Emoitions – Part 1 – Understanding Some of its Components using Fear.

We humans have a number of moods that are snapshots of the world, priming us for action on a reaction basis. To manually process the world and make moment by moment decisions takes far too long, so our emotion driven reaction system is an automated shortcut. When it works, it is great, when it fails, it can give us all of the wrong signals and responses.

Below it the video version of this post.

Video form view of this post

One of our moods is Fear.

Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It is what enables us to cross the road safely, use dangerous tools like fire, helps us cut up food  and so on. We even frequently seek out fear for fun activities, such as rollercoasters, driving fast, parasailing, going on holiday and so forth. Anything that is new or risky is triggering our fear response – but often in a good way.

We evolved fear as biological organisms primarily to stay safe from physical threats. This could be a predator that might attack you, an obstacle such as a cliff that could hurt you, or a non-animal threat such as fire. When our ancestors started working in groups we added social fear to the list, as sometimes that predator was not an animal out there, it was another one of us from outside our tribe, or sometimes that predator was someone in our tribe. A threat to our social status can really get our attention.

We continued to evolve our fear as we became more thinking creatures. There are ideas of self, of future and complex constructed fears, such as financial harm, spiritual harm and existential harm that affect us.

With all of these threats, it would be easy to assume that we would develop multiple threat response systems. However evolution is quite lazy and will coopt an existing system, adapting it to a new but related use. Thus our fear response to a predator is the same fear response we have to heights, to social embarrassment, financial harm and existential threat.

At mild levels fear will ramp us up a bit to deal with a likely threat, while keeping our minds quite clear and helping us to focus on the threat. This can feel exhilarating and we often seek this kind of feeling. However prolonged exposure to a mild threat, or series of threats, can exhaust us. We don’t want to stay ramped up for too long. We are more evolved for a series of fear sprints with cool down periods between the threats, than we are for a fear marathon of continual grueling pressure.

The higher our assessment of fear is, the more our bodies ramp up. There is a threshold where our minds stop focusing on the problem with clarity, and shift to focusing on the problem with 1 of 3 panic solutions – freeze, flight and fight.

Freeze is all about hoping not to be noticed by the predator. Running could draw the attention of the predator and there is no point fighting if the predator just goes away. We have coopted this response for some other problem management, which is part of what drives denial and bargaining for loss and change; passive and passive aggressive for anger. Our bodies get ready for freeze to fail, so our bodies ramp up ready for either flight or fight. Freeze should be the first response to a tangible immediate threat, but sometimes we skip it.

Flight is the desire to get out of here, even before the threat shows up. The biological logic of this is that if you aren’t there, then the threat can’t kill or harm you. Avoiding a problem is a survival strategy, but it doesn’t always promote good outcomes, just good enough ones. Anxiety coopts this response for running away from unknown threats, which has the consequence of not allowing you to challenge your fear. We also frequently avoid our responsibilities in the false belief that if we don’t try, then we can’t fail – but failing to act is still failing.

Fight is a head on direct confrontation of the problem. Often this is an aggressive act and taps into the anger response system. However our fight might be a desperate act with little aggression. A fight doesn’t have to be physical, it could be verbal, social and cognitive attacks. Aggressive fights are about doing the most damage to win, often escalating to dangerous levels, and as such we accept harm to ourselves in order to survive or win. Defensive fights are about creating an opportunity to flee. While this should be the last measure against a threat, if we have been in continual violent situations, including non physical violence, this frequently becomes our first port of call and we are frequently told we have anger management issues.

Those are our fear responses – freeze, flight and fight. When push comes to shove, one of these three should keep us alive. They aren’t necessarily the best choices though – they are our default get out of trouble last ditch effort solutions. Which means while we should survive the encounter, it is likely to be sub-optimal. What I’m trying to say here is, if you’ve got to these three choices, you are in trouble. The goal of fear management is to find a viable path out of danger before having to rely on these emergency biological responses.

While the three actions are different, the body’s preparation for freeze, flight and fight is the same.

Our hind-brain will hit the panic button and induce a number of body system changes. Our pupils will shrink in daylight to give us better focus so we can see the threat better, or at night they will dilate to drink in the light – it is better to see a blurry enemy than not see them at all. Our blood will leave our outer skin and gather into our muscles and organs – which decreases incidental bleeding and maximises energy to our muscles and organs. This will often leave us looking pale. Chemicals will be dumped into our bloodstream which will make us both more sensitive to physical stimuli such as touch, sound and smell, while at the same time dampening our pain sensitivity, so we can work through the injuries to get to a “safe” place to heal. Our heart rate will increase to get these vital chemicals and energy around our body. Our system will want to void our stomachs, bladder and bowel so that we are both lighter and smell awful – not as appetising to our predators. This is why you always need to go to the toilet before you go on stage, or feel light headed when you are nervous. We will breathe faster, but to avoid annoying our digestive tract it will generally be shallow chest breaths, aka panting. We will also start to sweat in anticipation of strong physical exertion and in response to the excess heat our now stressed bodies are creating.

This is a sympathetic nervous system response. That is the automatic system that hypes us up for maximum effort and minimum thoughts. It is hard to choose what to do when you feel like this, because all decisions are reduced to the concepts of freeze, flight or fight.

To get our sympathetic nervous system panic response under control, we need to trigger a parasympathetic nervous system mechanism – a calm down effect.

We will cover those in our next post [link].

Finding Truth

A quick guide to finding truth and making magical thinking/conspiracy thinking mistakes. We humans are pattern recognising machines, but that pattern we see can be an error far too easily.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

A warning sign that you might be on the wrong track is that only you and a select few fringe thinkers see this idea and the evidence. You can all see the Emperor’s New Clothes, and the ordinary people can’t… but actually, there are no clothes and there is no special thing.

While generally true – that the general knowledge of experts is right, it can be that an idea is new enough that it hasn’t caught on. Experts in a field that is hunting for explanations to unexplained phenomena are going to come up with a series of hypotheses to explain this, and until good evidence comes in to put the question to rest, some of the ideas are going to seem quite fringe and odd. A good example of this is the various string theories in physics.

  • Take home point: if your idea is so fringe, and you aren’t an expert in the field, it is far more likely that you are wrong. Even if you are an expert, it is important to note that most of the new concepts to explain the phenomena are wrong, so the odds are you are too.

The Null Hypothesis

This is a statistics concept where you start with the assumption that there is no difference between populations until you can prove that there are. We are going to coopt that concept and state that the world is boring and dull. If anything says otherwise, it needs to prove it. So we assume there is no magic, no conspiracy, no gods, no heaven and no hell. When we see some evidence of that, then we can start to shift our dull and boring starting position.

  • Take home point: Assume it is boring first without evidence, then every new complexity requires actual evidence

Begging the Question

What kind of poop do centaurs have- equine, or human? One might start to look at the mechanics of the poop – do centaurs eat more grasses or more human food? But this is a major error. You missed the first question because you assumed it to be true before moving on – do centaurs exist? Going back to the Null Hypothesis, assume the world is boring and dull. Begging the Question is a tool that can be misused to con you into assuming the truth of the question and bypasses good reasoning.

