Mind Over Matter III: Mind Over Brain

This is the third blog in the Mind over Matter series. Previously, we discussed the theory involved in understanding the different functions of the mind and the brain. We discussed in Mind over Matter II how the brain creates anger, anxiety, and depression in order to provide safety for people. In this discussion we want to suggest practical ways of fully using both mind and brain.

The brain is doing its job: maximizing safety and pleasure

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that the brain isn’t doing something wrong. The brain is always, and only, working to provide safety and pleasure as we previously discussed. When the brain creates depression, anger, and anxiety, it is doing what it is designed to do: create safety and maximize pleasure. It is easy to see how the brain creates safety with anxiety and anger, but it is a challenge to see how creating these things “maximizes pleasure” with depression.

Recall how we discussed that “anhedonia,” commonly thought of as lack of energy or interest, is the primary symptom of depression. The brain (not the mind) actually creates anhedonia, i.e. it decreases one’s energy, so that the person can do as little as possible. Why would the brain do that? The brain creates anhedonia because the mind has so many feelings, and so many thoughts that the brain isn’t able to get these thoughts and feelings resolved. Quite literally, because the mind is thinking and feeling so many things, the brain is overloaded with information and is not readily able to think through and feel through all this stuff. The brain does what it knows to do: it shuts down the person’s interest in doing anything so it can focus on this overload of thoughts and feelings. The brain does what it can do to create safety and pleasure: shut down activity by decreasing energy.

The brain protects us by creating anhedonia and other symptoms of depression, like sleep disturbance and appetite disturbance. Additionally, the brain operates on a “flight or fight” mode creating fear or anger as means of dealing with real or possible threats. The brain creates anger when the mind has experienced some harm or hurt and creates anxiety when the mind experiences some worry about possible loss in the future. Simply put, anger is about hurt in the past and anxiety is about hurt in the future. But the brain, remember, doesn’t know future or past, but only the present. So the brain creates anger and anxiety in order to deal with perceived danger in the present.

We will never be successful in overriding the brain’s natural functioning. We can’t just push through depression with some kind of will power. On the other hand, we don’t want to simply yield to it. So, what can we do to use the brain’s power more effectively without violating the brain’s interest in our safety and pleasure? We will not be successful in challenging the brain’s procedures for maintaining safety and maximizing pleasure. We have to find ways to use our minds to effectively manage our brains. Managing the brain is more effective than controlling the brain.

The centrality of your feelings

Your mind has three tools that you can use to manage the power of the brain’s desire for your safety and pleasure: feeling, thinking, and doing. The most basic and by far the most important tool is feeling. To be able to manage the brain, effectively use it…not control it…you have to know what you feel emotionally. The brain creates feelings in order to maximize pleasure and minimize danger in your life. (Consider reading Feelings I and Feelings II blogs where we discussed the four basic feelings: joy and sadness having to do with love, and anger and fear having to do with defense.) When you feel anger, for instance, you have been thinking about something that you lost in the past. When you feel fear (or anxiety), you are usually thinking about something that you might lose in the future. So, when you think about a former loss of some kind, your brain translates that former loss into the present and churns up anger to deal with your attacker. When you think about something that you might lose in the future, your brain churns up anxiety in order to deal with this threat of danger. In both cases the brain perceives the danger as in the present, not in the past or the future.

You can’t change your brain’s natural operation for protection. You can’t change your brain’s tendency to churn up anger and anxiety when you think of past hurts or potential future hurts. You can, however, more effectively use your mind power to more effectively use your brain power. The key is to more fully recognize all of your emotions, especially those that precede anger and anxiety. When you recognize what you really feel, you will be able to appreciate these feelings, all of them, and then be able to allow these feelings to run their natural course. When you recognize what you feel you are better able to allow all of your feelings to exist without having certain feelings, like fear and anxiety. You can’t think away your feelings; you can only notice them and recognize that they have been created by your brain. If you fail to recognize your feelings and appreciate them, you will speak or act out of your emotion, something that is almost always counterproductive for you.

