How To Feel Good

Melencolia I, 1514 engraving by Albrecht Dürer

Melencolia I, 1514 engraving by Albrecht Dürer

I used to think I had a chemical imbalance in my brain that made me sad and melancholic for no reason, like I had an inability to be happy because of my nature. My dad's sister has depression and she takes meds for it, so I naturally thought I had it too. The complex pool of my genetic makeup contains bad strands that causes this mental disease (I don't know how neuroscience or biology works). I had this voice in my head that told me a lot of negative things that I just accepted them without any scepticism. I get stuck in negative loops. I thought I was broken.

But reading this completely changed my mindset towards what "bad" feelings like depression and anxiety are, and how to feel good.

it's not a chemical imbalance

  • depression and anxiety is a software problem, not a hardware problem.
  • along with happiness and serenity, it is not outside the normal range of a healthy person
  • if you broke a bone, you wouldn't say you were "born" with the broken bone; breaking bones is a normal experience for healthy individuals.

you're not the voice

  • the voice
    • you have a voice in your head, it's the one reading these words right now! you can make it say anything you want.
    • you're not this voice, you're the thing hearing the voice.
    • it says bad things, like "you're never going to make it" or "this person hates me" or "everything sucks"
  • the movie that's always playing
    • a movie in your head replays conversations you wish went differently, the perfect response to an argument, or something embarrassing that happened years ago.
    • this movie is not you, you're the thing watching the movie
  • "cognitions"
    • CBT calls this voice, the movie, and other mental objects cognitions, a.k.a. thoughts
    • you're not your thoughts, you're not thinking them, you're the thing watching the thoughts.
    • it's why CBT refers to these thoughts as "automatic", these thoughts just pop in your head

the thoughts think themselves

  • thought exercise
    • close your eyes and try to not think about anything
    • give 30 seconds and your mind will wander off onto things like "why am i doing this", "this is a waste of time", "why is it so hot?", "what did I have to do today?".
    • you try to turn off these thoughts, but the thoughts think themselves
  • this is a natural part of the human condition, and it is totally normal.
  • you may think everything "out there" isn't you, and everything "in here" is you, but that's not true. these mental objects floating around in your head are no more you than the device you're reading this on right now.

thoughts -> mood

  • one bad thought can spiral out of control into more and more bad thoughts that does not reflect reality
  • this is called "Catastrophizing"
  • in your head, you constructed a reality where a "bad thing" happened, your body reacts as if it truly happened. but it is not happening right now. It's just a movie

"it's all in your head"

  • people who don't understand mental health easily dismisses the physical symptoms you might be feeling by saying "it's all in your head"
    • this assumes you have control over your thoughts, that you're thinking them and all you have to do is stop thinking them. But you are not your thoughts.
  • you then latch on to the belief that the problems are purely physical to justify your distress
    • this assumes you're broken and you cannot do anything about it. But you're not broken. you're just watching these thoughts.

the skill of optionality

  • you can let thoughts happen and not suffer the physical feelings
  • reading about this isn't enough to make you feel better, it's a skill that you can master.
  • you're learning the ability to chose when to stop watching the movie, and when to continue.
  • people who build this skill become happier because they choose what things effect them, and how much.
  • you're a film critic
    • saying "just don't let it bother you" is like asking you yo change the plot of a movie you're not in charge of.
    • the skill here not how to change the movie, but to recognize that it is a movie.
    • you're sitting with a notebook in hand, ready to point out the plot holes and flaws in the movie.