  • Take home point: Be careful of your assumptions

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

If someone makes a claim past the null hypothesis, consider how far it is from dull and boring. The further it is, the stronger their evidence has to be. It is important to have a good grasp of the scientific principles of evidence – not because science is never wrong, but because it has worked out some excellent methods for ruling out bad evidence.

Another important aspect of this is that a great body of evidence for a theory requires extraordinary evidence to overrule the theory. For example, claims of antigravity devices exist all over the internet, but can easily be dismissed because they have provided no actual proof of their claims, which should be quite easy to provide.

  • Take home point: The stranger the idea, or claim; then the more it is required to be proven

Occam’s Razor

Put into modern English, “The simplest and most complete answer is generally the right one”. If you need a very complex series of events to explain a thing, and you compare that to a very simple series of events, then the odds are the one with extra complexity is wrong. However if the explanation is simple and incomplete, then it loses to the more complex but complete answer. So “God wills it” misses lots of details of explanation, so it fails compared to a complex explanation of evolution. The story that the twin towers were sabotaged by local government for insurance gains weeks before the 911 disaster, and thus explains some of the frames in footage is very complex compared to the simple explanation that this is what buildings that have an aeroplane collide with them do. In this case, both are complete answers, so the simplest complete answer wins.

  • Take home point: If the idea is incomplete or overly complex to get there, suspect it.

Emotive Messages

Beware of when someone delivers a message or idea to you that is highly emotive. We humans catch emotions quite easily – it is a way that communities survive against a common threat. When we are told an emotional story, or the person telling the story is emotional, it is easy to get emotional too. That is fair and human. But it should also wave a warning flag. There are very few times that instant action is required, so take a moment and calm down. Now examine the message/story for factual qualities. When we are emotional, we don’t use logic very well and just assume things to be true, rather than questioning. Those who wish to manipulate us want us to not question, only feel. So rebel against this.

  • Take home point: If it is an emotive message, take a moment to calm down and start asking questions

The Perfect Crime Scene

Someone who wishes to manipulate our thoughts and feelings will often present a perfect chain of ideas that fit just a bit too well. In police dramas this concept is known as the perfect crime scene. A scene that is set up to make us look at it and assume we know who the perpetrator was – which is exactly what the real perpetrator wanted us to mistake. A good way to unravel this is to note the emotive language, the lack of answering actual questions about the thing, and the black and white thinking. The story is just too perfect. Implement the null  hypothesis, and use the rest of the tools above to work through the logic.

  • Take home point: Beware the web of deception that is just a bit too neat

Literary Analysis Question – Who and Why

Ask yourself, why was this written/created and who benefits. When we start to look at why was this written, we start to question the motivation of the author. In this case, why I wrote this was to arm you against being conned. When we ask who benefits from this, we again look at the motivation of the author. In this case, if you are less easily conned, then society gains, and thus I gain. I’m practicing an idea of enlightened self interest – for me to live better, I need my society to be better. When I look at the stories about China creating the COVID-19 virus, I have to ask – why was this written, and who does it benefit? The answers to this make me suspect the authenticity of the message, especially as it is trying to emote strong emotions in me.

  • Take home point: Question the source, question the message

Lies and Half Truths

If someone has to lie to make their point, then they don’t have a point. Check for inconsistencies or factual errors in their story. Keep in mind that every good lie contains some truth, but every good truth contains no lies.

  • Take home point: Lies reveal manipulation
From the movie “They Live”

COVID-19 Isolation Special


  • As you are more sedentary, your requirement to eat food is lower -> it is important to prioritise nutrition over calories (sugar, carbohydrates and protein) as the requirement for nutrition is the same – which doesn’t mean cut the calories out, just decrease them.
  • Eating extra savory snacks are generally because of boredom – go and do something instead of eating.
  • Eating extra fat, sugar or salt snacks are generally comfort eating – switch to an interesting, distracting and affirming activity.


  • Being stuck at home is not an excuse to do less physical activity, just a requirement to do more intelligent activity.
    • Jogging on the spot, lifting weights (2 L of liquid in each hand), push ups, chin ups, lunges, step ups and so on. There are plenty of youtube exercises at home things to watch for ideas, or pick up a new physical hobby such as twirling.
  • Exercise is an important activity for both physical fitness and for our minds. 
    • Our brain is part of our body, and when our body becomes unfit, so does our brain. So keep it working!
  • Also go outside and get some vitamin D from being in the sun (as your skin allows). Vitamin D is vital for both energy levels and for healthy bones.


  • Just because we are physically isolating doesn’t mean we can’t be social. Talk to your neighbours across the fence, call people on the phone, use social media to communicate. 
  • Do you know someone who has the same board game as you? Use video calls to play the game together
  • Humans are social creatures. Without human contact we start to stray in our minds and we become odder. It is important to keep in some kind of contact with people to help us stay us. This is also true of introverts.

Being a better you

  • Check in on people who are vulnerable and at risk, do they need support? Helping others helps us be better people, but only so long as you have the reasonable capacity to do so.
  • What habit have you been trying to stop that you now have time to work on? Now is a great time to work on preventing that. Remember the 5 D’s – delay, distract, drink water, disrupt and deliberate action.
  • What habit do you wish you had, that you now have time to work on? If you deliberately do some of it now, sleep on it and do it again tomorrow, it becomes easier. Set up a repeatable process to get that habit ingrained.
  • What is that thing that you always wished you knew how to do – can you learn that? There are online courses, or perhaps another isolated friend can teach you?
  • Learn how to chill, to meditate, to regulate your mood

Mental health

  • The world is topsy turvey right now, so our sense of self is confounded in two major ways
    • Many people use what they do as a way to define themselves, and this has changed significantly, either ceasing or in a different location with lots of different stress. 
    • Many people feel a sense of placement by looking outside of themselves at fixed ideas to triangulate good, bad, right and wrong. We know things are right, because that is what the world tells us. Right now everything is in transition, including many of these fundamental ideas. So we feel very lost.
  • This is the time to work on those concepts of self and separate them from being propped up from outside. What kind of person do you want to be? How will you achieve that? Who you are starts from within and only uses outside things as guidance.
  • Anxiety is going to increase for many people, even if you’ve never had anxiety before. Anxiety is the idea that there is some threat to you or those you love/value that you can’t really identify or act against. Many people are feeling this right now. Some people who previously experienced anxiety are feeling quite comfortable right now, because now they know what the threat is. Others are finding this situation compounding the background anxiety.
    • Follow the scientific medical advice, be careful not to get too defensive in your practice. We aren’t after a black or white “be paranoid” vs “nothing is a risk”. We are after the safe mid ground of “be careful”, “wash your hands frequently”, “avoid touching your face” and stay home when you can.
    • Practice grounding techniques and mood moderation techniques
    • Try to keep getting up at a set time, the same time where possible each day.
    • Do exercise to give your body a feeling of doing something.
    • Watch less of the news and only pay attention to vital update summaries. Each local government state has one. Be careful of negative social media.
  • Depression is going to increase.
    • This can come in the feelings of lack of motivation, that is, you just don’t want to do anything. This is okay and normal for a few days, but when you get a bit of motivation, take advantage of it and go and do things. Make it a habit to do what you can when you can.
    • Part of depression is loneliness and isolation. Reach out to people – we only have to be physically distant, not emotionally distant.
    • Some of this is going to be about physical isolation too.
      • Expand your definition of safe family to include a household who agrees to participate in this beyond the household you find yourself in. Go and visit them and get that physical interaction.
      • They must stay isolated from others except your household. What we want to avoid is a chain of people spanning more than two households. Or consider moving in with the household that is more physically affectionate than the household you are currently stuck with.
  • Sleep
    • Some people are going to want to sleep lots. This is part of cabin fever. It is your body going into a semi hibernation while you have nothing to do, to preserve food and sanity, you’ll sleep through the forced isolation. A few days of this is ok, but then it is important to push yourself to be active. Go and exercise your brain and your body.
    • Some people are going to struggle to sleep. This is related to anxiety above, go check out that section. Avoid stimulants after 2 pm. Don’t eat too late either.
  • Routine
    • Most of us are used to external scheduling, often work or school. We are not used to internal scheduling, where you define what your day is going to look like and then stick to it.
    • Avoid the “I can always do it tomorrow” and end up doing nothing. Set a thing to do in the AM and a thing to do in the PM and ensure you do those, or substitute a suitable other thing to do.

