Tag Archives: depression

Spock Therapy

Vulcan Lane Sign

Image credit: Wonderferret via Flickr, CC by 2.0

I’ve fought hard against depression and anxiety for decades. I’ve read so many self-help books and tried all the positive thinking in the world. I’ve yanked on my bootstraps and I’ve Stuart Smalley’d myself in the mirror. I’ve written about my depression. I’ve given therapists my life story and they’ve tried to dig into my subconscious to pinpoint what emotional upheavals in my childhood might have turned me into a nervous caffeinated Eeyore. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that my life finally started to change.

Cognitive therapy is hard work. Such hard work, in fact, that I wasn’t ready to take it on until I finally found a medication that lifted my depression just enough for me to dedicate my resources to anything other than basic needs. Even then, I was reluctant to take on the challenge. CBT is a long-term commitment. It’s not just dumping a week’s worth of troubles onto a therapist’s couch and walking away with a new bounce in your step. It’s constant repetitive work, like redirecting a fork-wielding toddler away from the power outlets, over and over and over.

Any Google search on CBT will quickly get you to a long list of “cognitive distortions” that get in the way of healthy thinking. It’s worth buying a copy of David Burns’ Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy and reading through it yourself to really understand the research behind the therapy techniques. Essentially, you train yourself to recognize and label distorted thoughts as they come by, and then use appropriate techniques to challenge or “talk back” to them. Every time you check in and find your brain veering off course, you need to stop, focus, and correct it.

It can be intimidating to a beginner. I’ve recommended the book to friends who start out very enthusiastic and then abandon it after a chapter or two because it’s difficult or confusing. And it is difficult. Especially if the only therapy you’ve ever had (if any) is the introspective, cry-on-a-couch, relive-your-childhood-until-we-get-to-the-bottom-of-things therapy.

So I’ve found an easier way to approach it. If you want to start telling your irrational thoughts what’s what, but the books seem like gibberish to you, start simply. Don’t jump all the way in and splash around. Start logically. Your exhausted, anxious, depressed brain needs a first officer who can help you keep your shit together even when you’re falling apart. Your brain needs Spock.

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Let me explain.

The beauty of CBT, and the reason it connected so well with me, is that none of it is magic. No fake-it-till-you-make it, think positive, rainbows and unicorns pop-sci bullshit. It’s just logic. Pure, simple, and real. Logic. It’s Spock therapy.

At its core, CBT is simple: it’s about recognizing cognitive distortions. It’s about noticing when your thoughts need to be relieved of command. The purpose isn’t to change how you feel, at least not directly. It’s about recognizing that the thoughts you think contribute to which way your mood is likely to swing, and learning to control them instead of letting them control you. Everyone has irrational thoughts from time to time; the difference is that folks suffering from depression or anxiety have them more often, and believe them more often, and get trapped in a feedback loop of irrational thoughts causing very real feelings.

Now, CBT isn’t about never being sad: things suck sometimes and everyone deserves a good cry when it gets to be too much. And it’s not about never being angry: a kicked puppy is right to bite back. You’re allowed to have feelings! You’re human, after all. What the therapy does – what the hard work you put into the exercises does – is help you to assess whether the thoughts you are thinking make any sense, in context.

And who’s the best out there at telling an impulsive and irrational captain that he’s being ridiculous?

Kirk and Spock argue

Image credit: JD Hancock via Flickr, CC by 2.0

You know the logical answer.

Just imagine Spock (Tuvok will do, I’m not here to judge you on your Vulcan choice) on your shoulder, listening in on your thoughts. When your brain pulls out an irrational cognitive distortion, Spock is there to question you and make you reconsider. That’s his job as first officer. Don’t worry, you’re still the captain: sometimes, you’re going to decide that Spock is wrong and you’re going to accept your thoughts and feel your feelings. But before you dismiss your first officer, give him a chance to challenge you. When you start making statements about yourself or the situation you’re in, hand them off to Spock before you give them any weight. Think to yourself: What would Spock say?

Let’s take one of the most common kinds of distortions: “all-or-nothing thinking,” or applying a mental filter that accentuates the negative and discounts the positive.

“Dammit, I forgot my wallet at home again. I can’t do anything right.”

“Captain, that statement is illogical. You have, in fact, done several things right even in the past hour. You are wearing correctly-buttoned pants, and you drove yourself to this Trader Joe’s without breaking any traffic laws.”

How about “fortune-telling,” where you jump to conclusions (usually the worst ones) without any evidence. What would Spock say?

“He didn’t call back. I must have said something to offend him.”

Captain, telepathy is not a common human trait. Absent any evidence that he is in fact offended, you are basing your belief on conjecture. There are many explanations for a delayed response on his part, and your hypothesis does not carry more statistical weight than the others.

