During the last week I learned two important things. First, real desperation is one of the worst imaginable conditions. (To the extent that I speculate: being stuck in desperation forever could be said to be “in hell”.) Second: thinkers are more prone to fall into desperation, but there are learnable mental management techniques to guard them.

The problem that thinkers face is this. As thinkers, they are inclined to solve unsolved questions, and most are also inclined to constantly think about their own lives (what to do next, how to lead a meaningful life, how to make the best decisions, …). Now a thinker might come into a desperate life situation (which could be defined as a calamitous situation that has no way to end except by living through it for its full normal duration). Such a situation poses a question that cannot be solved, namely, how to end it more quickly. Which means that the thinker person will think about it without finding a solution, and keep thinking about it. The other reason to think about it is the thinker’s habit to think about his or her own life; again finding no constructive quicker way out, keeping thinking on it.

Now the constant thinking about a desperate life situation causes despair. Which seems to be a psychological mechanism: keep thinking some thoughts for long enough, and they will become a “self-reinforcing” set of thoughts. After they did, you cannot simply stop thinking them (because you won’t get the idea to do): these thoughts think themselves on and on, as one thought triggers another (and more than one) of the same style. External events (like a phone call from a friend, a day of intensive work, some hours of sports) do normally break such self-reinforcing thought cycles, but thinkers often have less of such events, and those that are present might be too weak to break the cycle, as intensive and long thinking, and the time they already exist, created very forceful thought cycles. If the strength of these thought cycles is above some threshold so that the individual cannot help itself out of them, this is called “depression”. Sorry about this lay experience-based psychology … I have no better words or theory for that currently.

Now thinkers normally assume that their desperate emotions (in its extreme, depression) are simply a result of the desperate situation they are in, and see no reason to stop thinking about that situation. They might even intensify that, to finally find the solution and make their way out. However: their too much thinking about their desperate situation is what causes their desperate emotions. That is the central insight in this blog post.

Once a thinker did grasp that insight, several pragmatic rules and tips for thinking follow from that with ease:

  • Think about the next step to go, and focus on it. Even if you have 100 steps to go until your desperate situation is finished, the next step only is what can motivate, because it is reasonably small.
  • Place a nice activity after the next step, to support its motivating power.
  • Also do focus on the even smaller detail steps in your work: to get these done does also motivate, and motivation is good for mental well-being. This is even true if these detail steps are part of your desperate situation, in that they do not have the intended good effects (like earning you money or what else you need). Getting a step finished is a motivating thing in itself, even if taht step has very little meaning in a broader context; that seems to be a mechanism of psychology which can be leveraged here.
  • Get “consumed” by the work you must do, for some hours, by keeping the mental focus on the work itself, not on the “meta layer” that tells you why this work is nonsense and having to do it means your life is deperate. Because, concentration on an activity keeps you from thinking these desperate meta-level thoughts, and not thinking desperate thoughts is key to the mental management of desperation.
  • You are “safely allowed” to think about your desperate life situation, but only for some moments to draw some logical conclusions; do not think about this stuff so long that a self-reinforcing thought cycle is started. The first warning sign seems to be: if these thought start to affect your emotions, stop thinking them for the time being.
  • You can experiment with various means of distraction to keep you from starting to think unhealthy stuff again. This can include listening to music while working, doing sports, doing activities that consume all the concentration, socializing with people, etc..
  • Remember, desperation is a mental state, not a physical.

So one has to manage ones own thought life to stay mentally healthy. Which is an observation with various implications:

  • There is a limits to rationality, in the amount of rational thinking that a human being can bear. Rational thinking does not happen in free space, but in the “human ecosystem”; and because of psychological mechanisms, rational thinking does affect emotions, as does every kind of thinking. Which means that rational thinking has non-rational side effects, and to prevent unhealthy side effects, there is a pragmatic preemptive limit to rational thinking. There is also a factual limit: if you allow your rational thinking to drive you to deepest despair, you deprived yourself of the ability of rational thinking. Because despair is a precondition that taints and prohibits truly rational thinking.
  • Many people need to start thinking, not stop it. Thinkers are a small minority. Most people are not endangered by depression due to thinking too much about their life situation. They are more shallow-minded people, and unconsciously engage in many activities that keep them away from thinking about their life situation: they engage in short-term “fun” activities like socializing with people, making flat and bromidic jokes, taking drugs etc.. All of which also influences the relationship between desperate facts and emotions as advised here, but before these people even started to realize the desperate facts. They might have nothing more than a vague idea of it. Those people rather need to start thinking, because there are many non-desperate situations about which something can and must be done, and this they miss at the same time. They must start to think about not knowing the meaning of their life (including, not knowing where they do come from: their Creator); they must start to think about the lack of deep, authentic community with people in their life, their excessive loneliness.
  • Can mental management techniques be compared to substance abuse? I would argue, no. It is true that both influence the way how facts affect emotions, detaching emotions from facts in some way. Substance abuse is frowned because of its unhealthy short-term and long-term side effects; in spite of that, some of the same substances are used for medical purposes like palliative medicine. In analogy, I would compare mental management techniques to the carefully considered use of medicine. While the same techniques can also be used to totally numb the desire to think rationally about ones own life, as is the case with distraction techniques in people who need to start thinking yet (see above). Just as palliative analgesic like morphine relieve of unnecessary bodily pain, the “medical” use of mental management relieves of unnecessary mental pain. And just as a certain amount of pain is needed to guard the body against injuries, a certain amount of mental pain is needed to move out of calamitous and meaningless life situations. Do not use mental management techniques to kill that “good mental pain”; just to prohibit unhealthy self-reinforcing thought cycles. Also, be always aware that you are on some kind of “mental medication”; as only that awareness makes it possible to stay emotionally authentic.
  • Why is mental management not taught anywhere? This should be a field of deeper research, and then a part of general education. There is physical education in school, which is about learning how to deal with ones own body. Why is there not mental education?
  • The narrow Christian viewpoint towards such depressive thinking should be rethought. That viewpoint is mostly some variation of: bad emotions are a result of “egoistic, self-centered” (and hence sinful) thinking and that the solution would be to “give it to Jesus”, to “focus ones thoughts on Jesus” and the like. This does indeed help on many occasions (as people stop extensive thinking about a personal desperate situation), but both the diagnosis and the therapy seem to be screwed up. The diagnosis is wrong because it is the wrong explanation: this problem is not about “sinful” behavior, but about doing a right thing in unhealthy amounts. The therapy is wrong because it does not relate to the real problem, which is “how to deal with desperate situations”. While it is always a good idea to pray about a situation, and also pray for help, there seems to be no general promise of relief of the calamitous facts. And the content of the “Jesus-focused thoughts” does not help here either: it’s about the hope of resurrection and a happy afterlife, but that is a quite abstract, long-term hope that does not relate to the struggles with daily calamities. So, focusing ones thoughts on Jesus is just another method of distraction here (and is effective as such, but just as effective as other methods). There seems to be no factual reason for criminalizing mental despair as “sin” in Christianity. To the contrary, there is some advice given by Paul to slaves in NT times, which comes close to this “don’t think abut it much, don’t let it bother you” solution we presented here: “Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let that bother [lit.: be of interest to; annotation] you. Of course, if you have a chance to become free, take advantage of the opportunity. For the slave who has been called in the Lord is the Lord’s free person. In the same way, the free person who has been called is Christ’s slave.” (1 Cor 7:21-22 ISV).

Now this is quite a personal post, but just as a side effect; I hope it helps some thinkers who struggle with desperation while thinking abut desperate situations.

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