Data Point: Addictive Thought Pattern

  • Sumo

Jessica Bruder’s piece in INC, “The Psychological Price of Entrepeuership,” struck a nerve with me when she said:

But many of those entrepreneurs, like Smith, harbor secret demons: Before they made it big, they struggled through moments of near-debilitating anxiety and despair–times when it seemed everything might crumble.

Secret demons. Anxiety and despair. Everything might crumble. It’s incredibly easy to read those words and brush them aside. Just as we all have an inner critic, we all have dark days. Some have darker days than others, and some of those don’t see light again. She mentions Jody Sherman, 47, of the e-commerce site Ecomom, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the 22-year-old co-founder of Diaspora. And then there’s this paragraph:

“People who are on the energetic, motivated, and creative side are both more likely to be entrepreneurial and more likely to have strong emotional states,” says Freeman. Those states may include depression, despair, hopelessness, worthlessness, loss of motivation, and suicidal thinking.

Depression. Despair. Hopelessness. Worthlessness. The tried-and-true filters of my “toxic, hate-filled inner critic.” Though people still don’t like to talk about it publicly, even today, suicidal thinking is common. What is still a mystery, however, is how such thinking turns into action. Some claim it is a decision, like any other. Others say the thinking becomes an obsession and then the only way out of a situation is to act. Reading up on the subject this past year, I’ve learned two things:

  1. Suicidal thinking is an addictive behavior.
  2. Suicidal thinking can be redirected.

The most useful book I’ve read, so far, on addictive behavior is a little-known book called The Answer Model. Addictive behaviors activate “reward areas” in the brain that trigger the release of endorphins. You’ve most likely heard of such things in the context of enjoyable activities, like running, or shopping. We don’t think of those activities as producing chemical reactions in the brain like alcohol, marijuana or cocaine. We’ve been well educated on the addictive properties of those, but that is a narrow viewpoint of addiction.

The book defines addiction as sending “us into survival mode when our survival is not particularly at risk.” It goes on to explain that

The dynamic begins as an over-protective, hair-trigger impulse to defend our survival against threats. But because of the substantial biochemical rewards that survival-mode states always supply, such states can easily begin to exert a dysfunctional, magnetic pull on us” (pg 112 Kindle Edition).

Feelings, then, are a biochemical reaction. This makes sense when you think about the “runners high” you feel after a run. During and after the run, your brain is undergoing a biochemical reaction and releasing endorphins. Given our hunter-gather heritage, this also makes sense. Sometimes you have to run to survive. We’re no longer a hunter-gather society, but that survival-mode still exists. The book describes how “And stress triggers the release of hormones that have very similar effects to addictive drugs, it follows that anything we perceive as being stressful, including anything that creates emotional pain, can potentially become addictive” (pg 59 Kindle Edition). There are big stressers, like getting laid off or being involved in an accident, every day stressers like a fight with a spouse. All these events, in fact every event, leave an imprint on the brain. Remember: neurons that “fire together, wire together.” The Answer Model goes on to explain that

“many other more subtle states of survival mode are equally common and important. As we’ll see in the next chapter, strong sexual desire often becomes a state of survival mode. So does the emotion of anger, or the feeling of being somehow “less than” other people, a particularly common feeling in modern life that is a critical driving force in most addictions (pg 165 Kindle Edition).

Anger. Feeling of being somehow “less than” other people. Emotions. Scary things because there is often no logical reasoning to be applied. We effectively “get lost,” or, as the book puts it, our “brain gets tricked into thinking that there is a survival emergency when no such emergency exists” (pg 176 Kindle Edition).

Reading that again, I can imagine what went on in the heads of Sherman, Zhitomirskiy and Aaron Schwartz. The harsh inner critic derives its fuel from the outside first before it becomes engrained and internalized. For some who have been able to keep the inner critic at bay or otherwise wave it off, the change can be swift and brutal. That survival-mode suddenly kicks in at full throttle and you can just hang on for the ride. This seems especially true if the media is relentless in its coverage of an event or a person. The negative battering from talking heads can be impossible to escape, and it can become the only voices heard, even if others try to help. Being in such a state is hell, whether you’re in it for the first time or constantly find yourself in it so it seems normal. With nothing but negativity reflected back, it is impossible to do anything but withdraw.

Withdrawing is an act of survival. You’re shielding yourself from an onslaught, from attack. While it can be useful, and necessary, it is also hard on those around you. Friends and family withdraw, too, as they feel helpless and frustrated that you simply won’t listen. It’s not that you won’t listen, though, it’s that you can’t hear anything over the negativity. That inner critic takes information and runs it through negative filters so what is should be seen as an extension of help and friendship suddenly has ulterior motives: they’re not really trying to help, they’re trying to manipulate and draw me out to attack.

Once you’re caught in the loop, it is very hard to escape. The longer it plays, the harder it is to ignore and the more engrained it becomes. You reach that bottom where death seems like a savior, flipping a switch for “survival mode” and a full-on mental struggle to stay alive. It gets exhausting, yet becomes an addictive thought pattern because it generates “subtle states of survival mode” that result in a biochemical payoff. Oddly enough, you feel better since “nearly all psychological dysfunctions in human beings are ultimately due to the somewhat perverse fact that endorphin is released not only when we feel pleasure, but also when we experience pain” (pg 305 Kindle Edition). Suicidal thinking, then, becomes a method of survival because it causes a release of endorphins. The thought of death is soothing, pleasurable. The more that loop plays, the more those neurons “fire together, wire together” so now you get a biochemical payoff from it as if you’ve just gone running. Soon, the question becomes: when does the biochemical payoff cease to be enough, requiring thought to turn into action?

I don’t have an answer for that. What I do know, however, is that the negative loop, and its resulting biochemical payoff, can at least be redirected, if not broken. Two things must happen first, though:

  1. You must be aware of the negative loop.
  2. You must be want to change the negative loop.

Awareness is key, and hard to do if you’re not accustomed to looking at yourself in a non-critical, non-judgement manner. Like the phrase “you don’t know what you don’t know,” if you aren’t aware of the negative loop, don’t perceive the “survival-mode state” and its biochemical payoff, then you don’t know. It is a tricky concept to grasp. I still don’t know that I fully understand it, but what I do know is that creating mental space for yourself creates awareness. You have to work at creating mental space, work at making yourself aware of loops and thought patterns and then working to find the origin.

Finding the origin is also key, but it is not easy, either, as it requires taking a long, hard look at yourself. That critical voice is necessary, and that can be brutal as the negative loop will have found a new source of fuel. You’ll start to think of all the things you’ve done wrong, or would have done differently had you known. That, it turns out, is a good thing because it demonstrates you have achieved an important level of awareness. If you don’t like it, you can now start to change it, if not completely break it and start fresh.

Evernote has been key for me in finding patterns and tracing origins. Documenting is important because it gets everything out of my head so I can examine it, trace a particular thought pattern to its origin and start recognizing the pattern earlier. I’ve gradually become aware of my actions, and reactions to things through documenting. I’ve been able to step back a little bit, acknowledge a situation, acknowledge the loop, acknowledge the emotion, trace the origin and decide if it is one to keep, one to reprogram or one to disregard.

It’s a process, I’m learning, that requires both patience and help. Turns out I’ve been trying to help myself out of loops without realizing it. A part has been buried deep for its own survival, I’ve learned, and has been communicating through its own kind Code that goes unfiltered by my inner critic: Song Lyrics.

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