How To Escape The Downward Spiral Of Bad Feelings

“Psychotherapy is a private, confidential conversation that has nothing to do with illness, medicine, or healing.” — Thomas Szasz

Warning

This is not another article about gratitude lists, identifying your “type,” or finding the silver lining. If you are looking for simplistic advice that sounds good but works about as well as a band-aid on a bullet hole, you won’t find it here.

A Little Background

(Feel free to skip this part if you want to get to the point)

Disclaimer

Full disclosure: I am not a doctor. If anything, I’m a patient. As a lifelong introvert with a robust portfolio of personal issues and a multi-generational family history of depression and anxiety, I’ve been searching for ways to manage my emotions for the last 20+ years. To avoid boring anyone with a laundry list of experiences, let me just over-generalize and say that I’ve read and tried every expert-recommended approach. Most of it doesn’t work, and some of it is actively harmful. I suspect that this is because the vast majority of self-help books are simply the opinion of the author, along with cherry-picked research results to bolster their claims. There are, of course, a few exceptions, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

How To Control Your Brain

Why Most Advice Doesn’t Work

Most well-meaning advice on “how to be happy” or “change your mood” fails for one simple reason: when the brain is generating negative thoughts and feelings, it is physically incapable of generating positive ones. You can’t just slam the gears from reverse into forward. No matter how much you want it to work, it will only create noise and fight you. Just like driving a car, you have to hit the brakes and park the brain first. Then, you can shift gears. But, in order to do that, you have to understand two things:

  1. How to stop it.
The Survival Brain has the power to switch off the Smart Brain when it senses a threat.

Survival Brain vs. Smart Brain

Although we think of our brain as being one organ, it is actually constructed in layers. The outer layers — particularly the prefrontal cortex and the insular cortex — form the “Smart Brain.” This is where happiness, love, empathy, joy, creativity, and other positive, advanced functions are generated. The Smart Brain is our default brain. This is what is supposed to be in charge of our minds.

Here’s how it works:

To the Survival Brain, any unmet need is a threat. This is why our Survival Brains take over so often, even in the absence of anything that would normally be thought of as a threat to our physical survival. We are complex beings, with complex needs, and to the Survival Brain, any perceived grievance is justification to seize the controls of our psyche from our Smart Brain. Just as physical pain forcibly draws our attention to physical needs, emotional pain forcibly draws our attention to emotional needs. The logical course of action is not to numb the pain or ignore it, the answer is to figure out what’s causing it, and resolve it.

  1. Connection — Needs for acceptance, attention, and affection.
  2. Significance — Needs for respect, influence, and importance.
  3. Growth — Needs for creativity, personal development, and enjoyment.
Maslow’s Hierarchy is an easy way to categorize needs.
  1. Flee (think of a squirrel vanishing into a tree at the sound of a footstep); or
  2. Submit (think of a dog meekly allowing its owner to scold it).
  1. Flee Instinct = Thoughts of escape, avoidance, or procrastination.
  2. Submit Instinct = Thoughts that are hopeless, helpless, or frozen.
All of our negative thoughts and feelings are generated by the primitive instincts of the Survival Brain.

Switch Off The Survival Brain

Because the Survival Brain takes over from the Smart Brain when it perceives an unmet need, and because the Survival Brain is physically incapable of generating positive thoughts and feelings, the only way to feel better is to switch off the Survival Brain, and switch on the Smart Brain. The only way to do this is to short-circuit the Survival Brain by consciously shifting your attention away from your thoughts.

  1. Identify. The Survival Brain activates in response to an unmet need. Are you upset about something associated with Security, Connection, Significance or Growth? Identify the grievance that triggered the Survival Brain and name it. “My credit card bill triggered my Survival Brain’s need for security.” “That conversation with my mother triggered my Survival Brain’s need for significance.” “Working non-stop this past week triggered my Survival Brain’s need for enjoyment.”
  2. Divert. In order to switch off the Survival Brain, you need to divert energy from it. You need to interrupt the cycle of negative thoughts and feelings by focusing on a physical sensation. Pick something, and focus all your attention on it. Make it your universe. Shirzad Chamine, author of “Positive Intelligence” (and to whom I am indebted for the idea of focusing on a physical sensation in order to short-circuit the Survival Brain), has a couple of free audio tracks on his website that can help you with this.
It’s a little harder than it sounds.

Conclusion

Let’s be honest: if it were as easy as staring out the window for a moment, nobody would be struggling with emotional challenges. Unfortunately, Survival Brain activity isn’t just synaptic connections, it’s also physiological: the Survival Brain uses hormones to make you pay attention to its grievances about your unmet needs. When your brain is bathed in survival hormones, it takes at least 20 minutes for them to metabolize. This means that it takes some sustained effort to withhold attention from it.

Digital media guru by day, writer by night.

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