Surviving in your household

  • Many people are not used to spending 24/7 time together. There is a common idea that families that go on extended holiday together often fall apart – and it is because of this.
    • Allow for separate time, where you have an area such as a bedroom where you can be alone
    • Have some allotted group activity time. Meals are particularly good for this.
    • Communication
      • This must be honest but not brutal
      • Open without fear of judgement
      • Supportive to work towards a goal of safety
      • You can have a formal or informal meeting type
        • Formal includes agenda items and agreements
        • Informal is allowing and prompting people to raise what went well and what didn’t, and then all affirming what went well, and all working out if something needs to change for the things that didn’t
      • Use the principle of charity – that everyone wants to work towards a good outcome that is best for all people.
        • Avoid taking things personally
        • Remember to work on the version that everyone wins, rather than the one where someone loses; or the best outcome for the most
        • Remember that sometimes sacrificing a thing is worth it, but it needs to be balanced

Domestic Violence

  • If you started in, or now find yourself in a situation of violence, you can get out. In fact this is a really good time to take that step.
    • Quietly gather what you need. Keep it minimal.
    • Consider the person you can go to
      • This is often the person that has been trying to convince you to leave, not the people who are trying to convince you to stay
      • Ideally make it further away than a suburb
      • If you need to bring children with you, the destination needs to be suitable for that
      • Quietly contact that person if you can and warn them that you are coming, and check that it is okay to do so. If they aren’t suitable, then go to the next person.
      • For women, if you have no suitable person to go to, contact Domestic Violence helplines and go to a women’s shelter. I’m sorry males, this doesn’t exist for you.
    • Once you have left
      • Change all of your passwords as quickly as you can
      • If you are on government income, register with them your separation and new details ASAP
      • You may need to isolate within isolation for 14 days to be safe for your new household
      • Don’t tell your ex where you have gone, just that you have. Consider who you tell where you are, the fewer people who know, the fewer people who can tell your ex.
      • Let your GP know ASAP and get a referral for DV counselling. You can get it via Telehealth in Australia.
      • Don’t go back to the ex. Ever.
Coronavirus artist impression
Coronavrus – COVID-19

COVID-19 Reality

Wow there is soooooo much bogus information about COVID-19 going around right now. Partly this is because the government didn’t say enough soon enough to inform people, partly it is because people don’t want to take the effort to actually look up real information, and mostly because people don’t know how to tell the real from the crap.

Here it is straight.

TL:DR The facts you need to know about COVID-19; How to spot fake news; How to stay sane

Corona virus is a kind of virus (there are many millions of different viruses) that can sometimes affect humans. Other viruses you might be familiar with are influenza, ebola and measles. None of these are the same virus, just like I am a vertebrate, so is a chimpanzee, rat and chicken. We aren’t the same, even though we are in the same category.

Corona virus is zoonotic. That is, it mostly exists in non-human animals and occasionally crosses over to infect humans. The most common form of this is about 20% of the common cold. The common cold is categorised as rhinovirus, which is the group name for many viruses that attack the nose, causing it to “run”. Usually we humans experience a runny nose, a sore throat, some fatigue and fever. Generally we successfully overcome it.

This version is different. It mostly attacks the lungs and heart. Age and gender appear to be less relevant than do you have an existing (whether you know about it or not) lung and heart condition. If so, you have switched from potentially 3 times more deadly than the worst influenza in the last 10 years to potentially 70 times more deadly [link] and [link].

Because this version is so different, we are giving it some special labels. 2019 coronavirus, SARS-2-Cov, SARS-Cov-2, COVID-19, COVID-19 virus etc. For all intents and purposes, they are the same thing (there is a slight difference between the virus itself and the pneumonia/heart conditions caused by it – but let’s keep this at layman’s level, hey?)

Numbers are hard. We humans struggle with them as soon as we reach greater than 1000 of anything. So let us compare COVID-19 to the last big epidemic most people know about – the Spanish Flu. As a matter of destigmatising, it is important to note that this outbreak was named only because Spain was the only country reporting on it. It was first medically detected in the USA. This influenza, while a completely different virus to COVID-19, rocked the world with how deadly it was. It killed about 50 million people world wide (the number varies between 20 million and 100 million because many countries did not keep good statistics). It’s estimated penetration into the community was infecting 1 in 3 people and spread at a rate of about 2.4 infections per infected people. It killed 2.4% of all people who were infected.

COVID-19 has an estimated penetration of 20% to 60% (we don’t really know yet, because it hasn’t finished infecting those who can be infected). This number is important because it gives you an idea of how likely you are to get it if you are in an infected area. This penetration number can be reduced by good hygiene, increased separation from people (social distancing) and isolating those known to be infected. The next number we gave for Spanish Flu was the infections per person. That is, how many people does a not isolated infected person infect? That average is currently being clocked around 2.4 people. In Australia, we are seeing the number increase by 100% every 2 days. That is, if 10 were infected yesterday, then 20 (including that original 10) will be infected tomorrow. If 1000 were infected yesterday, then 2000 will be infected tomorrow. [link]

It is spreading fast.

The next number we used for Spanish Flu was the kill number of 2.4% (estimated because of those bad stats we mentioned earlier). We don’t actually know what the kill number for COVID-19 is as it isn’t over yet (much like the total infectiveness number). However early stats indicate that when the thing is managed well, and the number of people needing hospital is lower than the number of hospital beds available, then the kill rate is 0.9%, which is about 3 times more deadly than the worst seasonal influenza in Australia in the last decade, and not too bad compared to the Spanish Flu estimate. In Australia, where we have kept the number of infected below the number of ICU beds we have, the kill number is really low. But that will change when our infection numbers exceed hospital. We recently saw that in Italy, where a statistic I saw about 7 days ago (approx 16 March 2020) indicated a death rate of 7.7% [link – stats may no longer be relevant]. That is about 3 times worse than the Spanish Flu.

