Surface-Level Thinking

Can our tendency toward surface-level thinking be hindering our mental illness recovery? Perhaps we need to dig deeper?

We humans are many things: kind, generous, hardworking. In the same vein, we are flawed, prone to illness (both mentally and physically) and our thoughts and memories dominate our lives. Heck, even the concrete way we view the world can be disastrous.

That’s why, in some sense, we can be led astray. And while there is nothing wrong with belief, similarly, the way we live our lives, so long as it isn’t harming anyone, is okay too.

But what if the way we are living our lives is indeed harmful? Not only to others, but to ourselves? Hey, let’s be honest – it does happen. While we are just trying to live based on the interpretation of our teachings and worldly experience, sometimes surface-level thinking can harm us (although this isn’t always the case).

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So then, what exactly do I mean by surface-level thinking? Well, when I use this phrase, I am referring to taking things at face value and building an opinion or belief around it. Anxiety, for example, is a factor designed to inject surface-level thinking into the fear response – conjuring up suggestions of “fear-based reason,” something that should be feared and thus avoided. Perhaps this is why we see so much division in our world and in particular, social media.

Anxiety is our fear-based response to danger, an ancient mechanism that helped us run or fight for survival. An asset when trying to survive a pre-modern society. I mean, no one wants to be someone’s lunch, right?

However, there is a problem with this “mechanism,” especially in the modern world. It shuts down the reasoning centre of the brain, or at least, severely dulls it down. Hence, the term, surface level-thinking. In times when one is running for their life, there is little need to figure out how you got into the sights of a lion, for example, and you don’t need to figure out how to avoid it in future. Mainly, you just need to get the heck out of there.

Robert Sapolsky – Neuroscientist, digs deep to explain human behaviour.

Surface level thinking.

Books by Robert Sapolsky

Professor Sapolsky is talking about a lot of interesting things that make us human in this Ted talk. And… it’s an example of thinking beyond what “you think” is going on. Science is great because it starts with questions, hypotheses and attempts to dig beyond the surface to find answers.

It is my contention that we, as non-neuroscientists, need to take a similar approach to our everyday lives. We all have questions, yet many of us aren’t as inclined to seek the detailed answers to them. What’s more, and where things get a bit heated, is that we, despite our capacity to dig deeper, don’t. Instead, we read a headline and draw conclusions based on the headline…. a dangerous approach to building a belief around.

More dangerous still, is our insistence on flooding the internet with our loosely-constructed, “fact-based” theories. We often seek out information that confirms our way of surface-level thinking, rarely asking “Is what I believe actually true?”

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Furthermore, challenging one’s bias is very difficult. Nonetheless, it’s worth de challenging yourself to dig deep and look at every possible angle. Otherwise, if mentally ill, how will you heal? If you only let depression speak, you will stall your progress. Learn that there are things you can do to help yourself, rather than resigning yourself to the “I can’t do it, I’m depressed” belief.

Now, I have major depression and sometimes it drives the bus – however, because I have looked beyond surface-level thought (depression speaks) I know that some exercise will help. Thus, I go for a walk and lo and behold, I see improvements. I may be depressed, but I have things that help.

Front and back cover of the road to mental wellness - 8 sings your relationship is hurting your mental health.
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Need an example?

So, If I were to ask you “What makes your car go?” what would your answer be? If you know little about how cars get you around – a scary proposition in my view – then maybe you would respond with “Gas makes the car go.” Maybe even say “the tires.” Both answers are, of course, correct… However, it’s equally correct, that they are only part-truths.

In other words, if we learn about all the factors that make a car go (beyond surface-level thinking) we learn that: fuel is delivered to the combustion engine, a sealed block with cylinders that push the fuel against the spark plugs. This, combined with the right amount of air coming into the combustion chamber, causes an explosion. It is this right mixture of fuel, air and spark that propel you down the road. But…. wait, it’s more than that.

The engine provides power to the wheels. The wheels have their own detailed setup that allows the tires to turn. Of course, this doesn’t explain the entire process. It does, however, provide us with an illustration of how a singular thought can technically be correct, while at the same time, be far from the whole truth…

In short, don’t let the thoughts that drive your mental illness be the reason you can’t get better. There is much more to your road to mental wellness, than what your illness would have you believe. Dig deep, and you will find your answers.

Jonathan Arenburg

Jonathan Reginald-Nixon Arenburg (Born January 14, 1976) is a Canadian mental health blogger, speaker, and published author. Retired from the fire service and long-term care fields, he has written and self-published an autobiographical account of his life-long battle with anxiety, depression and more recently, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Titled, The Road To Mental Wellness, he wrote it for what he calls “therapeutic release.” He published it in hopes it would help others going through similar mental health conditions. The sales of The Road To Mental Wellness have been steady selling over 300 copies since its release on October 10, 2021(World Mental Health Day). Arenburg has also been involved in a collaborative publication Called Lemonade Stand Volume III, a book featuring 20 authors who bravely tell their stories of PTSD. All authors where from the military and or emergency services. Published by Joshua Rivedal and Kathleen Myers for the i’Mpossible project, a mental health advocacy organization. Jonathan has also appeared on several mental health podcasts including The Depression Files, A New Dawn, and The Above Ground Podcast Arenburg has also consulted with the Government of Nova Scotia and the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, the Honorable Brian Comer and Candidates for the New Democratic Party of Canada, on improving the mental health care system in Canada. Additionally, Jonathan was recognized in The Nova Scotia Legislature by the Honorable, Chris Palmer, Kings-North MLA, for his Book, The Road To Mental Wellness, his fight to make the mental health care system better. In addition, Chis acknowledged the support he gives to others.

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