Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten why you went in there? Or do you sometimes find yourself searching for the right word, feeling that it is just on the tip of your tongue?
Chances are, you have, we all have. And chances are, you quickly moved on with your day because benign memory lapses are a normal part of the human experience. Now I’d like you to imagine the same situation but this time, you have been recently caring for your relative with Dementia – you walk into a room and forget why you came in –and you start having thoughts about “what does it mean?”. You start thinking about your age and wondering if maybe this is the first sign of cognitive decline.
In this situation, you might still be able to move on with your day, but now you have a lingering worry in your mind about the meaning of your forgetfulness. You start paying more attention to times when you forget things and realize that it is happening quite often. You might decide you don’t want to risk relying on your memory so you start taking more notes and using alarms and reminders on your phone.
I work as a student psychologist at UBC, providing therapy to people with memory problems after a head injury. And the situation I just described is very common for adults in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, especially when they have had a concussion. We use a specific kind of therapy for these clients, one that has become more and more popular over the past 20 years and that you might have heard of before: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – or CBT.
CBT is idea that our thoughts, emotions, and actions are interconnected and influence each other. We have thousands of thoughts everyday, with only some of them making it into our conscious awareness.
Our brains evolved to be “threat detection systems” so the thoughts that grab our attention tend to be ones about how likely a bad thing is to happen or how bad it will be when it does. Although these short cuts help our brain be efficient and save energy, the way we think can lead to cognitive biases and prejudices that distort reality and make us feel scared, sad, or angry. Our brains are incredibly powerful – we can think ourselves into anything! Worries about our health can lead to actual sickness and worries about a relationship can lead to discord. It’s not our fault, these are natural consequences of how our brains evolved.
The way this works is through the power of belief. Our beliefs are like a magnet that attracts consistent evidence and repels anything that contradicts it. When we are afraid of something and we start looking for it everywhere, whether it is a physiological symptom or a sign that our partner doesn’t love us anymore, we will find it. And since our behaviours and actions are deeply connected to our thoughts, we will probably start becoming more distant from our partner, and this distance could affect our relationship.
This is CBT – taking a step back to look at how we are interpreting the world, to notice how our thoughts will influence our emotions and our behaviors. Crucially, we must treat our thoughts as hypotheses, or guesses, rather than facts. By giving ourselves some space to question our initial interpretations, and make sure we aren’t jumping to conclusions, we can gain a sense of control over how we react to the world and how it affects us. The more we try to silence our thoughts, the louder they will shout. The more we try to repress or drown our emotions in alcohol or drugs, the stronger they will come back. We are inadvertently reinforcing the belief that these are scary and should be avoided.
Exactly 10 years ago, in my second year of University, I was in a very bad place. I was dealing with anxiety and depression, as well as trauma and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I was considering suicide. My psychologist suggested I try antidepressants as a last resort. I was reluctant to start the antidepressants because I thought that it represented a failure. A failure of my will to get better, a failure of my gratitude for all the privilege I have, a failure of my determination to be productive. Even when those antidepressants might’ve been one of the only ways to improve my condition, I was hesitant to swallow my pride and swallow the pill. I took some time to reflect on my reluctance to try medication, I thought about why my ego felt attacked by the idea of some help.
We often choose misery over mystery. We are willing to put up with a terrible situation because we are afraid of the unknown – we choose the known pain over the unknown, potential happiness because it is familiar, it is safe in its mediocrity. If we don’t try, we can’t fail. If I don’t take the antidepressants, I can’t be disappointed when I continue to feel bad, it is expected.
I eventually started taking the antidepressants: they allowed me to finish University, get into graduate school, and continue to live my life the way I want. I continue to take psychiatric medication and am happy to talk to anybody who has questions or is curious about these sorts of treatments.
What I have come to realize is that reflecting on our beliefs, especially the ones that feel very strong, is incredibly important. We all have fallen into “thinking traps” that interfere with our goals in life. I’ve provided you with a handout that describes some of the most common ways that our thoughts get distorted. I hope that you can take some time this week to look it over and think about which of these feels more familiar to you.
The most important thing to do is just notice it. It takes time and practice but even just calling out these distorted beliefs and recognizing them for what they are (i.e., not 100% true) can make a big difference. Let us not be complacent about our prejudices and our biases. Let us take responsibility for the way that our brain works and do our part to keep our prejudice from hurting others.
When I think about how God works in us and through us, I think it has a lot to do with belief. Many people criticize religious individuals, claiming that it is stupid to believe in something that you cannot see. And yet when we think about ourselves through a Cognitive Behavioural Framework, we are believing what we cannot see every day. Choosing to follow Jesus’ teachings and walk humbly with our God is choosing to believe in the same way we can choose to believe that the memory lapse we had today was because we were distracted, not because we are developing Alzheimer’s. Loving our neighbor requires believing that they are just as worthy of love as we are, just as precious in God’s eyes. Loving ourselves requires believing that, in spite of our insecurities and stumbles, we are striving towards goodness and love.