Mind Magic

Being a psychologist, I’ve done a lot of thinking and studying about the human brain – the organ that makes us “the magic animal.” Humans can not only see things as they are, but as they could be. Our cognitive abilities and our imaginations allow us to create cultures and cities and symphony orchestras and entertaining stories about things that never happened.

It was my privilege, as a therapist, to be a witness to people changing their lives in positive ways. I’ve seen parents become better at raising their children. I’ve seen violent people learn that anger needn’t lead to violence, and learn to control their behavior no matter how angry they got. I’ve seen couples discover deep emotional intimacy while respecting one another’s boundaries. I’ve long suspected that major changes in a person’s behavior patterns (i.e. mastering anger management) was probably causing structural synaptic changes in their brains. Synaptic pathways mediate both emotions and behaviors.

My suspicions have been validated in recent years by research on brain neuroplasticity. Our brains have the ability to reorganize themselves structurally and functionally, by forming new neural connections. Brains can “re-wire” themselves to compensate for injury or disease, and to adjust to new or changing situations. My guess is that the brains of bilingual people have more complex neural pathways related to speech and language than people who only speak one language. I suspect that it gets easier over time for formerly violent people to use their anger management skills, because daily practice creates new neural connections, new reflex behaviors.

The human brain has a wide repertoire  of states of consciousness (SOCs). The very notion of “altered states of consciousness” presupposes that there’s a “standard” SOC – which is clearly not the case. Your SOC is different when you solve a math problem, or listen to music, or perform in front of an audience, or make love. So, I submit that we have a range of standard SOCs, which everyone experiences, as well as a range of alternate SOCs – some of which not everyone will experience. Taking drugs – including alcohol and nicotine – reliably alters consciousness in a variety of predictable ways. I won’t get into drugs as a means of altering consciousness in this post, other than to recommend Michael Pollan’s  book, How To Change Your Mind, which is about the potential of psychedelic experiences to bring about  lasting positive changes in peoples’ lives – even after a single “trip.”

I’d like to briefly share some of the things I’ve learned about our potential to “change our minds” without using drugs. Rational thinking  is a learnable skill. We all have rational and irrational thoughts. Many people can’t tell the difference between  them and sometimes act on irrational thoughts, complicating their lives. Rational thinkers are people who can differentiate their rational thoughts from their irrational thoughts, and make rational decisions. I believe that the brains of rational thinkers are wired differently – through practice – than the brains of those who can’t tell the difference. Active listening is a learnable skill that improves receptivity to nuances of interpersonal dialogue and music appreciation, among other things. Over decades of listening to classical music, I’ve become a better listener. Listening is often a passive process, but active listening is mindful listening, with no intruding thoughts.

Hypnosis is generally understood as a SOC “induced” by a hypnotist, where the brain is receptive to suggestion. People who are good hypnotic subjects can learn self-hypnosis to relieve pain, overcome bad habits, and otherwise improve their lives. Meditation is similar to active listening only in that it involves mental focus. But in active listening, the mind is focused on some external thing, whether words or music. Experienced meditators can maintain awareness,without any object of that awareness. There are things to be learned by simple, sustained awareness that can’t be learned by thinking, or be put into words. Mindfulness is a kind of meditation where the meditator is focused on their immediate experience, to the exclusion of thoughts about what they’re experiencing – especially judgments like good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Walking or chopping wood can be the focus of mindfulness meditation.

Not everyone experiences all of these SOCs; some require preparation and effort. Training that I received from anthropologist and practicing shaman Dr. Michael Harner enabled me to experience the shamanic state of consciousness, in which I’ve had vivid experiences of “journeying” in Dreamtime and encountering spirit animals. You can learn more about the techniques of shamanic journeying at http://www.shamanism.org, the website of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, which Dr. Harner founded.

