Defeating the dream of mental disease

‘When therapists buy into a patient's negative thoughts they validate them and eliminate any chance of successful therapy.’ Photo: ©

LOS ALTOS, Ca, November 4, 2013 – For renowned Stanford psychiatrist David Burns, the process of lifting a patient’s thought above the fog of mental disease does not start with the patient but with the doctor himself.

In his profile of Burns published in a recent issue of Stanford’s alumni magazine, journalist Robert Strauss shares this anecdote to explain why:

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“The patient looks around frantically. She is sobbing, panicking, overwhelmed by anxiety,” the story begins. “She says she can’t breathe; her lungs are about to collapse; her heart is about to stop. She feels like she is going to die.”

“Listening to this…. Burns calmly asks, ‘Do you think you could exercise strenuously right now?’ [The woman] doesn’t know; she just feels so bad. ‘Why don’t we find out?’ Burns suggests. ‘What’s the most strenuous exercise you could do? Jumping jacks? Running in place?’”

The woman tries running in place, then a few jumping jacks.

“’Could you do this if you were dying?’ he asks [the woman]. ‘Can you see yourself in an emergency room doing jumping jacks?’ Hesitantly, she begins to laugh. Soon she’s belly laughing. [Prior to this, the woman] had been experiencing five paralyzing panic attacks a week. She’s had only one since [her visit with Burns] – and that was 20 years ago.”

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Even though psychiatrists generally agree that the best way to handle these kinds of situations is by getting the patient to face their fears – although perhaps not in such an unorthodox manner – as a teacher Burns finds that too often too many of them fail to stick to their guns. The result, as Strauss describes it, is that “week in, week out, many are failing to help their patients in a profound and lasting way.”

“They let patients hypnotize them into believing that their depression is unique, that they are the complete failures they believe themselves to be, or that their anxiety will kill them,” he says in referring to Burns’ work. “When therapists buy into a patient’s negative thoughts they validate them, Burns says, and eliminate any chance of successful therapy.”

So what does the good doctor recommend to his students? In short, don’t let yourself get sucked into the dream, regardless of the apparent consequences. In this way you’re better equipped to keep your patient out of the dream as well.

Except in certain cases involving conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disease and severe depression, Burns’ is a mostly non drug-based approach, explained in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. His premise is that depression, for instance, has little if anything to do with a chemical imbalance in the brain, as many assume, and a lot more with confronting self-defeating thoughts and beliefs.

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This is not a new idea. As Strauss points out in his article, the philosophical underpinnings of this approach, based largely on the work of psychiatrist Aaron Beck, “can be traced back to the Buddha or to Epictetus.” From the patient’s perspective, however, one of the most well-known champions of facing your fears was a young shepherd named David living in the Middle East some 3000 years ago. Even those who have never read his account in the Bible probably know David was the one who defeated the mighty Goliath and eventually became King of Israel.

Beyond the obvious encouragement this story affords those who may be faced with an equally daunting mental opponent – an equally intimidating dream – there is a lesson to be learned in how David prepared himself for battle.

Usually the story picks up around the time he enters combat with nothing more than a sling and a few rocks for his defense. What some may not realize, however, is that prior to this David had been offered – and refused – a much more robust set of weaponry. “I cannot go with these,” he said, “for I have not proved them.” What David had proven was that no matter how large or how frightening the foe, he could depend on the Divine to keep him safe.

Even if the story is little more than legend, modern-day science confirms the underlying message that our beliefs about God factor in to our ability to keep our mental ship on an even keel and ensure victory over whatever Goliaths we may be facing.

In one study published earlier this year in the Journal of Religion and Health, researchers found a correlation between an individual’s beliefs about God and the development of certain psychiatric symptoms. Basically the more you see God as punitive, the more likely you are to suffer from these symptoms. Belief in a benevolent God has the reverse effect.

Although psychiatrists may be more inclined to ask a patient to do jumping jacks than to rethink their view of the Divine, there’s no reason the conversation should be off-limits. Considering that more than nine in 10 Americans believe in God, it would make sense instead, at least from a statistical standpoint, to keep the subject on the table.

Perhaps then the dream won’t seem quite so real and recovery quite so elusive.

Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.


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Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson has been published and featured in numerous newspapers, online publications, and radio talk programs. He speaks from years of experience in the mind-body field, especially as it relates to health. In addition, he is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California and is a self-employed Christian Science practitioner. He’s also a huge baseball fan and loves riding his bike in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. You can find him at

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