Please Note: I will use emotions & moods interchangeably throughout this article.
1) High Cognitive Reactivity (HCR) program = an enduring maladaptive mind-pattern in which small negative shifts in mood can trigger dramatic shifts into intense negative thinking.
2) Negative Thought – Emotion Cycle (NTE – Cycle) = A self-reinforcing race-to-the-bottom mind-pattern in which your negative thoughts increase the intensity of your negative emotions which in turn magnifies the intensity of your negative thinking and so on…This negative mental echo chamber often leads your mind to develop feelings of hopelessness and despair.
3) Mood Congruency Effect (MCE) = If your mood shifts into a sustained negative state it upgrades your darker thoughts & memories to get VIP access to your Attention Selection Center.
Your mood sets the tone to coordinate and align your thinking with your feelings.
4) Survival-Threat Detection Programs (STDPs) = Triggered by high-intensity FEAR or RAGE based emotions (sympathetic nervous system – fight or flight response) or by prolonged perceived threats to one’s livelihood. STDPs have one prime directive: To keep you alive at all costs. This primal set of programs can powerfully modify the ways in which you think, feel, and perceive.
Note: STDPs are optimized for maximum sensitivity towards any possible survival threats in an attempt to optimize your mind’s ability to anticipate any possible dangers. The tradeoff for this maximized sensitivity is that STDPs tend to have a high-false alarm rate.
STDPs use a high amount of energy. If they become chronically activated they will hypersensitize your nervous system and drain it’s energy resources.
5) I – Problem Solving App (I-PSA) = a program inside your Attention Selection Center that is activated whenever your mood experiences a prolonged negative shift in response to an internal mental event (ex: imaginations of impending threats) rather than from an external event (your surrounding environment is neutral).
Your I-PSA steers your Attention away from external sense stimuli and guides it inwards to search for possible causes of your negative mood shift within your Memory Directories.
In the 3rd article of this series, The Mental Herpes Effect: Chapter 3: Learning to Break Free – The 3 Pillars of Problem Solving, we went over the basic framework: Knowledge | Skills | Resources and how they can be used to overcome maladaptive mind-conditioning.
In the rest of this article series we will go into greater depth on how to apply each pillar to your HCR programming.
You can think of the 3 pillars as 3 challenges that need to be completed in order to train your mind to break free from HCR and the Mental Herpes Effect.
“A problem well-stated is half-solved.”
-Charles Kettering, famous inventor and head of research for GM
Side Bar: The 3 Elements of your Mind: Your mind experiences can be simplified and broken down into 3 primary mental elements: Thoughts, Emotions, and Sensations* (T.E.S.)
*Includes all of your senses – both your exteroceptive senses (sight/sound/smell/taste/touch) and interoceptive senses (bodily sensations). By default the term will refer to bodily sensations unless noted otherwise.
Objective: Break down & track the most salient features within your HCR programming from beginning to end in order to gain a clear understanding on how it behaves.
1) T.E.S. Deconstruction: The Inquiry – Retrieve 2 or more memories in which your HCR programming was activated.
Give each memory a story title (extra credit for playful/imaginative/humorous titles :). Next break each memory down by categorizing them into your 3 mind elements. Then explore each element and decide which specific features within each one that you will want to map & track.
2) T.E.S. Reconstruction: The Visual Construct – Take the specific features from one memory that you chose from step 1 and write them down on a blank screen or piece of paper. Use a different color for each elemental category.
Play the memory inside your mind both forwards and backwards. Use it to create a diagram that represents how your 3 mind elements interact with each other from beginning to end.
3) T.E.S. Reconstruction: Mind-Rhyming PR (Pattern Recognition) – Use the information from steps 1 & 2 for all the memories you are analyzing and compare & contrast them.
Look for similar themes and patterns both within and between the 3 mental elements across the different HCR memories.
Note: An ongoing challenge during this process is learning how to strike a balance between including enough detail to cover the essential features of your HCR programming while not adding too much detail and potentially get bogged down into analysis paralysis.
Patient Prototype: Melissa X
Side Bar: Patient Prototypes (PP): Fictitious patients that are based on an amalgam of real patients I have worked with during my clinical experiences. The PP allows me to give you “remixes” of real world examples without revealing protected health information.
Melissa X – HCR triggered by anxiety
Melissa is a 57 year old woman who works as an attorney that focuses on family law. She has a history of panic disorder, obsessive compulsive tendencies, and generalized anxiety disorder.
She began having panic attacks after she and her husband divorced 3 years ago. During this time, she developed an intense preoccupation with her body. She often feared that she was going to have a heart attack whenever she would feel a sharp pain in her chest and noticed “skipped beats” a couple of times each day that would frighten her.
