Be Mindful That Nothing In The Mind Is Real. Everything — including Perception — in The Mind Is Representational. Our senses induce us to formulate and approximation of what is around us. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that what is in the mind, being representational, may or may not be accurate. We maximize the accuracy of what is in the mind by examining it. Reflective Function allows us to critique what is in the mind and distinguish imagination and memory from perception. Reflective function is what I should have been using back in flight training when I didn’t critique my thinking about where the plane was. It is important — sometimes to the point of life-and-death — to recognize that what is held in the mind may be different than what is real in the world around us.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Bunn, L.C.S.W. He is a licensed therapist, retired airline captain, and ex-USAF fighter pilot. This unusual combination helped him to develop a way to control in-flight panic that has been used by over 10,000 fearful fliers. The method has now been applied to elevators, tunnels, bridges, MRIs, and other emotionally challenging situations in his new book Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career
Aviation was a big deal when I was growing up during WW II. After college, I applied for USAF flight training. In the Air Force I flew flighters. Then I joined Pan Am where we had a fear of flying course. Fearful fliers are great people. They are intelligent and imaginative. Their intelligence lets them to think of many things that could go wrong. Their imagination allows them to picture things going wrong vividly enough to cause distress. Being able to open up the whole world for them is thoroughly satisfying.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In Air Force, they sent us F-100 student pilots through a short version of the training seen in the movie“Top Gun.” In this training the most elite fighter pilots taught us “Top Gun” techniques and maneuvers.
You would think that these instructor pilots would be the most ‘macho’ of all pilots. They weren’t. They were far too skilled and wise to be that way. And on the bulletin board, one of them had posted, ‘If you are flying an F-86 straight East at 35,000 feet and someone else is flying an F-86 straight West at 35,000 toward the same point, with each plane flying at 500 MPH, there is a closure rate of 1000 MPH. By the time you see the other plane (the F-86 was small and couldn’t be seen very far away), there is only 0.08 seconds before you reach the same spot. Your reaction time is 0.12 seconds, so you can do notion to avoid the collision. The point: why die all tensed up?”
Life is temporary. There are risks. Some risks can be avoided by making good choices. Some risks can’t be avoided. Since there is nothing we can do about them, anxiety about uncontrollable risks is useless. Even being on guard about uncontrollable risks is useless. So why die all tensed up?
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
About half way through Air Force flight training, my instructor set up a simulated approach to the airportrunway. Using the instruments, I produced a mental picture of the plane’s location relative to the runway. I was confident that I was on the proper path to land on the runway. My instructor asked, “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” I replied.
“Are you sure?” he said. I assured him that I was.
“I’ve got the plane,” he said, taking over the controls. “You come out from under the hood.” I had no idea what he was driving at. When I removed the hood, I saw the airport was nowhere in sight. Worse, we were flying alongside a highway, and the tops of the telephone poles stuck up higher than the plane. I had mistakenly — but with complete confidence — almost flown into the ground. Had this been a real instrument landing, I would have crashed.
My instructor didn’t say another word. He didn’t need to. He knew that I was shocked by the contradiction between my mental picture of the plane’s position and its actual physical position. This experience led me to develop the kind of mental discipline needed to fly safely: to question every thought for accuracy before acting on it.
I once mentioned this discipline to a psychiatrist friend. I told him I question everything I think, every decision I make, and everything I am doing as I carry it out. He was shocked. He said, “That’s a terrible way to live.” I said, “As a pilot, that is the only way to live. If you don’t do that, you don’t live long.”
That leads to the saying in aviation, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots. But there are no old bold pilots.
When this idea is applied to day-to-day living, we might say “Often wrong, never in doubt.” We all need a healthy amount of doubt about the accuracy of what we think. Consider what is in the mind. Critique it. How accurate is it? How much does it line up with reality?
Failure to critique ones thinking is a short cut to comfort that usually leads to misfortune.
There are risks that cannot be controlled, and they can be ignored. There are risks that can be controlled by accurate thinking which is obtained by continuous self-critique and invited critique by others.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When in the Air Force, I bought a race car, a Formula 3 Lola Mk 5. To learn to drive it better, I went to a race driving school at Zandvoort, in the Netherlands. One of the instructors was Ben Pon. He was a well-known driver who had driven Porches at the 24 Hour race at Le Mans. I was in the group assigned to Pon. He told us to drive around the course and when we reached a certain turn, to go around it as fast as we could. He wouid be posiitioned at the curve to observe us. We were then to drive back and stop so he could critique our technique and offer his advice. As I drove back to where he had been watching, I was looking forward to hearing the advice a great driver like Pon could offer. I stopped. He came over and said, “There is nothing I can teach you.” I was flabergasted. I had driven for hours to attend this race driving school and there was nothing they could teach me. Yet, that was a remarkable piece of learning. When you reach a certain level of mastery, though there is more to learn, no one can teach you. You have to learn it on your own. And that, in an important way, is something a person must recognize when engaged in innovative. You need to learn everything others can teach you. Then, if you continue to look to others for information, nothing new will be developed.
