anxiety and the mind


ANXIETY is the background worriment that gnaws away at your soul day after day.  Anxiety is like sirens in the Big City of your Mind that never go away: sometimes they are close, sometimes they are in the distance, on the threshold of hearing. But the sirens are always there with the same message: DANGER !


Police cars on street

Think of anxiety as the awkward robot in Lost in Space that always warned the young, naive Will Robinson of an unforeseen and uncertain threat:



Like the robot, you might not know what the danger is, or when it will strike but there is a vague and continuing sense of impending doom.  The wolves are at the door: the IRS, the FBI, the CIA, the NSASWAT, the CDC are surrounding your compound, securing the perimeter, preparing the battering ram that will shatter your front door….  



Is it possible to escape anxiety? God knows we try, in any way possible.  For many, the first line of defense is the latest generation of anxiety drugs: Xanax, Ativan, Effexor, Klonopin.  If you are in a mandated outpatient substance abuse program these benzodiazepines will probably be frowned upon as addictive.  Problem is that milder substitutes may not be as “effective” – so how do you chemically curb the anxiety which fuels addictions without introducing new addictions? If the treatment amounts to trading one addiction for another,  it can be like putting out fire with gasoline: the good news: your craving for alcohol has diminished; the bad news: you now eat Xanax and Klonopin like they’re M&Ms.



Then there is the Old School anxiety remedy of demon alcohol:  rum, scotch, vodka on the rocks, port, pernod or tequilla. Whiskey and beer, have no fear… Alcohol can be temporarily effective at diminishing anxiety but if you wake up in Cleveland and don’t know how you got there, it might be good to consider other approaches.  Also, the hangovers, guilt, bad judgments, destroyed relationships, prison time for your third DUI and all those parties where you can’t remember when you’ve had a better time might be clues that this is not the way to escape the wolves at the door. 



Any effective distraction can provide a short escape, take your pick: dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight, snowboarding, chocolate ice cream binging, reality TV “watchathons”, sexuality, virtual reality, violence, philosophical digressions, rock and roll, video games, caffeine, nicotine, benzedrine anything to distract the mind away from those haunting sirens, that annoying robot, the disturbing pea of anxiety under the mattress that won’t let you sleep.



The ancient ancestors of modern day homo sapiens are now referred to as hominina ( formerly known as homo).  The hominina were the start of the human line after the split from the chimpanzees. The early human forefathers did not feel anxiety. The hominina mind was still basically an animal mind like the rest of the great apes and animals do not feel anxiety, they experience fear. Animalistic fear is specific, immediate, clear and functional. It has survival value. Anxiety is vague, general, unclear and has no survival value. Fear increases lifespans. Anxiety decreases lifespans.


What happened? How did anxiety enter into the human story? Based on the fossil record, around 200,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans emerged. Recent evidence suggests that by 70,000 years ago, humans were behaviorally modern, displaying complex language, abstract thinking and anticipatory planning.  In other words, the human brain, especially the pre-frontal lobe, developed rapidly and we started to really think and with this emergence of the full-fledged human mind came tool development, exploration, adaption to hostile environments and eventually nuclear bombs, computers and smart phones. So a former caveman crawled out of apehood to become the thriving, inventive creatures we are today, in all our glorious billions around the globe. But we didn’t learn how to turn the mind off. And we don’t really know how to control or modify our thoughts. So another part of the human legacy is anxiety.



Freud said that neurosis is the price of civilization. To put the same idea more simply, anxiety is the price of thinking. ( or more precisely, anxiety is the price of over-thinking).  So, inversely, if you want to eradicate neurosis, stop civilization – go back to the jungle.  If you want to eradicate anxiety,  stop thinking.  As John Lennon advised in the Beatle’s psychedelic anthem Tomorrow Never Knows: “Turn off you mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying; Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, it is knowing…”



Mind Control usually  conjures up images of someone else trying to control our minds through brainwashing.   It is a coercive, outside influence.  But self-initiated  mind control, learning to control your own mind, is the most fundamental and effective therapy for ANXIETY.   Any sustained practice that increases present awareness and mindfulness  is a type of positive, self-initiated mind  control.  Meditation and Metacognition are primary examples of this.


Meditation strives to focus on a single focal point, like breathing.  The focal point itself is not really important, it just needs to be compelling enough to temporarily hold our attention. The focal point is  a tool to remove you for a few all-important minutes from the incessant mind monkey, the restless , uncertain thought pattern of modern humans that is churning out anxiety.   By standing outside of the stream of consciousness , you can sometimes see it for the first time.  It’s like someone waking up from a daydream and suddenly realizing – wow, I’ve spent the last two hours obsessing  and worrying and I haven’t done anything on my list for day.


