• When Your Brain Lies to You

    Our brain usually sizes up situations quickly and accurately — but not always. Sometimes, our brain gets it all wrong. When that happens, and we accept what it’s telling us without question, we can experience needless pain and suffering.

    For example, if I see a neighbor while I’m walking in the park, I act friendly when approaching. As we pass each other, I flash him a big smile. But the neighbor doesn’t respond; he simply stares ahead. Suddenly, my walk feels ruined, my contentment replaced with feelings of profound rejection.

    There could be many reasons why the neighbor didn’t acknowledge me. He may have been lost in his own thoughts and didn’t notice me — or he didn’t have his contact lenses in and couldn’t make out who I was. But in a split second, my brain sized up this situation as a personal rejection and triggered an onslaught of negative emotions.

    Why does our brain do this?

    Since our brains evolved to help us survive, human beings tend to perceive threats whenever there’s uncertainty or ambiguity — just in case. Early humans lived in a dangerous world where thinking things were safe when they weren’t could end catastrophically. Since that’s how we’re hardwired, our brains tend to err on the side of caution, assuming there could be danger instead of trusting that we’re safe.

    Additionally, some people grew up in nurturing family environments that foster a view of the world as a secure place. When things are uncertain, these folks generally assume that everything is ok. But if we were not fortunate enough to have that kind of emotionally supportive experience, we can make negative assumptions about uncertain events. Similarly, physical or sexual trauma may influence our brain to default to danger instead of safety, acceptance or security.

    The good news is that there are things we can do to help our brains not jump to disastrous conclusions. One way is to recall the thoughts you had just before you became aware of the negative feeling.

    A person might notice just before feeling sad, they had a thought: “I’m a total failure at everything.” Perhaps they scored poorly on a test in school. A person experiencing a belief that they’re a “total failure at everything” would feel understandably sad — even when that’s not an accurate representation of reality.

    In the case above, this person might have scored well on other tests in that class, be a good student in other subjects or possess other skills. Examining the evidence for those things positions us to challenge that distorted mentality and replace it with an evidence-based thought that’s more adaptive, less painful and more truthful, such as “I did poorly on this test, but I’m good at other things;” or “I didn’t get the grade I wanted this time, but I’ve scored better on other exams in this class.”

    If our auto-pilot thoughts tell us we’re all bad, then that’s how we’ll feel. But challenging negative assumptions can often reduce emotional pain and create a sense of hope and well-being. Give it a try. In the next blog, we’ll talk about other interventions that can help. If you need assistance for yourself, a family member or partner or with your relationship, reach out at CouplesTherapyOrlando.com or call me, John Gallagher, at 407-579-2070.

    Therapy services available via Telehealth.