Mind Your Head

Seventeen years ago when I began working for my employer, I provided analytic support for disease education program development. Migraine was my first assignment. I didn’t know a lot about migraine so I did what I always do, I read everything about it I could get my hands. I learned about auras, visual or sensory disturbances that can sometimes precede an attack. Like most people, I get the occasional headache but these were never severe or debilitating pain which is what I had always associated with migraine. But as I read, I began thinking that maybe the fuzzy vision I get sometimes before a headache was actually aura. Come to think of it, weren’t most of my headaches one sided, throbbing pain? I became convinced I had migraines.

Then I was reassigned to the asthma team. Again, I didn’t know much about asthma so I googled and read everything I could find. I began to wonder if I didn’t have asthma. Afterall, there was that nagging dry cough that I could never seem to get rid of, often the primary symptom for adults diagnosed with asthma. And certain times of the year, I did feel like it was hard to breath. And then running from one end of the Dallas airport to the other when the plane train was out of service, I experienced what I can only describe as a full-blown asthma attack. I was coughing and couldn’t stop, couldn’t catch my breath, tears running down my face, strangers asking me if I was okay. Somehow, at forty-something, I was certain I had managed to develop asthma.

So when my employer wanted to reassign me to the oncology team, I politely declined. Momma may have raised a whacked out hypochondriac but she didn’t raise no fool.

I’m not the only one who is highly susceptible to the power of suggestion. We can actually prime our minds to respond in certain ways. There’s an excellent illustration of this in a CrossPointe podcast I listened to recently. In it, Steve shares a psychosocial study conducted at MIT where college students were randomly divided into three groups and asked to unscramble words in a given amount of time. They thought they were being tested on their ability to do word puzzles. Not the case. What they didn’t know is the words they were asked to unscramble had a theme to them. The words in Group 1’s puzzles were things like patient, polite and careful. The words in Group 2’s puzzle were things like impatient, rude, intrusive and interrupt. Group 3 was the control group and they were given random words to unscramble. After completing the puzzles, the students were told to turn them in to a professor. But when they got to his desk, a faux student was already there asking a bunch of questions about the exercise and acting like he didn’t understand. Students from the control group waited about 7 or 8 minutes before interrupting and saying, “Hey, just want to turn in my paper.” Students from the “patient” group waited 10-11 minutes before interrupting. Students from the “inpatient” group interrupted at only 4 minutes. Hmmmm. Interesting.

I thought of this when in a recent conversation, Jerri said, “The reason I always give you my money when I get my check is because I’ve always thought I can’t be trusted not to blow it. But I’m not so sure that’s the case. I mean I hear a voice in my head that tells me that and now I’m starting to think that its Mom’s voice and I don’t have to believe it.”

Suffice it to say, Jerri is thinking more clearly these days than she has in the past several years. I think she’s right. Mom has said a lot of negative and destructive things to Jerri for decades. In regard to money, I’ve heard her tell Jerri she’ll just blow anything she gets. I can’t stress enough how important it is NOT to embrace everything people say to you about you. Or even all the things you say about you to yourself. We all live out what we believe about ourselves. So choose very carefully what you believe. And give yourself a lot of grace. Because life is hard and we all mess up. That doesn’t mean we ARE messed up.

BTW, the conversation with Jerri also led to a discussion about what it means to “hear” voices and whether schizophrenics actually audibly hear voices or like the rest of us, the voices are just the random thoughts that pop in our head. So I, uh, read up on it and, this is interesting, when schizophrenics hear voices, the part of the brain that lights up in a scan is the center that processes external sounds. So to them, it is an actual audible voice. Also at NPR.org, I found this fascinating albeit entirely creepy simulation of what a schizophrenic experiences that was developed by Janssen Pharmaceutica. After watching, I wanted to hug the man talking to himself on the park bench in DC who I passed on my way to dinner. How completely horrific to be endlessly bombarded with destructive voices. Warning: this video is not for the faint-hearted.

So this is just a reminder to be careful what you invite into your brain. Our minds are more absorbent than the leading brand.


One Comment on “Mind Your Head”

  1. Terri, I am so pleased to hear that Jerri is making strides in her efforts to recover and regain her life. I know that your love and support plays no small part in her improvement – and the hearing of positive voices in her head.

    It’s funny what we’ve been conditioned to think, perhaps wrongly, or how susceptible we can be, especially to negative thoughts. It does feel good to acknowledge that yes, we’ve all messed up, and probably will mess up again. What’s important is that we acknowledge it, learn from it, and try really hard not to mess up, at least in the same way, again. I think we think we’ll reach an age where we are just wiser and all-knowing, but I’m beginning to believe that’s not quite the case. At any age, we still have so much to learn about ourselves and others.

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