While I agree with Michael Pollan that psychedelic “trips” can, under the right conditions, be profound, positive life-changing experiences, I wrote this post as an overview of non-drug SOCs that can change our minds and lives. If you want to know more about any of these tools for personal growth, I’ve written in more detail about psychedelic consciousness, shamanic journeying, rational thinking, active listening, hypnosis, meditation and mindfulness in previous posts. You’ll also find a few entertaining stories about things that never happened.

Your mind is magical.

Rules for “fair fighting”

Lovers are going to fight sometimes – hopefully, only with words. It’s inevitable, because no two people in an intimate relationship are a “perfect match” in terms of habits, preferences and expectations. Boundaries have to be set (and re-set) because each of us is unique, and adjustments are inevitable in a healthy relationship. The balance of power is an issue in many or most romantic relationships. Joni Mitchell wrote  (and sang) “You and me are like America and Russia,/ We’re  always keeping score./ We’re always balancing the power,/ And that can get to be a bore.” I know a lot about balancing the power, not only from my own personal experiences, but from years of doing couples’ therapy, as a psychologist.

Knowing that conflict is inevitable in lasting intimate relationships, I studied, and came up with my own set of rules for “fair fighting,” to minimize destructive messages and to keep open the possibility of mutually satisfactory resolutions. Dialogue can be constructive or destructive. Destructive arguments can leave wounds, which can either fester or heal over time. If both partners act in good faith with one another over time and earn to fight fairly, old wounds can heal, and they can avoid lasting damage to the relationship. Here’s my list of rules:

(1) Practice the Golden Rule, and remember that there needn’t necessarily be a Winner and a Loser when you and your partner have a disagreement. The Golden Rule doesn’t mean that you always have to treat your partner the way they want to be treated; it means mutual respect for boundaries. “Okay. I agree to stop bringing up that time you got drunk and cheated on me ten years ago, but you don’t get to shout at me.” Yelling, cursing, and degrading language are all counterproductive to mutual understanding and harmony.

(2) If one or both of you has lost your temper, either of you can call a time out. Stop talking, trying to get the last word in. It’s hard to be rational when you’re angry. You may or may not need to  physically separate during the time out, but don’t resume the discussion until both of you have cooled down. Repeat as necessary. It might help to write down your thought and feelings during the time out, if that helps you to get perspective.

(3) Stay on topic. Deal with one problem/issue at a time. Avoid “and while I’m at it . . .” digressions, and don’t drag in past grievances. Don’t stonewall, i.e. refuse, over time, to discuss a topic that your partner thinks is important. Don’t deflect or pivot: “Let’s not talk about me, let’s talk about you.” Try to avoid blaming statements. Take turns doing active listening and ask for clarification if you need it. Ask neutral questions that elicit feedback, such as, “Does that make sense to you?”

(4) Try not to generalize. Be as specific as you can, and avoid absolutes like “always,” “never,” and “every time.” These generalizations are seldom objectively factual, and tend to elicit defensive responses. Statements like, “We never make love anymore” trigger thoughts counter to that statement, i.e. “We made love last Wednesday.”

(5) Avoid questions-that- aren’t-really-questions – statements phrased as if they were queries, usually starting with “why” or “what.”: “Why are you always on my case?” “Why don’t you act like a real man (or woman)?” “What do you take me for – your maid?” “Why are you such a big baby?” Such statements in the form of questions invite a defensive, and sometimes angry, response. There’s no “answer” to the “question” that would satisfy the asker.

(6) I-statements (first-person) are usually much easier to digest than you-statements (second-person), which can be contradicted, argued over. If you start a sentence with “I feel/want/think/wish . . . ” your partner can’t contradict you, because you’re the final authority on how you feel and what you think. It’s easier to hear and understand, “I wish you’d spend more time with the kids” than ” You hardly ever spend tome with the kids,” let alone “Why don’t you ever spend time with the kids?” It’s easier to hear “I think you’re wrong” than “You’re wrong.”