Melissa complained of several intermittent somatic complaints including headaches, dizziness, and stomach cramps. She would have occasional bouts of diarrhea and or constipation that usually coincided with the level of distress she was in.
She received help through a combination of psychotherapy and medication. After 3 years of receiving care, Melissa was able to ween off the 2 medications she was on.
Currently she sees her therapist 2x a month. Overall she feels like she has recovered except for when she gets into a more intense or prolonged anxious mood state. These occur at a frequency of around 1 to 3 times a month. These uncomfortable states tend to linger and can sometimes last the entire day. On one occasion, 2 months ago, it took 2 days before she felt balanced.
A) Setting the Stage – Retrieve a memory in which your HCR programming was activated and describe the beginning scene:
Melissa: I was going through my mail and opened up my credit card bill and noticed that it was past its due date. This was the 2nd time this year and knew I wasn’t going to be able to get a second refund. I got upset and started worrying about my finances & my future.
B) Describe your Emotional Response(s) include Intensity Levels:
Melissa: Frustration then anxiety that fluctuated back & forth before shifting over to mainly anxiety & worry (Level 5-6).
C) What Thoughts came into your mind while this was happening?
D) Note any Memories that may have come up during this HCR event:
Melissa: I remembered an awful day that I had at work this past week. This memory triggered a string of related memories about other bad days that I had at work this past month.
Clinical Experience Observation (CEO): Melissa’s anxious mood activates the retrieval of a recent memory congruent with her current feelings of anxiety (MCE). This process triggers an associative web that links to and opens the [ANXIETY + WORK] memory directory in her mind – which allows all the memories in this directory to get front row seats at her Attention Selection Center.
This creates a memory selection bias that often makes things appear more distorted than they are.
Melissa: My mind then started thinking about my relationship with Sean. Everything had been going so well, but lately something has been off. I am sure that something shitty is going to happen between us soon.
CEO: Our memories are primarily organized by the dominant emotional state they evoke. Anxiety-based memories form one directory, sadness-based memories another, pleasure-based memories another…
When Melissa’s attention linked up to and reviewed several [Anxiety + Work] memories, it increased the intensity of her anxious mood which turned on her Attentional I–Problem Solving App (I-PSA).
Her I-PSA directed her attention to continue searching inwards and explore other anxiety-based memory directories in order to find out the main influences and causes for her intensified anxiety. Her attention then hyperlinked to the closely related [Anxiety + Relationship] memory directory to look for more clues.
Melissa: I also thought about the time when my ex-husband unexpectedly told me he was leaving me while we were out at our favorite restaurant. I can still remember what we ate and that Sinatra was playing in the background.
CEO: Melissa’s mind goes deeper into the [Anxiety + Relationship] memory directory indicating their are likely significant unprocessed emotions in this area of her mind (aka – an area she has significant emotional baggage in).
She felt blindsided by this event. The surprise was so shocking that it created a flashbulb memory – a type of memory created under intense stress that remains quite vivid and contains a significant amount of unprocessed emotional energy.
Her memory regarding her marital break-up reveals some of the potential core emotions that underlie her anxiety – INSECURITY – RAGE – PANIC / GRIEF – SHAME.
E) What Bodily Sensations Did You Notice?
Melissa: I noticed breathing faster and more from my chest. My chest felt tight and became tighter as I continued to worry.
Next, I began to feel dizzy & lightheaded with a dull ache in the back of my head. I also noticed constrictions in my stomach (solar plexus region) intermixed with quivering sensations (‘butterflies’) and some mild nausea.
CEO: Her mind’s reenactments of these difficult memories activated Melissa’s stress response system which expressed itself through her increased breathing in her chest and increased muscle tension.
The dizzy, lightheaded feeling Melissa felt next is often caused by hyperventilation which drives down carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the blood and leads to vasoconstriction in the blood vessels of the brain.
BREAK TIME: Consider taking a break right here. The orange color will serve as a bookmark.
Once you have broken down your last HCR response, go back over it and translate what you have written by constructing a diagram that represents the whole HCR process from beginning to end.
1) Start with the triggering stressor(s).
Ex) Melissa writes down [Visa OD] and bubbles it.
2) Then draw an arrow to what mind-element came next.
Ex) Melissa felt frustration (level 5-6) – > which flipped-flopped with anxiety (level 5-6) -> bubble [Emotion: Frustration 5-6 + Anxiety 5-6].
3) Next draw an arrow to what came next.
Ex) Melissa’s trio of negative thoughts -> [Thoughts: How can I be so fucking stupid!…]
4) Keep mapping out your HCR pattern using the 3 mind-elements (plus any subcomponents or qualities you have decided to track) until you have a completed diagram of the entire pattern from beginning to end.
Side Bar: This reconstruction process weaves in your visual-spatial systems (Right Brain dominant function) with your verbal systems (Left Brain dominant function) which allows for new integrations and insights to be made.
