A way into “The Abyss” of chronic illness
The title of this song1 is a common way many of us deal with adversity. However, it encompasses both halves of the “ironic effect” and the actual well-documented outcome of this approach to life is more worry and sadness.
What is “the ironic effect” and how does it work?
There two aspects of it.
First, it is well known that if you suppress unpleasant thoughts, not only will they become stronger, but there is also a trampoline effect where they become much stronger.2 We often joke about it, but it is serious problem that disrupts your quality of life, drives fight or flight physiology, and causes many symptoms, illnesses, and diseases. “Don’t worry” is thought suppression.
Secondly, and less known, is that setting high ideals and standards for yourself will take you down in the other direction. For example, if you strive for happiness, you will experience sadness. If you allow sadness, you will be happier.3 So, the higher your ideals and intentions, the higher your chances of being riddled by anxiety.
Why does this phenomenon occur? The answer lies in the massive impact of the unconscious survival brain compared to the limited power of the conscious brain. Your unconscious brain processes about 40 million bits of information per second compared to your conscious brain dealing with about 40 per second. It is a million times stronger. Let’s look at the problem of “being happy.”
The pursuit of happiness
“Happy” is a conscious construct. The problem is that your conscious brain is no match for your survival reactions that evolved to be so unpleasant as to compel us to take actions to survive. The data shows that by trying to outrun or compensate for your stresses by pursuing pleasure, you’ll cause a highly inflammatory reaction. Your DNA dictates the production of destructive inflammatory cells call, “warrior monocytes” that attack your own tissues in addition to bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders.4 The sensation generated by this inflammatory response is anxiety.
Another aspect of this ironic effect is that by pursuing happiness, you’ll worry about the ways you might not achieve it. You have set a largely unconscious standard of what happy is for you. As you monitor your happiness, you are in ongoing self-judgmental mode that wears you down.
Happy is also a label, which is a core cognitive distortion.5 What is it and how encompassing is it? What percent of the time do you have to be in a happy state to label yourself as “happy?” What activities and accomplishments are required to reach your criteria? How do you react when daily challenges interrupt this state of mind?
Philosophers and psychologists have viewed attachment as the root of suffering. Anthony DeMello has a concise definition of it.6 If something feels good you want more and if it is unpleasant, you want less. Being attached to “happy” will paradoxically increase your suffering. The most well-intentioned people are the most subject to the ironic effect in that the higher their ideals, the greater the chance they’ll be riddled with racing thoughts and anxiety.
We all know the problems that occur when you try not think about something. One classic paper was published in 1987,2 The Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression.” Again, more well-intentioned people will suppress a higher percent of “unacceptable” thoughts and also give meaning to them. They are just thoughts but will become more powerful as they keep being interpreted as good or bad.
Repetitive Unpleasant Thoughts (RUT’s) are universal. When you have a bizarre, even unspeakable thought, of course you would suppress it. Why wouldn’t you? It has nothing to do with anything about you or your value system. As it arises again and again, it is instantly suppressed. Eventually suppression becomes automatic, which is called repression. Seems pretty normal, right? Except what happens is that your nervous system inadvertently gave this random thought a tremendous amount of power. Every time that thought is suppressed/ repressed, that neurological circuit has been reinforced. These circuits become stronger and connected with more experiences.7 Eventually, you may end up spending a lot of mental energy dealing with these anxiety-producing, disruptive thought(s). As you feel trapped and frustrated, these circuits are driven even harder from your brain being inflamed.
These disruptive thoughts become your “demons.” They are not your demons. They are the opposite of who you are and who you are not. My term for these irrational, non-responsive neurological patterns are “robots”. You cannot deal with a robot. You cannot talk to it or reason with it. There is absolutely nothing that can be done from a rational standpoint to change an unresponsive neurological circuit. In fact, when you discuss your demons and try to figure out why they are there, you are firing up and adding even morecomplexity to the circuits. They become even stronger and you can’t unlearn them. How do you “unlearn” to ride a bike? You can’t. They really are RUT’s.
No one wants to talk about the existence of RUT’s because they are so disruptive, and often feel shameful. The initial step is to understand the nature of the problem and realize that these thoughts are emanating from your unconscious brain. You must separate your identity from them. They are just thoughts, are also universal, and you don’t have to personally identify with them.
The unpleasant emotions connected with them are your body’s physiology responding to the perceived threats. Remember, they are actually the opposite of who you are as a well-meaning person.
Fortunately, there are solutions that have been known for centuries, but don’t seem to be readily apparent in our modern world. The principles revolve around allowing yourself to be with your painful emotions, use strategies to calm down your threat physiology, and then choose joy. With repetition you’ll reprogram your survival reactions into more pleasant alternatives. As emotional pain is processed in similar regions of the brain as physical pain, it hurts.8 Professional support and direction are often needed.
Choosing joy is different than positive thinking, which is another form of thought suppression. It entails having a positive outlook, “taking the hits,” and consistently making positive choices. But you can’t make the positive choices without knowing where you are at in the moment. “What you can feel, you can heal.”9 As you learn to be with your mental pain instead of fighting it, these unpleasant circuits will become less active. It is similar to any skill that fades without practice.
Be with worry and choose happy. Learning skills to accomplish this allows you rise above your “RUT’s” and live a more enjoyable life.
- McFerrin, Bobby. Released 1988; Number 1 single from album Simple Pleasures.
- Wegener, D.M., et al. “Paradoxical effects of thought suppression.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1987); 53: 5-13.
- Wegner D. The Seed of Our Undoing. Psychological Science Agenda, January/February, 1999, 10-11.
- Cole SW, et al. Social regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Genome Biology (2007); 8:R189. doi:10.1186/gb-2007/8/9/R189
- Burns, David. Feeling Good. Avon Books, Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1999.
- DeMello, Anthony, The Way to Love. Double Day, New York, NY, 1992.
- Mansour AR, et al. Chronic pain: The role of learning and brain plasticity. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience (2014); 32:129-139. DOI 10.3233/RNN-139003
- Eisenberger NI, et al An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection. Pain (2006); 126:132-138.
- John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1992.