The basic idea behind successful psychotherapy is that our thoughts create our feelings. And, luckily, our thoughts are changeable. I have personally experienced how liberating only one thought can be to a complex problem. That’s why I would present some of the thoughts that I have found most useful personally, and in therapy with patients, over 25 years.
The first thought is that there are no discrete psychiatric mental illnesses. It is possible to view all psychological problems as extreme varieties of normal thinking. It is very easy to see that it’s not possible to put a discrete line separating normal thinking from so-called mental illness. For instance, it is normal to be anxious, for many things. A survey of many people about how anxious they felt in a normal day showed that on average people were anxious or worried for at least 50 minutes per day. People who come for treatment are usually anxious a bit longer, but it’s only a question of degree. That means that the strategies that normal people use for alleviating their anxiety may be used for people who worry more. It is just that they have to train more to achieve less anxiety in their lives. It is also quite normal to have days with depressed thoughts, low motivation, feelings of guilt, nights with sleeping problems, days without appetite, etc., all the factors involved in diagnosing major depressive disorder. Very simple strategies for lifting the mood, that work for so-called normal people, will also work for those who define themselves as depressed.
One of the absolutely simplest methods that I have used for the last 10 years, both for myself, my family and all my patients, is to write down three good things that happened during the day. Write a paragraph about each, noting why you think this is a good thing. Example: I played with my grandchild today. I am very grateful that I’ve got the grandchild, and that we can have such a close relationship. I really love her smile and her laughter.
The point in this technique is that writing down things make you more aware, and will make it more likely that your focus on the positive part of your life in the future, instead of the negative. And this may be the definition of so-called depression: being overly focused on the negative parts of life.
Even what is often termed serious mental illness are extreme varieties of normal behavior. All people have the possibility of hallucination. We all have it right before before sleep and right after we wake up, called hypnagogic hallucinations. We are all extremely hallucinated while we sleep. Most people have had the experience of hearing their name called, even if nobody’s there. People who are interested in spiritual matters, often think that voices are communications from other dimensions. They feel quite OK about their experiences.
An Australian lawyer who is very interested in the afterlife, exclaimed in a blog: “I have finally been able to develop clear-audience. Now I can communicate with people on the other side.” Research shows that people who think of their voices in this way have absolutely no problem with them.
Delusions may be viewed in the same way. We all have our personal beliefs that may be without direct physical evidence, and that may be difficult to change. Many people who have done great things in history, would have been deemed delusional by others. Marconi, the inventor of the radio, was looked upon as delusional when he said he could transmit voices through the air over long distances.
Even so-called manic behavior may be quite functional in many instances. Edison could easily have been termed manic because of his extreme motivation to create the lightbulb. There is a theory that the ability to hallucinate and to hold onto strong, delusional, original ideas developed as a genetic mutation hundred thousand years ago, and that this was the reason humans developed. When the supply of omega-3 was abundant, through eating fish, this was not a problem. When the supply of omega-3 became lower, these natural positive processes could become more extreme and less functional and would be termed so-called schizophrenia. Experiments with giving fish oil to young people at risk for so-called psychosis showed that those who took placebo were seven times as likely to develop so-called schizophrenia as those who took the fish oil. So psychotic-like processes and the ability to be extremely engaged in these ideas, as in so-called mania, might actually be essential for humanity.
A second thought that I would like to share is about the purpose of everything. We all have ideas about why we are here and why things happen to us. Some think that we are only atoms and what happen to us are just random events. We just have to try to enjoy these random events and relationships we experience. Others think that we have a purpose with our lives and that things happen for a reason. Closely tied to this are thoughts about life and death, what happens after death.
The reasonable thing to do, if you want to know anything about a foreign country, is to ask somebody who has been there. You would be skeptical of somebody saying that the country does not exist, or that it is not possible to know anything about that country. I am a curious person, so I wanted to listen to somebody who had been on “the other side.”
Luckily, there is a vast literature from “visitors” to the other side called Near Death Experience, NDE, and for the last 30 years, I have read as much as possible of these first person accounts of what lies beyond. It may seem like this is a strange topic for a psychologist, but since our thoughts create our feelings, thoughts about death, life after death, and ultimate purpose are very important.
Luckily, the lived experience of those who have died and come back are very, very positive. One famous NDE-er, Dannion Brinkley wrote that it was unimaginably fantastic, like orgasming 10 000 times at once.
Dr. Raymond Moody sums it all up by stating that the other side is filled with love and knowledge, and that we keep the relationships that are important to us.
The interesting thing about many of these NDE-ers is that they are not very religious, and often, if they have a religious affiliation, they tell about experiences that are at odds with their prior beliefs.