Metacommunication is talking about the way we talk. Here’s an example: Pat “How do you think we’re doing, applying those fair fighting rules we learned in counseling?” Lindsey “I think we’re doing better, but I wish you’d stop bringing up the past when we argue. How do you think we’re doing?” Pat “Well, we haven’t had a shouting match in weeks, so there’s improvement. I need to work on ‘one topic at a time.’  But I don’t like it when you get angry and keep going on, after I call a time out. We need to stop talking and cool off when either of us calls a time out. It’s just not important for one of us to get in the last word.”

Shakespeare wrote, “Love does not alter when it alteration finds . . .”. True, lasting love involves tolerance. True love will find a way to rise above conflicts, in service of harmony.

Prisoners of metaphor

Humankind has been called “the magic animal” because of our linguistic ability. Robert Anton Wilson put it this way: “Language. . . allowed people to do what no other animal seems to do, namely to visualize and/or verbally ‘contemplate’ something that is not present before their senses. This fantasy or reflection or cognition allows us, then, to compare the imagined with the experienced.” The amazing discriminating mind that language has enabled is, however, a two-edged sword. Language has made it possible for us to progress as a species –  to create civilizations, art, literature – but it’s also responsible for a kind of suffering that’s unique to the human animal.

Any bad situation can be made much worse by the way we think about it. Our human imagination can make us depressed, fearful, or enraged without a realistic external cause.  If it’s responsible for the building of magnificent cities, it’s also responsible for the Holocaust and other man-made horrors. As a retired psychotherapist, I know well that people often suffer needless pain because of the way they think.

The purest truths, it seems to me, reside in our experience. Anything we say about things we experience is once-removed from reality. We  have to rely on metaphor to communicate our truths. Nothing we say or write about  love can match the purity of our experiences of love. Most words don’t have absolute meanings, and the possibilities of misunderstanding another person’s words are endless. We encode our thoughts into words, and every listener must decode them. Two people hearing the same sentence or speech might decode it in very different ways. Language is a leaky vessel for conveying Truth.

Not only do we have words for specific phenomenal things, like rain; we also have words for things that don’t exist in the same way that rain exists. Concepts like Justice and Salvation and Divine Right are noumenal, and might not have the same meanings to different people. And yet people often act as if certain noumena were as real as rain, and had some absolute meaning. Wars are fought over things (Honor, God’s Will) that are totally subjective, or can’t be proven to exist in the way rain exists. To most Muslims jihad means the inward spiritual battle against sinful impulses, but to some it means killing infidels  in the name of Allah.

The Wharfian hypothesis – a popular linguistic theory for much of the twentieth century – suggested that our experience is created by the language that we speak. While a person from our culture, at the beach, would see waves in the ocean, someone from another culture might see the water waving. According to the theory, the first person perceived the waves as things, while the second person perceived a process. While the theory has been largely discredited, I think there is some truth to it: language may not determine one’s experience, but it certainly shapes it to some degree.

Linguistic conventions can make us prisoners of metaphor. Words can almost instantly arouse emotions. A good orator or storyteller can put her audience in a trance. A speech can turn a crowd into an angry mob. In both his essay, “Politics and the English Language” and his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote about the manipulation of language for political purposes. Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” He also wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In my last post I wrote about the linguistic trap of “is,” and E-Prime as a tool for becoming more aware of what “is” is in our language and our thought. To the degree that you’re unaware of the limits of language as a means of conveying truths, you are under its bewitchment.

Our belief systems are largely constructed from our native language, and the conventions we live by are largely determined by the culture we were raised in. Because we’re all acculturated, we tend to share certain assumptions about what is real, and what is right or wrong, with the people around us. It’s even been speculated that each of us live our lives in a culturally-induced trance state. It’s easy to find seeming irrationalities or blind spots in people whose belief system differs significantly from your own, not so easy to become aware of your own culturally-transmitted limitations or fixations.

Imagine living in a culture whose language didn’t have the word “week,” and which didn’t have the convention of a seven-day week. How would life be different? Years and months are phenomenal  measurements of time, based on solar and lunar cycles. The four seasons are likewise phenomenal. The seven-day week is an arbitrary, contrived convention which affects the lives of most people on the planet. It’s noumenal, but seems to be experienced by most people as real, in the way that rain is real. Many workers wake up with the blues when they remember that it “is” Monday, and tend to have a bright mood when it “is” Friday afternoon. If you  were a castaway on a desert island, would you have a reason to know what day of the week it “is”?

