Friday, 27 August 2010

Fundamentals of Cognitive Therapy

I know a guy named Art who is a cognitive therapist.  He told me this about the basics of cognitive therapy:

Traditionally the subject of "perpetually or periodically upset emotions with no apparent reason" has been approached in one of three ways:

  1.  behaviourism: Pavlov and his dogs.  You "train" the outer behaviour to be "appropriate" and it supposedly fixes everything.  Problem: only really works on dogs, or people you have nearly 100% control over (in a prison or classroom or doctor's office), and whenever they are off on their own, their behaviour tends to revert back to the original shape.

2.  physiology: a "chemical imbalance."  There are certain chemicals you have too much or too little of.  Problem: no one really knows what "chemical imbalance" really means, you can say it in relation to absolutely anything and act like you know what you're talking about, but it shows no understanding of what causes happy or unhappy chemicals or anything.  Also, theories as to genetics aren't supporting physiological approaches.  Every time you are hungry or thirsty or need to sneeze, there is a "chemical imbalance" that your body then fixes.  What does it mean when you're sad or anxious?  We are chemicals continually adjusting and readjusting.  That's normal.  Impairing or interfering in production of various chemicals is unhealthy, costly and very temporary.  Also doesn't really work well.

3.  psychology: feelings.  Freud.  You are afraid of dogs because when you were five one bit you and your mother didn't do anything about that.  Problem: uncovering reasons of this kind is very hard, does not always fix anything, and isn't always even possible to do in the first place anyway.  You can end up knowing you'll never know why you feel a certain way, and getting upset about that.  You can end up knowing why you feel a certain way, not being able to fix it, and getting dejected about that.

The central problem with each approach is that it ignores the other two, also.

Newish theories involve adding a fourth component (thoughts/beliefs/cognition) to the mix and insisting upon drawing a relationship between all four, seeing them as working off each other.

So, you think you will fall off a balcony when you won't, but you feel really scared anyway, you produce ridiculous amounts of adrenaline and you step back.  Or, you believe a snake is dangerous, so you scream and run away, your body produces adrenaline and tears, and you feel scared.

All of these appear to happen at pretty much the same time, and it isn't clear that any one factor is somehow causing all the other reactions.  In fact, there is a cyclical, "orbiting and feeding off each other" thing that's happening.  None of these operates without affecting the others and being affected by them.  When emotional duress happens, I observed, it is like feedback on a guitar. Or a satellite orbiting and planet and eventually crashing into it, or spinning off from it if it can escape the gravitational pull.

It is clear that one's expectations/thoughts/beliefs can be very irrational, and it isn't their job to be irrational.  A healthy correlation between reality and expectations would appear to be in order.
Cognitive therapy draws a formula for stress (emotional duress of any kind) that looks like this:

stress = expectations (to the power of judgment) - reality

so, when reality doesn't match expectations, your feelings respond uncomfortably.  When your expectations are put on steroids by judgments, this increases that effect exponentially.

Signs of judgment-based thinking are over-use of words like should, right/wrong, must/ought and so on.  Also, a refusal to change any beliefs, no matter what reality does.
He went on to say that, when dealing with people and pets and so on, we try to understand behaviour and when we can't, we judge.  Judgment, Art says, is an admission that one can't understand and relate to someone or something that happened.

"Why are religious groups better at judging than understanding, when understanding is both better and kind of their job?"  Art and I mused.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


I don't know if I know what I'm talking about here, but free of charge, I offer the little I've learned in life about what some call depression.  I could be wrong, but I thought "better to speak out of turn than not have spoken at all," which is something I'm in little danger of doing.   Ever.

Moods/Phases/things that people call "depression": It's all cyclical.  That means when you're trapped in it, orbiting helplessly, exactly the right kind of random thing (person, change, thought, sight or the like) can really break the cycle for a time.  It really can reverse for the moment the direction you're moving in, can "snap you out" of it.  This is why it's so irritating when people try and fail (or suggest lame ways for you to do) to snap you out of it.  You can snap out of it, of course, eventually.  It takes that last bit of energy, the one that it feels like you don't have, to even try it, usually.  Hope takes a lot of energy to have and see, but a tiny bit of it does a lot and with none of it, nothing happens at all.  That's why it's essential.  John Bunyan wrote puritanically in Pilgrim's Progress of depression.  He made it a swamp, a "slough of despond."  Once you walked, unaware, into it, you were stuck in there (hopefully not in the dark) , and it took some major flailing (and a correct direction) to get out again. 

