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The Spam of the Mind

The biocomputer in our brains, which I call “the thinking mind,” has two vastly different modes. First, there is my thinking such as when I calculate how much paint I need to remodel the living room or how to put together the crib that came in a rectangular box. My thinking is intentional for the purpose of solving problems. So, when I use my thinking, I am Recognizing the spam of the mind is a key skill in emotional regulation and stress managment.choosing to use the biocomputer in my brain for a specific purpose, similar to when I use my laptop to find out how much it costs to fly to San Francisco.

However, this biocomputer in my brain is also capable of automatic thinking, which is thoughts that just pop up automatically when triggered by specific stimuli such as when someone says, “Thank you,” and I automatically say, “You are welcome.”

Automatic thinking, or old programming as I also call it, definitely has its place. I do a lot of automatic thinking when I drive my car or swing a baseball bat or say the pledge of allegiance to the flag. It would be time consuming and inefficient if I had to think everything anew in every situation – such as riding a bike or singing a song or tying my shoe.

But old programming has its down side, too, because it can trigger significant emotional distress, which can result in poor choices and distorted perceptions of reality. This is especially true for those of us who were traumatized in childhood by abuse, chaos, loss, tragedy, or severe dysfunction because (1) pain really catches the old brain’s attention (the part of the brain that is perpetually on guard for signs of impending threat) and (2) because neurons that fire together wire together.

With respect to reason number one - "pain really catches the old brain’s attention" - even lizards have this old part of the brain that guards against threat, which is purely reactive, because the old brain (like lizards) is incapable of assessing whether a present stimulus actually presents a true threat. Instead, it just notices something (“a stimulus”) in the present environment that reminds it, even slightly, of a painful event from the past and then sets off (“triggers”) the alarm bells that we call “fight, flight, or freeze.”

Example: I arrive at an office party at my new job. My old brain sees a bunch of people it has never met before and suddenly sets off the alarm bells, and then my body and mind scream “danger, danger, danger, “ and I become panicky and run away. Later my new boss asks why I didn’t come to the party to meet my new co-workers, and I feel shame. So what happened here? Well, as a young child I was terribly bullied in school, which was traumatic for me. My old brain does not understand that I am now an adult and fully capable of taking care of myself AND that I am in a very different environment where bullying is highly unlikely. All my lizard brain “understands” is that it spied a bunch of strangers (stimulus), who are not within its comfort zone, and so it sounded the alarm bells (triggered) to make me run away so I would not be exposed to bullying. So, these automatic thoughts/old programming/knee-jerk reactions are not helping me, as they do when I ride a bike. Instead they make my world a lot smaller to the point that I live defended against life rather than living life because I'm listening to my old programming rather than the information obtained in the present moment through simple observation (“mindfulness”) with my eyes and ears, which mostly certain would “see” that I'm safe right here, right now at this office party.  

With respect to how reason number two - ”neurons that fire together wire together” - can cause our automatic thoughts to stress us out, let’s look at what happens to a child growing up in a typical alcoholic (or highly dysfunctional) family. Imagine you are a 7-year-old boy whose father frequently comes home drunk and raises hell. He screams and berates you, sometimes even hits you. Now, any adult would view this situation as: “This man has a serious problem and, as a result, is verbally and physically abusive to his son.” But how does the 7-year-old boy view this same situation? He thinks: “I must be doing something wrong for dad to treat me this way. It must be my fault.” Now, flash-forward 20 years and this same boy is a man, and whenever his abusive boss verbally berates him (stimulus), his programmed mind tells him (triggers) the automatic thoughts: “I must be doing something wrong for my boss to treat me so badly. It must be my fault.” Why does his mind tell him this? Because for years as a child he told himself over and over ("neurons that fire together wire together”) that it was his fault when his alcoholic father abused him. So literally his mind was programmed to believe that anyone else’s abusive or inappropriate behaviors were his fault!!! 

As you can now see, automatic thoughts/old programming can seriously upset us and misguide us in our attempts to live life fully. So, what can we do about this? Well, I like to divide thinking into two categories: helpful thinking and unhelpful thinking. Helpful thinking is my thinking, as described above, when I choose to use my biocomputer to solve a problem. Unhelpful thinking is the automatic thinking that just pops up in my head and upsets me by screaming there is danger when there is none or telling me I am worthless when I'm not or telling me my life is hopeless when it isn’t.

To help you sort out these two kinds of thinking, consider the inbox where  your emails arrive. On the one hand, there are those emails that you expect and want from friends,Learn to recognize the spam of the mind so you can send it to the trash folder. family, and businesses with whom you have a relationship. On the other hand, there is the spam that just appears in your mailbox from people and businesses with whom you do not have, nor want, a relationship.  Spam is not something you seek or want; it just shows up in your inbox automatically without any effort on your part - just like those distressing and unhelpful automatic thoughts. What do you do with spam in your inbox? You delete it!!! What can you do with all these unhelpful automatic thoughts? You can delete them, too, by seeing them as just mental events, or just what your mind does, but not as facts or the truth. In this way you will not get sucked into believing them. You can mindfully say, “You are nothing but spam, and I'm not going to pay any attention to you!" And then can you return your focus to the present moment. Of course, this takes lots of practice. And just as with your inbox, you have to learn to quickly identify spam and delete it because there might be a nasty virus inside!!! Good practicing!!!

If you would like help in learning to manage the spam in your mind to improve the quality of your life, then click on the photo below to request online therapy. I look forward to working with you!

For related topics, see mindfulness, taming the mind, stress management, and meditation.

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All Text and many photos by Carl Benedict

"Our very life depends on everything's recurring till we answer from within."  Robert Frost