So here we already have a few, very profound, helpful thoughts:
- There is a life after death.
- This life is fantastic.
- We meet again with people who are important to us.
Research has shown that when depressed people get to read these profound experiences of the world beyond, they become less suicidal. It seems like the hope that is involved in these 3 thoughts gives strength to carry on.
There are many areas of research that point to a life beyond, including electronic communication with the dead, but many would say that this really sounds too fantastic and far fetched. However, the researchers are very skeptical themselves, and publish their results at great professional risk of ridicule. This is very different from the research that is accepted in academic circles, done by manufacturers on their own products.
One such researcher is Michael Newton. He was an atheist and a cognitive therapist who did not believe in any afterlife. However, he used hypnosis for pain control, and often when he asked the patient: Now, go back to the time when this pain problem started, he was surprised. Many patients started telling about the death scene in a previous life. One memorable story is a woman who had an inexplicable back pain. She told about how she had been put on a high cliff, and prodded in the back with a spear until the pain was so great that she jumped off the cliff and died.
Newton thought this was odd, but explained it away with reference to popular cultural beliefs in reincarnation and near death experience. However, he was curious about what his hypnotized patients would tell him about the time after death. He started asking them to describe what happened next. He got the standard near death experience, with entering a tunnel, then coming out in a fantastic loving light, meeting dead relatives and friends, and often having a life review.
But then they started talking about their other experiences in “the life between lives,” and the accounts were very similar, and often very different from the religious beliefs of his clients. The insights from this research were very comforting and profound, but Newton dared not publish anything about it until he had hypnotized 7,000 patients and written a full protocol about his method, making sure he kept his questions open ended and did not lead any clients to imagine things.
The insights he got from the research were very comforting:
- There is life after death
- We get to stay with the people we love, and we can still keep in touch with our loved ones on earth until it is their time to join us on the other side.
- People vary in their experience as souls. Some are beginners who have had just a few lives. More experienced souls have had hundreds. Beginner souls usually have very easy lives, good economy, few challenges, whereas the advanced souls may have really difficult recent lives with poverty, sickness and abuse of all kinds.
- We are given a choice to how difficult we want our lives to be. When you are a mature soul, you often choose very hard lives so that you can learn more. Sometimes mature souls come back in relatively easy lives in order to be helpers for the souls who take the hard ones.
- Everything happens for a purpose: challenges that we face are chosen by us because we need them in order to develop as souls.
- In between our (hard) lives, we live in harmony and without suffering with the people we love.
Some may say that these thoughts are wishful fantasies. The counterargument is that it is impossible to not have thoughts about our inevitable death. Some are convinced of a negative materialistic view that we just disappear and decompose physically, but this is just as much a belief as the above. Since nobody can prove that we disappear and that there is no soul, one might say that Newton and NDE researchers have the best data to support the above thoughts.
Five percent of the population has had near-death experiences, and they often say that they are no longer afraid of death. There is nothing to fear, rather something to look forward to. One in eight has received some kind of communication from the dead relatives or friends. One so-called evidential case involves a woman who was visited by her deceased grandfather in a dream. He told her exactly where he had hidden all his savings before he died. Another was saved from a traffic accidents by her deceased father warning her and making her foot press hard on the brake.
Most people can experience previous lives under hypnosis, and there are many examples of access to information from these previous lives that the person could not have guessed or fabricated. One person could describe hidden details of an old house in Ireland from a previous life even if she had never left Australia.
A woman going through a brain operation that required surgeons to drain all blood from her brain had a clear recollection of the operation, seen it from the ceiling.
This information from ordinary people combined with Newton’s 7,000+ cases gives a very strong hope that there is more after this life, and that we get many chances to live full lives and to love more fully the important people in our lives.
On a very practical level, I have seen how these thoughts can have very positive effects in my life. I have always had respect for my patients, but once I became open to the possibility that they were actually very mature souls, probably more mature than me, with my relatively easy life, I felt privileged to be their helper.
I was very close to my grandmother and I thought that when she died, I would go through all the five stages of grief. This did not happen. I was, and I still am, very convinced that her soul lives on, and that I will meet her again when I die.
Thoughts can give us hope to sustain us through hard times. Thinking that any kind of psychological suffering is an extreme form of normal psychological functioning, and believing that we are eternal souls always connected to our loved ones, may be just what we need in a troubled existence. Please share this on facebook and other social media so others may have the same comforting thoughts. Please tell about your own experiences with this in the comments. Sometimes the comments on MIA become as long as entire books. Please divide your comments if they are long, so they are not cut off by the “read more” feature.
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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.