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Rewiring the mind, or some-such thing!

Over the years, this blog has been a place where I have spoken openly about stuff, and in so-doing seem to have enabled some other people to find their experiences normalised, affirmed or at least recognised.  As someone who is by nature an introvert and is actually pretty shy, doing this is not always easy, even if, at least sometimes, it is practical (and of course by writing I don't actually have to speak the words aloud if I prefer not to).

So, there has been the cancer journey back in 2010-11; the gynae stuff, mostly in 2015-16; the sertraline stuff in 2017.  Now in 2018 there will be some stuff about mental health.

It's fair to say that spring and summer this year have been a bit death-heavy.  My Mum's death back in May was sudden, but at least it was peaceful and she had lived to average age.  A couple of months later came the tragic news that one of my cousins had taken their own life after a long struggle with depression.  Last week, two more deaths, the woman who had been my Girls' Brigade captain back in the 1970s/80s, and a former breast care nurse who I got to know online and who, once, appeared unexpectedly at my church.  It's been quite a lot of death, and it's taken its toll one way or another.

Among other things, it has brought to the surface old hurts, insecurities and memories that have been getting turned over and over in my over-reflective mind.  So much was this troubling me, that I made the decision to seek some help from a counsellor.

What the counsellor made of someone who just matter-of-factly reeled off their life history I have no idea (well, I'm paying, I may as well get value for my money!).  What I do know is that she and I seem to have reached an understanding about what the nub of this is, and how she can help me deal with it.

So we are doing some CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) stuff in an attempt to rewire my thought processes.  I have a number of techniques to employ, based on examples I gave her of experiences I wanted to work with.  Some visualisation, some distancing, some engaging in addressing stuff in real life. Suffice to say, it's quite demanding and can feel quite risky.  Also, suffice to say, with my rubbish memory, I have to note down details about the times I try it out as otherwise I wouldn't remember when next we meet.  My problem isn't lack of self-awareness, it's learning to employ that helpfully!

For some reason, the 'Cognitive' bit reminded of stuff I did eons ago on human factors assessments, and how people learn or acquire skills.  There's a model that assumes three phases:

  • cognitive
  • associative
  • autonomous

In the cognitive phase, the person very consciously carries out 'instructions' to fulfil a task.  The example used when I was in industry was learning to drive, so the total novice who wishes to change gear will go through the sequence that I still recall my own driving instructor using...

  • hand on the gear lever, ready
  • clutch down
  • off the gas
  • into [gear number]
  • on the gas
  • clutch up steadily

The associative stage is where the skill has been mastered, but the learner still carries it consciously... I am going too quickly for this gear, I need to change up and so...

Finally comes the autonomous stage, where the driver simply changes gear as needed without even being aware of what they are doing.  Anyone who drives regularly has, I suspect, had the sense of being 'on autopilot' at some point.

I guess the hope is that, by consciously and cognitively changing the way I process things, it won't automatically (autonomously) follow the unhelpful route it has done for, in some cases, the greater part of fifty years, and that I can learn instead to follow healthier, happier routes.  The goal, I suppose, is that we can move from the clunky CBT (cognitive) via self-awareness (associative) to instinctive (autonomous) ways of reflecting that are better for me and hence, by default, better for other people.

A few quick thoughts before I hit 'save'...

  • No-one who knows me in the here-and-now has done or said anything that has caused me to reach this place.  I think that some stuff around my Mum's death has been significant in reawakening unhelpful feelings that need to be dealt with.
  • I do not intend this 'splurging' to be anything other than an ongoing commitment to being honest and open... what our pastoral theology teacher called 'appropriate vulnerability'.  If it goes beyond that that's unfortunate and unintended (and I am frantically telling myself not to apologise!)
  • I share it not for sympathy, or so that people treat me other than they already do, but just because of the above desire to be open.  If it resonates with someone, then I hope that they, too, might find a safe enough space and trustworthy companion to process their own needs and do any rewiring that may, for them by healthy.
  • Lastly, mental health in all its many and varied guises is something that causes fear and unease and dis-ease for so many people.  Perhaps these words play just the tiniest part in breaking down that taboo.

Undoubtedly ,as my NAM mentor told me the greater part of 15 years ago, it is a lifetime's work for me to learn not to over-reflect, self-flagellate or self-deprecate... but if I can rewire my brain just a bit, and learn not to internalise stuff that has no place to be there, it can only be a 'Good Thing'. 

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