Treat the symptoms.

And now I’m going to completely contradict my last post, because this is how I roll.

I was doing some research on recurring thoughts for the book I’m currently working on. I was trying to find out what advice various styles of therapy were given to people trying to self-help. The results were mixed, but overall incredibly disappointing (if anyone has any good resources, this is my cry for help). At one end of the spectrum I found advice amounting to “just stop thinking the recurring thoughts.” The solution to your problem is not to have the problem, stupid! At the opposite end I found some seriously frightening advice about how nobody should try to do anything about recurring thoughts without getting help from TheBestTherapyEver(TM), which is the only way to resolve the problem in the whole wide world. Any attempts to resolve the issue without using that specific therapy, at a cost, will inevitably result in people making things even worse for themselves and probably dying of plague.

A lot of the concerns raised with people’s attempts to self-help were around the fact that those attempts are unlikely to address the actual issue. People may try to blunt the impact of the recurring thoughts rather than stop their brain running around in circles. This addresses the symptoms, but does nothing to resolve the underlying problem. In some cases, this can genuinely result in all sort of nasty problems, such as self-medication with legal or illegal substances, dissociation, or in the creation of a pattern of compulsive behaviours to try and fend off the compulsive thoughts.

I can see these people’s points, but I can’t help thinking that they might be missing something. With recurring thoughts, the problem isn’t always just the recurrence; the nature of the thoughts matters hugely. Getting rid of dark, depressing, self-damaging thoughts and substituting them with anything more functional will do nothing whatsoever to stop people’s brain running around in circles. However, it may stop them hurting themselves or others. That’s kind of a biggish deal. If instead of thinking “I’m a piece of shit and I should die” you start thinking “every day in every way I’m getting better and better,”I count that as a win. Yes, the positive affirmations are still recurring thoughts… but they’re infinitely less likely to make you reach for a bottle, or a rope.

The same argument applies to addiction. Yes, if every time you feel like smoking a cigarette you eat a carrot instead, you’re not really beating your addiction; you’re just turning yourself into a carrot addict. Thing is, though, that carrots are less likely to give you lung cancer. Replacing an addiction with another may do nothing to resolve the problem of your addictive personality, but it may be the difference between life and death. If my best friend had continued to be addicted to Funyuns and Coca Cola instead of upgrading to crack cocaine, he’d probably still be alive.

So what I said in the last blog, about creeps and power etc. stands, but only if you’re looking at long-term changes. If you’re in clear and present danger, it’s pretty damn important to focus on prevent the perverts from doing their thing. Squish those roaches, and worry about what attracted them later on, from a position of safety.

It’s all about immediacy of risk, I guess. It concerns me that some professionals who are dealing with people suffering from these issues seem to have lost sight of that. For a moment, I guess I did, too.


4 thoughts on “Treat the symptoms.

  1. This may be a bit simplified but couldn’t all of our passions be considered “addictions”? In my case, they’ve been productive beneficial things like finding curling in junior high and spending six days a week at the club in the winter shooting, practicing, competing until finding martial arts (Taekwondo) in college and going to classes four night per week.

    I like your take on redirecting negative addictions and recurring thoughts into positive directions. Imagine what could be accomplished when all that energy is directed forward instead of behind! Thanks for your insights!


    • Yeah, well, paraphrasing badly, one man’s “interest” is another man’s “obsession”…

      For me the issue is less where the line is drawn, and more about the impact of whatever-it-is on the overall quality of life of a person. If something helps keep you healthy, functional, and happy both long- and short-term, I would class that as a win, regardless of how pointless or obsessive it may look to others.

      (Anyway, that’s my excuse for having ludicrous hobbies, and I’m sticking to it :-P.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. For anxiety/depression/repetitive trauma, I found:
    Life after trauma: A workbook for healing
    The mindful way through depression
    The brain that changes itself
    All to be extremely helpful as a supplement to years of CBT. the mindful way through depression was a bandaid for negative thought disasters. Life after trauma helped me believe my reality wasn’t normal, and helped me figure out which pattern so i needed to break. The brain that changes itself gave me hope.


    • Thank you for that!
      It’s made me think that really I ought to set up a page where I could list books and resources. It’s unlikely I could read everything people suggest (I shall go to my deathbed with a pile of unread books – or quite possibly crushed to death by a pile of unread books). But if people were happy to say why they found something useful, I think that’d be very, very helpful.


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