Deceptive Mental States

Every day I wake up I choose love, I choose light, and I try.

The Submarines – You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie

What are we supposed to do when we cannot trust our own minds? This is where I believe faith comes into even an atheist’s life. At least for me, this is where I try to practice faith. You might be asking, well why wouldn’t you trust your own mind in the first place? If you are one of the lucky few who have no mental illness, then you may never encounter this dilemma. However, for someone like me, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, there are many times I’m left unsure of whether something is a genuine concern or if I’m spiraling into delusional, distorted perceptions and over reacting. It can be extremely difficult to tell the difference. Not only that, even if I determine logically that I am being a bit dramatic, it doesn’t make it any easier to calm myself down emotionally or silence my racing thoughts.

This happens to a certain degree every single night. As the day dwindles away, my brain is running low on my natural mood stabilizing hormones and dopamine/serotonin stores. I am always at my lowest and most stressed in the evening hours when I am physically and mentally tired. Even though I am consciously aware of this skewed perception at the end of the day, I never fail to fall pray to the thoughts and worries that arise. I know that no matter how serious my problems appear at night, if I just allow myself to sleep on it, I’ll have a completely different and more balanced opinion and perspective come morning when I feel energized and refreshed again.

It’s important for us to pay attention to our moods and thoughts at different intervals of the day, month, and year. Eventually we may notice a pattern. For instance, as I mentioned, I feel more vulnerable to anxiety in the evenings. I also feel much more susceptible of falling into depression during the winter months. I become more irritable and emotional about a week before my period each month. Once we notice these factors and the way they affect our thought patterns and sensitivity, we can begin to acknowledge when we may not be in a great place to make big decisions or judge a problem or situation accurately. Then we can try to adjust our actions accordingly.

Now, I said try to adjust, because even once we notice and acknowledge these patterns, it’s not as easy as you might think to convince ourselves we’re being irrational in the moment. Last night I felt like the world was falling down around me. I couldn’t stop thinking about financial concerns. I was distraught about my elderly dog’s health. I was ruminating on the way the seemingly minuscule issues of today could potentially snowball into unavoidable catastrophes decades in the future. What if my parents die? How will I afford retirement? What if I develop health issues? Should I leave the job I love for a better paying one? What if that’s a mistake? All of these basically unanswerable questions were swirling around in my head demanding to be answered and planned for accordingly right now. All of these concerns felt terribly urgent despite the fact the day before they weren’t even on my radar.

The deceptive part about anxiety is that it does serve a real, evolutionary purpose. Stress feels urgent and important because in our past as a species, it was. We weren’t made to be able to ignore these mental signals. It wasn’t an option to distract ourselves or even simply sit in our anxious discomfort when it was a life or death situation. Back then, we really did need to act immediately in order to survive. So don’t be too hard on yourself if it seems impossible to talk yourself down from these mental states. Your brain and body aren’t broken. They are simply doing what they were designed to do to protect you. It just doesn’t exactly transfer over well to our modern, often long-term, problems.

This is where faith comes in for me. I don’t exactly know what I am putting my faith in exactly. Maybe I am just having faith in myself. After all, how many millions of times have I felt like I was going to burst into flames if I didn’t solve all of my problems immediately, only to realize it wasn’t that bad the next morning? How many times have I feared I wouldn’t be able to cope with a worst case scenario, only to discover I’m much stronger than I ever believed I could be when I actually have to face one? I’ve made it this far. I have to believe in myself and trust that no matter what happens, I’ll be able to handle it somehow, even if I don’t know the exact details in this moment.

It’s may be hard, but in the moments when we find ourselves most likely overreacting or stuck in a distorted perception of ourselves or the situation at hand, we must practice faith. Just try to notice how your body feels instead of trying to “fix” everything so you feel better. Breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders. Give yourself a massage or activate a few acupressure points. Notice when you get tangled in your thinking mind and gently draw yourself back to the physical sensations in your body. Your brain is most likely telling you: You can’t just breathe. It’s not safe to allow these feelings. We have to do something! Don’t let these worries dissipate. They are too important. Notice whatever inner dialogue that arises to try to convince you of the urgency of the moment. Say to yourself: I know these thoughts feel really big and important right now. But I also know I am not at my best mental state to judge that at the moment. I’ve felt this way many times before. I trust that, just as it was those times, everything is going to be okay. I am okay. I am safe. I have faith in my future self and his/her/their ability to handle each issue as it presents itself. I don’t need to be prepared for every eventuality before it arises.

You’ve got this. I believe in you.

Keep Calm and Take the Anxiety Test! - My Mental Health

Accepting the Unspoken

Feel your feelings. This is one of the new popular phrases floating around the internet. But it’s never really made clear what is meant by these words. A lot of us resist this advice for that very reason. Why would I want to feel my feelings? I’ve been taking such pains to avoid them for most of my life. What isn’t explained is that these mental loops that we are labeling as “feelings” are not, in fact, our feelings. They are the cascading cycles of inner dialogue that we have built up in response to our feelings. These thoughts are really want we desperately want to avoid.

The way to escape these thoughts isn’t by pushing down our feelings or trying to numb them through distraction or substances, it’s to direct our minds away from the words and into the physical sensations we are experiencing. This is definitely something easier said than done, but it’s a practice worth putting effort into. Watch your mind as it tries to move back into thinking instead of feeling. I did this with my anger just the other day. I moved my awareness into my body. I felt the tightness around my heart, the heat in my face and neck. Then after just a few seconds, my brain was back to narration, finding ways to justify and bolster these uncomfortable sensations. Again and again, I had to keep putting down these words and picking up the actual feelings I was experiencing instead.

