Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 6—The Problem-Solving Organ

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

The righteous have many problems,
    but the Lord delivers them from every one.

Psalm 34:19

One of the most frequent pastoral questions I get is, “Why can’t I get over this?” “This” can be just about anything: a worry about the future, a spouse’s infidelity, a deep regret about the past, a remembered trauma, guilt over not feeling forgiveness. We are often taught by our religious tradition to “let go and let God,” but we can’t seem to figure out how to let something go. What muscle do you flex or relax? What would it actually feel like? What if I really, really want to let go of something, but my brain just won’t seem to release it?

People of faith sometimes turn to supernatural explanations. “Satan keeps reminding me” is one way I’ve heard it phrased. While I may disagree with the theology of this claim, I have to acknowledge it can be a helpful way to frame things. If I’m having intrusive thoughts that I find disturbing, it may give me some relief to attribute those to the devil. “You’re don’t deserve love,” for example, is something I can clearly label as a lie. If blaming the devil helps me cope by pushing those thoughts aside and focusing on other things, it’s not a bad strategy.

I’m not hip on this strategy, though, because often it leads to people getting more caught up in imaginary battles with demonic forces. Mental health problems can certainly feel like struggles with demonic forces, and people do go through their own personal hells—but I prefer a more practical, humanizing approach.

Your brain is a problem-solving organ. Its primary role is to keep you alive. Sometimes it stimulates you to act with fear, anger, stress, or love. But here’s where it excels: even if there is no current threat on the horizon, even if things are going pretty well for you, it’s always solving problems. It is playing out “what if” scenarios in your imagination. It is dredging up memories and puzzling over them to see what insights it can glean. It is practicing for the next time you encounter a problem.

So when a bear isn’t chasing you, or you don’t have a looming work or school deadline, and you are sitting in relative peace drinking tea, your brain, sensing that you are enjoying a moment of quiet, decides, “Aha! Now we have some time to look through our memories and learn lessons from the past.” So a particularly painful or embarrassing moment pops into your mind. You remember how a loved one hurt you, or how you made a fool of yourself, or a frightening moment.

If it can’t find something suitable from the past to examine, it may create a hypothetical situation in the future. It will introduce worry and dread. How will you afford your kids’ college? What happens when the climate changes? What happens if the wrong person gets elected? What if you can’t register for the prerequisite class you need?

You may wince at the memory or sigh at the worry, but this is your brain’s way of trying to keep you alive. It’s trying to learn lessons and avoid pain in the future. Now, it may be that there is nothing to be learned from the memory or the worry. It may be that what hurt you in the past or threatens you in the future is either not so bad or unavoidable. But that’s not going to stop your problem-solving brain from doing its best!

This is also why negative events and negative emotions generally get preferred treatment by our brains. We are wired to learn to avoid threats to our security, so we tend to key in to negativity and danger. There is certainly a lot of negativity and danger in the world right now, so it means a lot of us are in a constant state of low-level stress.

If you are a believer, it may help to remember God gave you this wonderful brain. And instead of berating yourself for failing to forgive, or for worrying and not having enough faith, or wondering why you can’t let something go, or for not feeling that “peace that passes understanding,” regard your own brain with compassion. It is trying to keep you alive. Its primary goal is not equanimity: it is survival.

“Silly old brain,” you can say, petting it gently. “Thank you for trying to solve these problems, but your problem-solving services are not required at this time. There is nothing to be learned from ruminating on the past or dreading the future. Let’s just be in this moment.”

This is how we learn to let go. Not by trying to figure out how to let something go, but by letting go of letting go, by recognizing that our failure to forgive, or our fear, or our regret is simply a human response to a messed-up world. It is not wrong to be angry, or afraid, or restless, or sad. It just is. Your brain is going to continue to do what it does best, which is to solve problems. Trying to put it on a leash will be counterproductive. Let it play, like a child with a new toy. Eventually it will get bored and move on to something else.

What you can do is accelerate the process. When you want to get an annoying toy away from a child, the best thing you can do is start playing with another toy. Usually they will notice you, put down the noise-making battery-powered truck, and join you in playing with Legos. At that point, you can quietly take the offending toy away and place it on the shelf.

See, you aren’t battling Satan. You are dealing with a lovable toddler who has an annoying toy. And the best way to refocus your child-like problem-solving brain is to entice it to some better problem to solve.

God, you are both the question and the answer, the problem and the solution. Draw me into your creative world.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.