It’s only Monday if you think it is. Your experience or interpretation of almost anything you encounter in your life is mediated by your belief system, your mental map. It’s possible, as Alan Watts put it, to miss the meal and eat the menu. We all need mental maps to navigate our way through life, but the map isn’t identical to the territory it depicts. If you don’t like some of the places your mental map takes you, you can re-draw parts of it – whatever your age. If you pay attention to the tricks and traps of language, it need not ensnare you, or limit who or what you may make of yourself.

 

 

Exposure Therapy

Most everybody knows what you’re supposed to do if you’re thrown by a horse. If you want to keep on riding, you get back up on horseback right away, to overcome your fear of being thrown again. The only way to get over your fear of drowning, if you swim in the deep end of the swimming pool, is to leave the shallow end and swim in water over your head.

The clinical term for this principle in psychology is exposure. Exposure is the antidote to avoidance, our very human tendency to reduce anxiety by avoiding activities and situations that tend to trigger anxiety. Avoidance is like a drug that immediately and reliably reduces anxiety or fear. For example, Tom is attracted to his high school classmate Jane, and wants to ask her out. He’s told himself that today’s the day he’ll get up his nerve and approach her, but he avoids doing it as the day goes by. As the end of the school day nears, he gets more and more anxious. But the moment he decides to postpone it until tomorrow, his anxiety dissipates. Avoiding and postponing work in the short-term, but serve to entrench our anxieties and fears in the long-term. Avoidance is one of the defense mechanisms  identified by Freud.

According to Dr. Marsha Linehan,  whose Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder has been empirically shown to be highly effective,, exposure is a necessary component of all effective cognitive behavior therapies. Two of the skills training modules in DBT, emotion regulation and distress tolerance, help to prepare clients for exposure to things they typically avoid.

Exposure therapy can be effective in treating Generalized Anxiety  Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and phobias – irrational fears. It involves habituation to the feared stimulus/situation. Imagining exposure to successive approximations of the stimulus/situation (imaginal exposure) and teaching heightened awareness of physiological responses such as heartrate and muscle tension (interoceptive exposure) can be accomplished in the therapist’s office. Exposure to the actual stimulus/situation “out in the world” (in vivo exposure) is often the third step of exposure therapy. Being aware of the thoughts, emotions, and physiological responses involved prepares the client for in vivo exposure. Gradually working your way from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end involves exposure to “successive approximations” of the thing most feared. Jumping – or being thrown – into the deep end is an example of “flooding.”

The therapeutic method known as systematic desensitization was pioneered by South African psychologist Joseph Wolpe. After doing a behavior analysis of thoughts, feelings and physiological responses involved in a phobic reaction, he did relaxation training until the client felt some degree of control over his typical responses. Then he worked with the client to develop a hierarchy of fears, from the least fear-inducing to the most fear-inducing thoughts/experiences. Using this hierarchy, he would work with the client on relaxing as they went through successive approximations, leading up to the thing most feared.

Here’s an example of how I might use this method with a client who had never flown in an airplane, due to her phobia about flying. (Because flying is statistically much safer than driving, fear of flying is considered  an irrational fear, or phobia.) Having assessed Louise’s typical thoughts, feelings, and physiological responses/anxiety symptoms, and having trained her to relax, I might start a session with a relaxation induction, leading to a guided fantasy based on her hierarchy of fears. Louise has been instructed to close her eyes, to raise her right index finger whenever she felt an increase of anxiety, and to lower it when the anxiety decreased.

“You’re in your apartment and you’re packing for your flight . . . . Now you have your bags packed and you’re waiting for a taxi to the airport . . . . And now you’re at the airport and you hear the boarding call . . . . Now you’ve stashed your carry-on and are seated, buckling your seatbelt, etc.” Whenever Louise would raise her finger, I’d switch from the guided fantasy to the relaxation induction: “And as you breathe slowly and deeply, you can feel your muscles relaxing, and your anxiety is replaced by a calm feeling . . . . ” When the finger went down, I’d pick up where I left off on the guided fantasy.

