Amygdala Scripts and the Three Step Practice

It is easy to see that the perception of something, and the meaning we attribute to what we perceive don’t exactly go hand in hand:

An artist, is looking at a sunset on a warm beach, he is wondering how the nuances of color and form might be created on canvas.

Sitting beside him is a physicist, she is taking advantage of her companion’s preoccupation to muse about diffraction of light, and the different energy quotients associated with the different wave lengths that result in the different colors.

Two lovers are also on the beach. They note how beautiful it all is, and are experiencing the magic of sharing a special time together.

A writer has interrupted his stroll on the beach to ponder the sunset, and he is struck by how it symbolizes the bittersweet beauty of endings and, perhaps, the promise of new beginnings.

And a Zen practitioner sits behind them all taking in the various sights, sounds, and smells, but with little thought at all!

The people sitting on the beach, watching the same sunset, have all been enjoying it but depending on their interests and knowledge, they have attributed very different meaning to it. There is another, even more powerful, determiner of the meaning that we attach to what we perceive. We might think of it as our psychological state. If our psychological state is negative it can sully our enjoyment.

For example, we return to that same beach, but we now find that the artist’s appreciation of the sunset’s colorful display has been displaced by self-doubts about his abilities, he begins to disparage himself: a plague of thoughts and feelings that arise in his mind all too often.

The physicist has begun to feel anxious; fruitlessly reviewing – for the hundredth time – what she might have added or changed in the grant application that she recently submitted.

And the physicist’s preoccupation is one that the writer might well appreciate: the writer’s awareness of his surroundings has been crowded out by his attempts to fend off exaggerated worries about money. His finances aren’t great but they don’t realistically portend the images in the shadowy periphery of his mind – in these he becomes a destitute vagabond on the streets.

One of the lovers has begun to feel worried that his partner will eventually find him wanting, and will wander off with someone like the pensive but attractive man who is walking on the beach in front of them. And his partner has begun to wonder, “Even though this relationship is going well now. Perhaps it will become a claustrophobic trap – a fear that arises whenever a relationship begins to get serious.

(And the Zen practitioner? Well we don’t know what she is doing – she seems to have left the beach.)

These habitual patterns of thoughts and feelings are what we term “scripts”. Research has shown that in those instances when a person begins to feel anxious or depressed their thoughts will tend to follow certain themes: for the ‘depressed person, their thoughts would tend to track to a negative sense of themselves and their future. The anxious person’s thoughts would tend to be littered with worries, and catastrophic possibilities. Repeated studies have shown that thought and feeling patterns (‘scripts”) such as these – referred to as “depressogenic” thoughts and feelings in the case of depression, and “anxiogenic” thoughts and feelings in the case of anxiety – are usually the result of early painful experiences.

Fortunately, learned responses that create scripts can be changed: a huge body of research literature demonstrates that when a person learns to replace worries and self-negating patterns of thoughts and feelings with more realistic and positive ones, they become able to master their depression and anxiety. Research is also showing that if these people continue to practice the tools that promote those changed patterns of thinking and feelings, they will likely continue to not be harmed by their depressive or anxious tendencies.

This underscores the realization that going to see a psychotherapist to learn these tools shouldn’t be like going into surgery, or getting your car fixed, where some procedure is done to you (or to your car), with the promise that you will leave with a better functioning body, or car. Psychotherapy, along with self-help books and seminars, should be approached more like Physical Therapy: you go with the expectation that you are going to spend some time learning some exercises that will help you, and, if you practice those exercises at home, you should be able to avoid future difficulties. In short, the most useful self-help or psychotherapy doesn’t offer healing insights and experiences as an end in themselves, what happens during a session or as you read a self-help book, is only the beginning, a foundation for learning tools that can be applied at home, over a lifetime.

This is reflected in the strong trend in psychotherapy research in the last few decades, which has eschewed a focus on trying to figure out which schools of psychotherapy are most effective, in favor of a focus on discovering which tools for positive personal change are most powerful. Particular examples of tools that have proven especially useful in helping people with psychological difficulties include: mindfulness practices, historical insight, exposure therapy, and cognitive restructuring. Each of these tools can be seen to offer their own unique contributions toward changing those thoughts and feelings that are especially prone to cause us pain.

 

Mindfulness is an especially intriguing example. Mindfulness practices – part of a Buddhist meditation tradition for creating healthy minds that has been around for at least 2500 years ­– was largely ignored by the Western world until the last ten or twenty years. The reason that it now garners so much attention in the field of Western psychotherapy is that it has proven to be so effective. A burgeoning literature on mindfulness research has moved beyond demonstrating that it is effective, to exploring how it can be adapted to different types of problems.

