The Power of Negative Thinking

It is always assumed that negative thoughts are bad for mental health and there are clearly times when they are. For example, being unable to rid the mind of a specific negative thought for days, hours or weeks is likely to be harmful. The longer it takes up residence the harder it may be, like an unwanted lodger, to show it the door. Or it might, as it were, create a well-trodden path which it refuses to abandon. A phrase like neural pathway comes to mind, though how medically accurate this is I don’t know.

As a consequence of this, there are many authors out there (life coaches, persons of faith, shrinks, gurus, swamis and the like) who advocate positive thinking and extol methods by which this may be encouraged. I note that these books are often categorized as to whether they are aimed at men or women and suspect (I’m too indolent to count) that more are aimed at women than men. Why might that be? As a rule, women give more thought to such things, and those of them who live with men will sometimes have a stronger incentive.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of positive thoughts to help us through this vale of tears. Firstly, Abraham Lincoln:

“Whatever you are, be a good one.”  

Nice one, Abraham. So how would a rapist, swindler or a Vladimir Putin live up to that? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Moving quickly on to Tupac:

“Reality is wrong, dreams are for real.”

If reality is wrong and dreams are real, then dreams are wrong, right Tupac?

It would not only be possible but easy to expose many such statements of the positive to a negative critique, but we would not want to remove their crutches from people who really need them to get along. What would be the point?

But it seems that ridding the brain of negative thoughts is to be encouraged. Take Eliminate Negative Thinking by Derek Howell, for example, a book which specifically targets negative thoughts. An obvious question arises. How effective are such books for those who read them? I don’t believe that social scientists have applied themselves to answering this question, and it would a very difficult task to attempt, but a certain person I know well has an impressive library of self-help books yet has confined himself/herself to the bedroom for the last several years. I already hear the reply, Ah, yes, but I’d even worse off without them. And there is no way to test this, so life goes on.

Yet we should at least ask whether all negative thoughts are bad. Veronika sits in the graveyard thinking I am totally worthless because her friends have dropped her from seventeen social media platforms. It is theoretically possible that she is totally worthless but highly unlikely. Snap out of it, Veronica! Meanwhile her sister, Verity, interrogating her newsfeed on the subject of Ukraine, comes to the view that there is no level of base behaviour to which some will not sink. Since there is ample evidence of this over thousands of years, Verity is entitled to subscribe to this negative view on the grounds that negative though it may be it is also realistic.

A phrase that struck me many moons ago was penned by Thucydides – Human nature being what it is. Say no more, mate, we get the message.

Though given to negative thoughts, I tend to keep them to myself. However realistic they may be, they don’t go down well. And that’s OK, I can live with that. The fact that I can also die with that is neither here nor there.

Fear of Failure

The word ‘mind-games’ is often taken to mean attempts by one person to influence another. It is well known in sporting circles where Coach A will falsely claim that his opponents in the forthcoming match are the favourites when everyone knows fine well that they are not. By this transparent stratagem, he aims to pile the pressure of expectation on Coach B and his team. But the games am I stealing up on here are those played by the mind against itself. I will start with a small, insignificant example and end with devastation.

My wife and I are partial to coffee and keep the necessary ingredients in a cupboard which contains the usual coffee, percolators and mugs. But notice also the clock on the wall.

So, to access these essentials of our addiction, I open the cupboard door.

No surprise there. But guess what? When I open this door, I obscure the clock on the wall.

At which point, having just obscured it, I am overcome with a desire to look at it and find out what the time is – and this from a man who never wears a watch. Which strikes me as strange. As an example of the mind at work against itself it is clearly a small one. After all, it’s easily solved. All I need to do is move the clock or train myself to check it before opening the cupboard door.

But I have seen the mind in conflict with itself at a much more serious level. The person in question has crippled herself for decades and, unfortunately, over a period of years, a crippling of the mind has led to a crippling of the body. Although there was nothing wrong with her legs to begin with, now she can no longer walk, partly because of muscle wastage but mainly because her knees are locked. And she has done this to herself.

I am not a shrink, but as far as I can tell the underlying process goes as follows.

  • I do not want to fail.
  • If I never attempt anything then I will never fail.

And this is obviously true. You could say she has failed at nothing because she has taken the precaution of attempting nothing. Unfortunately, the corollary of this principle is also true – if we never attempt anything then we never succeed either.

So where has this led? Since she never leaves her bedroom, let alone her house, she has succeeded in making herself entirely dependent on others. And this despite an impressive array of self-help books. What will her future hold? I have no idea, but know that I won’t be here to see it.

I could document this sad state of affairs with photographs but for obvious reasons have chosen not to do so.

Life imitating art

1
I recently published a novel called Time to Talk and today I find an article under the heading ‘Talking literally saved my life’. The story is about Jonny Benjamin, a mental health campaigner who has had ‘schizoaffective disorder’ – defined in the article as a combination of schizophrenia and depression.

A panel within the article is headed ‘It’s Time to Talk’. In it we learn that Time to Change is an anti-stigma programme run by leading mental health charities Mind and Rethink. Time to Change ‘is holding the first national Time To Talk Day’ with the aim of starting ‘a million conversations about mental health’. Good luck with that.

2
Last week I discovered that my narrator, Max, has found his way into a dissertation. In the likely event you think I’m making this up, the subject was resilience considered from a transactional analysis point of view and the method of questioning used with respondents was interpretative phenomenological analysis. (Don’t ask me, I just live here!)

3
According to several sources, one being the BBC News website, scientists from Sydney University have come to the view that shivering for 10-15 minutes a day could be equivalent to doing an hour of exercise. ‘They found that the process triggered hormonal changes producing brown fat – which burns energy to keep warm.’

In my forthcoming book, A Serious Business, one of the characters is already using this technique. ‘Ah yes,’ I hear you say, ‘but your book’s not out yet. Maybe art is copying life here?’ At this point I have to reveal that I finished the first draft in November  2006. Right, so what on earth have I been doing since then?

Revising. It’s a long story, but it’s shorter now.

Alice looked bemused. ‘And who came up with this one?’
‘Jefferson P Dangerfield, an America vet. You’ll find his recent best-seller in June’s drawer beside the biscuits: The Keep Cool Weight Loss Program, Homeostasis and Health.’

4
And finally, as they used to say introducing a ‘human interest’ story to round off the news, and finally I have to report that my character, Max Frei, has had a geranium named after him. It doesn’t get better than that.  Where’s your Nobel prize for literature now?

Geranium_'Max_Frei'_03

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If these are the symptoms, what is the condition?

These are not all of the symptoms, just some of them, but enough to be going on with.  And I am not making any of this up.

1) Stopping frequently in her tracks when walking along

2) Refusing to wear her glasses with the stated aim of reducing ‘sensory overload’

3) Frequently relieving herself in anything to hand despite having a toilet on the same floor (anything to hand including what you might be drinking from next)

4) Frequently thinking of suicide over a twenty year period

5) Mild self-harm

6) Often stated fear of not being able to communicate, so often with a pen and paper at the ready

7) Difficulty breathing which she attributes to panic attacks

I am asking in the hope of enlightenment, since an assessment is coming up which may result in compulsory treatment.

Right, but treatment for what?