Our minds, the dense packaging of neurons and experience, are absolutely miraculous. There is no doubt of that. The same part of us that can smell and taste, jump out of the way of traffic before we even know it’s there, remember umpteen passwords, ride a bicycle, recall the scent of blossoms during icy winters, send probes into deep space – things of absolute wonder and empowerment. Until they scare us half to death and use all of that power to generate permutations of catastrophe, horror, inadequacy, loneliness and failure, which they play on repeat like a haunted picturehouse.

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Many of the people I see suffer from believing their minds too much. Because our minds are the ready filter between us and the world around us, we often perceive the workings of our minds to be a true reflection of reality: as if our thoughts and feelings are what is actually happening, instead of a theatre of electrochemical impulses that can be vastly skewed by trauma and basic survival instincts. In short we are wired to stay safe, not to be real.

Depending on the degree of fear, uncertainty and isolation we experience, particularly as children, our minds become more or less attuned to be on the constant lookout for anything that threatens our survival. Crucially, as children, this means the love and consistency of caregivers. Children cannot, unlike other animals, provide themselves with any substantial form of shelter, food or income until quite late in life which prolongs their dependency on the adults around them, and importantly, makes these relationships ones of life or death. Children have to figure out how to stay close enough to their caregivers to get what they need and far away enough to stay safe – no small feat. As a result, nervous systems and minds develop very creative ways of achieving this. We may constantly predict the worst thing that could happen to prevent ourselves from ambush, we may become overly compliant and fearful of making any mistakes, we may try to eliminate all kinds of uncertainty by relentless thinking, and we may become fearful of parts of ourselves that could elicit anger or rejection.

Unfortunately, the part of our minds that deals with fear and survival (primarily the limbic system), lacks a sense of now and then. This means that we lack the capacity to say that was scary then and now is safe. Instead, our minds continue as if things are still scary and life or death so as to make absolutely sure we can never be as vulnerable again. Unfortunately, this creates quite a lot of suffering in adulthood. We get regularly hijacked by a hypervigilant limbic system and if we don’t dissociate completely from fear, our limbic systems use our sophisticated thinking to assemble all kinds of disaster scenarios and feelings and thus attempt to pre-empt harm. This is when we feel hit by a tidal wave of feeling or repetitive, intrusive thought which we can’t explain. It is a very young mind entering into our adult experience to try and keep us safe.

The terrible suffering comes when we believe this young mind. When we believe the what ifs and feelings of dread and death. When we believe obsessional thoughts and the million pictures of awfulness our wondrous minds can create. As such, the only solution is to start to recognise this as a scared young mind and try to believe it a little less. These thoughts and feelings lose a bit of their power if we don’t take them too seriously. They can in time become a bit of ornamentation, which can be contextualised as past.

Some key strategies to help with this are:

  • Reflective labelling: ‘this is my young mind; I am having the thought that; my limbic system is hi-jacking me’
  • Then and now: ‘that was then, this is now;’ noticing what is here and safe and in our control right now. This might include grounding exercises
  • Exercise: nothing grounds one or slows the mind like physical movement: often low intensity but requiring a lot of concentration is best. Physical movement also makes us feel more powerful which can help with young mind states of helplessness and dread
  • Giving the intrusive thoughts a different accent, repeating them in a sing song or melody or different intonation can help
  • Mindful attention: this is a really good practise for longer term detachment from our thoughts and feelings. Daily practice can reduce our enmeshment with and fear of our thoughts. In the moment it can really help too but it depends on the level of overwhelm. If the overwhelm is too much, sensory grounding is better.

It is quite a radical shift to consider that our minds do not always have the most reliable take on reality, but arguing with our thoughts or feeling states doesn’t work either. That approach just adds more kindle to the flames of repetitive doubt and fear. Shifting focus, coming back to the present tense and noticing and labelling what is happening can be much more helpful.