This is an intro and resource list for a group sessions I sometimes run and it's here because I'm doing it again at Less Wrong Europe this weekend (and that's why the references to rationality and transhumanism are in there).
Self Help for the Mainly Sane is a session for people with mild to moderate mental health difficulties to share coping strategies, it can take between 30 and 75 minutes depending on the time available and number of people. I speak for about five minutes, then let other people share their own coping mechanisms and experiences, then I link them to some resources which I sometimes have as handouts (I'm always happy to be linked to more resources so so please do that.) Disclaimer
: I am not a Doctor and wouldn't want to be, but have lived with depression and anxiety for 30 years and helped support people with schizophrenia and manic depression among other things. My intro bit
Hi, I want to introduce a few tools to improve mental health and fitness. These are mostly useful for people with some form of anxiety or depression because that's my experience, but many other people use some of them for other problems like manic depression, some issues associated with autism etc.
You don't need to be ill or have a diagnosis to use these tools. Mental health is like physical health, it can improve beyond whatever is the average for humans, and if you are a transhumanist there may be no upper limit!
Sometimes just knowing some facts about what is happening is helpful. The first time I had a panic attack I literally thought I was dying of a heart attack, but learning about the physical process of panic helped me. For instance I now know partly why I think people are talking about me when I panic, it's because adrenaline makes your hearing more acute, so you hear things you wouldn't normally be able to and interpret that as a possible threat.
A lot of this is from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT, which has a lot in common with trying to be rational. There are lists online of common thinking errors, sometimes called negative thought patterns or cognitive distortions. I am using this list because it's just the top four but there are longer ones out there.The Four Big Types of Negative Thinking
Some people, like me, can look at these lists and realise we do all or most of them...
- All-or-Nothing Thinking."I have to do things perfectly, because anything less than perfect is a failure."
- Disqualifying the Positives. "Life feels like one disappointment after another."
- Negative Self-Labeling. "I feel like a failure. I'm flawed. If people knew the real me, they wouldn't like me."
- Catastrophising. "If something is going to happen, it'll probably be the worst case scenario."
Like any bias, knowing about them isn’t enough to stop you doing them, we must practice challenging it. CBT practitioners usually use something like this checklist, which is sometimes in table form, and the exercise is to take a negative thought and unpack it.
The short version of this is:-
It sounds simple but I have discovered that you actually have to do the exercises, even if they seem very obvious because you are training a non-rational part of your brain.
- Identify the thought - it helps to say it out loud and then write it down. Saying it may make it sound ridiculous already but keep going. Example, my friend ignored me in the street so they must hate me.
- What would this mean? - they must have avoided me on purpose.
- Think of an alternative explanation - maybe they didn’t see me or were running late.
- Test that explanation - ask them, or ask another friend.
- Think what to do next time - like maybe say hi to them first.
Sometimes though, you are too depressed to do these exercises or even to look after yourself. One tool I find useful for that is called You feel like shit - I have this as a quick link in my browser at home, though I recommend changing the name of the site in the link to avoid negative reinforcement…
This tool guides you through simple questions like "have you eaten in the last four hours?" If you say you could use a snack it tells you it’s ok to eat and when you’ve eaten you can click to say “I did it!” It goes on though things like taking your medication, resting, drinking water etc. It does not expect you to get all better all at once, but I usually feel a little better when I’ve done this, even just because I clicked some buttons saying I had done some self care.
Using tools like this I have trained myself to do some very easy interventions almost automatically - for instance if I feel terrible at home I go outside to my garden - even if the weather is terrible it helps my brain to change scene. Or if I’m stressed in a social scene I have learned to recognise anxious feelings so I can go somewhere quieter to process.