Metacognition is a fancy psychology term that simply means thinking about thinking.  The idea is to avoid automatic and uncontrolled thinking and systematically review and assess your thought process.  Metacognition has been applied to study habits.  There are many students who study hard and wonder why they don’t pass the exam.  Then there are students who think about how they study, and make changes if needed so that they study more effectively.


The idea of both Meditation and Metacognition is to WATCH the basics and BE AWARE of what you’re thinking.  No, it will not stop anxiety because no one can ( or should) completely stop thinking, but we can actually control the source of anxiety and therefore greatly diminish it.












Memories of a childhood Christmas when the world was beautiful, wonderful and perfect. Memories of the glory days of youth. We all have our “Penny Lane” back there beneath the blue suburban skies. Anyone can get caught up in nostalgia and it can often be very pleasant, a warm reminiscence of days gone by – but it can also be a painful yearning for an impossibly perfect past that we can never get back to or recreate. Nostalgia takes the past out of context and removes the rough edges from the “good old days” and it can lead to catastrophic mistakes when our decisions are based solely on some golden memory. Like when you try to give that old relationship one more try because you have conveniently remembered only the good times.


Despite the dangers of historical revisionism and fixation on the past, recent  research confirms the positive side of nostalgia. Social Psychologist Dr. Constantine Sedikides conducted a series of studies on nostalgia and concluded that it helps alleviate loneliness, boredom and anxiety. Sedikides points out that nostalgia works best when we do not compare the “flawless” past with the “disastrous” present. Nostalgia is also effective at bringing couples closer together, if used appropriately. Reminiscence focused on shared problem solving and positive relationship moments tends to make happy couples feel happier and closer. Not surprisingly,  distressed couples tend to feel sad when remembering the good old days.


Remembering the past is good. Obsessing about the past is bad. You can’t change it, so why ruin the present regretting it or wanting it back? Despite the obvious dangers of this type of “historic attachment” it remains a potent and bittersweet cocktail. It is best not to linger on what was and what might have been… but there’s so many great, haunting songs dedicated to doing just that.



“Faded photographs, covered now with lines and creases.

Ticket torn in half. Memories in bits and pieces.

Traces of love long ago that didn’t work out right…

Ribbons from her hair. Souvenirs of days together.

The ring she used to wear. Pages from an old love letter…”

TRACES” – Classics IV




V1-Flying-Bomb-TitleSTEREOTYPES are negative caricatures of a group that create and sustain the belief that all members are the same. One of the most insidious manifestations of stereotyping involves the use of emotionally tagged labels which I call “buzz bomb branding.” Historically, buzz bombs were the nick name for the the ominously buzzing German V-1 rockets whose primitive guidance system enabled them to hit somewhere in or around London during WW2. This type of broad, indiscreet targeting and the resultant fear and dread is exactly what occurs with buzz bomb branding. The negative characteristics of these labels are so culturally ingrained, so universally accepted as unconditional evil, so media-repeated and pulpit-pronounced that no one even thinks to question the monolithic and final judgments they dispense. Buzz bomb labels use moral outrage to create the false belief that all members of these notoriously evil groups must be equally depraved. In essence, the word itself has acquired so much negative momentum that the subtleties and subcategories are ignored and everyone given the label is effectively and often unfairly branded. 


Why does this happen? It happens because we like to simplify things and this leads to over-generalization. When you have to make painstaking distinctions and articulate complex shades of gray and clarify ambiguity, it’s much more difficult and troublesome than living in the assurance of a black and white world, where America and freedom and apple pie are good and everything else is evil.

good evil flag


With stereotype labels, the activating word is like a button that is pushed and it brings up an image or a single concept of the worse case scenario. The problem is that there are usually a wide spectrum of people or concepts that have been put in the category that are unfairly judged by this image.


Section 2256 of Title 18, United States Code, defines child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor (someone under 18 years of age). The legal definition of sexually explicit conduct does not require that an image depict a child engaging in sexual activity.  A picture of a naked child may constitute illegal child pornography if it is “sufficiently sexually suggestive.”

