We all try to make sense of ourselves and the world, and we like to think that we are in control of our emotions. But isn’t it ridiculous how often we feel like we don’t understand our own actions, let alone why others do the crazy things they do?
Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with what makes people tick and how we act “illogically” so often. That’s why I became a psychologist. And even after I got my doctorate I had a lot more clues but I still wasn’t able to put it all together. Then one day I had an epiphany: I will never understand unless I stop trying to put a round peg into a square hole!
The left side and the right side are so different and communicate with each other so little that I consider them to be two different brains altogether. People always used to talk about it in terms of their head and their heart, and hope that they would be in synch. For example, “I know I should do this, but I feel like doing that.” Or, “Intellectually I know that everything is okay but my heart (or my gut) is telling me that something is wrong.”
On the left side of the brain is the analytical reasoning and speech centers. When we do or don’t make sense of things, we are looking at them through this logical lens. Our ability to analyze has been what separates us from the animals. Throughout history humans have lived in nature much more than we do today. So naturally, people have always wanted to identify with their logical brains, to feel superior to all the other species. Descarte asserted, “I think therefore I am,” in 1644 and I consider the popularity of that statement to be part of the beginning of humans’ over-identification with their conscious, logical minds. Many of us still to this day have the fantasy that we are not animals but logical beings. Sigmund Freud drew attention to how there is so much going on in our minds besides analytical reasoning but the most popular form of therapy even today is cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches us to change our thoughts in the hopes that everything else will fall into place.
We are NOT to act like animals or children. We are logical adults, right?
The truth is that from birth we live through the right side of our brains. Our emotions, relationships, instincts, etc are all there. Poets and artists say that these phenomena are what make life worth living. Our right brain expresses itself when we dream and then it’s all pictures, feelings and metaphors. When we wake up we then look at it through the lens of the logical left brain and usually laugh it off as nonsense. It’s a basic human function but scientists still don’t really know why we dream. Then again, scientists (and medical professionals) are left-brained people, so they arrogantly dismiss it and anything else that doesn’t follow their particular type of logic.
How you feel about anything – your choice of spouse, career, lifestyle, or what you decide to eat for lunch starts with your right brain and after that your left brain calculates how to make it happen. Also, guess what? Anytime you feel threatened in any way your right brain is what makes that determination and then leaps into action, while your left brain goes offline!
When you see a bear in the woods you don’t make a pro and con list and analyze the most logical course of action – that would take way too much time. Instead you either fight, flee, or freeze in a matter of milliseconds – before your left brain is even aware that anything is happening at all. The system works great in the short term. The problem occurs when we become hypersensitive to anything in the future that reminds us of the original threat. That is PTSD. And it’s all happening in the right side of your brain. To think that you are not an animal and that you can think your way toward relaxation and health in the face of your triggers is fantasy.
Looking at a brain scan of someone recalling a traumatic event reveals that the same neurons that were originally involved with their reaction to the trauma are firing. In effect, they are not just recalling it but reliving it! (Do you want to go to talk therapy and do that week after disturbing week?) The right side of the brain is lit up like a Christmas tree. The left side is completely blank. The analytical reasoning and speech centers have NOTHING to do with PTSD. So therapy that appeals to thinking and logic and talking about things that are impossible to put into words is not going to work.
There is nothing logical about PTSD so no one, including your therapist and family and friends can talk you out of it. Please don’t feel guilty for feeling crazy. That only drains your energy and makes things worse. You may try to make sense of your PTSD but you can’t unless you have an epiphany like mine. How can you describe something in your right brain to yourself or others in left brain terms? How can you describe an emotion to someone who never felt it? You can’t. Yet that’s what talk therapy is. You can’t understand PTSD unless you have it. If you are seeing a therapist or doctor who doesn’t get it then you won’t get what you need.
Accelerated Resolution Therapy is the best way to interface directly with the fight or flight part of your brain. I told my colleague a bunch of my success stories. He said, “That’s great but how does it work in theory?” Isn’t that crazy that he would believe in it if he could make sense of it? The client whose life I just helped turn around doesn’t care how it works in theory. Research shows overwhelming support for meditation, mindfulness and even hypnosis, but we can’t say why (with our left brains in ways that everyone else’s left brains would understand). That’s okay, but we as a society need to begin to pay attention to what is really going on instead of being a bunch of squares trying to make everything fit our logic and being blind to everything else.