Currently 80% of people infected walk away with no known long lasting effects from COVID-19. The other 1 in 5 infected people aren’t so lucky. The other 20% of people will need hospital assistance. Let us pretend that 5 people go to hospital for care. On average 4 of those will need low intensity support, and walk away with minor lung damage and a stressed heart and should watch that for the next few years. The 5th person will need to go to ICU [Intensive Care Unit] (on average) where they will probably recover and leave the hospital. As the numbers of infected people rise, the number will exceed the ICU beds, and those people will die. That is the difference between Australia now, and Australia when we hit Italy’s level of infection. Somewhere around 5% of the population that are infected, which is likely to be twice the number of the Spanish Flu, will not recover and will not leave the hospital to live their lives.

So what can we do about this?

First of all, follow the medical advice.

  • Hygiene – imagine the world outside your safe zone (usually your house) is covered in wet paint that takes a really long time to dry (up to 48 hours). The only way to keep the paint off you and the things you care about is to avoid touching stuff. Before you eat or touch your face outside your safe zone, wash your hands. When you return to your safe zone, go and have a shower and wash the clothes that you were wearing. Also wipe down any objects you handled while out there, like your phone, wallet and keys. Wipe down the items you brought back. Get used to doing this now.
    • Soap and water is the best method to clean things – soap damages the virus. Use the WHO Standard of Hand Washing. Alcohol that is stronger than 60% harms it too, but not as well as soap. Bleach is the next best. Vinegar, cumin and tumeric are useless.
    • If you have to sneeze or cough, do so into your own elbow or shoulder. The idea is to cut down the spray you eject that covers surfaces.
    • Gloves and masks are minimally effective as most people are not trained to use them properly. Avoid the Dunning-Krugger ignorance effect and think you know how if you have not been formally taught.
  • Social distancing – keep about 1.8 m (6 ft) away from others [link] whenever you are outside of your safe zone. If you don’t touch a person, or get into the region their sneeze/cough can get you, you won’t get infected.
    • People forget that lines are close, schools are close and parties are close. These break social distancing protocols.
    • Sometimes you will have to get closer to people. Minimise these times and go wash afterwards.
    • Rethink going out – if you can avoid leaving your safe zone, do so.
    • Isolating those who have infection – if you know someone, encourage them to keep curfew. If you are in the government, enforce the fines for people who break curfew.

Myths – In an absence of real digestible information and in a spirited effort to make this less serious, people are grasping at quick fixes and misinformation in a delusion that they can get through this faster and unscathed. Stop it. You are putting yourself and others you love at risk.

Quick ways to tell if a thing you hear is fiction

  • “Scientists don’t want you to know” – actually they do want you to know the right information, they don’t want you to think you know misinformation.
  • “How to make your own cure” – no you can’t. If it were that simple, the government would be spending money on that instead of all of these expensive scientific methods.
  • “This natural substance cures/prevents” – not for this, not in humans.
  • “All you have to do is these simple things” that isn’t only listing the primary two methods of Hygiene and Distancing in various ways
  • There is no link to sources

How to not develop an anxiety disorder

  • Slow down your social media and reading all of the scary stuff that is above and beyond what I’ve written here. This is what you should be concerned about, not the other things designed to scare you and make you share stuff. Only share if it is sources and scientific.
  • Have a plan on how to maintain your safe zone. Practice it now while mistakes are not likely to cause contamination so that later when it is more critical you have the system down pat.
  • Stay in contact with your village via the internet (in today’s society, our friends are our village – the people we care about)
  • Reach out to those who are health compromised and offer to get them stuff when you get your own stuff. Leave it at their door to avoid possible contamination. Try to disinfect it first.

And most of all, plan for a long time in this new world, because this isn’t going to blow over soon.

Chronic and Complex Health

There is an interesting point in chronic illness when you have got past the shock, denial, bargaining and anger stage and you have settled on sadness/numbness.

This stage is where the reality of your condition hits you the hardest. The life you had is gone. You can’t do the things you use to do the way you use to do them. You have to factor in this condition for the rest of your days (or for those with just a complex health issue, for a few years).

There are three common phases at this point.

Survival – Doing what you can to get through today, possibly tomorrow. There is no space to really think about next year. It’s just about surviving now.

Existential crisis – A sense of unreality where things stop having meaning, or the meaning of things has shifted. It’s like suddenly discovering that the thing you’ve been calling red all this time is actually green. You’ve woken up from the dream into the wrong world. You look at things that others are getting all anxious about, or slaving their guts out for and realise that it is all fiction. They have no idea what hardship actually means.

Attempted acceptance/planning – In moments where you realise that you’ve kind of got the hang of day to day management considering this thing, you start to wonder what next year is going to look like. You try to make guesses for long term set up and realise that you actually have no idea, because you’ve never experienced this thing before and your guesses now will be invalide next week. Because as your diagnosis sets in, and you’ve been scrabbling to make sense of it all, the situation is changing so rapidly that what was true yesterday is fiction today, and what is true today will be fiction tomorrow – or next week. Planning is a strange concept, but you keep trying.

Of course, you’ll also be flicking around bargaining and anger for a bit too.

For those of you who have experienced chronic illness or complex disease, you’ll recognise these phases.

People being affected by COVID-19 are going through this now. For those people recognising these phases because of COVID-19, you’ve just been given a deep insight into the flailing stage of chronic and complex medical health crises that many people experience.

When all of this settles down to a predictable life, try to remember this for when you come across people experiencing chronic and complex health.


Change is hard, and when unnecessary, it is a waste of resources. There are some very predictable phases that change prompts in humans, which Elizabeth Kübler-Ross describes in the phases of grief. Understanding these phases may help us to understand some of what is happening in the world right now.

Prior to the event that may require you to change, maintaining the status quo is the most efficient way to be. You have a rhythm, a set of expectations and known measures for success. It is within your best interests, as a general rule of thumb, to keep things going this way. An advantage of keeping this status quo, even if it isn’t that good for you, is that it is predictable, and even if we don’t like what we are predicting, predictable is comforting.



Generally change events are unexpected. We experience surprise as our predictions for what is supposed to occur fail. Prediction helps us know what to do and when our predictions fail, we need to pause to re-assess. Consider crossing the road. If the traffic behaves as you predict, then you know when it is safe to cross and when it is not. If the traffic starts doing weird things, then you will freeze as you assess how you are going to get across.


We don’t want the change to be real, or if it is real, bad enough that it requires us to change. Often if we just wait a bit, the anomaly that has caused the change in our prediction will go back to normal and we can continue as we have before. There is an efficiency in denial, where it delays us expending resources on change when that change isn’t necessary as the event was a false alarm, or delays us in over committing resources to a thing that only requires a small modification. We usually don’t notice when denial is effective, because things didn’t become a problem.


If we can do a small thing, pay a small price, make a small deal to get us back to how things use to be, then that is an efficient use of resources. If that doesn’t work, then we will expend more resource on a bigger bargain with someone or something to try to get back to where things use to be. In the cold light of analysis, this expenditure of bargaining resource can be more expensive than making the needed changes, but it feels smarter to do, because we return to the known model – the status quo. When bargaining works, when we can solve the event, then life returns to normal and it was probably the smart way to go. When bargaining works, we often feel like we have overcome a thing and we feel powerful.


When we realise that bargaining has failed, we try harder. With more aggression. When that fails, we feel powerless. We push harder, or find someone to blame, or something to blame. When we can’t find someone to blame, or blaming others is not in our nature, then we turn the blame to ourselves. When we try harder, or find the person or thing at fault, we can force it to change the thing we can’t do ourselves. When this works, the status quo is resumed. When it fails we run out of options. We despair.