Managing your feelings: recognizing that you have a “love problem”

Feelings are central. They are primary…always have been, always will be. The key to managing your feelings and hence fully utilizing your brain that creates these feelings begins with knowing what you feel. Keep in mind that you have these four basic emotions: joy, sadness, fear, and anger. Then consider the process of feelings: (1) you have something and love this something, so you feel some amount of joy; (2) eventually, you lose this something (could be property, person, place, or idea), and you feel sad; (3) then you often feel afraid of losing more and develop some amount of fear; (4) finally, you may become angry that you have lost this something. It may seem that anger comes before fear, but this is not the case. Fear always precedes anger. Keep in mind these four feelings and the fact that they all have to do with love:

  • I have something that I love: I feel joy
  • I lose something I love: I feel sadness
  • I think about losing something I love: I feel fear
  • I actually lose something I love: I feel anger.

So, not only are joy and sadness related to something I love, anger and fear are also about love It’s a bit easier to see that joy and sadness have to do with love, but you need to consider that anger about having lost something and fear (or anxiety) about potentially losing something are also feelings related to love. When you feel sad, you have what we have come to call a “love problem.” But also, when you are anxious or angry, you also have a love problem. Noting that anger and fear are “love problems” gives you the key to managing these feelings and ultimately overcoming anger and anxiety. You can also overcome depression by understanding and managing your feelings, but doing this requires much more effort and self-examination. We will limit our current discussion to overcoming anger and anxiety.

We have noted that feelings are central to human existence and ultimately lead to some kind of thinking and action. To take this understanding a step further, we remind you that all feelings are love based and erupt first with having something and then losing this something. It is easy to feel joy when we love something, but much harder to allow the feeling of sadness to erupt when we lose this something. Because we ultimately lose everything we love, it is paramount that we accept this common experience of sadness in life. So, first we feel some kind of joy because we have something and then eventually, a minute, a year, or 10 years later, we lose this something, and we feel sad. So, we propose that it is central that we learn to be sad and let it run its course. In our book, The Positive Power of Sadness we unpack sadness and its correlates and focus on the important business of finishing sadness. We talk about allowing sadness to finish because all sadness ends naturally if we allow it to do so. This is an important part of managing our feelings and an important part of “mind over brain.” You need to think about what you feel.

Thinking about feelings

Having recognized that you have a “love problem” when you feel sad can ultimately help you see that you have love problems when you feel anxious or angry. If you remember that sadness, anger, and fear are all about loving something, you will be able to get your head around this idea of managing your feelings and prevent your brain from running amok with anger and anxiety. But this is no easy task, and it is most certainly not thinking away your feelings. That is repression or denial. We suggest quite the opposite: recognizing your feelings and letting them run their course, particularly sadness. Try it: just notice what you have lost and you will feel sad; then after a moment or two, your sadness will start to diminish. It will eventually end depending on the depth of love you had for what you lost.

Managing anxiety and anger

If you can allow sadness to run its course, you are then ready to tackle anxiety and anger. Let’s start with anger because it is about the past, namely that you have lost in the past. Your brain, remember, only has a sense of present, not the past, has churned up anger in order to fight this loss and the attacker thinking that there is a lack of safety, and that you need anger to fight off this attacker. The “attacker,” by the way could be a person, an event, yourself (you having done something “stupid”) or God. Anger is a defense against any and all attacks. Now, having realized that anger is a love problem, you can focus on what you have lost and how you loved it. This thing you have lost might be an idea, a piece of property, a place, or a person. Whatever it was, you loved it. And you lost it. To manage your anger you need to think about what you loved, and then think about it more. Think about how you loved this thing. If you do this, you will begin to feel sad, and if you allow this to happen, you are nearing the end of anger. Anger doesn’t ever really end. But anger directed into sadness does. If you master this process of seeing that every time you are angry, you have lost something that you love, you will first be able to cure anger. Then as you mature, eventually be able to prevent anger. But this means that you will feel sadness more often, a sadness that will end. When sadness ends you will experience a subtle feeling of joy and will begin to realize that you are a person of love and that you have memory of having loved something.

