Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
Please Note: I will use emotions & moods interchangeably throughout this article.
HCR = a powerful and enduring maladaptive mind habit to react to small changes in mood with large changes in negative thinking.
In the 1st article of this 4 part series, The Mental Herpes Effect: High Cognitive Reactivity – Part 1, we looked at the psychological research that led to the discovery of a powerful mind-tendency that impedes our recovery from depression and anxiety disorders.
In the 2nd article of this 4 part series, The Mental Herpes Effect: Chapter 2 – The Birth of High Cognitive Reactivity, we explored the elemental mind-patterns that weave together to create High Cognitive Reactivity including: the Mood Congruency Effect (MCE) and the vicious Negative Thought-Emotion Cycle (NTE – Cycle).
In this 3rd article of this 4 part series, we dive into the 2 main areas where having HCR can lead to problematic psychological consequences. We also explore composites of real life HCR examples in order for you to gain a deeper understanding of the vulnerabilities that can arise when you have HCR.
In the last section of this article, we establish the foundational framework with which you will be able to create a customized program to help you break free from this pernicious maladaptive mind-pattern and increase your overall psychological mastery.
Clinical Experience Observation (CEO): HCR is one of the main maladaptive mind-programs that needs to be addressed in order to make a full recovery from a mood disorder AND to reduce or eliminate one’s chances of relapsing back into a mood disorder.
2 specific areas where HCR can wreak havoc on our minds are:
HCR can be a formidable opponent during the 1st half of the recovery process.
CEO: I have never seen a patient make a complete recovery from a mood disorder that was a direct straight line towards health.
In fact, any patient who would recover really quickly from a mood disorder without encountering any bumps along the way (called a “rush to health”) was most often a sign to prepare for a major setback coming up soon.
Side Bar: NTE – Cycle = (Negative Thought – Emotion Cycle) A mind-pattern in which your negative thoughts trigger a negative emotional response, which in turn generates more intense negative thinking. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of mental suffering.
During the 1st part of the recovery phase from a mood disorder, our moods tend to vacillate frequently between higher & lower mood days.
When you encounter a lower mood day, your HCR may kick into high gear and prolong your low mood states by activating intense negative thinking & memories that can trigger a self-perpetuating NTE – Cycle.
This can create a frustrating 1 step forward – 1 step backward (the Disheartening Hokey-Pokey pattern) which can lead to a sense of hopelessness.
This sequence of maladaptive mind-patterns can quickly stall out your recovery process and lead to a regress back into dysfunctional levels of mental functioning.
Put yourself into the character in the following vignette. Read it like you are an actor or actress learning to play a role.
You recently recovered from having both panic & generalized anxiety disorders.
You battled them for 2 and 1/2 years.
Your anxious moods have returned back to how they were before you had your first panic attack and your mind’s thinking programs have seemingly shifted back to their pre-disorder default settings.
On the surface, your mind seems to have restored itself back to its normal baseline.
However, unbeknownst to you, 2.5 years of prolonged & intense anxiety has left an enduring & formidable anxious mood – anxious thought program that lays dormant inside your psyche.
Hidden in the darker recesses of your mind lies a pandora’s box filled with potent fear-based thoughts, attitudes, & memories that can be unleashed whenever your moods shift into a high intensity and/or prolonged anxious state.
This dormant program creates a persistent vulnerability – an increased probability for your mind to fall prey to HCR reactivation (The Mental Herpes Effect) which then triggers a vicious NTE – cycle => increasing the likelihood of relapse.
Side Bar: The connection between High Cognitive Reactivity and the resulting increased tendency to generate a NTE – Cycle is one of the main pathways that contributes to why anxiety and depressive disorders often have a chronic relapsing & remitting pattern.
It has been 2 years since you have recovered from your anxiety disorders. Everything seems to be fine, except that in the past month, you have noticed that you are feeling more overwhelmed, more quickly at work. You also detect a higher level of sensitivity towards certain stressors that can get underneath your skin and bug you for a while.