You need a direction, of course, even if for just standing up and walking across the room.  Noncommital dilly-dallying is a daily death, or so concludes John Cusack in High Fidelity, and his character Rob in the book of the same name.  We have too many options and choose to not choose, usually.  We wrestle enough with the daily "sinner/saint" choice, and each of those comes with way too many choices too.

You sure can get pretty disgusted with absolutely everyone and everything around you, and have really good reason to, but no real gratification is ever going to come from doing that.  The better you are at seeing the folly of others, the easier it is to get hooked on being in that sneering place.  There's no shortage of folly around, after all.  Fish in a barrel, really.  Hard to be proud of knowing better.

This hope-sucking cycle soon becomes about increasingly shutting yourself off from external stimuli and thoughts.  You want everyone and everything and their expectations and demands to just go away.  Usually it's about trying to make things soothing, predictable and familiar for yourself so you won't have to think and feel the stuff.  Obviously, you need good stuff, stuff that often isn't any of that (soothing, predictable etc.)  Hard to arrange, especially in the part of the world where we live, where it's pretty safe, but consistently depressing.  It's the price we pay for not having an inundation of horrors.

It's a retreat of a kind in which the retreating itself builds on itself, gaining inertia, and makes you feel and actually be less (rather than more) safe.  Erich Fromm defined sanity as one's ability to maintain healthy connections with what's going on around one.  That's only one definition, but I like it.

For me it's always like every little bad memory, every little traumatic thing that I haven't dealt with has been following me around waiting to nibble on me, and, without my really quite feeling it, my sense of self, my energy, my confidence, my forward momentum has been nibbled almost totally away until there is barely enough left to not just slide further into it.  Then it's a direction I'm moving in.  It's a pit I've dug that I'm lost in the bottom of.  It's weighing 5000 lbs.  It's falling endlessly with no bottom in sight.  It's exploding in slow motion all day, waiting for it to rip you entirely apart.  It's being all dead inside.  It's being walking wounded.

For sure, "dealing with stuff" is vital.  You really have to do that.  But, depression will happen anyway, if that's your thing.  My theory is that being sensitive (aware) usually comes as a package with your being sensitive (frail) too.  The words "blissfully" and "unaware" are paired up so often with good reason.  

You can't deal sensitivity/depression away, of course.  If you don't deal with stuff, it is worse, and if you deal with stuff, it isn't as bad, but it still happens and there's always stuff.  You don't have to psychic to see an alarming number of things about anyone you actually look at.  Everyone can do it.  Most important things about most people are really frikkin' obvious and can't be hidden for long.  Most don't care/bother.  Many have lives of their own to lead.  Most pretend that when people look at them, no one can see the "real them."  Most pretend this because it means they can walk around pretending to "have it together" all the time.

It's hard to just be yourself.  Especially when there are other people there.  Equally hard to get what you want.  Hard for some people not to be invisible, kind and nice and polite to everyone all the time as a reflex when sometimes you really need stuff yourself and to BE yourself.   Hard for others not to always be the dissenter, the nonparticipant, the nay-sayer, the one who opts out and hates on everything.  Sometimes the same person is sometimes one, and sometimes the other of those two extremes.  Hard to look after yourself when you're not liking yourself (and maybe anything at all or anyone else) much.  Start by looking after yourself like you were your own kid (feeding yourself and so on) and never be ruder about yourself in your head than you'd be about a stranger to their face.  That's a pretty good standard to start with.

