Why your unconscious brain hates you.

Ever wondered why it’s so gawd dang hard to change?

To quit smoking,  to start that gym routine, to stick to that healthy eating plan, to just say no to drugs, alcohol and/or sex? (All three perhaps.) The answer is simple: Your unconscious brain hates you.

Well, maybe hate’s a strong word. But if you had a friend that constantly ignored you, wouldn’t you start to hate them a little bit too? Well it pays to know your enemy so here are a few bits of information I’ve found out about the unconscious that may be of interest.

Your unconscious brain’s main two concerns are to protect you and keep you alive and to give you more of what feels good. It doesn’t care how those ends are achieved, only that are accomplished. This may seem contradictory when you are trying to change negative patterns in your life as all the changes you want to make are good for you, and some of the things you want to stop doing are clearly bad for you.

Take smoking as an example. Everyone knows that smoking can kill you in the end, but as far as the unconscious is concerned, the danger is not imminent. The other thing that makes it so hard to drop all those unwanted bad habits and behaviours, the one thing they all have in common, is that they offer the unconscious brain instant rewards. Short cuts to feeling better, well worn paths that have been etched from years of use exactly because they are a short-cut to some desired end. Why take a longer route when that short-cut is so temptingly efficient… And your unconscious brain is nothing if not efficient.

In neurology there is a saying, neurons that fire together, wire together. The more you repeat something, the more adept your brain will become at executing that function.  If something has worked to date, and by ‘worked’ I mean in the most primitive sense, then your unconscious brain, also known as your ‘reptilian’ brain co-incidentally, will see no good reason to change.

Scientists surmise that our unconscious brain is responsible for 90 – 95% of what we do, our conscious brain – what we think, reason and supposedly make rational decisions with, accounts for only about  5 – 7%. So guess what, if you want to change something, then forget trying to talk yourself into it, forget reasoning with yourself, will power, forget all that. You have to get your unconscious on side and working for you, instead of against you. And you can only do that by learning to pay attention to what your unconscious is trying to tell you.

Freud, great grand-daddy of psychology likened the unconscious to an ice-berg. What we can see (our conscious mind) is only the top. The bulk of the iceberg lays beneath the surface.

Ice berg image metaphor courtesy of Mind Talk.

According to NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) and attachment theory, the unconscious brain has some funny ‘quirks’ and these could be responsible for some of the reasons why you find it so hard to make those changes you say you want. (For more on attachment theory see this previous post).

Some weird things you may not have known about your unconscious brain:

  1. The unconscious brain is kind of lazy. O.k. lazy is a bit harsh however, its motto is: If it ain’t really that broke, why fix it? It’s quite happy for you to get by on ‘good enough’ because as far as it’s concerned if it’s worked for you until now, what’s the big deal?
  2. The unconscious brain is super-protective. It’s main aim is to keep you alive and safe, so that’s why it perceives any negative emotion, trauma or stress as a danger – which is what is behind many anxiety issues. Thing is, your unconscious brain doesn’t know whether the danger is real or imagined and it doesn’t care. All it understands is, danger, danger! Like the robot from Lost in Space. (I am so showing my age right now!) So it re-directs your energy away from unnecessary processes, such as ‘thinking’ and puts it into what it perceives as more important; blood flow to your heart, limbs and lungs so you can make haste. Cue: Stress and anxiety!
  3. The unconscious brain is not reasonable, it is 100% pure emotion. It thinks in symbols and its language is the stuff of dreams. All non-verbal communication is handled by your unconscious brain, and according to body language experts about 80% of all communication between humans is non-verbal.
  4. The unconscious brain does not understand negatives, which may sound like a positive thing but if you say, for example – I don’t want to be poor, all it will understand is ‘poor’.
  5. The unconscious brain will believe whatever you tell it. Literally. So be careful how you speak to yourself. CBT spends a lot of time talking about ‘automatic thoughts’ and ‘core beliefs’. Narrative Therapy talks about ‘meta narratives’. The messages, beliefs, unquestioned and accepted things we tell ourselves that are, for the most part pretty negative. When you stop and take a moment to actually listen to the things you say to yourself, well…no wonder you’re reading this blog right now!
  6. The unconscious brain is like a seven year old child. It just wants more good feelings, and less bad. Kind of what Freud called, “the pleasure principle”. It doesn’t understand that sometimes, you have to experience a little discomfort in order to achieve a greater goal. It will try to stop you from doing things like, working out, going to a new class, or making that dreaded telephone call because in the interim there will be some pain involved. And pain, all pain, is bad.

These are just of the unconscious brain’s quirks that make it such a mysterious ol thing. Bless its cotton socks!

However you shouldn’t go dissing your unconscious side too much as it really does do a lot for you. Is your heart beating right now? Good. Well, it’s not like you have to wake up each morning and ‘kick start your heart’ now is it? (Even if the members of Motley Crue might do.) It’s not as if you have to remember to ‘set your heart alarm’ each night before you go to bed. No. Your unconscious mind looks after all of that. Your breathing, sight, digestion, all of that. Imagine how exhausting it would be if you had to tell your body what to do to digest food. You’d get nothing much else done!

