A blog about our minds and feelings
I have recently discovered the world of podcasts. Through a recent recommendation I listened to one intriguingly titled “The hidden history of thoughts”. Amongst other things it attempted to convey different debates around how to understand our mind that usually engage people working in mental health, as opposed to the general public. Although talking about “thoughts” it quickly became apparent that these journalists were actually referring to a specific type of thoughts we all sometimes have: the self-critical ones that puts us down. And they explored the different therapies commonly available in terms of how to deal with them. I would simplify their three options in the following manner:
- Our thoughts have and convey meanings. Even if they are not immediately available to our consciousness once understood and made conscious they stop being distressing thoughts. This was linked with Psychoanalytic Therapy.
- We take our thoughts way too seriously and should therefore counteract these irrational thoughts with reality and ‘fight them off’. This was linked to Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.
- These thoughts shouldn’t even be engaged with; we have to let them go and connect more with the here and now. This was linked with Mindfulness and Meditation.
For each of these options the journalists explored different therapists’ and patients’ experiences. All were very varied cases and could have actually been thought about in very different ways. I was struck by the realization that not only their definition of ‘thoughts’ and ‘thinking’ were very limited to the self-critical ones, but also that they were neglecting to consider the function we as individuals give to these thoughts, and not only their supposed meaning or lack of. In other words, they were attempting to simplify our mind and hence the ways to treat our emotional distress in order to perhaps find ‘the Best therapy’ or ‘Super Therapy’.
Some of you might have seen the article recently published in The Guardian entitled “Therapy wars: The revenge of Freud”. It very thoughtfully and thoroughly examined the age of Psychoanalysis, the criticisms aimed at it, the advent of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy as ‘the’ therapeutic solution, the criticisms and limitations of this approach. And described the coming back of psychoanalysis as backed up by current research’s dramatic positive results in this field.
I was left thinking about this reality of Therapy Wars. Psychoanalysis, Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, and the increasingly present Mindfulness approach, described as the process that “allows us to see our thoughts and feelings as they really are, freeing us from old ways of thinking” (and I have to confess how I could see this description both fitting Psychoanalysis and CBT as well). Mindfulness has now acquired a status of ‘Super Therapy’ and can be seen everywhere today. It is being used in schools, at banks and big companies, and it is even part of the government’s speed awareness course for drivers caught speeding. And to illustrate what I find concerning about this I’m going to take a detour into nutrition for an apt metaphor.
A few weeks ago a baby in Spain was found to have developed scurvy before his first birthday. X-rays revealed fractures in his legs, back and otherwise thinning bones. Doctors investigating the case discovered that this had been the consequence of having been exclusively fed almond milk as a replacement for breast milk or infant formula. Almond milk is very popular and is considered together with others foods, like Chia seeds and Kale as a ‘Super Food’. Last year there was a case of a woman who had to have an emergency bowel operation to resolve a serious blockage due to a ball of undigested sticky Chia seeds. She had several spoons of Chia every morning. Also, a health-conscious American woman trying to reap the cancer avoiding benefits of Kale ended up developing hypothyroidism related to her daily kale morning juice.
We could say that these are the effects of a new culture of ‘Super Foods’. Although beneficial and worth keeping in mind and in your diet, the problem with branding food as a ‘Super Food’ is that it might lead to the misconception that because you are consuming a food that is super good you have done it all in terms of nutrition. It could make you feel super healthy and super nourished when in fact what the cases mentioned above show is that Super Foods are not a replacement to a well balanced and healthy diet. The human body cannot survive with one nutrient only even if this is a super good one.
It is common to use different systems of the body, like the digestive system, to understand other systems that are harder to grasp. For example we could understand the human mind as a system that digests, or processes, thoughts and feelings. If we follow on this idea of the mind as a digestive system, then we would also have to be very careful of only nurturing it with one Super Food or Super Therapy. Our mind also needs a more balanced ‘diet’. For example one where as well as being in contact with the here and now, we also consider how our past can be repeating itself in our present in ways in which we are often unaware of. And where there can be an active thoughtfulness sustained as to when you might benefit from one ‘nutrient’ and when from another one.
Going back to “The hidden history of thoughts”. These journalists were inclined to join the ‘Mindfulness buzz’ as the best way to deal with troublesome thoughts, but not without some reticence. They chose to close their podcast with the story of a man who was left in a vegetative state by meningitis. Trapped in his body for over a decade he was viciously flooded by negative thoughts, and for a few years became an expert in letting go of all thinking and surviving in a dissociated state. He claimed this was the worst and most scary state of mind he had ever known. He then shared how he had managed to regain contact with the world around him by holding on to his thinking instead of letting go, even though his thoughts were often painful. At the time this story was shared he was a happily married man with a job, despite still having many physical limitations.
We could say that this is quite an extreme example, yet perhaps one with a helpful message:
That in order to be fully alive and healthy it is essential to remain thoughtful; to engage in thinking even when this might be at times distressful or conflicting.
This is what this blog, “Revealing Thoughts” is and will be about: exploring new and old thoughts in the quest to keep an engaged and healthy mind around the issues of mental health and wellbeing. More than finding a Super resolution to the Therapy Wars, perhaps the struggle in itself is a more life inducing and creative venture.
By Fiorella Lanata in collaboration with Alonso Gonzalez