Monday, April 2, 2012

The Brain as an Irrational Real Estate Agent: Emotional Retrogression

One psychological issue has always bugged me severely over the years: The topic of retrogression. As you all know, my primary new years' resolution this year is to get my emotional health in order.

Of all the years I've engaged in emotional self-improvement I've always been distraught at the phenomenon where I would actually make good progress towards establishing my well-being across a few days, and then one day I would experience a rekindling of my emotional problems that would be so intense that they knocked me backwards into old ways of feeling and bad habits. Struggling with those cycles have been immensely frustrating, and have been going on for a few years now. I just couldn't understand why. If I was making smooth progress the days prior, why did it all of the sudden stop and return to the way things were?

Well, I think I may have found the answer in neurology.

A major change I've made to my emotional self-improvements this year is that I'm now taking physiology into account. On the psychological side I'm focusing on what beliefs and thinking I'm doing that's making the basis for the type of emotions I'm experiencing, and on the physiological side I'm focusing on what my thinking and emotions are doing to my brain by wiring its circuitry. Both sides need to be taken into account for the achievement of total well-being, as you need to both understand what drives you emotions and how you can not only make a mental change, but also change your brain as well so that the transition to a better state of being can be complete and less difficult.

For me, I think the reason why I've been retrogressing is neurological: The brain simply doesn't want to change. This logic applies to the whole body actually. It's not that your body or brain wants to resist positive change; it just doesn't want to do any work to change something, nor does it want to give up anything as well: It just wants to relax easy in a routine of keeping things the way they are, where energy demands are consistent and easily met.

Think of your muscles. Exercise can be pretty uncomfortable, can't it? It takes some pretty intense lifting to be able to grow your muscles, and that can lead to some pretty incredible discomfort. The discomfort is probably due to the body's rebellion to change: It's very hard work for it to do repair and build more fibers, so unless it has to it's going to send you signals of discomfort to stop, which you must resist and fight through in order to reach the state of positive change. Note that I state it's sending you signals of discomfort, not pain: the body is making you uncomfortable in order to try and persuade you to stop, but if you ignore it and fight through then you can persuade your body back to make the changes you want. With work you can obtain the body you've always dreamed of, but almost always in the process will your body complain and complain with what work you're making it do.

The same applies to the brain, I think. It wants to remain wired right as it is now. It doesn't want to undo and construct circuits. When you make progress on your emotional health, you're actually affecting the very wiring of your brain: You're undoing the bad circuits which generate the manifestation of your problems, and beginning to build new ones. But being energy-demanding and work-intensive, your brain doesn't want to do it unless you push through and encourage it to, so, I think, the cause of my retrogressions have been due to my brain suddenly stimulating the circuits that generate my problems, as an effort to notify me that something is coming undone, and that leads to my sudden outbursts which, due to my failing to understand, leads right back to negative habits.

Distinct from you your body isn't rational. It alone can't tell you what foods are best for you or what type of exercise to take on; you have to use your mind to decide that for yourself. A lack of magnesium may make you crave a sweet chocolate in order to bring levels back up, but that probably isn't the best nutritional choice given the option of leafy greens and supplements. Your body can suggest to you a nutritional option in the form of a craving, but it's up to your mind to make the rational decision. The same should go for the brain: Regardless of whether or not it generates feelings of discomfort or negative physiological effects (such as stress hormones), your brain will signal to you, during a period of lack of usage, that some particular brain circuitry is about to become undone by directly stimulating that circuit to notify you.

In concrete terms, the problem I've been having in the past is dealing with obsessive thinking patterns. Back in Michigan my problems were nearly omnipresent externally, so I continually thought about them over and over again in the attempt to figure out a solution, but since the only solution possible to me wasn't available then, I ended up going around in circles for hours on end in great distraught. I didn't need to think about it since I made a determination towards the only solution, but since it took so long to enact that solution I kept thinking about the problem since it hindered me in the meanwhile, making me intensely crave the solution and continue looking for new ones. Once I recognized I had obsessive thinking patterns I took an effort to resolve them, and in various cycles I would be successful. After doing some proper introspection, doing writing and talking and whatnot, I would successfully manage to get the problem off my mind for several days, but then suddenly out of nowhere a negative thought would come back and flare up the obsession all over again, sending me right back where I was. Going back to step one, I would be so demotivated that it took a long time to actually try and resolve matters again, and when I did I would have only a few days or scant few weeks of peace that would end in me falling right back into those terrible thinking patterns.

I think that since the obsessive thinking led to such a strong set of circuitry in my brain, my brain was rebelling against my undoing it, since it wanted to preserve itself the way it was, not making positive or negative changes. Those days or weeks of mental peace were probably starting to have an impact on my brain, which then triggered my brain to stimulate the bad circuits in order to encourage me to strengthen them, and since those circuits led to obsession it inevitably meant I would restrengthen them, thus falling right back to where I was.

If I'm right, then this identification will offer incredible help. Now I'll know that when I have a sudden retrogressive episode in the midst of a period of progress that they're probably the most important days to fight to retain my mental health practices, as it's my brain signaling that the negative circuit is coming undone and that I must push through the discomfort to actually be successful at undoing it.

In order to aid in the fight, I think I'll take my introspection journal with me wherever I go. In terms of neurological and psychological change, I've known no stronger trick than to write down and address one's emotional problems on paper with handwriting. In terms of total change, I think writing has the deepest and most long-lasting effect. Therefore, any time I feel a very intense emotional episode it would probably be the best time to write out an entry, as those periods might be the time I'm most sensitive to neurological change.

As a layman with neurology as only a casual interest I am not certain that my thinking here is correct, but it does follow logically from the reading I've done. From The Brain That Changes Itself I've learned that the brain does not want to give up any portion of itself, so its plausible that it stimulates circuits about to come undone in favor of new functions in order to encourage you to retain them. With effort, you can overcome your brain's "encouragement" and wire in the circuits you truly want to be there. Your brain, separate from your mind, is an irrational real estate agent. You don't have to be.

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