of problems in the future was stopping her from working on the relationship today.

Last night, I continued to watch the devastation from Hurricane Katrina on the news. I watched a man describe the loss of his wife, swept away in the collapse of their house. "I've lost everything I have, everything I have" were the words he repeated. Clearly, from his circumstances, he was not referring to anything material. It was the loss of his wife. The loss of his most dear possession, his marriage, was heartbreaking.

It made me aware of two things: First, there is no promise of what will come tomorrow. If anything, since 9/11, our world has been permanently reminded of the impermanence of life. As a doctor once said to me, "life is terminal." So, my client yesterday was right. There is no guarantee that things won't fall apart down the road. As I say to people when they tell me, "I'm just waiting for the other shoe to fall," the other shoe will fall, followed by another and another. Because that is what life is about. There is no guarantee, so we can either work to protect ourselves or throw caution to the wind, and work toward something better right now!

Second, the hurricane made it very clear that nature can take everything from us but love. Our possessions can be flooded, wind-blown, and swept to sea. Our loved ones may even die, but the love remains. In the end, what we all want is a relationship of love. So, we can either be scared for the future and retract, or we can embrace life and build love.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Basic Fear #2: Not Being Good Enough

Our second basic fear is not being good enough.

This fear is one of comparison, competition. We tend to judge ourselves against another standard. This standard is often a comparison between what we “know” about ourselves and what we “believe” about the other. In other words, we end up comparing all the negative stuff we think true about ourselves to the positive image others portray to us (and we portray to them). We end up seeing “the yuck” of our own lives, but fail to see it in the other.

When this is the case, there is no way for us to measure up. I know my internal world, but not that of the person I use for comparison. So all my faults end up being placed against only the strengths of the other.

Our fear of not being good enough, in evolutionary terms, is the reality of the survival of the fittest. If I am not good enough, I will not get the resources I need (or mate I need) to continue my (and my genes’) survival.

Here’s the problem: all living organisms are in this struggle. But day to day, moment to moment, only humans seem capable of making themselves miserable over this. It is merely a long-term question for other organisms. We humans, on the other hand, constantly underestimate our individual selves (while overestimating ourselves as a species).

Friday, March 25, 2005

Another Quote

Quote: "What I run from runs my life; what I face frees me to live." Fred

Monday, February 21, 2005

Basic Fear #1: Not Having Enough

One of our most basic fears is that of not having enough. Unfortunately, this is a fear that afflicts almost everyone, regardless of how much he or she actually has. In fact, some of those suffering the strongest pull of this fear are those with plenty. In fact, this fear is very creative. We often believe it is only about money. It is not. It is having enough of anything: friends, time, toys, health, you name it!

This fear drives in us a need to find more and more. For some, this is the root cause of tendencies to hoard. We look at people in the news whose homes are stacked from floor to ceiling with junk, trash, magazines, whatever. But we fail to notice our own ways of hoarding --hiding money in accounts or under beds, having friends that we never contact and don't really have anything in common with, gadgets that don't meet our needs yet lure us to buy them. We hoard rolls of tissue paper, as if there will never be more, or at least more on sale! We move to bigger and bigger homes to hold more and more of our stuff.

We are predisposed to want to hold onto things. In fact, just look at the design of our bodies. The vast majority find it very easy to gain weight, to have our fat cells accumulate the extra calories. But we find our bodies very resistant to letting the weight go. Even at a cellular level, we end up hoarding!

Our bodies have lived through times of feast and times of famine. Those able to efficiently hold onto those extra calories got to pass on their genes. Bodies quickly burning through the available supply perished.

But it is our fear of not having enough that leaves us scrambling through daily life, so close to our work that we miss the destruction of this drive. Few people arrive at the end of their lives with regret for time they took in leisure. But many bemoan the lost time spent in work propelled by fear.

Many would argue that perhaps it is this very fear that has led us to great successes. And in many ways, they would be correct. It is another bit of irony that humans are much better at running away from something than running toward something. In other words, we are often more motivated by fear than by a goal.

It is also unfortunate, then, that this fear extracts a heavy toll on the individual. In some sense, it is society that profits from the motivation of fear, but at the expense of the individual. Look at it in a corporate sense. The bottom line of a corporation is often directly related to the degree of effort exerted by the individuals in that corporation. If fear is nipping at the heels of these individuals, more effort is exerted. This effort pays off for the company, but rarely for the individual. The reward for extra effort and extra time spent at work? Often, it is more responsibility, more stress, and more time required.

The individual is not benefitting in the same way the corporation does. In fact, the cost can be rather heavy. Our bodies are designed to live with stress for short periods of time --not for entire careers! In the short term, stress creates a readiness in the body for that flight/fight response. But in the long term, our bodies begin to break down when exposed to a constant level of stress. High blood pressure, diabetes, even cancer all have been attributed as outcomes to stress.

As is often the case, sometimes a fear has a basis in reality. Perhaps there really is a shortage, that there really isn't enough. But sometimes a fear is irrational. It is not a reflection of reality. We come to believe there is not enough, but that exists only within the paradigm we weave within our mind.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Our Basic Fears

We share fear with every living creature. The difference is that we are able to add emotion and thought to the feelings. Sure, some animals are capable of emotions --anger in particular. But as far as we know, no other animal reflects on their fears.

Because we are thinking creatures, we take a fear and weave it into a story about ourselves. And this leads us to some basic fears. These fears rotate around the following:
1) Not having enough.
2) Not being good enough.
3) Not being loved enough.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Quotes on Fear

Ever noticed those quotes at the beginning of a chapter in a book? That chapter is often "hung" by that quote. Below are some of the quotes I've assembled for my book. If you have others, PLEASE submit them. Many minds think clearer than one!

Quotes on Dealing With Fear:

A ship in harbor is safe -- but that is not what ships are for. --John A. Shedd

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear. --Mark Twain

Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive -- the risk to be alive and express what we really are. --Don Miguel Ruiz

Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live. --Dorothy Thompson

Fear grows in darkness; if you think there's a bogeyman around, turn on the light. --Dorothy Thompson

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do. --Eleanor Roosevelt

[W]e now know that the human animal is characterized by two great fears that other animals are protected from: the fear of life and the fear of death... Heidegger brought these fears to the center of his existential philosophy. He argued that the basic anxiety of [humanity] is anxiety about being-in-the-world, as well as anxiety of being-in-the-world. That is, both fear of death and fear of life, of experience and individuation. --Ernest Becker

Don't be afraid to go out on a limb. That's where the fruit is. --H. Jackson Browne

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. --Henry James

Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness. --James Thurber

I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm learning how to sail my ship. --Louisa May Alcott

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. --Marcus Aurelias

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. --Marianne Williamson

Ultimately we know deeply that the other side of every fear is a freedom. --Marilyn Ferguson

Worry gives a small thing a big shadow. --Swedish Proverb

Usually a person has more faith in their fear than faith in their future. --Doug Firebaugh

A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears. --Michel de Montaigne

We have nothing to fear but fear itself. --Franklin D. Roosevelt

Love is always creative, fear always destructive. --Emmet Fox

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. --Helen Keller

Anything I've ever done that ultimately was worthwhile initially scared me to death. --Betty Bender

Even though you may want to move forward in your life, you may have one foot on the brakes. In order to be free, we must learn how to let go. Release the hurt. Release the fear. Refuse to entertain your old pain. The energy it takes to hang onto the past is holding you back from a new life. What is it you would let go of today? --Mary Manin Morrissey author