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Tuesday 17 January 2012

The Mental Movie Screen Part 3: The External Hard Drive

I've been writing about a metaphor I often use in therapy: The mental movie screen, which is the inevitably faulty internal representation of external reality.
External memory.

In the second post I suggested that when we are anxious or depressed, it often seems that the screen is a bit smaller than usual. We can't keep as many things in our head, and we become absent minded or overwhelmed.

This week, let's follow this tangent a bit further. It's a bit off the subject of introducing CBT, but it is a strategy that I recommend for people who feel scattered, distractible, or overwhelmed.

When I’m working on a project, my mind seems to wander around, bored, thinking of other things that need doing. “Hey, we’re out of milk.” “Shouldn’t I be returning that phone call?” “I need to mail that package later.”

The natural temptation is to hold these errands in my mind while I continue with the task at hand. “I’ll try to remember that for later.”

If we use the metaphor of the mind as a movie screen, we could say that these small tasks will take up a few square inches of space on the screen. Gradually the space available for the task I am working on will get nibbled away until I can’t really focus on it.

This is reminiscent of working at a desk that is piled high with projects, post-it notes, books, and unrelated junk. We can find ourselves trying to work in the tiny clear bit of space in the corner. But the other objects are alive, and calling to us.

Depressed and anxious folk, or people who have rather too much going on in their lives, have a cluttered mental space and a movie screen that is much smaller than usual. When we’re not at our best, we need all the clear space that we can get. So we need to get the details out of our head.

One strategy is to try to block out the rest of the world and focus, so it doesn’t occur to us that we haven’t answered an email or paid a bill.

For most of us, most of the time, this is futile. We never really master the art of slamming the door shut. So the other option is to prop the door open, and welcome the extraneous thoughts that will come anyway. The question is how to prevent them from eating up our attentional field.

A notebook can be a great strategy for clearing the mental space. I keep one to the right of my computer whenever I am working on something that takes focus. If it occurs to me that I need to buy pens, I get this idea out of my mental space as quickly as possible, and down onto the page. Every time an extraneous demand appears, it goes on the list.

This way, I don’t have to remember the errand myself, occupying all-too-scarce mental resources to do so, and I also don’t have to occupy even more resources worrying that I might not remember it. When I finally stop working on the project of the moment, I can simply look at the notebook and decide what to do next.

I’ve suggested this strategy to many of my depressed/stressed/overwhelmed clients, and many have found it helpful. They are not simply distractible; they are self-critical for being distractible – despite distractibility being a perfectly normal aspect of what they are experiencing.

By accepting the problem and using a practical partial solution for it, we can decatastrophize. “I’m not an idiot, and my brain fog isn’t going to stop me from doing things.  It’ll pass eventually, and meanwhile I can use some simple assists to help me cope.”

If you like computer models of the mind, we can think of a notebook as an external hard drive. When your internal processor is a bit wonky, or if you are working on tasks that require every ounce of your processing ability, get everything else out of the way onto the external drive. When you need it, it will still be there.

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