Taking in new good thoughts from various sources is vital.  It gets harder and harder to find good sources of good new thoughts you haven't already heard, though, the more thoughts you take in and the longer you live.  However, letting all your own stuff out (we all have stuff) is really, really vital.  You need regular emotional energy enemas, and not experiences that numb you or the like, to make you content with shit, but rather cathartic, orgiastic stuff, moments you can lose yourself in entirely and get a much-needed rest from yourself.  Things that pull energy out of you.  Energy that you didn't know was in there short-circuiting.  It takes ridiculous amounts of emotional energy to keep your emotional energy (anxiety, despair, anger etc.) in the way so many of us always seem to do.  You feel like you have *no* emotional energy, because your huge resources of energy are all turned in on themselves, fruitlessly working at containing themselves, and essentially short-circuiting themselves.

That's really pretty much all I know about stress/anxiety/depression that can be tossed off in a hasty, off-the-cuff, blog entry.  Tossing the plate of spaghetti at the wall and hoping some strands stick, so someone can get some use out of some of it.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Taking Another Run At Bitterness

My song "Bitterness" has always been a bit of a thing.  To begin with, it was "The Blade of Bitterness," and it, like many of my older songs, was preachier then than it is now.  It was about something I have since grown tired of people "warning" me about.  You see, in Christian circles, if you show dissatisfaction of any kind, someone is just bound to tell you to watch out for, or do something about your obvious tendency to be bitter.  The bible speaks of a root of bitterness which, springing up, will "trouble" you.  So the word is bible-charged when firing it off at the ground-down, disenchanted, disenfranchised folk who are most vulnerable to it.  Also, if you have any "scars" from the past, someone is likely to tell you you "need healing" for those.  Thing is, as I've said, scars are made of healing, are evidence it has finished happening.
  Still, I wrote this song, heavy-handedly using the image of someone paranoid holding a sharp piece of metal to protect himself, but as it has no handle, he only ends up cutting himself.  Somehow, the song also became about walking around feeling wounded, about feeling like you're bleeding from numerous wounds you can't quite find somehow, including out your eyes, from what you're looking at each day.
  So I wrote the song, happy to have learned an A minor chord and to pair it with E minor, the other minor chord I'd learned.  "What an ominous sound!" I thought.  It also drew a bit from my pretend "bullfight music" that I liked imitating now and then.  In the studio, when it came time to do it, Chris the Engineer hooked me up with someone else he was recording, someone named Chris Lochner, a guy who loved showy acoustic guitar stuff, including flamenco-kinda stuff.  Perfect, Chris the Engineer and I thought.
  Howard the Producer was extremely helpful.  He said his friend Gloria (of Vinyl Delorean) would be delighted to drum for me, that his co-worker Andy would play bass, that he himself would play keyboard, and that he'd get his other buddy in to play electric guitar, once Chris was done playing the acoustic.  "Wait," I asked,  "Am I going to play anything?"  "It's ok.  You just sing," said Howard, fairly condescendingly, I thought.  "Are we really going to put electric guitar on it?" I asked Howard.  "Of course," he said.
  Chris Lochner came in and effortlessly did a bang-up job playing the showy acoustic guitar for me.  Andy Who Worked At The Music Store did a very professional, politely disinterested job of bass parts on three songs for me.  Gloria was nice and played a nice little drum part.  Of course I had to pay each of these guys.  Howard's buddy  didn't show up to play the electric at all, and after making some excuses, neither did Howard.  Because he was supposed to be "producing," by which he meant "organizing and running things and getting people in," this worried me.  Chris the Engineer convinced me that I could just do it myself.  "Need Howard? You REALLY don't need Howard!" was his argument.  "You can do it yourself.  The stuff you're doing on your four-track shows you know as much as half the guys getting paid to record shitty bands in this town.  Do it yourself."  So I did.  But, I ran out of money, lost my job, the recording studio went out of business, and Chris moved away in fairly short order.  I was tempted to be a bit bitter about all that.
  Years later, when I'd switched from four-track to computer, and paid to get those old instrument parts for my studio work put into my computer (they'd sat in my closet on dusty ADAT tapes that I couldn't play, for about five years), I could start adding my own bits.  I did an electric guitar part.  I did trumpets.  I got my sister to do some vocal stuff.  It was all sounding OK, but a bit off.
   I got my brother-in-law to play some additional electric, just to include him and spice up the song with someone else's electric ideas.  In one of my hard drive swaps, I lost his stuff entirely.