This process of managing feelings like anger can also work for managing the feeling of fear (or anxiety). As we have noted, anxiety is the fear of losing something we love, so if we can get into the love part of anxiety, we will be able to cure it and eventually prevent it. Managing anger (curing it and preventing it) is finding a way to feel the sadness of loss that precipitated the brain’s reaction to anger. Managing anxiety is finding a way to feel the sadness of potential loss. We call this process anticipatory sadness. It is hard to learn how to get under anger to sadness and ultimately to love, but it is twice as hard to get under anxiety to find sadness and love. You will need lots of practice at this procedure, which is something like this: (1) note that you are anxious over potentially losing something and then (2) note that whatever you might lose is something you love.

Now comes the hard part: (3) consider what you would feel if you lost this thing that you love. You will note that you would feel sad. Allow yourself to feel sad even though you have not really lost this thing you love. This is hard, but you can get used to doing it. So every time you feel anxious about something, you can consider that you love something and that losing this thing would be sad. When you learn to do this (it takes months or years of practice), you will feel more sadness and more joy. And to be quite honest, anxiety, even more than anger, often requires a faithful guiding therapeutic hand, you will have used your mind to manage your brain. While not an easy process to learn, you can do it.

If you do this mind over brain process, you will value your emotions, whatever they are, eventually be able to think of what you love, and then remember what you love. And you can then “convince your brain that it is really okay to have these feelings. Now you are in a good place because you might find it possible to activate this love in some way. You might just enjoy the loving thoughts, memories, and hopes. You might tell someone about what you love. You might even get better at loving, which is our hope.

Further Reading

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness. Praeger Press.

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2018). “Mind Over Matter I and II

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2018). “Feelings I-V” blogs

Watch for “Mind Over Matter IV: Addictions”

Mind Over Matter II: Practice

In our first blog on Mind Over Matter we discussed the theory of “mind over matter,” namely the idea of getting full use of both mind and brain. We discussed several things that distinguish the operations of the mind and the brain:

What is the brain?

  • The brain is a machine, a wonderful machine at that, but a machine nevertheless.
  • The brain knows only two things: safety (or the lack thereof) and pleasure (or the lack thereof). The brain’s priority is safety over pleasure…if it has to make a choice. You have to live before you can be happy.
  • There are times, however, when the brain actually chooses pleasure over safety when it concludes that the absence of pleasure is unsafe.
  • The brain only knows the present. The mind cannot conceive of the past and the future, but the brain cannot.

The brain does a myriad of things that the mind does not control, like blood flow and breathing. The mind doesn’t need to be conscious of these activities

What is the mind?

  • “Mind” is undefined although it exists, as we discussed in Mind over Matter I. We noted that time, space, and mass, the basic ingredients of the universe are also undefined but we understand these facets of the universe. We also noted that several elements of human existence and relationships are undefined but we know what they are, like love, wisdom, and feelings.
  • The mind knows all of these undefined elements like feelings, love, wisdom, and lots more. Simply put, the mind thinks and feels.
  • “Mind over matter” means using the mind to make full use of the brain’s wonderful mechanism (100 billion brain cells) to do the work of feeling, thinking, and doing. The mind couldn’t do any of these things without the brain.

We also learned that there are occasional dangers in the mind-brain interaction that has to do with the brain’s orientation towards safety and pleasure

  • The mind needs the brain to do anything and everything. It cannot operate on its own. It needs the machinery of the brain to think, feel, and do things.
  • If the mind thinks of distress in the past or the future, the brain immediately translates these things into the present.
  • When the mind conceives of something in the past that was distressful, the brain conceives of this distress as occurring in the present.
    • When distress about the past is on the mind, the brain “concludes” that the person is currently
    • When the brain receives these messages of distress of the past, it attempts to reduce this distress by secreting certain chemicals. These chemicals have the effect of increasing energy and preparing the body to fight. The result of this increase in energy is anger.
    • When the distress about the past is overwhelming, the brain secretes chemicals that have the effect of reducing energy in the body causing fatigue and reduced energy. The result of this reduction in energy is depression.
  • When the brain receives messages of distress in the future, it attempts to reduce this distress by secreting different chemicals:
    • When the distress about the future is on the mind, the brain concludes that the person is currently in danger.
    • These chemicals (cortisol) increase awareness and alertness. This often leads to what we call “hypervigilance.”
    • The result of hypervigilance is anxiety.
  • In summary, when anger, anxiety, and depression have occurred in a person, there has been a harmful cycle between the mind and the brain:
    • The mind remembers something bad that happened: the brain churns up anger.
    • The mind is remembers a series of bad things that happened in the past; the brain churns up depression.
    • The mind thinks of something bad that might happen; the brain churns up anxiety.