So child pornography RANGES from videos of very young prepubescent children who are forced or coerced  to engage in sexual activity, which is absolutely horrible  TO – at the other end of the spectrum – photos of sexually mature 17 year-olds who may willingly pose in sexually suggestive ways while intentionally lying about their age.  Not that there is anything good about this “older end” of the spectrum:  It is wrong, misguided, it is bad judgment and may be openly abusive BUT sexually suggestive photos of 17 year-olds ARE NOT THE MORAL EQUIVALENT of videos of prepubescent children having sex with adults.  Why do we lump them all together with no distinctions?


child pornographer


There is now a mandatory five year sentence for “possession with intent to distribute or sell child pornography” OR “production of child pornography”. Without any more details, the legal language is quite sufficient to push the outrage button and many would (understandably) say: Great, this sentence is not long enough! But like a lot of laws, especially drug laws, the language is vague and the real world application can only be seen in a case by case basis. Consider this case:

A 20 year-old man makes a home video of consensual sex with his 17 year-old girlfriend and downloads it to his computer, with his girlfriend’s knowledge and with no intent to share the video with others. CHARGE: child pornography production. SENTENCE: five years. Does this man deserve five years in prison? Why does he face this type of sentence? Because he is on the fringe of the hysteria and he has been caught up in the group and branded.


 In addition to the legal consequences, there are the so-called “collateral consequences.”  For anyone accused of possessing child pornography, for anyone whose house was searched because of suspicions of child pornography, society’s verdict has already been reached: your career is destroyed and your reputation damaged beyond repair – regardless of eventually exoneration or the exact nature of the crimes.  Undoubtedly, many or the worst offenders deserve this, but not all, especially before any legal resolution.

I chose child pornography for this article as an extreme example of how buzz bomb branding works. The point is: there are distinctions to be made even here. It is always important to avoid emotional knee jerk reactions and look at details and understand how  over-generalization happens.  Let’s consider the cultural context that shapes child pornography.



One of the key problems for this “buzz bomb branding”of child pornographers is that our society can’t clearly define “childhood.”   When do you stop being a child?  Child marriages were common throughout history and even today 146 countries permit girls younger than 18 to marry with the consent of parents or other authorities; in 52 countries, girls under age 15 can marry with parental consent.  Of course, this is not the same as child pornography –  these child marriages are not, one would hope, being videotaped or photographed. But for a minor to have legally sanctioned sex is not unprecedented. Of course, the younger the girls, the more it becomes an unthinkable abomination to Western sensibilities



Another problem with child pornography is double standards.  Our society acts with instant outrage at the mention of child pornography and at the same time openly engages in the sexualization of minors, in beauty pageants and in marketing teen divas like Britney Spears. In her autobiographical hit “Piece of Me,” Britney declares; ” I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17″ and the media still wants to “put pictures of my derriere in the magazine.”


Yet another problem with child pornography is our society’s understanding of “pornography” in general.  Pornography, like fornication, is not a descriptive word –  it is a judgmental word.  Upper class people enjoy ‘EROTICA” and express their sexuality by MAKING LOVE.  Lower class people look at pornography and fornicate!!  What’s the difference? Why is “shit” a dirty word and “defecate” an acceptable word?  Most German/Anglo-Saxon curse words are considered obscene while the Latin equivalent is considered much more polite.  So the push-button outrage, the buzz bomb branding, comes from centuries of hate and resentment against the German / Anglo Saxon influence  on the (supposedly) previously clean language and culture. We have a deeply embedded linguistic program that initiates an immediate negative reaction to these words and then commands us to not think any further about nuances and distinctions. Of course, obsession and addiction to anything whether it is drugs, pornography or violence is very wrong, clinically problematic and self-destructive.  My point it that it is not “adult” pornography or drugs or guns per se that are the problem – it is their abuse. 


CHILD PORNOGRAPHY is a very emotional topic, so let me be crystal clear on my position.   It is probably the deepest human instinct to protect our young from dangers and nothing is more horrifying than a child predator. I am ADVOCATING a more precise definition of child pornography that has a more narrow focus.  This is not to let anyone off the hook, but to deal appropriately with specific behaviors. In other words, a specific punishment should fit the specific crime. In the case of Child Pornography, I don’t think this will happen unless we rethink our understanding of childhood and pornography.


I want to examine one more simpler example of buzz bomb branding to illustrate the similarity of patterns across categories ( and to end this article on a less contentious note).This category is HORSE THIEF

horse thieves

In the Old West a horse was often necessary for survival. If you stole a man’s horse, you were possibly condemning him to die. Just like child pornography today, it was simply not tolerated. And just like child pornography, distinctions were not made and all horse thieves were treated alike – they were hung. What distinctions could be made in the notorious category of such worthless varmints as horse thieves? I ask the reader to consider Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove to illustrate the answer.


McMurtry distinguishes three types of horse thieves:

1. International Horse Thieves.

More precisely, stealing horses from Mexico. It’s okay for the Texas rangers to cross the border and steal Mexican horses because the Mexicans probably stole them from the US in the first place so they are just “retrieving them.” Consequence: No punishment. ( except the Mexicans might re-steal the stolen horses)

2. Outlaw Horse Thieves.

When the former Texas Ranger Jake Spoon teams up with despicable outlaws, he is hung for being a horse thief.

