Part 2: Our Brains Need a Software Update
Here's how we can begin to 'debug the code'
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In Part One of this series, I wrote about America’s collective PTSD.
Depression among adults in the United States tripled in early 2020 — jumping from 8.5 percent pre-pandemic to a staggering 27.8 percent. New research from Boston Univ Public Health reveals an elevated rate of depression persisting into 2021, climbing to 32.8 percent. And from April 2020 to April 2021, 100,000 Americans died of overdoses, more than the toll of car accidents and guns combined and up almost 30 percent from the 78,000 deaths in the prior year. Overdose deaths have more than doubled since 2015.
The private market is reflecting our collective PTSD. Venture capital firms invested $852 million in mental health tools in the first quarter of 2021, an increase of 73 percent since the same period last year.
Traumatic experiences become part of our superego, which is a little like a software program running in our brains. So I liken healing to updating the software or debugging the code.
In Part One, I listed four steps to debugging that code and I covered the first two:
In Part Two, we’re covering steps three and four.
Inner excavation (self-inquiry)
Begin to ‘own’ the emotional brain (i.e., feel the feelings and increase distress tolerance)
Inner excavation (self-inquiry)
"Do not be afraid to investigate the worst. It only guarantees increase of soul power through fresh insights and opportunities for revisioning one's life and self anew."
— Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Once we are present and have established safety in our bodies, we’re ready for inner excavation, or self-inquiry.
Researchers have referred to traumatic memories as "pathogenic secrets" or "mental parasites," because as much as sufferers want to forget whatever happened, memories force themselves into consciousness, trapping them in an ever-renewing present of existential horror. One of the early researchers of PTSD, Jean-Martin Charcot, reported that after having been traumatized, people automatically keep repeating certain actions, emotions, and sensations related to their trauma.
So while it can sometimes be an uncomfortable process, it’s important to identify our wounds and blind spots because they can subconsciously drive our actions and behaviors, leading to self-sabotage. That’s why practicing compassionate inquiry into our patterns, habits, reactions, and strategies is fundamental to the process of healing.
The easiest way to do this is to simply journal.
“Reflective journaling can be a cost-effective way to give yourself therapy,” says Melanie H. Morris, an assistant professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Find a way to journal for 5-15 minutes a day (or a few times a week), even if you don’t know what to write. Put it in your calendar if that helps. I like to incorporate it as part of my morning routine. Sometimes I can only eek out one or two sentences, and that is enough. You can choose to write ‘stream of consciousness’ style where you don’t stop moving the pen to articulate the rawest form of your thoughts. Or, you could search online for journal prompts. Whatever works best for you. To get started, just start. The key is to simply come with an open mind and be as honest as possible with yourself.
In a study of 66 registered nurses, six weeks of journaling was found to decrease burnout and compassion fatigue and increase feelings of satisfaction. But don’t be surprised if things feel a little weird before they get better.
Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes that as we begin to become more conscious, our patterns and neuroses initially intensify. In her book The Places That Scare You, she writes, “this has been the experience of everyone who ever set out on the path of awakening. All those smiling enlightened people you see had to go through the process of encountering their full-blown neuroses. […] When we start to interrupt our ordinary ways of calling ourselves names and patting ourselves on the back, we are doing something incredibly brave.”
I know from experience that this process can feel harrowing at first. As we begin to step out of our cocoon, we’re bound to be scared and drawn toward what’s familiar. It’s uncomfortable to learn things about yourself that you’d rather not, especially if it necessitates or precedes an uncomfortable life change.
Groundlessness, confusion, heartbreak, and anxiety can mark the in-between state. This is the kind of place we typically avoid. The challenge is to stay with it; to let it soften us rather than harden us or inflame our fear.
Chödrön counsels that when we experience this type of existential dread or psychological discomfort, we can see it as a sign that we’re getting closer to healing, to accessing our inner strength. She writes, “when our attitude toward fear becomes more welcoming and inquisitive, there’s a fundamental shift that occurs. Instead of spending our lives tensing up, as if we were in the dentist’s chair, we learn that we can connect with the freshness of the moment and relax.”