You are surprised that when you encounter an intense or prolonged stressor, how fast your thinking can quickly shift into intense fear-based & self-critical thoughts that echo how you used to think when you were in the middle of your anxiety disorders.
The Downward Descent
These notable differences in your level of emotional and cognitive reactivity begin to disturb your mind. You start to worry, “What if I am falling back into another anxiety disorder again.” You try to ignore this disturbing thought.
You distract yourself with busy work and other mindless activities. However, your attention keeps jumping back to the unsettling idea that you might be heading into a relapse.
Your mind reacts to this persistent disturbance by trying to solve its way out. This shifts your thinking programs into high gear.
You begin to focus on why this is happening to you again. You start to obsess about these problems in your mind.
A few days go by, your increased vigilance & obsessive thinking begin to impact your sleep – you find yourself struggling to calm your mind when you lay down to go to bed.
Reactivation – Mental Break Out
Old thoughts, memories, beliefs & attitudes that your mind used to have when you were in the thick of your anxiety disorders begin to re-emerge.
This is the Mental-Herpes Effect – the reactivation of dormant maladaptive thinking programs that were planted in the back of your mind during repeated intense or prolonged anxiety episodes that occurred during your anxiety disorders.
You try to suppress these old patterns by trying to either distract yourself or think positively. Unfortunately, neither of these strategies work very well and you begin to feel your body becoming more tense.
Scene: It’s 2pm on Wednesday. You are sitting at your desk at work.
It’s been a bumpy week thus far. You start to feel overwhelmed when you realize that you are falling behind on some of the projects you need to complete. You try to reassure yourself that everything is ok but you begin to feel your chest tightening You notice your heart flutter and then start contracting harder (palpitations). You start to feel dizzy (oh no not again).
You scramble outside and sense that you are breathing heavily. You try to slow down your choppy breathing but can’t seem to get it to flow smoothly. You feel lightheaded and decide to go to your car. You sit down inside and grab hold of the steering wheel with both hands hoping this will soon pass.
A few long minutes go by and thankfully your mind – body begin to settle back down.
10 more minutes go by…
You are able to muster enough strength to get out of your car and go back to the office.
Your body feels heavy and tired and your thoughts are all over the place. It’s hard to concentrate on anything.
You sit at your desk and muscle through the rest of your workday. You stumble through a few phone calls and try to answer emails but everything you write seems awkward and you fall more behind on your work.
At this point, you are at a crucial threshold. A few more days like this and your HCR programming will gain more power & momentum and potentially drag you back into a full relapse into an anxiety disorder.
CEO: I have found that directly addressing my patients’ HCR with specific strategies designed to break the negative mood – negative thinking connections can significantly help them:
HCR is hard to overcome. It is a powerful mental habit forged by years of negative mood experiences which are linked to and reinforced by negative thought patterns.
Overcoming HCR is similar in difficulty as trying to change a prominent addiction pattern. There’s a strong probability that you will need outside resources to help you, especially when you are encountering a series of trigger stressors.
Side Bar: Trigger Stressors – types of stress that are similar to past stressors that you have faced when your mind began to link powerful negative emotions with negative thoughts, attitudes, & beliefs that created the building blocks for the development of your particular form of HCR programming.
1) Disorder Type Stressors – challenges similar to the ones you encountered while you were having a mood/anxiety disorder. In particular, the peak negative experiences and the most repetitive negative experiences you have had.
Ex) You first started developing panic attacks shortly after moving away from family & friends to start a new job in a new state.
Today you learn that your company is downsizing and that there is a good chance that you might lose your job and need to move again.
2) Developmental Type Stressors – challenges similar to the ones you encountered while you were having intensely negative emotional experiences while your brain was still developing (childhood & adolescence) and have not yet been fully processed.