3. Starving Indian Horse Thieves.

When Captain McCall tracks down some more horse thieves later in the book, he discovers a small band of starving Native Americans who have already killed and cooked some of the horses. Consequence: no punishment.

So apparently there are different levels within this nefarious category. In conclusion – always question emotional responses and simplistic categorizations and watch out for the buzz bombs!

ILLUSION & belief



Look into the image above for a few seconds. What do you see? I see a slow rotation. It seems obvious. But there is no real movement. This is not an embedded video. The image is not moving, your mind is moving it. Illusions like this are basically misperceptions.  They are the products of a convincing deception which leads to sincere belief.  Unfortunately, sincerity does not guarantee validity. In other words, what you would swear is true, may not be.


Visual illusions are just one class of illusion. Anytime a contrived thing or a realistic substitute is mistaken for the “real” thing, you have a kind of illusion. Placebos are a perfect example of this. In the classic placebo test, what you think you have (aspirin) is really a fake (sugar pill). In the visual illusion above, we believe the fake movement because it is carefully orchestrated with visual cues. In the aspirin placebo test, the sugar pill may be stamped with the same code and colored to mimic the real thing. BUT if our belief is strong enough, regardless of what it is based on, the results are often the same as the real thing: we may get dizzy from the fake motion and we may have our headaches cured with a sugar pill. Put simply, it is often the sincerity of belief and not the object of belief that provides the cure.



 Did the Magic Crystals heal your depression and your anxiety or was it simply your BELIEF in the power of the crystals that did the trick?  How can you ever know the difference? Does it really matter?  Well, how much did you pay for the crystal therapy?  The propensity to believe in unprovable claims of healing  and to disregard the prevalence of the placebo effect and the power of naked belief  is not limited to New Age practitioners and their gullible followers. Consider the case of Franz Mesmer.


Austrian physician Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) believed illness came from misaligned magnetic forces, so he developed a “treatment” that involved transmitting magnetic force to the patient through a series of complex and elaborate gestures and touch, not unlike modern day faith healers.


Mesmer’s patients proclaimed themselves cured of the same vague hysterical conditions that Freud encountered a few years later: blindness, numbness,  paralysis and convulsive fits with no organic basis.  Now known as “conversion disorders,” these hysterical illnesses are basically a physical manifestation of anxiety.  In other words they are purely psychological so the”cure” can be purely psychological.  Eventually Mesmer was discredited and it was affirmed that the real healing factor was the patients’ belief in the cure, not the cure itself. In other words, it was the power of suggestion not the power of magnetism that stopped the symptoms.



James Randi is a former professional magician and famous escape artist who turned into a devoted skeptic and debunker.  Randi devoted his life to challenging and disproving paranormal claims.  His first step was to reclassify himself as an “illusionist” not a magician.  What he and other professionals do on stage, Randi admits,  is not paranormal, it is very skilled sleight-of-hand, it is an illusion.  In one of his most famous de-bunkings,  Randi exposed the renowned Faith Healer Peter Popoff.


During the healing service, Reverend Popoff would reveal personal information of supplicants that he had supposedly received from God.  Unfortunately for Popoff’s ministry, Randi’s investigators detected radio messages during this divine revelation. Turns out the personal  information was coming from Popoff’s wife, not God.  But it was a very convincing illusion while it lasted and Popoff made a lot of money.

In addition to faith healers, Randi has challenged spoon bendersaura readers, dowsers, astrologers and famous psychics like Sylvia Browne. No one has passed the test and proved their paranormal claims under Randi’s controlled conditions. All they have succeeded in doing is separating the naive from their money.


   Following this logic to it’s conclusion, ANYTIME we are psychologically “healed” by belief in unseen or unknowable forces – whether we believe in crystalsvoodooReikifaith healingeating fried chicken before a game to improve your batting average, Jesus, GodZeus, the Virgin MaryVishnuOdin or Anubis, its is fair to question if it is the thing itself – as we sincerely believe – or simply belief itself, independent of the object of belief – that effects our cure. The inescapable irony of this is that we must believe the deception or it doesn’t work. In other words, if you break the illusion, if you see through to the truth – that fried chicken has nothing to do with hitting a baseball – then your confidence is gone and you have a hitting slump. It is not that the superstition failed, or Jesus failed, or Vishnu failed….your belief failed.


In summary, evidence and common sense strongly suggests that there is no force emanating from the healing object to the healing subject – what is happening is a self-contained belief system that doesn’t require an outside power, only a sincere belief in one.  My skeptical stance on psychological healing is that I assume the placebo effect – the  power of belief alone –  is in play in these situations by default. My challenge is the same as Randi’s, if you believe your particular magic works, prove it.