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Overcoming the Amygdala Part 32

So you’ve spotted some cognitive distortions in your thinking.

Are you crazy? Or stupid?

No, you are neither crazy nor stupid. You’re normal. You could probably make an argument that having cognitive distortions is part of being human. Until someone pointed out what a cognitive distortion is or how it’s used, you probably weren’t even aware that there were such things. You might not have known that you had or used them. Just like most other people.

The amygdala is unconscious, and cognitive distortions too are picked up unconsciously or at best semi-consciously, usually in childhood, as we have seen. Rationality too is developed in childhood, based on what you see, and how you're being encouraged to see the world.

It’s quite likely that you're still unsure whether or not you respond to life using cognitive distortions — perhaps, you wonder, they’re not distorted at all. So you ‘drastically underestimate your ability to cope with situations’ — that’s just sensible, right? So you ‘think in extremes of black or white when viewing a situation rather than seeing it as a continuum of possibilities’ — but you need those extremes to clarify things in your mind, yes? So you ‘tend to believe that future experiences will be similar or identical to past experiences of the same general sort’ — that makes a kind of sense, doesn’t it? And of course you ‘ignore things which deny your beliefs while seeing only those things which help you justify or maintain your belief system’ — that’s what ‘faith’ is, isn’t it?

You see how tricky this is? Though distorted, these things are almost rational: they kind of work. And because they have worked for you a few times in the past, they are your fall-back mode of operation — you’re not going to give them up in a hurry. You’re not even going to recognise them in a hurry.

There are some things you can do, though.

Retraining Your Mind

Whether it’s easy or not, once cognitive distortions are recognised and their destructive potentials fully realised, a person usually becomes deeply motivated to get rid of them and learn new ways of thinking and behaving. And if you can do that, you can retrain the amygdala too.

Think of the amygdala as a faithful and powerful pet hound. It’s there to protect you and is loyal to what it thinks are your best interests. But it can get a bit wild and out of control. When you think distortively, to some extent you are encouraging the beast to keep on behaving the way it does, like a dog will behave instinctively unless trained otherwise. Someone whose thinking is heavily influenced by cognitive distortions is like someone with a strong and aggressive dog who fails to exert control — the dog pulls them everywhere, thinking it’s doing the right thing.

Unlike a dog, though, the amygdala cannot be trained using language. It is trained through experience: it has to see and feel things differently in order to respond differently.

Your first instinct is probably to try to force yourself to change the way you think entirely and then ‘concentrate’ so that your amygdala will ‘get the idea’ and stop filling your head with alarms. I’m reminded of the Computer Science student who, three weeks into her university course, approached the lecturer and said, ‘Look, surely by now my computer is getting the idea of what to do? Why am I still having to programme it?’

Your amygdala won’t ‘get the idea’: you have to reprogram it.

But how do you do that when your head is still full of cognitive distortions?

Here’s what you can do:

1. Take a situation which you know for sure your cognitive distortions have twisted somehow so that you haven’t been seeing it clearly or correctly. For example, those times when you are in a crowd and interpret yourself as being at risk from the people around you when no such risk is present.

2. Write down if you can the actual thoughts that you’re thinking about that situation. This may be half a dozen or more sentences along these lines: ‘Crowds are dangerous’; ‘People are looking at me and concluding that I am an easy victim’; ‘Any group of people together becomes a mindless aggressive mob’; ‘There’s something about me which attracts attackers’, and so on.

3. It’s highly unlikely that jotting these thoughts down will make them vanish altogether — but the more you can spot, the various wordings you can come up with, the better. Reading over the list, you’ll recognise that this is your mind/brain telling you things which don’t actually match with the realities around you — the groups you’ve been in have been perfectly harmless; nothing has happened to you; sometimes, in fact, you will see that you may have missed out on some fun through your own self-generated terror. Don’t expect the distortive thoughts to disappear —expecting all your cognitive distortions to totally vanish after a brief examination is another cognitive distortion — but they will lose their intensity a little.

4. Next time you are in a similar situation to the one you’re examining, look around and observe how the distortive thoughts have misled you. Note the safety and peace and harmlessness of your surroundings. Your amygdala is noting as you do this that, despite the distortive thoughts your mind still harbours, you are safe. There is no evidence of a threat.

5. Remember, your amygdala is not your enemy. It's trying to protect you. It takes careful note of how you have responded in the past, and that hasn’t been good — so it’s triggered more alarms. If it can see, like a pet dog might see, that you are now thinking differently and acting differently despite the continuing presence of cognitive distortions, it pays attention.

6. You cannot tell your amygdala that things are different unless you create a memory that things are different.

7. So you have to walk into a high anxiety situation and behave relatively calmly. You need to behave rationally to calm your amygdala —even when your amygdala is setting off every alarm it can find. Pet dog analogy again: when you were unaware of your cognitive distortions and your amygdala started ‘barking’, you got flustered and invented all kinds of excuses and let the dog pull you about all over the place until it got the idea that a) that was how to behave and b) you were weak and easily pulled. But now, having attended dog training classes and realising that you need to stop letting your dog tell you what to do, you know you have to exert control — you have to remain calm and in control and literally hold your amygdala on its leash until it stops going wild.

Obviously it would be easier to do this if your amygdala was nice and calm — but it isn’t. So you have to treat it as a dog you’ve failed to train and start to train it.

8. Be warned, this is usually horrible in the beginning. But, like a dog, an amygdala is highly trainable. Show it a little bit of different behaviour from you, and it dutifully backs off. You are in charge. Panic attacks, agoraphobia, and OCD are clear examples in which you can stand your ground, unpleasant though it will be to start with. The negative thoughts will continue, they will grow stronger — the dog will bark louder and pull with greater force, if you like — but despite them, you can consciously face your fears. Dread descends upon you; but you hold your ground.

The dog will calm down.

Then the next time you’re in that situation, it will act up again — but you remain steadfast and let the terror wash over you and it will calm down again.

After a few experiences — in which the amygdala has observed you behaving differently — it will itself have learned a new pattern of action. It might get restless, it might bark a little, and then…nothing.

9. Amygdalas only learn from experience — you can’t ‘think’ them into silence. One tip would be ‘Don’t try to tackle too much at once.’ Take one aspect of your overanxious life — say, agoraphobia — and confront that until the ‘dog’ gets quieter. Then take the OCD, or something else. The good news is that the amygdala starts to recognise changes in you and can begin to apply them across the boards, so new calmness in the face of agoraphobia will translate into new peace in OCD situations too, for instance. Remember the formula from earlier: You < perceived threat = alarms triggered slowly becomes You > perceived threat = no need for alarms.

Your amygdala will never be completely quiet while you remain human: it has a job to do after all. But a retrained amygdala (just like a retrained dog) will actually do a better job of warning you about real dangers in your environment because it will have learned to differentiate them from ‘just about everything‘ prior to its retraining.

More on this soon.

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