So there are a couple of things going on in the mind/brain:
1. We have an automatic biological defence system based around the amygdala which projects ideal situations around us all the time so that it can instantaneously detect departures. This hair-trigger system immediately warns us of the presence of potential menace through a biologically wired alarm, triggering physiological and mental symptoms to try to prepare us for whatever the danger is.
2. We have a rational, analytical mind which reasons things out wisely and makes sensible plans and decisions — but which is sometimes twisted slightly out of shape through proximity to the amygdala’s recurring alarms, and thus occasionally falls into distorted patterns of response as a matter of habit.
Distorted patterns of response mean that the world is being perceived inaccurately on occasion — and if the world isn’t quite being seen as it actually is, guess what the amygdala does? That’s right: it sees more and more departures from the ideal — departures that don’t actually exist at all in many cases — and presses the alarm button again and again.
Then what happens? Repeated alarms lead to constant anxieties. If the anxieties are not subjected to the most rigorous rational examination — as often they are not — the mind starts coming up with new distorted patterns of thought to try to make sense of them all.
No wonder that anxiety and depression get control of more and more people.
How do we start to pick all this apart?
Beginning with Distorted Thinking
Active Meditation can calm down an individual so that the alarms don’t ring quite so loudly in his or her ears. Discovering that there are parts of the self that are untouched by the amygdalic system can come as a great relief and offer hope in a world full of external and internal ‘noise’.
Parallel to meditation, though, it’s important to examine and recalibrate the rational mind.
This starts by assessing our own ways of thinking and comparing them to an objective truth (or as objective as possible) so that we can spot the distortions more clearly.
Who says our thinking is distorted? Maybe we are seeing things as they actually are! It turns out that there are some indicators which reveal whether or not a pattern of thought is totally rational or not.
1. A distortive thought pattern adamantly claims that it knows the future with 100% certainty. Anxiety sufferers often have a brain that is brilliant in linear thinking, making them great at critical analysis. But their certainty about linear truths — say, mathematical equations or logical problems —can spill over into an over-certainty about Life in general.
The future is always unknown, no exceptions. X may not lead to Y; Z might happen instead. But a distortive thought pattern is addicted to its own predictions, and allows no room for alternatives. Self-induced anxiety about the future can distort perceptions about the actual future. An individual might not even be able to see that something has turned out differently than expected because his or her perceptions have been hijacked.
2. This is related to the second indicator: a distortive thought pattern rigidly extrapolates from past to future. Bad things may have come true before, so they absolutely must come true again, says the pattern. But the past still cannot predict the future. Chances of heads will always be 50-50 when a coin is tossed even if tails won the last 21 times. The past is simply not designed to predict the future. But a distortive thought pattern fuses with the past without any room for manoeuvre: in fact, it has a vested interest in making the past come true. The individual becomes hyper-vigilant, and the hyper-vigilance starts creating the future that is feared. ‘He never called me’ it says (truth is, his phone ran out of battery); ‘he doesn’t love me’ it computes, distortedly, based on past experiences. ‘I can’t take the pain, I’ll break it off,’ it concludes — and the individual terminates a relationship, bringing about the outcome she dreaded in the first place. The distorted thought pattern then rests assured that it was right all along — and prepares for the next relationship disaster.
3. Thirdly, a distortive thought pattern always predicts the worst because it always leaves You out of the equation. Thinking distortions claim to know with certainty that doom is around the corner, mainly because they don’t mention your own competence or capabilities to deal with that doom. OK, so ‘doom’ happens: but what are you doing about it, before, during and after? Maybe you will be particularly skilled in handling a disaster, or at least competent enough to get through it reasonably unscathed. It’s part of the ‘past=future’ false equation that a distorted thinking pattern will not be able to see how You might be able to change the future.
4. An anxiety sufferer has an overstimulated nervous system and hair-trigger mind which cannot sit comfortably with unknowns or ambiguity. He or she seeks certainty of any kind over uncertainty. Rationally, 100% certainty is unattainable, but a distorted thinker will cling onto an insane conclusion rather than tolerate the slightest vagueness about the future. The practice of clinging onto insanities surrounds him or her with insanities — which, when noticed, seem to confirm that the individual is insane. So the distorted pattern was ‘right all along’ again.
Cognitive distortions increase anxiety significantly; they don't switch off the amygdala’s alarms, but instead can weld them on. The whole thing about distorted thinking is that it’s meant to calm us down, but clearly it can make things worse. One of the first things you can do is note that your thinking is distorted; the next thing is examine the indicators above so that you can more clearly tell which patterns or habits of thought are getting you into trouble.
Breathe deeply: you are ‘getting your head above water’ on all this simply by bringing it all out into the light. What if all those things about which you are panicking are phantoms, twisted shadows, not actually the supposed doom-mongering disasters you thought? Maybe there’s hope yet…
Stay tuned to find out where these things come from in the first place.