Sadness, despair, numbness – these are all ways to describe the reassessment phase as you realise this is real and you can’t stop it. The change has happened. At this point going back is not feasible, but you don’t know what going forward looks like. You are lost.


The change is real and to survive this you must change. An acknowledgement of reality and an assessment of self is common here. Things you use to do that are no longer valid, relevant or effective are discarded and a search for new strategies to go forwards begin. It is important to survive in the moment.


We have survived, but we haven’t really grown into our new future. Planning looks forward to what the world now looks like with this new reality begin, amidst a frank assessment of how things need to be. Plans are made for that future and changes in the now are implemented to get there.


It is important to note that resources can be emotions, action, assets, wealth, friends and so on. IT is also important to note that people don’t just go through these phases linearly – there is a great deal of jumping about between phases, you can visit phases more than once and not everyone goes through every phase.

As I look at the world today, I see a great deal of the first four phases and not much of the last three. Mostly because we just don’t know yet how the world’s changes are actually going to affect us.

It is important to be patient with people who are in denial, who are trying to bargain a way out of this and who express their anger poorly. It is also fair to be patient with people who are sad and between actions. These are all normal. Help people to transition as best you can.

Some people have made it to acceptance and they are making immediate changes to survive the now. We just can’t really do the planning bit as the picture of the world keeps changing every time we look back into it.

People are Bad at Evaluating Future Risk

People are bad at evaluating a risk that is in the future. We seek certainty and struggle with shifting probability or uncertain error margins. This can lead to polarised thinking where we either grossly underestimate a risk, or grossly overestimate a risk.

Most people are fine at understanding relative numbers within two orders of magnitude. That is, we can easily comprehend up to 10 of a thing (first order of magnitude), and frequently up to even 100 of a thing (second order of magnitude), but fail when the number is greater than that.

For example, if I ask you to indicate how much area we need for 200 people you will indicate a certain amount of area. If I had instead asked you to estimate the area we need for 400 people, it would be only marginally larger. If I ask you to estimate one and then the other, you will double the area of the first – but that second area wouldn’t have been the area you picked if I asked you for 400 first. Because the number is greater than 100, we struggle to comprehend it. This is because in nature, when we were roaming around the fields looking for food, the difference between 100 animals and 1000 animals, or a small tree full of berries and a large tree full of berries, was insignificant.

The reverse is also true. When we start looking at 100th or 1,000th.

Our math has got pretty significantly tricky in the last few hundred years. We can do some really fancy stuff. Logarithmic math is really handy for dealing with numbers on vastly different scales of magnitude. However most people don’t really understand what that means. For example, the Voyager probes (1 and 2) had just under 64 kb of memory each. My mobile phone has an extended memory of 64 gb. We recognised that gb is bigger than kb, but by how much? If a byte is an ice cube worth of water, then 64 kb (kilobytes) is half of a bathtub. Now pause and try go figure out what 64 gb (gigabytes) is going to look like.

What do you picture?

The volume of 64 gb (gigabytes) of ice cubes is 2,500 olympic swimming pools, which still defies comprehension except that we get the idea that this is a lot of water. I’m fairly confident that you didn’t think your phone’s storage was that big when compared to the amount used in the Voyager probes.

Still, these are fixed numbers – so even if we can’t really comprehend the scale of it, we can work better with it than a moving number. We struggle when the numbers shift in time. We want a definite thing to plan for and against, ironically so that we can change the definite thing.

We saw this with the millenium bug back before 2000. Our computer scientists warned us that the mechanism of how our computers calculated the date was going to fail. A design flaw that was created for efficiency was not supposed to still be in use by 1995. The problem was that people weren’t upgrading as they should be doing and we really needed them to. What is the worst that could happen? Well, if enough computers fail, then modern civilisation halts. Planes could literally fall out of the air, power stations could stop, water could stop and databases could be irreversibly corrupted (health databases, banks and government registers). Just think about all the things you currently rely on electricity to do. 

“Of course”, said the scientists, “we could just fix it”. The computer scientists estimated the world cost for upgrading the key systems that would ensure that civilisation continues and were ignored for another few years. Which magnified the cost by roughly 100 times. Not percent (which would have just doubled it), but 100 times. It cost up to 1.6 trillion dollars to fix world wide.

Here’s the irony. Because it was fixed, there was no disaster.

People felt justified in calling it a hoax. Even though over 30,000 failures were reported around the world to relevant computing bodies (the systems that weren’t fixed). It was known that not all systems could be fixed due to the long delay in acting, but if enough systems were fixed, the infrastructure would be robust enough to survive a few failing systems.

This is kind of like getting upset that your car didn’t crash like your mechanic warned you about, if you don’t get your brakes repaired. Heeding the warning of your mechanic, you repair your brakes, and then… lo and behold, your car doesn’t crash. Whoa…. spooky.

Climate change is another similar problem. Our world scientists have warned us of a problem. The science is really solid that this is a real problem and that we are going to have dire consequences if we fail to act. That the longer we wait, the worse it is going to get, and the more it will cost to fix.

Much like the millenium bug, people are not taking it seriously because it is hard to comprehend. How bad will it be? Scientists can’t tell you for certain, because it is a moving target. But they all agree it will be bad.

Going back to a previous analogy, if you don’t change the brakes in your car, how bad will it be? Well, you will crash when they fail. But how bad will it be? That depends on the crash. You could just crumple a fender, or you could kill a busload of children, or a range in between.

The denier will say “if you can’t tell me how bad the crash is going to be, I don’t believe you know what you are talking about” and refuse to change their brakes.

Here is the irony though. If we do the world actions needed to stave off climate change, the denier will call it a hoax. If we fail to act, human life on earth might end (worst case bus full of school kids scenario, and kind of hard to come back from), or we might just lose 2/3 of the population. As in 5 billion people. If we do act, we can stave off the worst of that. We are going to lose people, our goal is to try to make that number as small as possible.

Recently there has been a virus outbreak, which has been named COVID-19. Extrapolating from early numbers in Wuhan China indicated that this corona virus had the potential to be really bad. It might also be mild. Extrapolating from a small number set usually has problems.

Consider a random sample of 10 people. 3 of them have blue eyes. Does this mean that the whole population of the world has 30% blue eyes, or that the only blue eyed people in the world were in that sample of 10 people? We just don’t know. So we increase the sample size to 100. It turns out that 20 people in this group have blue eyes. That tells us that there are more than 3 people in the world with blue eyes. We adjust our prediction to 20% of people have blue eyes, but it is still possible that there are only 20 people in the world with blue eyes. Now we look at 1,000 people. 100 of the 1,000 people have blue eyes. What does this mean when we try to extrapolate a trend? Does that mean that only 10% of the world has blue eyes, or that the region that we are sampling from has less than usual, or more?

