Mind Over Matter III: Mind Over Brain

This is the third blog in the Mind over Matter series. Previously, we discussed the theory involved in understanding the different functions of the mind and the brain. We discussed in Mind over Matter II how the brain creates anger, anxiety, and depression in order to provide safety for people. In this discussion we want to suggest practical ways of fully using both mind and brain.

The brain is doing its job: maximizing safety and pleasure

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that the brain isn’t doing something wrong. The brain is always, and only, working to provide safety and pleasure as we previously discussed. When the brain creates depression, anger, and anxiety, it is doing what it is designed to do: create safety and maximize pleasure. It is easy to see how the brain creates safety with anxiety and anger, but it is a challenge to see how creating these things “maximizes pleasure” with depression.

Recall how we discussed that “anhedonia,” commonly thought of as lack of energy or interest, is the primary symptom of depression. The brain (not the mind) actually creates anhedonia, i.e. it decreases one’s energy, so that the person can do as little as possible. Why would the brain do that? The brain creates anhedonia because the mind has so many feelings, and so many thoughts that the brain isn’t able to get these thoughts and feelings resolved. Quite literally, because the mind is thinking and feeling so many things, the brain is overloaded with information and is not readily able to think through and feel through all this stuff. The brain does what it knows to do: it shuts down the person’s interest in doing anything so it can focus on this overload of thoughts and feelings. The brain does what it can do to create safety and pleasure: shut down activity by decreasing energy.

The brain protects us by creating anhedonia and other symptoms of depression, like sleep disturbance and appetite disturbance. Additionally, the brain operates on a “flight or fight” mode creating fear or anger as means of dealing with real or possible threats. The brain creates anger when the mind has experienced some harm or hurt and creates anxiety when the mind experiences some worry about possible loss in the future. Simply put, anger is about hurt in the past and anxiety is about hurt in the future. But the brain, remember, doesn’t know future or past, but only the present. So the brain creates anger and anxiety in order to deal with perceived danger in the present.

We will never be successful in overriding the brain’s natural functioning. We can’t just push through depression with some kind of will power. On the other hand, we don’t want to simply yield to it. So, what can we do to use the brain’s power more effectively without violating the brain’s interest in our safety and pleasure? We will not be successful in challenging the brain’s procedures for maintaining safety and maximizing pleasure. We have to find ways to use our minds to effectively manage our brains. Managing the brain is more effective than controlling the brain.

The centrality of your feelings

Your mind has three tools that you can use to manage the power of the brain’s desire for your safety and pleasure: feeling, thinking, and doing. The most basic and by far the most important tool is feeling. To be able to manage the brain, effectively use it…not control it…you have to know what you feel emotionally. The brain creates feelings in order to maximize pleasure and minimize danger in your life. (Consider reading Feelings I and Feelings II blogs where we discussed the four basic feelings: joy and sadness having to do with love, and anger and fear having to do with defense.) When you feel anger, for instance, you have been thinking about something that you lost in the past. When you feel fear (or anxiety), you are usually thinking about something that you might lose in the future. So, when you think about a former loss of some kind, your brain translates that former loss into the present and churns up anger to deal with your attacker. When you think about something that you might lose in the future, your brain churns up anxiety in order to deal with this threat of danger. In both cases the brain perceives the danger as in the present, not in the past or the future.

You can’t change your brain’s natural operation for protection. You can’t change your brain’s tendency to churn up anger and anxiety when you think of past hurts or potential future hurts. You can, however, more effectively use your mind power to more effectively use your brain power. The key is to more fully recognize all of your emotions, especially those that precede anger and anxiety. When you recognize what you really feel, you will be able to appreciate these feelings, all of them, and then be able to allow these feelings to run their natural course. When you recognize what you feel you are better able to allow all of your feelings to exist without having certain feelings, like fear and anxiety. You can’t think away your feelings; you can only notice them and recognize that they have been created by your brain. If you fail to recognize your feelings and appreciate them, you will speak or act out of your emotion, something that is almost always counterproductive for you.

Managing your feelings: recognizing that you have a “love problem”

Feelings are central. They are primary…always have been, always will be. The key to managing your feelings and hence fully utilizing your brain that creates these feelings begins with knowing what you feel. Keep in mind that you have these four basic emotions: joy, sadness, fear, and anger. Then consider the process of feelings: (1) you have something and love this something, so you feel some amount of joy; (2) eventually, you lose this something (could be property, person, place, or idea), and you feel sad; (3) then you often feel afraid of losing more and develop some amount of fear; (4) finally, you may become angry that you have lost this something. It may seem that anger comes before fear, but this is not the case. Fear always precedes anger. Keep in mind these four feelings and the fact that they all have to do with love:

  • I have something that I love: I feel joy
  • I lose something I love: I feel sadness
  • I think about losing something I love: I feel fear
  • I actually lose something I love: I feel anger.