Over time, Louise learns that she has increased control over her response to fearful thoughts, getting gradually closer and closer to the thing she fears most. Once she can imagine herself staying in control as the airplane takes to the skies, we might go on to in vivo exposure therapy, which might involve me accompanying her – at least at first. Some private practice therapists specializing in the treatment of phobias might even accompany his client on his first flight, coaching and encouraging him.

People with severe OCD often engage in compulsive rituals to reduce their anxiety. Exposure therapy can help them to learn that they don’t have to rely on these rituals to reduce their anxiety. People with anxiety disorders can use the principles of successive approximation to gradually desensitize themselves to stimuli/situations that used to trigger anxiety. Exposure therapy can similarly help people with PTSD to control physiological arousal in response to stimuli/situations that used to trigger fear. But in order to overcome an irrational fear, you have to eventually face it.

Agnosticism and certainty, Part 1

I’ve described this blog as a psychology blog, with a side of philosophy. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that explores the nature of knowledge, and how we know what we know. When it comes to religion, what true believers (whether Christian, Muslim, whatever) often claim to know, I see as beliefs, because they can’t be proven to non-believers. Faith is an important thing, and I respect people of faith on the whole. But, to me, faith in a belief is different than true knowledge. You may want to read my previous philosophical post, “It’s only Monday if you think it is,” for added context.

I was “properly churched” by my Christian parents throughout my childhood, but it didn’t take. I went through a brief spell of arrogant atheism as a young man, where I was convinced that people of faith were simply not thinking as rigorously as I was. But I was humbled when I read John Milton’s Paradise Lost and realized that people smarter than me believe in God. When I call myself an agnostic, I simply mean that there are a lot of things I don’t know. I tend to distrust the words of anyone who claims to know things that can’t be proven, such as the existence of an afterlife. I’m not just agnostic in religious matters, I’m agnostic about a lot of things – even some  of the claims made regarding science.

Just as I find it arrogant for a true believer in this or that religion to tell me that they know what I need to believe in, I also find it arrogant for an atheist to assert personal knowledge that God doesn’t exist. If I ask a believer for the source of their authority, they’re likely to refer me to a book that they believe has all the answers. If I ask atheists how they know for certain that God is simply a myth, they’re likely to claim that people of faith have all been indoctrinated, and that there’s no hard evidence to support their beliefs. I’ve heard an atheist claim that agnostics are just atheists who lack conviction, but I’m living proof to the contrary. I’m strongly convinced of a lot of things. But I’m also very comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” It’s a whole different philosophical frame than religious or anti-religious convictions.

Confucius wrote, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Voltaire  wrote, “Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” The Buddha is said to have said, “Doubt everything and find your own light.” I’m intelligent, well-educated and well-read, but what I know is finite, and always will be. What I don’t know is vast, endless. I believe, with Confucius, that this attitude is the beginning of  wisdom. It’s what I described in a story in a previous post as continually “emptying the cup,” so that it can be re-filled. I’ve become very comfortable with ambiguity, shades of gray.

I think that a lot of people confuse opinion and fact. I try to rigorously organize my beliefs in this manner: what I know I know (my knowledge), what I think I know (my opinions), and what I don’t know (my vast ignorance). Instead of thinking dualistically – either this is true or that is true – I tend to  think in terms of probabilities. It’s highly probable to the point of almost-certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. It’s highly improbable (to me) that Jesus arose from the dead after three days and ascended into the heavens. But I don’t have the authority to claim sure knowledge

Back to epistemology: there’s no absolute definition of knowledge. St. Augustine wrote, “Man must know in order that he may believe; he must believe in order that he may know.” We all believe in premises (i.e. there is/may be/ isn’t a God),upon which we establish our values and opinions. Nobody can justly claim absolute authority for their belief system, although many try to. I believe in the merits of the scientific method, but I also believe that science has its limits. I’ve known scientists to whom science is a religion. I believe that science is a finely-ground lens that’s very good at examining some things – but not everything. Science can’t tell us what life is, or consciousness. It’s a branch of philosophy, as is metaphysics. Each has its own appropriate subjects for study and its own methodologies of exploration.