This is the kind of difficulty that trying to predict how deadly a virus is. As the virus spreads to more people, more accurate predictions of the virus can be made. Yet deadliness is a deceptive term. A virus that is so deadly that it kills its host before it can spread has a 100% deadliness, but poses no real risk to humanity (except for the single host). For a virus to be a risk means it has to be able to spread. This is referred to the reproductive number, or R0 (pronounced “R Naught”). This is a combination of how good the virus is at infecting others and how much people can mitigate that ability. I might normally be the fastest runner at school, but if you break my legs, I’m not going to win the foot race. My ability to win the race has been mitigated. Falling on an object that punctures my lung hundreds of kilometres away from a hospital increases my risk of dying from that wound compared to puncturing my lung in a hospital. The punctured lung is inherently bad, but the risk of death goes up the further away from a hospital I am.

This shifting risk makes it hard for people to grasp risk.

In the case of COVID-19, in the best circumstances, it appears to infect some people asymptomatically. That is, they experience no ill effect and don’t even know they have it. Humans frequently have infections that spread throughout the population without them knowing about it. If COVID-19 only did this, mostly we wouldn’t care.

But it doesn’t.

There are people experiencing serious to deadly outcomes, and potentially 4% of the people infected have died. Or has it. We have not tested every person in the world to get proper numbers, so we can only extrapolate based on the information we have – I refer to the above blue eyed problem.

Factors that change the inherent deadliness of the virus for the individual are related to age, pre-existing conditions, luck, how good the hospital near you is, how overwhelmed the hospital near you is, when you go to seek treatment and so on. There is no fixed number to define this.

Which means that most people don’t comprehend how dangerous the virus actually is.

Another two factors are news coverage and misinformation.

People who report News have their primary goal on profit. Their job is to sell advertisements, which means capturing your attention so you can see those advertisements. Which means hyping everything up. News outlets generally either exaggerate the risk, or complain that the risk has been exaggerated. This leads to a false polarisation of information – it is either really deadly so be afraid, or everyone is lying about how deadly it is, aren’t they silly? Seem familiar? Gone is the myth that news was reported impartially.

Then we have special interest groups who are pushing an agenda above and beyond selling adverts. They are pushing misinformation. Fox media, owned by Rupert Murdoch, shows very strong bias for Murdoch’s interests. Gina Rinehart is a mining billionaire in Australia who pays special interest groups to confuse the public about the risks of mining and fossil fuels. The West Australian Newspaper keeps publishing “opinion pieces” that require no fact checking over “scientific evidence” that does, which strangely enough coincides with the Murdoch agenda and the Rinehard agenda.

A quick way to tell the difference between real news and special interest news is this: If it is a prediction, real news will say “it depends on these factors” with a recommendation to make those factors more favourable; while special interest news will either attack the authority of specialists or give you a definite fixed risk assessment – a confident lie.

We look for something solid to base our next plans on, so we tend to fall for the confident lie rather than taking the time to understand that the outcome is not fixed and we need to understand the factors involved to navigate this threat.

So take that time. If it is a concern for you, take the time to learn about the basic science behind it and ask questions. People who give you confident certainty should be trusted less than people who say “it depends on these factors”. Learn some basic science, learn critical thinking skills, look to international agreement from world scientists – they are usually right, ask “where is this information from, and what is their agenda?”. For example, a strangely named source that refers mostly to itself versus the Australian Government’s CSIRO science department – I’d trust the CSIRO. Educate yourself, but be careful not to fall down a conspiracy theory hole. Most conspiracy theories are wrong.

BPD Part 3 – Borderline Personality Disorder – The Experience

BPD is a complex diagnosis often given to people who present at hospital with suicidal ideation, aggressive behaviour or chaotic social situations; or a combination of all three. People who receive this diagnosis often have poor emotional regulation and tend to see situations in black and white.  This is about might drive the BPD Experience.

In Part 1 [Link] we looked at what BPD isn’t, and some of the many names that BPD is also known by.

In Part 2 [Link] we looked at some of the diagnostic criteria that is used when giving someone a diagnosis, including a list of aspects that I look for when determining if BPD is an appropriate label for someone’s experience.

In Part 3 (this article) we will look at what is probably going on behind the scenes that leads to the experience and behaviours that meet the criteria in Part 2.

In Part 4 (yet to come) we will look at how to tell if something needs to be done about your experience of BPD, and if so, what that might be.

The JDT List

This is a quick refresher on the list that we use when considering BPD as a good descriptor for someone’s experience. For a more full write up, please go and take a look at the bottom third of Part 2.

* A Loss of Self – a chameleon like ability to adapt to the person they are with.

Dysregulated Mood – all moods are at extremes and calm is a foreign concept.

* Perception Distortion – always looking for the threat in the situation, but more in the people they interact with. This includes looking for betrayal, looking for the fight and looking for the threat.

* Black and White Thinking – things are either black, or white, never grey, and certainly not coloured.

* Boundary Confusion – a focus on “how it should be” and low ability to adapt to “this is how it is”. Uncertainty about what is “good enough”, and what “Reasonable” means.

* Chaos – people around them are often thrown into chaos dealing with the persons inner chaos, life and relationship chaos, self harm and or suicide attempts, emotional dysregulation and so on.

Each of these are strong characteristic presentations of a few common underlying thought mechanisms. A thought mechanism is a method by which you solve a problem, which when working properly allows you to function alone, in a group of people and in society in general. When a thought mechanism is not up to the task maladaptive behaviours present, which either harm the individual or those around the individual. 

So what are the underlying mechanisms?

Emotional Dysregulation

Many things look deceptively simple until something goes wrong with it. Let us consider driving your car. When everything works, you get into your car, drive it car and then get to your destination. Now think of everything that could go wrong in that process and you start to realise how complex driving actually is. You could fail to drive properly for a number of reasons, someone else on the road might create an accident, your car might fail in hundreds of different ways, the road itself might have road works, traffic jams or a bushfire covering it. Only once you start to look at what can go wrong with a “simple” process do you realise how complex it is.

When we look at decision making, it is very similar. It seems easy until something goes wrong.

Angry face
Anger is a frequent result of emotional dysregulation which is picked up by health services as a symptom

An important component of decision making is assessing the components of the decision and the outcome of that decision. This relies on how we feel about each of these aspects. For example, if I want to take an object I found on the couch outside, how I feel about the object will change how I tackle the task. Let us say the object is a spider. If I have a phobia about spiders, I will overestimate the danger level of the spider, which may either prompt me to take extreme caution when picking the spider up, or disable my ability to act at all. Even if that spider is made of plastic. A balanced level of feeling will accurately determine that the plastic spider poses no risk, enabling me to pick up the toy and take it outside.

A quick side note here – feeling is what the experience feels like, while an emotion is what you show the world about the feeling you have. Often people use them interchangeably.

The stronger a feeling is that you experience, the more your hind-brain (the limbic system – amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia) is warning you of an extreme situation, and thus the less time your brain thinks that you have to solve it. Because of this, people who are erroneously feeling too much about a thing think they have no time to solve it, so everything becomes black and white – safe, or not safe; good, or evil; do, or do not – there is no try. This illusion is created by the sense of immediacy from the extreme emotion, because hind-brain logic tells us that strong emotions must be significant and very now.