examine thoughts from a distance

  • these thoughts are habits, little feedback loops
  • feed them, they grow stronger; avoid them, they also get stronger
  • look at them, distance yourself from them, critically examine them. this causes the trigger but not the reinforcement that comes from the emotional response.
  • if you get better at this skill, you have less negative thoughts to deal with.
  • REMEMBER! You are not broken. There's nothing wrong with you. The thoughts aren't you. You're just watching them

step 1. don't trust your thoughts

  • false positives
    • negative thoughts and emotions like fear, anger and sadness are your body's emergency management tools
    • from an evolutionary perspective, they don't need to be 100% accurate to keep you alive, or keeping you aligned with the tribe. false positives still gets your genes across.
    • the experience of being a modern human is having these tools fire without reason even when there are no lions in sight.
  • "cognitive distortions": any untrue, negative thought
    • mind reading: pretend you know what someone else is thinking
    • fortune telling: pretend we know what will happen in the future
    • all or nothing thinking: see things in binary categories. I failed this so I will fail everything.
    • filtering: focus on bad things and minimize good things.
    • should statements: we think we should or ought to be one way or another. says who?
    • emotional reasoning: justifying our actions and beliefs based on emotions.
    • more
  • too often we believe we "know" something is going to happen without evidence evidence. this is a form of magical reasoning, and one we accept from the voice all the time.

exercise #1 : catch it, check it, change it

  • 3 column technique
    • #1 catch it: when a negative thought arises, write it down
      • if the thought is more like a movie, describe it. record the emotions that appear
    • #2 check it: truly challenge the thought. note any cognitive distortions
    • #3 change it: write a new thought/movie that shows a more rational view of the situation
  • goals
    • slow down: instead of catastrophizing, take a moment and see if the thought is even valid. it forces you to stop and notice what's going on and detach yourself from the rollercoaster of emotions.
    • be a scientist: question the hypothesis of your thoughts and challenge it like a scientist. TRhis is what therapists are good at, they help you see where your logic is wrong.

exercise #2: predictions

  • procedure:
    1. When you assume something bad will happen in the future, write it down. Record how bad you assume the thing will be. Record what would happen if the prediction came true and how you would feel.
    2. set a reminder for when you expect the prediction to come true
    3. check back to see if it happened. was it actually as bad as you thought? Did it even come true?
  • this is useful for panic attacks. they're often a sense of terrible bad things that never happen.
  • the point is to be a scientist studying yourself. you're not the anxiety, you're not the depression, you're not the panic attacks; you're just the thing watching.

you misunderstand meditation

  • meditation is not meant to "calm you down" when your emotional state is "worked up"
  • it's not a concentration exercise to force the mind to focus on one thing.
  • the reason to meditate is to practice seeing reality.
    • you're getting a feel of what things are really you and what things are not
  • flow state
    • if you sit and breathe and the thoughts float more than 30 seconds, you may hit a point where the thoughts have mostly faded away.
    • without the mental objects to occupy your focus, the focus departs as well, like it does when you're in flow.
    • If you don't attach yourself to the voice and the movie that tries to distract you, flow state happens all the time.
    • it's the default state, a very good feeling, where you're not being pulled away by some thought.
    • if the thoughts aren't there, and your observation of thoughts aren't there, you will find a "you" in there that is smaller than you thought.

"small you" and "large you"

  • "small you" is the entire goal. it's the observer; one that can look at the situation with empathy and kind scepticism towards the outside world, and the inside, mental world.
  • "large you" thinks there's no way to escape from the random thoughts that feed on your mind, and that they are you.
  • this isn't an analogy. "small you" is the real you. Your brain's perception of you.
  • The way to feel the "small you", and start to feel better, is through mindfulness.
  • mindfulness = catching thoughts as they happen, disowning them, and skeptically questioning their validity.

how to meditate

  • set a timer for 15-20 minutes
  • watch your breath, no need to force it
  • notice the mind wandering, noticing is the meditation.
  • watch the thoughts think themselves.
  • if you notice that your mind is wandering, gently let the thought go adn bring your attention back
  • if the voice says "this is boring", notice the thought, notice the boring. Then let it go
  • listen to the voices, notice the thought, examine it, hold this judgement until the timer ends.

sleep and exercise let's you play on easy mode

  • mental illness is a negative feedback loop where negative thoughts -> negative moods -> negative behaviours like sleeping poorly and not exercising
  • this then causes more negative thoughts, and make the emotional responses from attaching to them stronger

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