Mind the Gap

For some time, I’ve noticed that people at the top of them can drive themselves and whole organisations to anxiety, stress and overwork; seeking answers to problems which just may not have one.

In computation there are many ‘undecidable problems’ where any possible computer program may give the wrong answer or would run forever without giving any answer at all. A ‘halting problem’ is one where you’ll never know if the program would end. Some of the questions I get asked at the moment feel like these – decidedly undecidable.

Basically these are problems to which there may well be no simple or knowable answers. Finding the answer could take an eternity (and a mountain of work) or continuing to pursue a better answer misses the moment and makes the situation worse.

Computer science advocates ‘Optimal Stopping’; in essence stopping the analysis early enough to get a resource efficient, computationally efficient, ‘good enough’ answer.

The lack of ‘Optimal Stopping’ in senior folk is bad at the best of times. But with Covid-19 it’s a killer – if you keep chasing and asking more and more questions, you just dive deeper and deeper and deeper into the abyss…

So why do otherwise very intelligent, experienced and senior people do it? Turns out because the very apparatus that made them senior – spotting, sweating and sorting problems – ends up torturing them and others.

They worry and worry and chase and question, and expose bigger and bigger gaps between what is known, what can reasonably be done and the problems we have at hand. They’re trapped in a negatively spiralling perpetual motion machine. Because that’s what the mind is – it has an unlimited capacity to spot problems.

That’s perhaps a bit harsh on the mind though; in fact it’s only doing its job… It’s just trying to help us close the gap between where we are and where we want to get to. And this works beautifully for projects which have a start, middle and an end or which require getting from A to B.

I heard Kate Jeffrey explain in a super ‘Mind Bites’ podcast today how our beautifully striped hippocampus constantly encodes the environment, to help us learn, remember and get about effortlessly.

But where the problems start, are when we don’t know where we’re going or how we’re going to get there – or even if we’re on remotely the right road. Especially with the biggest problems of all: how to be happy and live a fulfilling life.

And according to Professor Mark Williams what works for ‘painting by numbers’ problems just makes things worse, when contemplating the complexities of your own self-portrait.

When we find a gap between where we are and where we wanted to be, the ever helpful mind starts trying to close the gap; by asking us questions and spinning at top speed to help us find some answers:

“Why am I sad, why am I failing, why do I feel bad, what can I do about it, how do I fix myself, how do I fix the world”.

Once the spinning starts it’s endless and exhausting. And it’s a major driver of clinical depression, the incidence of which has rocketed in the last 50 years, now commonly starting as early as 13 years of age. All of this and more I learnt in a remarkable series of podcasts from Oxford University on depression by Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman.

It turns out – thanks to that stripy hippocampus – we are easily triggered into repeated patterns of thought by environmental cues. So much of what we think is triggered by our surroundings and situations. If you’ve been in a bad situation before, just being in the same place or context can flip you straight back into the same spin again. Even different types of music can do it – apparently listening to Prokofiev’s Russia under the Mongolian yoke from Alaexander Nevsky at half speed can make you blue in double quick time!

But as well as environmental cues being triggers, so are our own moods. We can trigger ourselves. When we feel sad we can rapidly connect with other sad memories, and bring back negative incidents. As Kate Jeffrey explained, incidents which were stressful are deeply etched and tagged by the hippocampus into our memories.

And this links to the Oxford podcast on treatments, which explains the reasons people who’ve had depressive illness can relapse so readily. It turns out it is less the ‘content’ of the negative thoughts (although these thoughts create the exhaustion which drives the downward cycle) but the combination of contextual and mood-based triggers, which can flip the mind back in time in an instant – and recreate the cycle of past fears and past incidents that mean you’re quickly spinning, spiralling and falling again.

So what to do?

It turns out that the key is to spot the pattern:

  • The mind finds a ‘gap’ between your actual state and the desired state.
  • The mind starts searching for answers and starts asking you questions.
  • You hear the questions as criticisms or further evidence of the gap.
  • You start to think the gap may be permanent, pervasive and personal – it’s lasting, it’s going to affect everything and it’s your fault.
  • You step up an energy level, as the mind tries harder to help you close the gap; and repeat; and repeat; and repeat.
  • Anxiety and low mood kick in; and the cycle deepens.

Given the mind works at the speed of light this can be very fast, very intense and very exhausting. The bodily organ which consumes the most energy is the mind. No wonder people burn out and fall flat on their backs.

William’s treatment – our old friend mindfulness meditation… The only way to stop the cycle is to quickly recognise it, catch it before it spirals and ‘observe’ the thoughts – to avoid getting captured by them. The inner voice is always talking (and in fact always trying to help) but like a critical parent or a demanding boss, it can’t stop itself. You just have to take a breath and let it pass.

That’s why I’m back to mindfulness meditation as of today. I’ve had Williams and Penman’s book Mindfulness for years, and used to listen to the meditations a lot in the early 2010s. But I didn’t know the science then. For anyone with a lively mind it’s the best defence against depression; and we all need a bit of help right now.

I’m looking forward to tucking into their free Coronavirus resources here.