Hopefully it is clear how this dysregulation of emotions (feelings) can lead to black and white thinking, and perceptual distortions in assessing a situation. What is less obvious is that if your hind-brain is constantly reporting to you that you are in danger, it can change the way you manage social interactions – you need to be safe, so you alter yourself to be the person that is safe. This contributes to the Loss of Self above. Another aspect that is fed by this dysregulation is Chaos. Because you have no time, you make snap or automatic decisions that will keep you alive in this perceived emergency situation.So far it has worked as you are still alive, but that doesn’t make them good solutions – just good enough solutions. This often leads to very chaotic solutions to situations that seem like emergencies, which in hindsight aren’t.

To take this a bit further, often then chaos is exacerbated by having to now fix the thing that an impulse decision made in perceived danger has mucked up. That fix isn’t well thought out either, as there just simply isn’t time, so that leads to yet another situation that now needs repair. Often when listening to someone with BPD describe the mess they are in, each decision seems understandable in isolation, but often in a series of well meaning but disastrous outcomes, mostly because the person thought things were wrong and needed to be fixed.

Emotion is contagious. It is one of the traits that helped humans survive against stronger predators. When I see something scary, I feel scared and emote that to you. When you see my fear, you are ready for the danger I see but haven’t pointed to. When a person’s emotions are dysregulated, it can prompt those around them to become caught up in the sense of urgency, danger, confusion and chaos. It is important to watch your own feelings and reality check all drivers of strong emotion that you are picking up from the person with BPD, exercising the calm and logic needed to navigate the circumstances. It is important to remember that a person with BPD is not delusional – there is a source to most things being felt and reacted to, however the interpretation is suspect and bares checking.

Social Boundaries

Two out of three people diagnosed with BPD are able to identify with a traumatic past. The vast majority of the traumatic pasts experienced are focused around one or more abusive people. The abusive person may have been accidentally abusive (ignorant of the effect they are having, abusive as a side effect of their own trauma/mental health) or maliciously abusive (people diagnosed with BPD often have a narcissistic person in their lives). The perpetrator of abuse’s reasons for abuse are somewhat irrelevant to the outcome of this section, however it does help when learning how to not be a target to abusive people and how to identify them better in the future. We aren’t going into that here.

The perpetrator of abuse (I’ll just call them the perp) doesn’t want a strong person who will stand up to them, who will call them on their abusiveness, or recognise when the perp is fouling up reality to make their story believable. They need you to be confused, uncertain and vulnerable. As such, these perpetrators will gaslight you, commit moving goal post fallacies, commit emotional and cognitive abuse, trigger strong emotional states and frequently use various charismatic attacks to undermine your sense of reality. This confusion keeps you pliant with their whims.

One out of three people diagnosed with BPD don’t have a significant trauma in their past, thus no single person or series of people who have accidentally or purposefully blurred the social lines of reasonable. In my experience this one in three frequently have stronger rule compliance issues, characterised by a strong sense of completion and confusion when patterns are unfulfilled or people don’t stick to the roles assigned to them to simplify the social equation.

Children are born as tabula rasa – blank slates. They are open to a number of different ways of being human, which allows babies born in various cultures to pick up those cultural norms. If babies couldn’t do this, all humans would either be the same, or chaotically different. A few biological traits underlie this ability to absorb culture, hence why my brother and I are so different – we got different traits from our biology underlying and shaping a similar upbringing.

Text - The Three Unwritten Rules - the three rules are blank.
The unwritten rules of society – it can be very confusing when you are supposed to be following the rules that no one tells you about

As children grow, they first learn the rules of the house they are born into. As they age the child learns the rules of friends places, then rules of school, then rules of bigger schools, then rules of work and so on. Each set of rules is somewhat similar to previous rules, but also significantly different (you can hopefully see here how a perp can mess with this rule acquisition by changing rules arbitrarily – however we are focusing on the lives of people who didn’t have this). A part of growing up is recognising that rules vary from location to location and from group to group. Every time a person is added to a group, the rules subtly shift. Every time a person leaves, the rules subtly shift. We are supposed to automatically pick up that shift and adjust our rule set to manage. People with BPD struggle with this (not the only people to do so).

Signs that this is true for you is that you find one on one easiest. A few people in a group is harder, but ok. Groups of about 6 or more are difficult. You’d rather avoid crowds unless you have a clearly defined role, such as acting, the class clown or the teacher. You can find yourself easily overwhelmed when certain people join the crowd and that overwhelmed takes the form of one of the three following – you shut down, you run away or you become aggressive.

You may recall the bit above about wanting clearly defined roles in a crowd and the bit where you might assign roles to others. These are two tools frequently used to simplify the social calculation – the series of internal processes that we all use to work out what the group is doing, what our part in it is, what we can expect everyone to do, and thus how we stay safe in the group. In BPD this is often defined as the chameleon nature – where the person with BPD will shift their presentation based on how they perceive the group or other person – the-role you take. The flip side is the simplification of other people – the role you assign to them. This is often based on the most dominant personality trait you see in the person. When the person fails to live up to (or down to) the role you have assigned them, it is likely to bewilder you, which can frequently result in panic, anger or disillusionment.

When combined, this feeling of social confusion and danger can someone with BPD to look for clues about social interactions based on the people who are present. Whoever has the strongest personality, or seems the biggest threat, defines the interaction. Their trait defines what the role of the the person with BPD needs to fulfil in order to be safe. If the target person strays too far out of the personality trait, this can leave the person with BPD feeling lost and in danger, which can have strong reactions. The person with BPD can try to guide the target person back to the trait they need them to be, or become angered that the person has failed them, feeling abandoned or betrayed by the person’s failure; frequently redefining the person’s role to an opposite role – Angels become demons as they fall off the impossible pillar they have been awkwardly perched on, or demons become angels when they fail to be bad. Another common pathway for the person with BPD is to lash out in anger – aggression and damage to the environment around them, or self harm and suicide attempts when that aggression is turned inwards.

These traits can also create the look and feel of chaos in the list above.

A quick note about DBT

It is not surprising that the world recognised standard for helping people with BPD is DBT, which mostly focuses on helping people to regulate their emotions, and once a bit more stable, to understand the complexities of social interaction and help create a smoother heuristic (set of malleable rules) for social interaction.

Next time – When something needs to be done about BPD, and what that something can be.

Breaking Bad… Habits – Part 1 – Understanding Your Habit in Four Parts

Humans run on habits. Life is just too complicated to manually do every step of every thing. Instead we learn a habit to take care of that thing, and trigger the habit without thinking. How many of you get to your destination and can’t remember driving there? That was habit taking over. Some of our habits are no longer good, or can be optimised for a better outcome. Yet how do you change a thing that you aren’t aware that you are doing?

Part 1 – Understanding Your Habit in Four Parts

Part 2 – The Five D’s of habit cessation (not yet available)

Part 3 – Replacing habits (not yet available)

We often think of habits as un-thought of actions. Habits can include drug misuse, such as alcohol or meth-amphetamines; or emotional dysregulation such as anxiety leading to running away from social situations.

Understanding the Habit

It is important to understand the habit. We have four components to that:

  • Biochemical – what your brain is doing on a chemical level
  • Cognitive/Emotional – how the habit change how you think, feel and experience the world
  • Social – how the presence or absence of people impact your habit
  • Environment – how the environment you are in impacts your habit


Brain chemistry is complex. When we think certain thoughts, or do certain things, we can affect our own brain chemistry.