Another thing your unconscious looks after is memory. It stores every single memory you’ve ever had and organizes those memories for you. You can only really think of about 5 – 7 things at any one time. You might not remember the name of your third grade teacher off the top of your head, but your unconscious does. It remembers everything. IN DETAIL. Your unconscious also decides what memories are too traumatic for you to deal with and suppresses those until it decides you are ready for them. Yes, your unconscious is one mean, lean, ripped, pretty powerful entity so… it might not be a bad idea to be on good terms with it now would it

So, if you are struggling to change something in your life, maybe it’s time you had a talk with you and asked yourself, well your unconscious side of yourself… So, what’s it gonna take for us to get along. Huh? How can we work on things together so that we are both happy?

Well, I’ve give you some answers to those questions soon. Promise!

Sources / Further reading:

http://www.simplypsychology.org/unconscious-mind.html
http://www.mindtalk.co.za/unconscious_mind.html
http://www.nlpacademy.co.uk/articles/view/understanding_your_mind_conscious_and_unconscious_processing/
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/focus-forgiveness/201307/conscious-the-unconscious
http://www.psychologistworld.com/bodylanguage/
http://www.nlpinfo.com/prime-directives-of-the-unconscious-mind/
http://www.psychologistworld.com/bodylanguage/

The masks we wear

As part of my work experience for the counselling course I have almost completed (yay!) I have started to co-facilitate a therapy self-help group once a week for people who are struggling with anxiety issues.

However, let me stop myself there. I used the word “struggling” didn’t I. Well, there-in lies part of the problem. This sense of struggling against, fighting with something that seems bigger, scarier and tougher than you are seems to just give it more power. If there is one thing that has become apparent already is that it seems the more they struggled with their issues the more powerful they seemed to become.

One of the group members however shared an insight which I just thought was so beautiful it had to be noted. For many sufferers of anxiety, depression often accompanies their anxiety, especially when one becomes weary of battle. Fighting an old familiar enemy day in and day out becomes exhausting, and yes sometimes it seems the wall is too high, the enemy too strong, your will and strength are sapped and you slump in defeat and allow depression to settle. What’s the point, they say to themselves.

This is the point when a lot of anxiety sufferers retreat and isolate themselves. In their shame and self loathing, they do not want to ‘show face’, fearing that others will judge them as harshly as they have judged themselves.

One group member talked about the mask she wore and how heavy it became, so she decided to drop it and let her friends see her without it. That was a turning point for her, she was blown away by just how loving and accepting her friends were. How kinder they were to her than she had been to herself.

And I thought, how true this is. We all wear masks to a certain point. Only showing the world and those we know a side of ourselves that we think they will find acceptable. Because, god forbid what would happen should we allow our mask to slip and our imperfections were made visible to all. Oh the horror! But as this group member discovered, the people we know, those we have gathered around us and who are our friends and even those we may only call aquaintances, are a lot more forgiving, accepting and loving than we give them credit for. And our imperfections, our true selves, are a lot more loveable than we think.

The burden of our self imposed perfect selves. The masks we wear, the shoulds, oughts and musts. What would happen if we just let all of that go? What would we find behind the masks…

Anxiety – Facing the enemy within

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety. Part of the reason is because I have just written an essay about it, and part of the reason is because I have been living with anxiety in one form or another for most of my life.

At times, I have been the at the centre of the storm, and at other times, I have watched others wrestle with this demon or demons as is often the case.

I think, I know a lot more about anxiety than I did only a few months before. And, based on my research and observations, the following is a short list (in no particular order, hence the bullet points) of what I know about anxiety, the enemy within.

  • Anxiety disorders affect about 14 per cent of Australian men and women at some point.
  • Anxiety affects the brain and the body. It may start in your head but pretty soon, your whole body is involved. See this infographic:

Affects of anxiety

  • Anxiety isn’t all bad. It’s what makes you get up in the morning, when you’d rather stay in bed, it’s what forces you to go to work so you can pay your bills. A little anxiety is a good thing. It gets things done. (It gets most of my essays done, that’s for sure!)
  • Anxiety gets stronger, the more you avoid it. Like any school yard bully, the more you try to ignore it, the more persistent it gets. But also like any classic bully, it is better at dishing it out than taking it.
  • Anxiety feeds on negativity. It can take a lifetime of therapy to undo the damage of one negative idea. Negative ‘what ifs’, ‘catastrophic thinking‘ and ‘inner critics‘ are anxiety’s friends and partners in crime. If anxiety is the ring leader, than these troublemakers are definitely in its posse.
  • The best way to rob anxiety of its strength is to do the opposite of what you instinctively want to do which is run in the opposite direction . In-fact, ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) which is one of the so called ‘third wave’ of CBT, actually encourages clients to ‘accept’ their anxiety as a part of the lives, kind of like an annoying yet unavoidable family member or uninvited guest.
  • Fear is a formidable enemy. It’s no wonder it has been used as an effective weapon on the battlefield in days gone past. However, for anxiety sufferers it may be helpful to remember, it’s not your fears which are the problem, it is fear itself.

Johnny Depp

If you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety, the following websites may be of help. The Mental Health Association offers free anxiety support groups and Beyond Blue has a lot of information on anxiety and depression as well as free telephone or internet based counselling.