The brain is doing its job: maximizing safety and pleasure

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that the brain isn’t doing something wrong. The brain is always, and only, working to provide safety and pleasure as we previously discussed. When the brain creates depression, anger, and anxiety, it is doing what it is designed to do: create safety and maximize pleasure. It is easy to see how the brain creates safety with anxiety and anger, but it is a challenge to see how creating these things “maximizes pleasure” with depression.

Recall how we discussed that “anhedonia,” commonly thought of as lack of energy or interest, is the primary symptom of depression. The brain (not the mind) actually creates anhedonia, i.e. it decreased one’s energy, so that the person can do as little as possible. Why would the brain do that? The brain creates anhedonia because the mind has so many feelings, and so many thoughts that the brain isn’t able to get these thoughts and feelings resolved. Quite literally, because the mind is thinking and feeling so many things, the brain is overloaded with information and is not readily able to think through and feel through all this stuff. The brain does what it knows to do: it shuts down the person’s interest in doing anything so it can focus on this overload of thoughts and feelings. The brain does what it can do to create safety and pleasure: shut down activity by decreasing energy.

The brain protects us by creating anhedonia and other symptoms of depression, like sleep disturbance and appetite disturbance. Additionally, the brain operates on a “flight or fight” mode creating fear or anger as means of dealing with real or possible threats. The brain creates anger when the mind has experienced some harm or hurt, and creates anxiety when the mind experiences some worry about possible loss in the future. Simply put, anger is about hurt in the past and anxiety is about hurt in the future. But the brain, remember, doesn’t know future or past, but only the present. So the brain creates anger and anxiety in order to deal with perceived danger in the present.

We will never be successful in overriding the brain’s natural functioning. We can’t just push through depression with some kind of will power. On the other hand, we don’t want to simply yield to it. So, what can we do to use the brain’s power more effectively without violating the brain’s interest in our safety and pleasure? We have to find ways to use our minds to effectively use our brains. We have to find ways to overcome depression, anger and anxiety by using the brain, not challenging it. What can we do about this harmful mind-brain cycle that creates depression, anger, and anxiety? Simply stated, we need to get the mind in control of the brain. Stay tuned for Mind over Matter III: Mind over Brain

Further Reading

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness: the cure for anger, anxiety, and depression. Praeger Press.

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2018). “Mind over Matter I: Theory” blog

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2018). “Feelings I-V” blogs

 

 

 

Feelings V: Disappointment

This is the fifth in a series on feelings. We have previously noted that this whole matter of “feelings” is murky and prone to misunderstanding. We have looked at emotions (fear, anger, joy, and sadness) to start with and then have proceeded to discuss the whole difficult business of communicating feelings, which is fraught with challenge. The present discussion is an addendum to understanding feelings, particularly how one “feels” when one is disappointed. An important aspect of “feelings” is that the term is not truly definable. The best we can do is to say that it is important, universal among humans and very possibly among many animal species. Feelings are important because they comprise one of the three basic elements of human psychological function, the other two being thinking and doing. It is not so much in the field of thinking and doing that we get into trouble. It is in the area of feelings.

Feelings and words

Let’s review just a bit before we go on to deal with disappointment, which is our present topic. Feelings, however murky and undefinable, begin with emotions, and very possibly with some kind of visceral experience in our bodies. This is the “gut level feeling” you have, or perhaps more accurately the sense that something is happening to you that you can’t quite put a name to. So we call this something-is-happening a feeling, or sometimes in the plural, feelings. There is an emotional and possibly a physical substrate to feelings, but then our minds wonder about and we have some random thoughts about this feeling. We might come up with a few words, but more often we “just feel” something that seems important. One of the things we discussed previously in these Feelings Blogs is that there are no perfect words for feelings, and very few exact words. So we are left with a situation where we feel something, possibly important, but we don’t know exactly what the emotion is behind it nor the cause of the emotion. All we know is that we feel something and feel compelled to put this feeling into words. In Feelings II we discussed how difficult to put feelings into words, but simultaneously how important it seems to us to do so.