Do this exercise – imagine a nice and relaxing place, somewhere that in the past you had an amazingly calming experience. Take some nice and slow breaths and try to feel the sensations of that place, smell the breeze, activate as many senses as you can.

You should now be feeling nice and relaxed.

Do this exercise – imagine a new scene, where that animal or monster you fear is there, or if you have no fear of that, receiving a phone call with bad news about that relative you like. Imagine how that event feels, how helpless you feel and unable to act.

You should now be feeling quite uptight and edgy. Do the first exercise to undo the second.

Through your actions you should have experienced some very interesting feelings. We changed the brain chemistry by imagining two situations. If we added actions to these imaginations, the effect would have been stronger. If we added drugs it may have been stronger still.

We often take actions because of how we are feeling. Either because this feeling requires that action, or because that action stops us from feeling this.

A common aspect of someone whose baseline brain chemistry is messy (up, down and all over the place) is to take a substance that pushes us into a known state of brain chemistry, even if that known state is not very pleasant. It can bring stability. If this is you, I highly recommend you talk to your doctor and get some prescribed medication to help out, and also get a referral to some counselling. You will need a two pronged approach to manage this.

Common neurotransmitter that is an integral part of habits is dopamine. It rewards good outcomes, where good is defined as “I survived”. Unbalanced serotonin (a different neurotransmitter) can cause feelings of anxiety and depression, which can interfere with habit formation. If you feel anxious, or depressed, you don’t want to repeat the thing you just did. If your dopamine reward is less powerful than your serotonin effect, you just don’t want to do the thing. This feels like low motivation, or avoidance because it is too hard.

We can hack the reward centre to improve our habits. Part of this hacking is to balance serotonin and dopamine first if that is a counter to your habit formation (anxiety disorder, depression disorder, mood dysfunction disorders, schizophrenia etc). If you add a thing you safely* enjoy to the task you want to form a habit out of, we associate that good thing with the habit and are more likely to do it.

* safely enjoy – things that don’t have a negative aspect to it. For example, food rewards are great, if you aren’t trying to lose weight or are allergic to that food etc. The safely enjoy is about picking a reward that is good in as many ways as possible, that is now reserved for this habit formation.

Cognitive / Emotional

The cognitive aspect of this is about how we perceive the habit and ourselves. This is looking at our thoughts. For example, I might think that a beer when I get home is my right as a working person, ignoring the literature that points out the harm that is doing to my body and my future. Or I might think that I am a crap person anyway, so there is no point to exercising. The thoughts I have that boost the bad habit need to be faced and corrected, with frequent reminders of the falsehoods attached to those thinking patterns.

There are two forces to every habit. The force that is reinforcing the habit, and the force that is countering the habit. By looking at and examining our thoughts, we want to boost the thoughts that counter the habit we want to change and reinforce the habit we want to replace it with.

The feeling component of this is to examine how the habit makes us feel. I will admit that after I eat ice cream I feel pretty good. What I don’t like is what that ice cream does to my waste line. The obvious part to this is to recognise that icecream is a method I use to increase my “good” feeling.

The more subtle aspects are that I wasn’t feeling good and that is why I ate ice cream, and that ice cream isn’t the only way that I can feel good.

Part 1 – why wasn’t I feeling good? Was it a random fluctuation – which will go if I just wait a bit, was it due to an event – I should look at that event and solve that problem, was it biochemical – do I need to take a medication, etc. Each reason why I was feeling bad and wanted ice cream as my quick fix should be examined and potentially addressed.

Part 2 – what other methods can I use to feel better? Ice Cream is great occasionally, but if it is affecting my waistline, then I need to re-examine the real effectiveness of this. What else can I do that helps me feel better?

Now substitute ice cream for any habit you are doing because it makes you feel differently.


Humans are social animals. We want to fit in. If the people I am with are doing a behavioural pattern, then I am likely to take that behavioural pattern and adopt it into my set of behaviours. A behavioural pattern is a habit.

We can also detest the people we are around and use a behavioural pattern to try to manage that. For example, I would frequently retreat to a dark corner and read to avoid having to socialise with certain family friends. This started to extend to anytime that I was around people I wasn’t immediately comfortable with. This habit affected my social skills, making it harder to manage being around moderate people, whom I should be able to manage. The escape into a book habit was just too easy compared to learn to adapt to moderate people.

The reason to examine the social aspect is that many habits we have are determined by the people we are around or triggered by social situations.


This is somewhat similar to the social above, in that environmental factors can affect us in similar ways to social situations. I can see a group of people and not feel the desire for an alcoholic drink. However if we go to play pool at the pub, I find myself ordering a drink. I know many people who point out that when they drink beer, they smoke a cigarette, even though they quit cigarettes years ago – because the two go hand in hand.

A quick shortcut our brains do is to load habits based on environmental factors. Looking at an evolutionary biology aspect – if we are in a jungle setting, we are looking for predators that are camouflaged in the foliage, and that also drop from above. When we are in a savanna setting, we are looking for only predators on the ground. These different environments promote different habit sets. We have brought this into the modern era. So I can not drink when I am at home, but I find it hard to do so at the pub – because the environment is different.

Quick Tip – Not everyone likes you, and that’s OK.

We often run around trying to make sure that everyone likes us. There is a point to doing some of that, but not as much as many people end up doing.

There are a few concepts that are useful to us here that can lead to this error. Each of these has a good point and when taken out of balance leads to bad habits.

1 – we shouldn’t be mean to people, and if we are, we will lose people who have given up putting up with us. This idea pushes us to want to change to be nicer and more wanted. 

However, when taken too far, we fall prone to people who want to take advantage of us.

To check this, changing yourself a bit to fit in is fine, changing a lot is generally bad.

2 – squeaky wheels get oiled, but all wheels need some maintenance oil. When a friend is upset, we quickly want to find out why and help do something about this. When it is because of something you did, or just a random happenstance, AND when a small to moderate thing you can do can help this, then this is a good thing to do. 

However, abusive people use fake squeaking to get more than their fair share of oil, which means we give far too much attention to trying to save these abusive people as friends, instead of putting our efforts into maintaining good friends.

To check this, remember that friends are supposed to be easy to work with and having your life. If you are spending large amounts of energy into trying to keep someone, that can be an indication that something has gone wrong. It might be worth considering letting them go.

3 – we often grow up in small families and start going to a small primary school. This helps us learn how to adapt to managing with people, because we have no real choice about who we are associating with. Learning how to adapt to people and manage incompatible people is a good skill to have.

However, there is a reasonable likelihood that none of these people are the kind of people that are good for you. There are many kinds of people and you need to find the kind that are kind to you. That may be your family and childhood friends/associates, but it also may not be. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to hold on to people who are bad for us because we had little choice when we were young.

To check this, remember that friends should be low effort to maintain (not zero effort). Look at the people whom you are spending lots of personal energy into maintaining and wonder if you actually like them and if they are actually good for your self esteem… or not. 

Conclusion: Remember, this planet has over 7,500,000,000 people on it. You have a choice. Hang out with and spend energy on the people who do like you, instead of the people who don’t.

Sisyphus spent a great deal of time and energy trying to push that boulder up the hill
[ Friedrich John nach Matthäus Loder Sisyphus ubs G 0825 II ]