U is for… Unsound Minds

The BBC recently published the results of a study into stress, mental health problems and rumination. Apparently, psychologists have long considered that rumination, or obsessive thoughts, is a cause of stress and depression. Now they have evidence of that based on experiments, apparently.

I wish I were capable of understanding the original study — not being a psychologist, I’m not. But I have a problem with this conclusion. For me at least, it’s the wrong way round. My experience makes me think there’s a post hoc ergo propter hoc situation here.

I have a very serious problem with rumination. I can have the same single thought for 24 or 48 hours, or even more, flooding every other thing I think or do or experience. Flooding is the right word — it’s overwhelming, terrifying, and I’m utterly helpless against it. The black spirals spin inwards. I am drowning. I lose myself.

And, for me, it’s definitely not a cause of anything. It’s a symptom of anxiety and depression (and I get more of the former, really). When my serotonin is low – i.e. I’m not on my medication – the thoughts never stop. When the serotonin gets regulated, I don’t have these thoughts. Even when I start descending down the spiral of anxiety, the rumination doesn’t kick in until things have got really out of control. Anxiety, and a feeling of things being out of control, lead me to have these horribly obsessive thoughts. It doesn’t matter what they’re about — when I describe them, their subjects are revealed for how silly and insignificant they are. It’s not the focus of the thought that’s the problem. It’s the horrendous feeling of drowning in these thoughts – loud, intrusive, accusing, shrieking – that overwhelm me over, and over, and over again…

It’s exhausting.

Learning some bits of folk magic has really helped with this. I’m sure that meditation would be recommended first, but, mostly, my mind won’t stop screaming at me when I’m in these kinds of states, so meditation is absolutely out of the question. On the other hand, magic is a symbol of taking back control. And maybe that’s unhealthy — I don’t know. Maybe it feeds my need for constant control, making me believe I can take power over things that I should let go. But that’s not my experience. My experience is that it creates conduits, directs the flood back into clear, positive channels.

Well, that’s just one symptom of my unsound mind. I could give it labels, or suggest causes. I won’t. It is what it is (as my wise partner often says).

Many of the Pagans I have met have been as unhelpful about mental health problems as the Christians I used to know. Instead of “pray to Jesus for release from the demons of obsessive thoughts,” it’s now “take these herbs/do this meditation/think more positively, and you’ll be fine.” It’s almost always people who’ve never experienced mental health problems making these recommendations — if they knew what it was like, they would never wonder if ‘positive thinking’ can help. Even more frightening, to me, is a trend towards arguing that ‘natural’ things are better than ‘chemical’ ones. Well, belladonna’s natural, but it really wouldn’t be good for me to ingest it. Insisting that I should come off my very helpful medication, and replace it with a few random herbs that haven’t been tested on mental health conditions, is about as ridiculous as suggesting that I swallow belladonna. My medication is my lifeline. It gives me a break from the black flood. Who wouldn’t want that relief? And I speak only for myself — not for anyone else.

But maybe the tide is turning in the Pagan world. I see more and more people talking about their mental health problems, rather than hiding them for reasons of shame or fear. Cat Treadwell‘s new book Facing the Darkness is about depression from a Pagan perspective, for example. I’m really looking forward to reading it. We need more good stuff like that.

World Mental Health Day was last week. I’m having an ‘unsound mind’ week, this week.

The waters are rising. They will not overwhelm me.

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9 thoughts on “U is for… Unsound Minds

  1. I’m always reluctant to really declare anything as a cause mostly because I’ve had it drummed into my head that correlation is not causation and I wonder if the researchers here have forgotten that because my experience with those kinds of thoughts match yours. They may /contribute/ to my anxiety getting worse, but they are never the initial cause.

  2. I’ve struggled with anxiety / depression since as long as I can remember although I only got diagnosed in 2004. Spiralling thoughts, unfounded paranoia, panic, constant fear of failing. And feeling f**king worthless.

    Finding my role as a Bard has helped give me purpose and keep my head above these thoughts. My relationship with my patron has really helped- he’s taught me to ride out / journey into some of these states rather than denying them or fighting against them.

  3. Ok, without having dug into the actual paper… Looks like this was crossectional – that is, all measurements taken at one specific moment. That would mean that while they can make statements about how strongly things relate to eachother, they CANNOT say what’s cause and effect here – because you don’t know which came first. I.e. correlation vs causation.

    That said, I DO suspect that if you somehow were to induce rumination in people who aren’t inclined towards depression or anxiety, it would cause depression and rumination. However, I don’t consider the process you mention – biological inclination towards depression and anxiety cause rumination – any less likely. My money would be on this being one of the cyclical things, where biological processes cause depression causes rumination which further deepens the depression and upsets the biological processes, etc. At which point in the circle you start is not only impossible to determine, but also largely a moot point – and ANY point could be a starting point to break it.

  4. Report is crap. (I minored in psychology) Yes I’m sure dwelling on bad memories don’t help, but they say that it is people who dell on the bad memories of abuse and trauma who suffer most. Well hell, does that not suggest that the underlying cause may in fact be the abuse and trauma? Correlation never proves causality.

    Also important to remember that really mild levels of anxiety, the sort picked up by NHS tests that ask if you find yourself worrying about things a lot and feeling nervous, are probably in here. This is not a fair reflection for anyone experiencing terror or suffering PTSD or chronic imbalances of brain chemistry.

    A person who makes themselves a little bit ill through worrying about trivial things, can be helped through a process of learning to think positive thoughts. A person who has been traumatised will just be hurt more by such a suggestion. It is not you, it is a deeply flawed system.

  5. worryingly though, it seems to encourage a narcissistic approach in which people are discouraged from reflecting on mistakes and problems. That way lies some very nasty mental health issues indeed. Reflection is necessary, and better to know you have messed up and feel like shit, than to feel good about yourself at the expense of not knowing what you are getting wrong, and where you are consequently ruining your own life.

    A muddling of multiple, complex issues. It may be the fault of the BBC and poor reporting, can’t tell and don’t have time to read the original. Hope that helps though.

  6. Yes, I think that’s a piece of poor science journalism–just the interview quotes alone are given with no context and minced into what the reporter wanted to say. Most original research wouldn’t make bold claims–especially ones that, as you point out, are so backwards.

    I’m glad that you have found ways to cope, and I’m glad you’re finding them more supported in your community. For what the opinion of a near stranger on the Internet is worth, I also don’t think that folk magic is inherently unhealthy as a supplement to other forms of care. Part of me suspects that many folk rituals have been in various cultures for just that purpose. This isn’t a new problem by any stretch of the imagination.

    May you always continue to find what you need!

  7. That’s what I like about you. You accept your ills (I was going to say ‘faults’ but that just didn’t seem right) and confront them. And if they are too much you let them pass like a storm, for they do end.

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