Here’s an analogy which might help your understanding of what happens in the mind/brain.
The Vaccination Analogy
Vaccination has developed over the last hundred years or more as a safe way to protect ourselves against several infectious diseases. At this writing, the world is scrambling to put together such a thing against Covid-19, because once someone has been vaccinated, they should have the ability to fight off the disease if they come into contact with it. They will have a level of protection, or immunity, against the disease — and that means human society can work as it has done for centuries. There’s a parallel here with what we have been looking at in terms of amygdalic responses and cognitive distortion, but to understand the parallel, we need to grasp the basics of vaccines.
How does vaccination work?
The immune system is a network of cells, tissues and organs that work together to help fight off infection from harmful bacteria or viruses. When a disease-causing agent, such as virus or bacteria, invades your body, your immune system recognises it as foreign to the body and potentially harmful and triggers a series of responses to destroy it.
One of these responses is to create large proteins known as antibodies. These antibodies hunt down the infectious agent, and mark it for destruction by the immune system. Each antibody is specific to the bacteria or virus that it has detected and triggers a specific immune response. Moreover, these specific antibodies remain in the immune system after the infection has gone. This means that if the same disease is encountered again, your system has a ‘memory’ of the disease and is ready to quickly destroy it before you get sick or even get any symptoms.
The immune system doesn’t always win this initial battle against the harmful bacteria or virus and a person can become very ill or even die. Vaccination is the safest and most common way to gain immunity against a new or unfamiliar bacteria or virus. Vaccines contain a harmless or even dead bacteria or viruses or fragments of the same, killed, greatly weakened, or broken down into small parts so that they can trigger an immune response without making the person sick. The immune system still attacks the harmless form of bacteria or virus from the vaccine and will produce antibodies to fight it off. It then keeps a memory of the disease, so if a vaccinated person encounters the same disease years later, their immune system is ready to fight it off and prevent an infection from developing.
How does this mirror the mind’s systems?
The amygdala sits at the head of a network of cells, tissues and organs that work together to help the organism deal with what it perceives as harmful or potentially harmful departures from an ideal. When such a departure is detected, this amygdalic system triggers a series of alarms to prepare the individual to freeze, flee or fight whatever it is.
One of these responses is to create a tremendous amount of anxiety. If anxiety could be thought of as particles, then we might term these things not antibodies but ‘anti-thoughts’. These anti-thoughts don’t so much hunt down the supposed departure, they label it for the individual’s immediate attention and perhaps make primitive conclusions about it. It might be that each anti-thought is specific to the departure that it has detected and triggers a specific set of alarms, or it might be that the same general kind of departure causes the triggering of a general set of alarms — the result is the same: we panic, or get super-anxious, and we tend to lose rationality — then we come to hurried conclusions about the situation.
Moreover, just as with antibodies, it seems that these ‘anti-thoughts’ remain in the mind after the departure has… well, departed. This means that if the same departure is encountered again, your mind has a ‘memory’ of it and is ready to quickly activate the same set of alarms and conclusions.
These ‘anti-thoughts’ are the basis of cognitive distortions: they were formulated to help with particular situations, and stuck around forever in case they were needed again — despite not being all that effective the first time.
Experience tells us that the amygdalic system doesn’t always succeed in its initial battle against the ‘harmful’ departure: a person can be overwhelmed by anxiety and paralysed in the face of supposed danger even when no actual danger is present. Cognitive distortions or ‘anti-thoughts’ then linger in the mind, twisting our thought processes in an effort to assist but usually getting in the way.
So how can the principle of vaccination help?
Just as vaccines contain a harmless, dead bacteria or viruses or their fragments, it might be possible to break down the so-called ‘departures’ which trigger anxiety alarms. Our minds will still kick in and will try to produce anti-thoughts to fight these off — but a weakened and consciously created and monitored ‘departure’ can flush out the cognitive distortions we’ve used in the past and reveal them for what they are: temporary and dangerously ineffective mechanisms which prevent a real handling from being implemented.
Even reading this may have boosted your 'mental immune system' by helping you to consciously recognise what is going on.