It’s worth it to be patient and stick with the process. As Chödrön describes, “this is how we get to the place where we stop believing in our personal myths, the place where we’re not always divided against ourselves, always resisting our own energy.”
She counsels us to think of ourselves as warriors-in-training during this process, being taught how to sit with edginess and discomfort.
Change begins when we learn to “own” our emotional brains
“Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning at the funeral.”
— Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
By owning our emotional brains, we learn to observe and tolerate the gut-wrenching sensations that register as misery or humiliation. Only after learning to bear what is going on inside of us can we start to befriend, rather than obliterate, the emotions that keep our patterns fixed and immutable.
As we learn to make friends with feelings and fear, we strengthen our distress tolerance.
Distress tolerance is important because life is hard.
Pain. Heartbreak. Loss. Illness. Failure. Obligations. Uncertainty. We all experience these. And as we march forward toward climate change and political instability, the unfortunate reality is that our lives could become increasingly more difficult.
We could let our stress overwhelm us — or we can learn to use it as a strength-training opportunity.
We have become so attuned to a society of instant gratification and a culture of dissociation that I fear our collective distress tolerance has weakened. This may be why we can no longer tolerate people with differing political beliefs — or why some of us could not bear the fleeting inconvenience of masking or social distancing to contain a deadly global pandemic.
We are coddling ourselves.
And when we coddle ourselves too much, we become weak. Sometimes we must delay instant gratification or sacrifice or do things that make us temporarily uncomfortable for long-term gain. When we’re constantly mortgaging our future in service of short-term comfort, we are self-sabotaging. We do this individually of course, but also collectively.
Meditation and journaling both help the process of developing a distress tolerance but there are a few other techniques you can use.
Practice the worst-case scenario
Stoic philosophers notoriously advocated for practicing the worst-case scenario.
Seneca, who enjoyed great wealth as the adviser of Nero, must have been constantly stressed. He knew that everything could be snatched away by the “spearthrusts of Fortune.”
He wrote that all of his many fears and stresses boiled down to just one gigantic fear — poverty. So he “established business relations with poverty.” He practiced his worst-case scenario until it didn’t scare him anymore. He brought experience to his uncertainty and realized it wasn’t the end of the world.
“The more you schedule and practice discomfort deliberately, the less unplanned discomfort will throw you off and control your life.”
— Tim Ferris
Shift your perception
According to Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, acute stress is mainly caused by perception. “Stress is your physical and mental reaction to what you perceive is happening. And that’s a really important part of the sentence: your reaction to what you perceive is happening…The majority of [stress] really does depend on perception. Whenever our perception doesn’t meet our expectations, we feel stressed,” she says.
This is good news because it means we can shift at least some of our stress if we shift our perception.
“You have power over your mind, not outside events, realize this and you will find strength.”
Distress tolerance helps us stay in control of our deeper feelings so they don’t end up controlling us. Generally, the rational brain can override the emotional brain, as long as our fears don't hijack us. But the moment we feel trapped, enraged, or rejected, we are vulnerable to activating our old destructive or automatic patterns.
The easiest way to start to become unhijackable is to create a space between a stimulus and your reaction to it.
When someone hurls an insult, for example, it’s easy to instinctively react in defense. But when we speak or act without thinking, we relinquish our power and agency. I’ve been guilty of this more than a few times. But now, if a person, event, or circumstance triggers me, I try to remember to take a beat before I respond. When I do this, my response is almost always different than it would have been if I hadn’t taken the pause. Nine times out of ten, it is much calmer and more centered.
Dwelling in this in-between state of healing creates a paradox. We’re in between our old, habitual patterns and a new way of being. Our brains will instinctually seek resolution, grasp for control or our old, familiar feelings.
Learning to live with this paradox naturally softens us. We see the nuance in all situations and eschew our devotion to thinking in terms of binaries. We become more flexible and open-minded, simultaneously gaining strength.
Chödrön counsels that staying in the middle, holding the paradox, prepares us to meet the unknown without fear; it prepares us to face both our life and death. We gradually discover that we are big enough to hold something that is neither lie nor truth, neither pure nor impure, neither bad nor good.