Ex) When you were growing up, your mother would repeatedly get angry at you in ways you couldn’t predict.
This week your female boss got upset at you twice for things you didn’t expect.
Side Bar II: Negative Emotional Intensity & Overgeneralization:
In general, the higher the negative emotional charge that is provoked by an event – the larger and more stretchable the associative net your mind casts around the salient elements & processes that occur within that event.
High-Intensity-Emotional-Events turn on your mind’s Survival (at any cost) Based Programs (SBPs). Your SBPs gladly accept the deal of maximum avoidance from a possible reoccurrence of an intensely negative emotional event at the cost of a high false alarm rate (high sensitivity – low specificity for all you statistics lovers out there).
For example: While you were in combat overseas, you faced several experiences of extreme fear while helicopters were flying overhead. These intense emotional experiences triggered your mind’s SBPs which associated the helicopters to the scary combat experiences in a very broad and overgeneralized way.
After you return home from combat, you find yourself experiencing an intense adrenaline response while at a park when a buzzing drone flies overhead.
HCR is raising the bar on your ability to grow. Within difficult challenges, lies the potential to tap into and develop new strengths, new capacities, and new skills.
Facing your HCR programming can teach you how to learn to use your mind with greater mastery & wisdom and upgrade your mind’s current operating system to a much higher level.
After 12 years of clinical experience and guiding 1000’s of patients into overcoming their challenges, I have found that organizing the problem-solving process around 3 major pillars provides a simple yet powerful framework that has helped many of my patients improve their overall ability to overcome the major difficulties they faced.
Pillar 1: KNOWLEDGE – The 1st step in this process is to collect accurate and useful information about the challenge you are facing.
This essential 1st step is where many of us tend to make the grave mistake of impatiently rushing through – which dramatically increases the chances of making critical errors.
If you have inadequate knowledge and understanding about a reoccurring problem, you cannot respond intelligently.
You put your psyche at the mercy of inconsistent and often problematic reactive mind-programs that are mostly unconscious, biased, and based on outdated distorted information.
Pillar 2: SKILLS – The 2nd step is to use your updated and accurate knowledge to decide what skills you will need to develop in order to apply your new knowledge in the most efficient and effective ways to help you overcome the challenge that you are facing.
Side Bar: The Power of Pushing your Mind’s PLAY Button
Creating games is one of the best ways to accelerate your skill development. Ever wonder why many people with Attentional Deficit Disorder are able to focus when playing sports/games?
Many people with ADD are able to pay attention when playing games because games can activate their inborn PLAY circuitry – which stimulates dopamine release within their frontal lobes – improving their overall ability to focus.
When you activate your PLAY circuitry, you turn on nature’s stimulant – a state of balanced alertness that facilitates mental agility, focus, flexibility and creative problem-solving.
Pillar 3: RESOURCES – The 3rd step is learning to use your new knowledge and budding new skills to search for people (mentors, therapists, doctors, teachers…) that you can learn from or can delegate certain tasks to. Search, test-out, and select organizations, people, videos, audios, apps, anything that can be helpful in your quest to overcome the difficulties you are facing.
Carefully curate a powerful resource network that creates a supportive environment all around you that nourishes your mind – body during this challenging time.
Devoting time on Environmental Optimization (EO) will greatly enhance your overall capacity to problem-solve.
Being resourceful is looking out at your environment and seeing how it can be arranged to support you in your endeavor. Creating spaces that help bolster your mind when you’re feeling low and help fertilize and reinforce your growth when your feeling high.
My patients have found that cycling through the 3 Pillars of Knowledge – Skills – Resources helped them to develop key insights, understandings, and wisdom that was theirs to keep for the rest of their lives. No pills needed.
In final chapter of this article series, Chapter 4: The Path to HCR Freedom , we will dive into the specifics on how to use the 3 Pillars of Problem Solving to break free from HCR and develop your mental mastery.