The key to certainty in the study of epistemology is authority. I know of nobody who has the authority to tell me what I should believe about matters metaphysical or theological – although, as a philosopher, I might be up for a discussion. When someone asks me if I believe in God, my usual response is “Define God.” All I’m saying here is that this is part of my personal philosophy; I’m not suggesting that everyone should (God forbid!) think like me.

I’ll conclude this post with a few introductory words about one of my favorite twentieth century philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson. He’s best known for his fictional  Illuminatus! trilogy (which he co-wrote with Robert Shea), but wrote many non-fiction books of philosophy and satire as well. He’s the funniest philosopher I know of. Reading Wilson reassured me that there are other universal agnostics out there, and taught me everything I know about guerrilla ontology. More about that in my next post.

 

Albert Ellis

In my post “The Gloria Sessions” I wrote about a three-part video series titled “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy”  in which a brave young single mother named Gloria had brief therapy sessions with three of the twentieth century’s giants of psychotherapy. The three therapists were Dr. Carl Rogers (client centered therapy), Dr. Fritz Perls (gestalt therapy), and Dr. Albert Ellis (rational therapy). Little did I know  when I saw the series in grad school that I would actually meet two of these luminaries. I’ve already described my encounter with Carl Rogers. I’ll conclude this post with an account of my brief exchange with Albert Ellis.

Ellis is best known as the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), and is widely considered one of the most influential psychotherapists since Freud. I first came across his work as a teenager, when I read his 1958 book Sex Without Guilt, which made the case that guilt about responsible sexual behavior is irrational. This was my first introduction to rational thinking, which made a lot of sense to me. However, parts of the book were (in retrospect) just his claptrap notions, like his theory of homosexuality – which was still considered a mental illness back then. He corrected his errors in later editions of the book.

Ellis was a foundational pioneer of what is now known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and I consider his A New Guide to Rational Living to be his single most important book. (He wrote or co-authored more than eighty books and many academic papers.) When I watched him in “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy,” I didn’t like his therapeutic style. He was the opposite of sensitive, gentle, avuncular Carl Rogers; he was a fast-talking, abrasive New Yorker, who seemed impatient in his dealings with Gloria. But I couldn’t argue with his logic, and Gloria seemed to get something from the session.

Although behavioral therapies weren’t popular in my humanistic Masters program, I started learning and practicing rational thinking in the eighties, and began teaching it in my clinical practice. Being a rational thinker has spared me a lot of unnecessary pain, and I’ve been known to say that if I had a Gospel to preach as a therapist, it was the Gospel of Rational Thinking. REBT focuses on the rational analysis of irrational and self-defeating beliefs and behaviors. Ellis continued to write and lecture and do therapy until shortly before his death in 2007, at the age of 93. He has been charitably described as having a “provocative personality.” I was in the audience for several of his presentations at Evolution of Psychotherapy conferences over the years, and witnessed his provocative style first-hand.

For one thing, his presentations were laced with profanity, and his response to any objections about his language was usually  along the lines of “F _ _ _ you!” If you didn’t like the words he chose, that was your problem. He was still the abrasive stereotypical New Yorker I’d first seen on videotape in grad school; but I’d come to appreciate his personality and his delivery, as well as his contributions to psychotherapy. He made the point in his public speaking that it’s what you say that  matters, not so much how you say it. In his own way he echoed Fritz Perls’ idea, “I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine.”