Irrational thoughts are sneaky. They can be really convincing, especially if they’ve been with you for decades or more. Talking back to them takes dedication and a lot of practice, and I honestly believe that the Feeling Good book is the best tool you can have in your pocket. Get the handbook, too, and really take the time to learn how your brain distorts things. Nobody else can do the work for you, and you can’t improve without effort. But that doesn’t mean that you have to make that effort alone.

Some people wear religious symbols – crosses, stars – or get meaningful images tattooed on their bodies to remind them they’re not alone in their journey. In my case my symbol is a reminder that I don’t always know best, because my thinking can list towards the irrational without my conscious mind realizing just how far off course we’ve gotten. If I’m not careful, I find myself fighting like mad just to stay in place as my depression and anxious thoughts pull at my mind like a tractor beam.

That’s why I depend on my first officer to help me make the right decisions about when to pay attention to what my brain is saying.

Spock and Kirk

Image credit: Sonny Abesamis via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Keep Spock with you. Let him help you.

He has been, and always shall be, your friend.

 




 

(Any Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and you can read more about that here. I’ve only linked to things I love and recommend.)

Don’t listen to idiots.

There’s a very important bit of information that you need to remember when the little voice inside of your head tells you that you suck, and nobody wants to hear what you have to say, and that you’ll never amount to anything.

That voice is YOU.

Think about what that means for a second.

The voice in your head says you’re an idiot.

But the voice is you.

The voice is most likely wrong in the first place. Chances are pretty good that you’re actually a lovely person worthy of love and hugs and wonderful things. But you quietly think to yourself that maybe it might be right, which is why you’re here reading this in the first place.

But that voice is you.

And that means if that voice is correct, and you’re indeed an idiot, then that voice must also be an idiot.

Don’t listen to idiots.

Shut up, voice.

 




The problem with “crazy.”

A friend on Facebook pointed me to a scary firsthand account of a random shooting. It’s terrifying, and I’m glad that the author and bystanders weren’t badly hurt. But the article bothered me. Quite a bit, actually.

He says (bolding mine):

“All things considered, I’m really lucky. Not only am I alive and didn’t witness him shooting himself, as so many did, I have extremely supportive family and friends, I have an understanding employer, and I have resources to talk to.

The shooter was mentally ill and wasn’t so lucky. The lesson I’m taking away from this is that we need to make mental health a priority in ourselves and in our communities. Support your local mental health organizations in whatever ways you can, financially and by forcing politicians to take the issue more seriously.”

I don’t know the details of this incident and can’t speak as to the mental health of this particular shooter, but I’m seriously uncomfortable with the way we tend to jump to analyze shooters’ motives (often after they’re dead) and so often conclude that they must have been mentally ill. Some undoubtedly are, whether they were diagnosed by a therapist or diagnosed posthumously after examination of their personal effects and interrogation of their family and friends. But some of these guys are just angry assholes with a score to settle with the world.

I have absolutely no problem with the rest of that particular post. I agree wholeheartedly that there needs to be a change in how we deal with mental illness as a civilized society. But we shouldn’t be doing it because of all these dangerous “mentally ill” people shooting up our schools.

We should be doing it for the anorexics who think their skeletal bodies are still too fat. For those with anxiety disorders severe enough to keep them shut up in their homes. For those plagued by addictions and compulsions that have taken over their lives. For those who are so deeply depressed that they can’t see a way out of the darkness except to take their own lives.

It should be obvious that we need to increase funding for mental health resources. It should not take tragedies to make that happen.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that everyone knows someone with a mental health issue. Mental illness is more than schizophrenia (and schizophrenia isn’t the devil it’s often made out to be, either). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a standard published by the American Psychiatric Association to serve as a reference for the definitions of mental disorders. Take a moment and have a look at their list of mental disorders, then think about all the people you know. Do you know someone with autism? Alzheimers? Bipolar disorder? Depression? These are legitimate mental illnesses. People living with any one of the DSM’s list of disorders would be better served by better public awareness of the realities of mental health issues, as opposed to the scary stuff we see about “crazy people” on TV.

I don’t know what to call the people with a broken moral compass and a need for vengeance or notoriety. “Mentally ill” or “crazy” are convenient and do have a ring of truth, because what adult human being of sound mind could walk into a school and murder children? We need a way to express that there must be something wrong with these people; they’re not like the rest of us. But we need a better way. When “mentally ill” is used as an explanation for reprehensible behavior, it takes that label out of its medical context and makes it into something so much more dangerous. We need to encourage people to get help, not keep them quiet around their families and teachers and doctors for fear that they’ll be labeled. Because we’ve made “crazy” a dangerous label.