Fundamentally, mindfulness provides an experiential example of a very old Buddhist theory: the painful psychological experiences that we have, aren’t so much the result of negative problematic thoughts and feelings themselves, as they are the result of believing in those thoughts and feelings. Anyone who practices meditation, even for a short period of time, will quickly realize that all kinds of thoughts tend to arise all of the time. It is when habitual thoughts, emboldened by an attendant painful emotion, induce us to believe in them – to take them seriously as an accurate commentary on our situation and ourselves – that our minds become hijacked and our worldview becomes distorted. In Buddhist parlance it is understood that thoughts and feelings will arise, often quite independently of our conscious will to control such thoughts and feelings, but this doesn’t have to be a problem. The problem arises when we become attached to those thoughts and feelings. And our brain isn’t designed to easily give up such attachments, especially those that are born out of painful emotions, simply because realize that we have them. For that we must practice.

Step 1 of the Three-step practice: A simple mindfulness practice

We begin Step 1 by imagining a recent situation that is especially prone to trigger us. Perhaps it is an interaction with a friend, a disappointment at work, someone criticizing us, or a situation wherein we felt rejected, or stupid. Once the negative feelings arise – perhaps anxious feelings, or dark feelings of depression, or inappropriate anger – we note how they feel in our body, and observe the thoughts that accompany them.

For example, if someone who is dealing with depression learns to identify and their depressogenic thoughts and feelings, watching them arise, but rather than get entangled into believing in them and act as if they are a true commentary about themselves and the world, they maintained a bit removed, in an observer role, then they might take the simple stance, “Oh, this is just a thought and feeling. It really doesn’t mean anything.” Thru this practice, someone who has a habitual tendency to think of herself as unlovable, or stupid, or an unattractive klutz, could become adept at catching that thought and its corollary feelings and simply watch it without getting on the boat with it and letting it muddy her world.  We might say that thru this practice thoughts and feelings are relegated to their true nature, simply phenomena of mind that tend to arise habitually, and that don’t necessarily require us to get in lock step and believe in it.

It is not the purpose of this article to describe in detail how that mindfulness practice can be accomplished. More detail about that can be found elsewhere on this site (Link to George), and much more information along with a comprehensive ‘how to’ guide can be found in the book “What Freud Didn’t Know”. For the purposes of our discussion here, suffice it to say, the first step of the Three Step Practice includes a simple procedure for activating the thoughts and feelings that underlie most psychological problems, noticing how that the feeling component manifests in ones body, and then mindfully naming that feeling and its companion thoughts, as “Just a feeling that arises, which has no real meaning in my life.” Sounds complicated perhaps, but it is actually very easy to learn.

Step 2 of The Three Step Utilizing Practice: Historical Insight

We’ve all heard of the “Ah ha!” experience that comes when someone realizes what in their life caused the problems that they are now having.  It should be noted that such an experience makes for much better TV drama than it does for enduring positive psychological change. Nevertheless, errant habits of feelings and thinking do have a history – we learned these dysfunctional tendencies somewhere along the way. And, while illuminative realizations about the historical roots of our problems don’t directly imbue us with control over them, such insights can be useful.  They can serve as the basis for a very effective tool that we can practice to gain mastery over psychological problems.  And, it is assuring to know that numerous sessions of psychoanalytic probing, or extensive explorations of one’s history are no longer necessary to gain insight into the origins of one’s difficulties. There is now an exercise that serves to identify those early situations in our personal histories that seeded the psychological difficulties that now haunt us. An example of how this exercise can work is included on this website (link to George), and a detailed explanation can be found in the book “What Freud Didn’t Know” (LinKed)

Armed with an historical understanding of the afflictive problems one can practice the second step of The Three Step Practice: after activating the feelings and doing the first step (“This that I’m feeling is just a feeling in my body, and the thoughts associated are just thoughts.”), one can then make a quick experiential connection with those earlier learning situations and remind ones self that, “What I’m feeling now is what I felt then, and so I can see that this is simply a feeling memory that has no real meaning, no relevance, to my life now.”

Mary, has been in a long struggle with depression, but she has been practicing mindfulness and she has learned to notice when dysfunctional thoughts and feelings arise – she gets a heavy feeling in her heart area and has an image of herself as an unlovable, outcast. Mary has also identified these problematic feelings as feelings that she first had as a child in Grade School: a time when she was being teased. This compounded the awkwardness she felt from being not included in play with her more athletic older sibs. Rather than offer support and understanding, her parents – preoccupied with their own problems – were irritable and impatient with Mary and her difficulties. Seeing this allows Mary to add a second step to the mindfulness practice described above. In this second step she again evokes the feelings and imagery described above, but after she does the mindfulness step described above, she labels her problematic feelings as “Nothing more than a feeling memory that was once the experience of a little girl but that have no relevance to my present day life.”

Step 3 of The Three Step Practice

When Mary was that little girl in Grade School she was taking in, likely unconsciously, beliefs about herself that were dysfunctional: namely that she was an unlovable misfit. Now Mary learns a simple exercise that replaces those hurtful beliefs with more realistic and useful beliefs about herself. And she learns to reinforce these new beliefs with rewarding feelings of warmth and well-being. Practicing this exercise constitutes the 3rd step of The Three Step Practice.