Let’s be reminded that there are many ways of expressing feelings that are not verbal, or not verbal in the sense of a conversation. Poets might be the best wordsmiths when it comes to feelings, and musicians may be the next best, particularly those who write musical lyrics. Other artists, like painters and sculptors, also express feelings nonverbally, as do architects and interior designers and basketball players.  One of my basketball buddies described a “go to the hoop layup” as a “thing of beauty.” Feelings come to us and we express them in our own manner, especially when the feelings are rich and pleasurable. But our focus right now is on the feeling of disappointment, something that is not easy to successfully communicate verbally.

Disappointment

This is a feeling word that I think is extremely important for us to (1) understand, (2) use with caution, and (3) hear with diligence. A couple weeks ago when we were “up north” at our cabin, Deb said she was disappointed in something I did or didn’t do. Now, two weeks past I cannot recall what I did or didn’t do. Interestingly, neither can she. But I do remember her saying she was disappointed. I remember we were on the paddle boat when she expressed her disappointment, but I can’t remember the content of this feeling.

Consider with me the whole array of thoughts, feelings, and actions associated with being disappointed: Doing: I did something or didn’t do something; Thinking: I probably thought what I did or didn’t do was the right thing to do; Feeling: Deb felt disappointed. Sound familiar? It should. It happens quite regularly in all of our lives. Because I am now in the enviable position of not remembering what she was disappointed about, nor is she, I can speak without particular emotion. But that surely wasn’t the case when she said she was disappointed in me. As soon as she said she expressed her feelings of disappointment (her feelings) I felt hurt.

Understanding Disappointment

Hurt people always hurt other people. You can remember that from previous blogs. This means that when people are hurt, they usually hurt someone else, very often the person who caused the offense. Deb was disappointed, and in her stating her feelings I in turn got hurt. I don’t know how or why I originally disappointed Deb, but I did disappoint her in what I did, and in so doing, I hurt her. Deb was hurt, got disappointed, spoke it, and then I got hurt. This is how it happens, most of the time. One person is hurt, usually unintentionally, and then in dealing with their hurt, hurts the person who hurt them. I know it sounds “crazy”, but this is the hardest thing to comprehend and accept. We discussed this hurt-people-hurt-people phenomenon in previous Feelings blogs so I won’t belabor the point here. I want to emphasize that disappointment comes first in the form of hurt. Quite importantly, I didn’t intend to hurt Deb, but to go further in understanding hurt and disappointment, I have to acknowledge that I hurt her in some way, actively (doing something) or passively (not doing something).

Speaking disappointment (Use with Caution)

Here is where most people get in trouble, but here also is where we could really come together in understanding each other. If you have read the previous blogs, you will remember that when I speak my “feelings” to someone, I am speaking about myself. Or I should be. Very often, sadly, this expression of feelings is about the other person. Recall (from a previous Feelings blog) the lady who said she “spoke her feelings quite clearly” when she told her husband that he was a jerk when he failed to turn on the car seat heater for her when he got in the car after turning the heater on for his seat. She thought she expressed her feelings. She didn’t. She expressed anger at her husband and railed at his character as I remember. But what had really happened: she had an expectation that he would be kind and think of her when he got in the car; she was disappointed when that didn’t happen; she was hurt; and then, sadly, she lashed out at him rather than saying how she truly felt. She was disappointed.

Whether the car seat heater, or another of a myriad of things that have caused hurt and disappointment, the real task is to speak disappointment first and foremost. Having said this, however, we are in swampy grounds because very few people know how to do speak their feelings, much less hear it from other people. To begin with you have to know that you are hurt and disappointed. Please review this matter of knowing that your hurt in Feelings 2 and Feelings 4  To be successful in this endeavor you will have to realize that your feelings are important, that you had an expectation that someone would do something (or perhaps that something would happen), and it didn’t happen. As a result you were hurt. Thus, despite it sounding and seeming narcissistic to say so, disappointment is all about you in this very important aspect of feelings. You feel hurt. You feel disappointed. You Feel. Important. Very important. Next, you have to say it. You need to learn to be brave in expressing your feelings and then learn how to speak them clearly. So say it, say it clearly, and say it without fear thoroughly remembering that you are talking about you, your feelings, your value system, your expectation, and your hurt. But remember, this is half the battle. It is not the end of the battle however. This half-battle could turn into a full-fledged war because when you say you are disappointed, your friend will have an important feeling: hurt. You have to be prepared for the resulting offence felt by the person you’re talking to.