So, not only are joy and sadness related to something I love, anger and fear are also about love It’s a bit easier to see that joy and sadness have to do with love, but you need to consider that anger about having lost something and fear (or anxiety) about potentially losing something are also feelings related to love. When you feel sad, you have what we have come to call a “love problem.” But also, when you are anxious or angry, you also have a love problem. Noting that anger and fear are “love problems” gives you the key to managing these feelings and ultimately overcoming anger and anxiety. You can also overcome depression by understanding and managing your feelings, but doing this requires much more effort and self-examination. We will limit our current discussion to overcoming anger and anxiety.

We have noted that feelings are central to human existence and ultimately lead to some kind of thinking and action. To take this understanding a step further, we remind you that all feelings are love based and erupt first with having something and then losing this something. It is easy to feel joy when we love something, but much harder to allow the feeling of sadness to erupt when we lose this something. Because we ultimately lose everything we love, it is paramount that we accept this common experience of sadness in life. So, first we feel some kind of joy because we have something and then eventually, a minute, a year, or 10 years later, we lose this something, and we feel sad. So, we propose that it is central that we learn to be sad and let it run its course. In our book, The Positive Power of Sadness we unpack sadness and its correlates and focus on the important business of finishing sadness. We talk about allowing sadness to finish because all sadness ends naturally if we allow it to do so. This is an important part of managing our feelings and an important part of “mind over brain.” You need to think about what you feel.

Thinking about feelings

Having recognized that you have a “love problem” when you feel sad can ultimately help you see that you have love problems when you feel anxious or angry. If you remember that sadness, anger, and fear are all about loving something, you will be able to get your head around this idea of managing your feelings and prevent your brain from running amok with anger and anxiety. But this is no easy task, and it is most certainly not thinking away your feelings. That is repression or denial. We suggest quite the opposite: recognizing your feelings and letting them run their course, particularly sadness. Try it: just notice what you have lost and you will feel sad; then after a moment or two, your sadness will start to diminish. It will eventually end depending on the depth of love you had for what you lost.

Managing anxiety and anger

If you can allow sadness to run its course, you are then ready to tackle anxiety and anger. Let’s start with anger because it is about the past, namely that you have lost in the past. Your brain, remember, only has a sense of present, not the past, has churned up anger in order to fight this loss and the attacker thinking that there is a lack of safety, and that you need anger to fight off this attacker. The “attacker,” by the way could be a person, an event, yourself (you having done something “stupid”) or God. Anger is a defense against any and all attacks. Now, having realized that anger is a love problem, you can focus on what you have lost and how you loved it. This thing you have lost might be an idea, a piece of property, a place, or a person. Whatever it was, you loved it. And you lost it. To manage your anger you need to think about what you loved, and then think about it more. Think about how you loved this thing. If you do this, you will begin to feel sad, and if you allow this to happen, you are nearing the end of anger. Anger doesn’t ever really end. But anger directed into sadness does. If you master this process of seeing that every time you are angry, you have lost something that you love, you will first be able to cure anger. Then as you mature, eventually be able to prevent anger. But this means that you will feel sadness more often, a sadness that will end. When sadness ends you will experience a subtle feeling of joy and will begin to realize that you are a person of love and that you have memory of having loved something.

This process of managing feelings like anger can also work for managing the feeling of fear (or anxiety). As we have noted, anxiety is the fear of losing something we love, so if we can get into the love part of anxiety, we will be able to cure it and eventually prevent it. Managing anger (curing it and preventing it) is finding a way to feel the sadness of loss that precipitated the brain’s reaction to anger. Managing anxiety is finding a way to feel the sadness of potential loss. We call this process anticipatory sadness. It is hard to learn how to get under anger to sadness and ultimately to love, but it is twice as hard to get under anxiety to find sadness and love. You will need lots of practice at this procedure, which is something like this: (1) note that you are anxious over potentially losing something and then (2) note that whatever you might lose is something you love.

Now comes the hard part: (3) consider what you would feel if you lost this thing that you love. You will note that you would feel sad. Allow yourself to feel sad even though you have not really lost this thing you love. This is hard, but you can get used to doing it. So every time you feel anxious about something, you can consider that you love something and that losing this thing would be sad. When you learn to do this (it takes months or years of practice), you will feel more sadness and more joy. And to be quite honest, anxiety, even more than anger, often requires a faithful guiding therapeutic hand, you will have used your mind to manage your brain. While not an easy process to learn, you can do it.

If you do this mind over brain process, you will value your emotions, whatever they are, eventually be able to think of what you love, and then remember what you love. And you can then “convince your brain that it is really okay to have these feelings. Now you are in a good place because you might find it possible to activate this love in some way. You might just enjoy the loving thoughts, memories, and hopes. You might tell someone about what you love. You might even get better at loving, which is our hope.

Further Reading

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness. Praeger Press.

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2018). “Mind Over Matter I and II

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2018). “Feelings I-V” blogs

Watch for “Mind Over Matter IV: Addictions”

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