How safe is the neighborhood in your head?


By David Joel Miller.

When you are alone in your own head – are you in a really dangerous neighborhood?

The idea that your own thinking can be suspect is common among recovering people. One definition of the disease of addiction is that our brains go over to the other side. An alcoholic’s brain will continue to tell you that you need another drink long after the point of intoxication.

What if there was a way to make your head a safe neighborhood to inhabit?

Recovering people are quick to remind the newcomer around those tables that “Your own best thinking got you here.” There is nothing more natural than for an alcoholic to think about drinking. We know that a depressed persons mind is full of dark and gloomy thoughts.

Some of the triggers for a relapse are of course the places and events of everyday life. But the brooding thoughts in your head can take you back to depression, anxiety or an active addiction. Relapse triggers are found both inside and outside ourselves.  

But simply avoiding your own thoughts is not enough. Avoiding anxiety producing situations does not make you less anxious. Not in the long run. As Jon Kabat-Zinn told us “Wherever you go there you are.”

Bill W. seems to agree, telling us that if an alcoholic needs to avoid places where liquor is served then they still have an alcoholic mind.

In the early stages of recovery the thought of being alone is scary, particularly being alone with nothing to keep you busy. Avoiding your own thoughts is a common way to avoid negative thoughts, but you know they are still there.

Some days it is as if your own mind is out to get you. Your mind may be a scary place but that head of yours is the only home your mind will ever have. Can you learn to live comfortable in that neighborhood?

There are ways to clean up that dangerous neighborhood in your head. Dr. Kelly McGonigal tells us “Your mind can be a safe place to be.”

What is the process you need to undertake to make your own mind a safe place? How might you set up your own internal “Neighborhood Watch” to keep out those unwanted thoughts?

Mind remodeling projects are at the heart of good therapy. Change your thinking to change your life. Working through all those monsters that lurk in your head, cleaning out dysfunctional thoughts and challenging irrational beliefs can all lead to a healthier mind. But there is more!

In the early days of the recovery movement, before there were twelve steps, they began with just three steps. Back then the first step was “Clean House,” one meaning of which was getting rid of all that mental and emotional garbage that might get you sick again.

The steps also include that last step, “working with others” which tells us that our problems, addictions and poor mental health, are often because we think too much about ourselves and not enough about others. The reverse side of that coin, codependency, thinking only of others and not making our mental and emotional health a priority is just as bad.

The part of the mental neighborhood clean-up project that gets neglected is that part about “prayer and meditation.” Somehow it seems a whole lot easier to swallow the prayer part than the meditation. Some of us are inclined to go way off on a religious tangent which can keep us busy and avoid our own heads but it still hasn’t cleaned out the garbage and rebuilt our mental landscape.

That second part “Meditation” is just hard for a westerner to swallow. Some of you probably read that “Medication.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a pill that could cure our addiction or poor mental health? Meds can help some things but they can only go so far. You also need to engage in some mental exercises that strengthens those “right thinking” muscles.

Why are we westerners so afraid of meditation? Well it seems like a whole lot of effort and even then who knows if you are doing it right? It needn’t be that difficult.

Here are some simple thoughts on using meditation to clean out that run-down neighborhood in your head.

Take out the garbage first. Let go of anger, fear, resentments, all those negative emotions, as much as you can at this stage of your recovery. As you learn more you will do better.

You can’t fix a car when you are driving it at 65. You need some down time for the nerve cells in your brain to grow and heal. Quiet meditation is the time for that. This does not require years of practice and a set of robes. No offence to those who have spent years learning meditation but yes even a few minutes a day can pay off big in making you comfortable in your own skin.

The important thing is not to freak every time a bad or negative thought runs through our mind. That though is just out for exercise. Notice the though, then let it go. Holding on to that thought, wrestling with it and trying to prevent it leaving will cause more wreckage in your head.

Check out more on the dangers of trying to avoid thinking about things in “Don’t think about Elephants.”

Don’t rush to get away from negative thoughts. This is called “Distress tolerance.” Most of us ran from our negative thoughts so much that they kept us from being safe in our own heads.

Remind yourself this is a real life, sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t. Let the though come and go. Same with physical discomfort. Most of us are used to scratching every itch, physical and mental. Most of the time if you leave that pain alone after a bit it will go away. If not, learn that you can feel discomfort and you will not fall apart.

Hope these suggestions get you started on you mind renewal project. If you have done some mental remodeling let the rest of us know how it worked out.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books

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5 thoughts on “How safe is the neighborhood in your head?

  1. This was really helpful to me!
    I have security screens,roller shutters on all the windows,deadbolts to the man holes and a home monitored alarm system. *laughing* I live in a really good neighborhood, but tell that to my brain! I’m always thinking someone is going to come in and harm me. So..there are others like me? *yes* …..Paula x

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    • That’s the terrible thing about anxiety. We take all kinds of precautions think they will keep us safe, only to find out we are prisoners in our own minds. Keep working on you and you may not need the anxiety so much.

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      • Thanks David. Your right, my husband says it’s like living in a prison. I sometimes wander through all the therapy if this side of me will ever change! *deep breath*… Once I can learn to leave my past behind, I think I will be free from many demons that plague my mind. Thank you David. x

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