At an Evolution of Psychotherapy conference I happened to find myself on the same elevator as Dr. Ellis and his small entourage. Seizing on the opportunity, I asked him, “Dr. Ellis, didn’t you write a book titled Sex Without Guilt?” “Yes I did. Did you read it?”  “Yes I did.” “Did it help you?” “I’ve read several of your books and I think I’m a better man for it.” Dr. Ellis grinned at me and said, “I’ll bet you’re a sexier  man for having read Sex Without Guilt, too!”

I don’t know about that, but I do know that Ellis’ influence made me a better therapist. He enhanced my ability to reach some clients, helping them to understand that they didn’t need to feel guilty about being a sexual person, with sexual feelings and needs.

High anxiety

A certain amount of anxiety is normal and inevitable in every life. It ranges from free-floating anxiety – unattached to specific issues or situations – and performance or situational anxiety, to deep existential anxiety. It can cause the same physiological responses as fear. With fear, you know what frightens you: a charging bear in the woods, an earthquake, a cancer diagnosis. Anxiety, on the other hand, may result from cumulative stressors in your various life roles. It’s a cliché that we live in the Age of Anxiety, due to the complexity of modern life. The average person’s stressors are many and varied.

In Western society we have a history of regarding the body as separate from the mind, but this dualism can be misleading. Much modern science supports the notion of a bodymind – a unity of embodiment and consciousness. The physiology of anxiety is a hard-wired stress response. I’ve written previously about the fight-or-flight response that we experience when we perceive ourselves to be in danger. In situations where we find ourselves in physical danger, the instant physiological response – rapid breath and heartbeat, increased blood pressure and blood sugar, tense muscles, etc. – can prepare us to fight or flee, as the situation requires. But sometimes this automatic physiological response can cause us to “choke,” to feel paralyzed or out of control. And if the perceived threat isn’t something you can fight or flee from, your bodymind’s response can be feelings of high anxiety. Triggers for anxiety (or fear) don’t even have to be actual threats. Sometimes they occur simply because we feel threatened or inadequate, even if we’re not truly at risk.

Mild-to-moderate anxiety can sometimes be helpful, if it motivates us to effectively address its causes. You can reduce your anxiety about an upcoming exam if you study hard for it. However, avoidance also works, if only in the short-term, to reduce performance anxiety. But whether anxiety is a spur or a hindrance, it’s never a pleasant  experience.  One manifestation of high anxiety or fear is phobia – an irrational fear – which often leads to avoidant behavior. The power of phobia is contextual. A phobia about crossing bridges may not be a big problem if you live in the desert Southwest, but may cause significant problems if you live in the Florida Keys. Another common symptom of anxiety is panic attacks, which can also lead to avoidant behavior.

Anxiety rises to the level of pathology when it impedes or disables us. Some people are crippled by their anxiety. I believe that there’s a physiological basis for clinical anxiety, and that people with anxiety disorders shouldn’t be blamed for their disabling symptoms. But I also believe that, to some degree, anxiety is something that we unconsciously do, not just something that happens to us. Irrational thinking is a significant factor that contributes to both normal and pathological anxiety, and cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for many anxious people. Anti-anxiety drugs like Valium and Xanax can be helpful in the short-term, but long-term reliance on pharmaceuticals (or recreational drugs) to control anxiety only leads to chemical dependency.

To a certain degree we create our anxiety by the way we think. I’ve written about how, when facing a challenge or an upcoming performance, we can either mentally rehearse for failure or for success. And we can make pessimistic assumptions about things we don’t really know, and fear things that don’t really present a threat. Our physiological response to a perceived threat can be identical to our response to an actual threat.

Cognitive behavioral treatment of anxiety disorders involves teaching clients about both the physical and mental aspects of anxiety, and teaching them to distinguish their rational thoughts from their irrational thoughts. The treatment may involve the technique of exposure, where the client is exposed to the thing she typically avoids, or does the thing he usually avoids doing. Treatment often involves “homework” assignments – things to be worked on between therapy sessions – that will help the client to develop new skills and establish new mental habits. The development of insight need not precede relief from anxiety symptoms. Positive behavior change often enables a client’s development of insight into how, and to what extent, he was “doing anxiety.”