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Depression and High Anxiety Are Context Blind

Seeing the bigger picture is key to recovery.

Key points

  • Context has a bearing on all life circumstances.
  • The high emotional arousal that characterises much psychological ill-health can wipe out our sense of context.
  • Good therapy involves helping clients broaden their perspectives, so that they can see their true circumstances and how to change them.
Marek / Pexels
Source: Marek / Pexels

Which end of a knitting needle could do you some nasty damage? One would assume the business end, of course – not exactly a sharp point but sharp enough, should you get stabbed with it. However, when I was injured by one, I ended up with a wound in my thigh which clearly bore the shape of the thick flat disc that sits at the other end.

I was about seven years old. My dad was decorating the bedroom that my sister and I shared, so our beds had temporarily been pushed into a corner of the living room, where there was just enough space between wall and bed for me to inch through to the books that were serving as a bedside table. I was running to get a book, while holding a needle with a row of knitting on it at my side. The sharp end of the needle embedded itself in the wall, forcing the other end to penetrate through my trousers into my thigh. The wound was impressive.

So the answer to the earlier question is: It always depends on the context. With context a determining factor in many life situations, it is telling that much emotional and mental ill health involves context blindness, largely because emotional arousal swamps our ability to see perspective.

The term context blindness is usually used in connection with autism, with which there can be a tendency to focus on detail rather than the whole picture. However, states of mind can make people context-blind, too. This is the case, say, when a highly anxious employee is ignored by her boss as they pass in the busy office corridor and she immediately thinks that she has done something dreadful and is going to get the sack. She gives no thought to the possibility that her boss might have been preoccupied with her own concerns, was looking at her phone, didn’t notice her, or hadn’t been to see an optician for a while.

Depression is fiercely context-blind. Often clients complain of feeling depressed without giving a thought to why. Someone may view it as an illness — a grievous state of mind which has occurred out of the blue — and it is only when asked what has been happening in their life that they recognise that their misery may have something to do with their last relationship imploding and having had two no-show dates since.

Intriguingly, even those researching depression can be context blind, when they carefully select for drug or therapy trials participants who have ‘only’ depression and not accompanying problems with alcohol, extreme anxiety, chronic physical ailments, or an additional psychiatric diagnosis, thus limiting the usefulness in the real world of any resultant treatment.

Depression is a trance state, and trance is always context blind. We are in a trance when we are totally absorbed in something, whether that is focusing a camera lens for the perfect shot, taking a golf swing, plotting the best chess move – or drowning in misery. It is positive in the former cases, as it stops us from being distracted, but it is always negative in the latter because, in depression, we need perspective.

So human givens practitioners are always alert to the impact of context blindness, including the type that can be caused by trauma. I was consulted recently by Ruth, 65, who was paralysed with terror at the prospect of giving lectures to the public, which a promotion in her work required. Oddly, she had had no shaming experience, at school or since, of performing publicly and being humiliated. Nor did she have any no concern about what her audience would think of her, as she knew her subject, botany, inside out.

What she feared was not being free to leave. (She also avoided flying.) On probing, it emerged that, at age eight, in a needlework class, she had got a ball of wool irretrievably in a tangle and the humourless, stony-faced gorgon of a teacher had made her spend every lunch break (after eating) in the classroom, untangling the wool under their steely eye. Ruth spent a week at this hopeless task until she dared tell her mother and was thereafter released (but, as this was in the early 1960s, without consequences for the teacher). Just thinking about the incident made Ruth’s throat close and her chest tighten.

It is interesting that she took up a career in horticulture, where she could be outdoors. But the promotion required her to be stuck in a room at times, with all eyes on her. I carried out the powerful detraumatisation technique which all human givens practitioners are taught, and her fear vanished. She had been totally blind to its true cause.

Circumstances alter cases, as we like to say.

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