The start of a Visual Construct for one of Melissa’s HCR memories:
Tip: Be playful and imaginative when creating your T.E.S. diagram. Add silly names & goofy labels, draw pictures, include different colors, anything to help open up your mind and enhance your creative problem-solving capacities.
In the example above Melissa is using different colors for each mind element she is mapping and tracking.
Side Bar: CAUTION: Expect Resistance
Expect your mind to give you plenty of resistance when you attempt to do the Map & Track DR process on your HCR programming. Your mind’s survival-threat detection programs (STDPs) will deploy several counter measures to prevent you from doing this method.
Here are typical resistance thoughts that your STDPs might use to thwart your psychological growth:
Why do STDPs often resist your attempts to upgrade your mind?
Your mind’s survival threat-detection programs (STDPs) are focused on one thing – keeping you alive at all costs. They will gladly accept the devil that you do know over the possible devil that you don’t.
Simply stated, STDPs have a strong familiarity bias and will deploy several defensive counter maneuvers whenever you attempt to grow your mind’s programming into unknown territory. I call these defensive maneuvers your mind’s status quo defenses.
Your mind must pass through a transitional phase of heightened uncertainty and disorder when you attempt to upgrade your mind. As you become more conscious of your mind’s conditioning, it shifts many of your mind’s networks into new and unfamiliar territory where old belief systems can begin to crack & crumble – resulting in transient disorientation and increased stress.
Note: Your inner critic program is one of the most frequently used tools by your STDPs. Your inner critic is highly trained to deploy a wide range of status quo defenses whose main function is to deflate your motivation towards change and block your well-intentioned attempts to grow & develop your mind in healthy new ways.
Objective: Hunt for Repeating Themes & Patterns
Once you have created T.E.S. Deconstructions and Visual Constructs for at least 2 HCR events, then you compare and contrast them and make note of any repeating T.E.S. elements and patterns of interaction that tend to arise when your mind is in HCR mode.
1) What emotions/moods tend to provoke HCR in you?
Mostly anxiety. It may be preceded or accompanied by feelings of frustration, insecurity, or fatigue.
2) How often do you experience this emotion?
I have mild anxiety chronically (intensity level = 2) almost every day. I experience shifts into higher intensities (5-6) about once every 2 weeks that sometimes lasts the entire day.
3) List 3 areas in your life that tend to activate this emotion.
4) Threshold: How intense does your mind’s mood need to be to activate your HCR?
If my anxious mood goes to a level 5 or higher, I notice that I start worrying a lot more which indicates that my mind has fallen into a NTE-cycle. My thinking programs become jittery and begin to conjure up all sorts of scary “what if” scenarios which acts like a nitro-boost to the NTE-cycle.
* = Pattern Recognition
1) What are the most frequent thoughts that arise in your mind when your HCR programing is activated?
2) Write down the 3 most frequent memories that arise when you are experiencing HCR?
3) List any typical Cognitive Biases / Distortions that underlie the typical Thoughts that you have during an HCR episode.
Sidebar: In a future article I will explore these and other cognitive biases in “How Your Mind Likes to Bullshit Itself.” Until it’s released check out this online pdf: Thinking about Thinking for more information about cognitive distortions/biases.
1) List the most common bodily Sensations that occur when your mind is in HCR mode.
2a.) Which Sensations tend to come out during the beginning of an HCR episode?
I first notice my breath moving into my chest and breathing more shallow and rapid. Then I notice my belly getting tighter with unpleasant tickling & sometimes spasming sensations.
2b.) Which Sensations tend to show up when your HCR is prolonged?
If the HCR episode is prolonged, I will often feel lightheadedness, dizziness, and nausea.
I notice that both my gut and chest become very tight and constrict inwards (generally 7-8 level of intensity).
3.) Create your HCR Sensational Signature:
Sensational Signature Instructions: Draw an outline of your body:
Put a dot or “x” on the body areas where you notice typical body sensations (tightness, heaviness, warm, cold, restless, achy, sweaty…)
Label each dot or “x” using symbols or words to describe the sensational changes in each area noted. Use green for those changes noted in question 2a (sensations that occur at the beginning of the HCR program) and red for those changes noted in question 2b (sensations that occur during a prolonged or intensified HCR episode).
Where there is overlap use both green & red and briefly note how both apply.
Your persistence has payed off. You have learned how to use the Map & Track DR method to acquire powerful KNOWLEDGE about your HCR programming.
You are 1 major step closer to breaking free and gaining mastery over your HCR programming.
Coming Soon: We will dive into the Level 2 Challenge and enter the SKILLS pillar of problem solving.
Your new potent & insightful KNOWLEDGE about your HCR programming will serve as a robust guide to help build an effective mind SKILLS training program that is tailored to conquer your HCR programming.