It’s quite difficult to remain in silent sensation, especially when it’s not a pleasant one. The mind is so good at labeling and explaining and creating stories. It’s an odd experience to not focus on defining and labeling everything. I’ve spent my whole life searching and trying to learn the words and explanations for what I go through every day. That’s the reason I got a degree in psychology. It may be helpful to have a background of knowledge about these things, but sometimes even that isn’t what we really need. Sometimes all we need to do is allow and be present with whatever is there, whether we can define it or not.

Learning that it’s safe and beneficial to trust and allow the physical sensation of my emotions without constantly analyzing has opened the door for me to accept this level of awareness in my relationships as well. I have a tendency to become fixated on what the other person may be thinking or feeling in regard to a shared experience or out interpersonal bond in general. I become overcome with worry that they perceive our relationship differently than I do, that I like them more than they like me, that they are unhappy, upset with me, etc. In order to relieve myself of this anxiety, I search for ways to reassure myself through explicit, verbal communication.

However, I often notice that even hearing the exact words I am looking for from the other person, I find myself unable to trust their words alone. I revert back to internal analysis, worrying, and skepticism. Giving myself permission to accept my own feelings for what they are at the simplest, most primal level, has encouraged me to do the same with other people. Ultimately we will never know what another person truly thinks or feels about anything. We have to eventually trust our interpretation and move on.

Like most things, this lesson is magnified while under the influence of psychedelics. Whenever I’m tripping with someone, there are phases where I feel we are perfectly in sync. Everything is easy. I feel connected, understood, and loved. Then a thought will arise or some slight friction will occur that leaves me questioning. Have we really been on the same page? Am I just being delusional to think they’ve understood me thus far? A dark cloud will appear for a moment, but will quickly pass as I allow myself to trust and enjoy again.

Our lack of trust in our emotions and our perceptions is what causes most of our stress in modern times. I think the fear behind this is primarily the fear of being wrong in our assumptions. We want to guard ourselves against every possibility. This is an impossible task, though. We will never be able to verify the validity of our perceptions and interpretations. Therefore, the best thing we can do for ourselves as well as those we love, is just accept, allow, and be present for whatever may arise. Give yourself permission to enjoy your experiences even when you can’t explain them, put words to them, or back them up with empirical evidence. Some things are meant to be felt, not spoken or explained.

People with blunted emotions have harder time reading their body's signals

Space to Witness

One of the most common misconceptions I encounter when it comes to meditation is that the goal is to “clear your mind.” Not gonna lie, I thought this was the purpose for the longest time myself. Yet this is a very unfortunate misunderstanding that can cause people to give up on the practice all together. It seems like an impossible goal, and that’s because it is. Our minds are meant to always be thinking. We should be grateful for that fact and all that our brains do for us in every moment. There is no way for us to completely turn off our inner thoughts. And there is no need to. Meditation is not about doing that at all.

There are many different forms of meditation, but to my knowledge, none of them have the intention of emptying your mind of all thought. Meditation is about focus. It is training our brains to pay attention. The object of that focus really doesn’t matter. Regardless of what you choose, the intention is to keep bringing your mind back to that object. And I say bringing your mind back because it is inevitably going to wander and stray from your point of focus, especially if you are just beginning your practice. Our job while meditating isn’t to criticize or judge ourselves when we notice this wandering. It’s just to notice. That’s it. Our minds are our most powerful muscles, and just as other muscles need training and exercise to become stronger, so do our minds.

Sounds easy enough right? Well, I’ve always found one of the most fascinating parts of meditation to be just how difficult that really is. Doing nothing should be a simple task, but when you actually try to do it, you realize just how conditioned we are to always be doing or at least planning something. You realize how oddly uncomfortable it is to do nothing. You start to see all the ways your mind and body want to rebel against it. And while it does get easier with regular practice, there will always be days where it feels like the first time all over again. Those days that you find the hardest are the most important of all.

The hard days give us the opportunity to witness how we treat ourselves, how we speak to ourselves when things don’t go the way we want them to. Even though the brain may revert to it’s favorite hurtful comments, this might be the first time you’ve ever been present enough to really notice what those are. There are a few reflexive phrases my brain likes to throw out that, until I began meditating, I had no idea I was even saying to myself, let alone how often. It makes me think of that common school yard taunt: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. You can tell how dated that saying is, because now we have learned that words can hurt us too, even the words we say to ourselves. In fact, the way we speak to ourselves may matter most of all. Because these are often the words we take as gospel truth and believe without question.

While meditation alone does not necessarily help us to reframe this negative self-talk, being aware of that internal dialogue is the first step in doing so. The longer I practice meditation, the quicker I am to realize when I am being cruel to myself. Whereas before I either didn’t notice at all or felt too enmeshed in those painful feelings to extricate myself from them, now it is as if I can take a step outside of myself even in intense moments. The benefit of that space is that I am able to use it to choose a different path.

Now rather than piling on insults when I’m already having a bad day or have made a mistake, it’s easier for me to offer myself understanding and compassion instead of criticism. A lot of the repeated commentary inside my head is downright shocking to me when I examine it. There are so many deeply held unconscious beliefs I’ve been holding onto for years that when I lay them out in front of me seem absolutely awful. Meditation hasn’t stopped these thoughts from coming up, but it has helped me catch them when they do. And that alone has made a tremendous difference in my day to day life.

So while meditation is not what a lot of people imagine it to be at first. It is still one of the most valuable practices that I’ve incorporated into my life. It has allowed me to begin to heal in ways that I never thought possible. It has allowed me the space to craft an entirely new relationship with myself, which in turn helps me strengthen the relationships I have with other people in my life. It is one of the most beautiful gifts that we can choose to give ourselves each and every day.

Just 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation can improve verbal learning and  memory processes, study finds