I’ve started seeing a therapist again. The last time I went was probably for about two years, and it straddled the period where I received my bipolar diagnosis. There was a lot of unpicking and unpacking to do.
This time around, I’m not after the archaeological dig. I’m after some tools to help manage the symptoms of my illness, which manifest in the form of thoughts, physical reactions in the body, and how you act as a result of those.
My therapist, Lyndon at the wonderful Burnett Centre, said early on in our session that it’s important to remember that every thought is not a fact.
Wise words, and when you have a mood disorder you’re prone to act like a child at a Valentine’s buffet. Take everything that’s on offer and wolf it down to the point of vomiting, even that runny soft-serve ice cream which looks like the product of a bad night’s curry.
Questioning every thought and not taking it on board as concrete is important because, in the height of anxiety especially, negative thoughts taken as facts when they’re not can cause a chain reaction. Other negative thoughts blossom, and our brains trick us into forming these into a narrative, even though they are disparate, sometimes unrelated, and woefully non-specific.
Examples: “I’m worthless”, “I’ll never cope with that”, “I’m going to screw things up”, “I’m a failure and I always fail”, “I can’t do this”, “I don’t fit in here”, “Everybody hates me”, “I’m unworthy of love because of [insert unspecific thing here]”.
These are intuitive, System 1 reactions to depression and anxiety, and we need to slow down and let System 2 start to question the reality of these thoughts we’ve perceived as facts.
As I was travelling home from the session, that key sentence in the title of this post stuck with me. I realised that it’s actually good advice for everybody.
Politicians (especially), business leaders and employers, friends, family – everyone has opinions that sprout from thoughts. We throw them out there, often carelessly, with the confidence that they’re based in fact.
Choices are made that, on an individual level, treat other people in our lives with disrespect or contempt. None of this is based in evidence, but in the fallacy that just because we think something it must be true.
At a higher level, it’s this kind of thought=fact thinking that leads to the horrendous new law in St Petersburg, Russia that prohibits homosexuality even being discussed. It feeds the prejudice that results in countries like Uganda wanting to pass laws that exterminate gay men.
And for others, inaction is the result. Hearing of injustice, for example, as in the issue I raised last week with Emirates Airlines. “It’s too difficult to base one’s life as a consumer around political decisions,” is a potential response to such moral dilemmas.
Granted, if we had to question every thought that came into our heads, we’d never get anything done and would probably be a neurotic mess.
But it never hurts to have checks and balances. And if you’re constantly plagued by low or anxious mood, it’s time to start questioning what your brain is telling you, and how much of it you’re taking on board as fact.