  The chorus wasn't quite right, so I got Bill to sing it.  He wasn't happy with what he'd done.  I was kinda happy, but other people didn't think it was quite right.  And the song still sounded a bit off.
  After letting the song sit for a long while, I had a crack at it last year.  I changed the words of the verses and re-sang them. I borrowed a huge conga drum and some little chimes from the music room at school, and put parts of them down, inspired by Santana's Abraxis album.  I asked another teacher, my buddy Jay, to sing the chorus and play some electric on it.  He did that, and I liked his "younger guy's ideas" electric, but his chorus wasn't quite right still.  
  Then this summer I went into the music room abandoned by the recently retired music teacher and played an organ part, recording it as MIDI, and then telling Pro Tools I'd played a Hammond B3 organ through a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet.  I felt pleasantly like the Phantom of the Opera.  I was tempted to put my organ part through my rotating Leslie, but the fake version of one was clean and sounded good, so I lazily left it.  I also gave up on other people singing my chorus and just used my own voice, but EQed it to sound like a cheap radio, and put a...chorus effect on my voice during the choruses.  This made a bit of variety, I thought.  The song wasn't bad, and I posted it on here.  It was a bit off, though.  For one thing, the electric guitars were drowning out everything, but weren't sounding "loud" enough no matter how much I turned them up.  That's a problem.
  What I did today, was try to remix it.  Watching a bunch of instructional episodes from Alan Parson (engineer on Dark Side of the Moon and Abbey Road)'s website about recording, I was emboldened to check out the EQing of the guitars and bass and kick drum (and vocals), with a frequency response chart and a theory that I could reduce how much those parts "stepped on each other," and instead have each be assigned a frequency range that suited their sound, and turn down the response at the frequencies they didn't need, but which the others did, while turning up their response on the key frequencies they used to sound like themselves, very pissed off.  I'd attempted that before, but not systematically and successfully.  This time it was like magic.
  It was working gangbusters, but the song was still "off."  The parts weren't glued together.  They were jumbled.  The skeleton at the middle (the rhythm section) wasn't holding the song up.  The more I played and played, the more I realized that the drums (recorded before any electric guitar was added to give a hint that this song could get quite aggressive) were weak and tappy instead of big and smacky.  There was a lot of "tap tappy" going on and no "SWOOOMP!" to turn up.  I played and played with turning things up and down, and EQing, but to no avail.  The drums were vital and they were all tap tappy.  Nothing to be done.  So, I took the kick drum track from Gloria's recording and got it sounding big and turned it right up, melding it with the bass guitar.  I was still missing a snare drum sound that I could respect, though, and it was audibly missing.  The other drum mics were all tappy, and sounded funny if turned right off, so I eventually hauled my snare drum and stand out of the closet, set it up and played a new snare part for the song.  The cat was very alarmed.  I whacked away, secure in the knowledge that Amanda, the cute blonde girl who until recently lived across the hall from me and whom I almost completely succeeded in not talking to or being known by at all, had recently moved two buildings down and would not be deafened by my ridonkulous mid-day drum smackage.  Once recorded, it was rather possible to kind of pretend that the suddenly aggressive snare drum had been played in the beginning with the rest of the drum kit.  It wasn't 100% convincing, so I "went" with that.
  I took the loud snare drum part and did something I've always wanted to try.  Phil Collins popularized this in the 80s, but I didn't want to sound like him:  You take a drum hit, like my loud snare drum.  You put a really giant "Anvil of the Gods" reverb (echo) on it, too big actually, but then you put on a noise gate on that.  The noise gate will give complete silence unless it hears a big drum hit.  It will then "open" and let the drum hit through, and let a bunch of your giant echo mix in briefly into your sound, but then slam shut almost immediately, giving pure silence until another big hit comes through, letting some of that echo in each time like flies into the house when the kids run in and out. This means you have a snare that has all the fullness and WHAM! of a massive drum hit that would cause such a big echo, but now the actually sustaining, annoying, "that guy needs to turn his echo way down" echo has been chopped short.  
  I messed around and messed around, and no doubt things could still be clearer, but as of now, the newly aggressive, whacky snare drum version with the guitars sounding aggressive without completely drowning out the Spanish shakers, conga, chimes, flamenco acoustic and so on, sounds like this