There is no way getting around this phenomenon. It is not something to be avoided. It is something to be aware of. So if you’re going to express disappointment, it behooves you to make it clear that this is your feeling, your hurt, your expectation, and your disappointment. Most likely, however, it won’t matter how you take ownership of your feelings, your friend will also be hurt. You need to know that this is part of being human and being in a relationship with another human being. We all get hurt rather frequently and rather easily. The best thing we can do, and certainly the first, is to recognize that if I say I am disappointed in you, my statement will hurt you.

You must realize that in speaking your disappointment, the person who has disappointed you will mostly likely defend their action compared to a matured response of containing their hurt and just hearing you out. So, unless you are lucky enough to express your disappointment to an emotionally mature person, she or he will say something hurtful back to you, or at the very least make some defense at having done (or not done) what s/he did (or didn’t do). If you express your disappointment, you will have to wander in this swamp for a while until the two of you can come to a better understanding of one another. You can further the process of understanding by focusing on how you are “just talking about my feelings” and not really talking about them or their actions. If you stick with your feelings, your expectations, your hurt, and your disappointment, you will then avoid the focus being on what your friend did or didn’t do that disappointed you. Re-read Feelings II: expressing feelings for some recommendations.

If you stick with your feelings, your expectations, your hurt, and your disappointment, you will then avoid the focus being on what your friend did or didn’t do that disappointed you.

This is very hard as we discussed in Feelings II, but it is essential to learn how to do this. Or come to our office and we will help you learn to do it. First you recognize your hurt and all that goes with it like your value system and your expectations. Then you can say something about what actually happened (or didn’t happen), but spend a little time as possible on what s/he did. The rest is up to your friend.

Hearing disappointment (Hearing with Diligence)

Here I speak to the person hearing the disappointment. Disappointment is always hard to hear. It is no easy task. You will be hurt, which is most important to know and note. You will be sad, which is even more important. You will be hurt and sad because you love (to some degree) the person who is disappointed in you. Furthermore, you very well may not have done (or failed to do) what your friend expected of you. You probably did your best. Maybe you just forgot. Maybe you worked hard at doing this thing right. Maybe you really don’t care much about what you did. None of this matters in the long run. What matters is that if your friend says s/he is disappointed in you, you will be hurt, and you have to contend with that fact. Once you recognize the hurt factor, you can move forward. If you fail to recognize the hurt factor, you will defend and explain what and why you did what you did, which will only make matters worse. I like to think the best of people: you intended to do the right thing. Maybe you actually did the right thing and your friend has a different perspective. Maybe you thinks you did something that you actually didn’t do. This doesn’t matter at the time of disappointment and hurt. The facts don’t matter when it comes to feelings. It’s the feelings that matter. The particulars can be discussed later. What you need to discuss at this point is the hurt factor, first your friend’s hurt, and then speak your hurt, hopefully without defensiveness. Your hurt then would sound more like “I am so sorry to disappoint you. It saddens me. You are important to me. Again, I am sorry. I don’t want to hurt you.  And obviously, even though I didn’t intend to hurt you, I did.”

It is very hard to govern your reaction to someone being disappointed in you. It is hard primarily because you are hurt and secondarily because you intended to do the right thing. You can serve your friend, serve yourself, and serve your relationship by forestalling your explanation and defense and focus on what your friend feels. And then on what you feel.

 

Further Reading

Previous Blogs on Feelings (I, II, III, IV)

Damasio, A.R. Descartes’ error. NY: Putnam’s Publishing

Hillman, J. (1971). The feeling function. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. NY: Simon and Schuster

Powell, J. (1969). Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? Allen, TX: Tabor Publishing