I was paying a visit to my parents when I first learned about the dreadful tsunami in Japan last year. As I entered the house, all eyes were transfixed on the television, watching footage taken from a helicopter of a massive rolling wave.
It took about a minute to take the scale of it all in: when thinking of tsunamis, I often think of the massive tidal wave hitting a coastline, but here was a wave that was travelling further and further inland, losing none of its destructive momentum or power in the process.
Everything it picked up was assimilated into its wall of carnage, and I don’t think I’d ever felt as impotent about a world event as I did at that moment. On the horizon, a giant motorway viaduct was visible, with ant-sized cars moving to and fro as if it were business as usual.
I estimated it would be merely minutes before the wave would hit and absorb that solid structure too into its vortex, along with countless human lives.
The tsunami literally cut a new pathway across Japan’s landscape. Cities, towns, neighbourhoods, schools – structures built with every belief that they would be permanent were simply flattened. Churned up, and remixed into a twisted mess of chaos.
Our brains work exactly the same way when we’re in a state of extreme depression, heightened anxiety or mania. A core belief, such as “I’m not ok”, becomes the first wave and as it cascades through the brain it picks up other, unrelated and vague statements: “I always fail at things”, “I’m so weak”, “Everyone will know I’m not coping” – and throws them into the mix.
The wave becomes more powerful, and as it does so, cuts new and destructive thought pathways in the brain just as surely as the tsunami devastated the landscape of Japan.
What can we do about this?
Fortunately, we don’t have to feel as impotent as we did as those horrific images unfolded before us in March, 2011. While there’s little we can do to stop the earth’s natural forces, we are capable of exercising a great deal of control over our internal ones.
My counselor Lyndon talked to me this week about the “thinking mind” and the “observing mind”. The thinking mind is on the ground, either waiting for the wave to approach or has already been hit by it. At our worst times, our thinking mind is at the mercy of the wave, clinging on to the nearest piece of driftwood for survival and incapable of any sense of perspective because sheer survival is the overriding thought.
The observing mind is more like the news cameras in the helicopter that relayed those awful images to the world. While they were able to do little in the way of actually helping, they possessed one important thing that those on the ground did not: perspective.
They were able to assess the horror in a detached way, doubtless feel the emotion of it, but because their very survival was not at stake, it allowed them to think.
We can do the same thing when a thought tsunami hits. Slowing down, breathing, and mentally transporting ourselves from the ground to that helicopter, so it’s possible to objectively assess negative thoughts and core beliefs and challenge them with evidence from reality.
I’ve mentioned before that our brains love narratives, and will happily piece together stories from unrelated flotsam and jetsam in our heads. Just like a tsunami, our brains in a state of depression, anxiety or mania are not picky – they’ll hoover up any piece of negativity in their path and add it to the soup.
Take time out during a thought tsunami. Sit in a chair, or even lay down if you have to. Concentrate on your breathing, close your eyes, and grab that lifeline to the helicopter.
Unlike the poor victims of the Japanese tsunami, we have the power to stop our landscape and lives from being destructively altered by attacks from within.