I see this situation in psychology. People with Ph.D.s use what they have learned in school with their clients. Even if their clients are getting nowhere, they continue doing what they were taught. Whether it is doing great therapy, doing great race driving, or doing great living, it cannot be learned in school.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
This is something I’ve never had any trouble with. I don’t know why? As I consider the question, I wonder if it is because I’ve had no interest in being “professional.”
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
As with the Ben Pon story, if you are a leader who wants innovative work, you need to know that you don’t know, and that your team doesn’t know, and yet the knowledge needs to be learned. I have learned very little of value from experts, except those few that were able to experiment. As Helen Keller said, “Life is a great adventure or it is nothing.”
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
1. Examine The Belief That Arousal Means Danger
A client told me he loved his father. He said his father was a great guy when he was sober. But when his father started to drink, he knew he was going to be hit. Thus, as a child, when his father started drinking, my client started releasing stress hormones. The hormones caused physical sensations of arousal (increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, sweatiness, tension, and hyper-alertness). Since arousal was followed by being hit, it made perfect sense for my client to connect the physical sensations of arousal with fear and danger.
When a house is built, plumbing and wiring are installed early in the process. Once installed, the pipes and wires are likely to remain unchanged for the life of the house. The same is true of the brain’s wiring. Early relationships literally wire up a child’s emotional-control circuitry.
An experience that linked arousal to fear and linked fear to danger may have taken place long ago. It may have taken place even before memory was mature enough to remember what happened. So as an adult, though arousal, fear, and danger no longer need to be linked, they may be.
We have all heard “seeing is believing.” If personal history has caused arousal and fear and danger to be connected, “feeling is believing.” The feeling of arousal automatically causes a person to believe there is danger. If arousal is allowed to continue to mean danger, it is easy for psychic equivalence to hijack the mind and make the danger seem real, even when safe. In other words, a great deal of completely unnecessary anxiety results from regarding arousal as fear, and believing fear proves there is danger.
Clients have said that this realization, that fear and danger are two different things, has changed their life. So we need to do what we can to separate these three experiences. We need arousal to be arousal and nothing more.
2. Establish Links To The Presence Of A Calming Person
The automatic sequence of arousal to fear to danger is like three dominos in a row. When the arousal domino tips over, it unbalances the fear domino, and as it topples, it causes the danger domino to fall. We can stop this short domino effect the same way we stop a longer domino effect. Each of the three elements needs to be neutralized. The following is taken from my book, Panic Free.
Imagine a cartoon character who is feeling aroused.
- Pretend your friend is holding the arousal cartoon touching their face. This connects the calming quality of your friend’s face to the feeling of arousal.
- Pretend you are looking at the arousal cartoon with your friend and are having a conversation about it. This connects the calming quality of your friend’s voice to the feeling of arousal.
- As you talk about the arousal cartoon, imagine your friend is giving you a reassuring or an affectionate hug. This links your friend’s calming touch to the feeling of arousal.
Imagine a cartoon character who is feeling fear.
- Pretend your friend is holding the fear cartoon touching their cheek. Doing so connects the calming signals from your friend’s face to the feeling of fear.
- Pretend you are looking at the fear cartoon with your friend and are having a conversation about it. This connects the calming quality of your friend’s voice to the feeling of fear.
- As you talk about the fear cartoon, imagine your friend giving you a reassuring or affectionate hug. This links your friend’s calming touch to the feeling of fear.
Imagine a cartoon character who believes there is danger.
- Pretend your friend is holding the danger cartoon touching their cheek. Doing this connects the calming signals from your friend’s face to danger.
- Pretend you are looking at the danger cartoon with your friend and are having a conversation about it. This connects the calming quality of your friend’s voice to danger.
- As you talk about the danger cartoon, imagine your friend giving you a reassuring or an affectionate hug. This links your friend’s calming touch to danger.
3. Develop Ability to Tolerate Conflict And Ambivalence
The most eye-opening psychological essay I’ve ever read was written by psychoanalyst Charles Brenner, MD., a leading authority on psychoanalysis. Brenner said psychotherapy does not cure conflict. Nor, he believed, should we be free of conflict.
We are multifaceted. Each facet of our personality has interests, desires, and taboos that conflict with those of other facets. If a person lacks the mental programming needed to activate their calming system, they may be unable to tolerate the feelings caused by inner conflict. If so, our “defenses” come into play. To avoid conflict, defenses allow only one facet to be mentally active at a time. Good therapy expands mindfulness so that all facets of the personality are active simultaneously. Though this causes conflict, it allows conflicting aims to be played out mindfully, rather than repressed and causing illness, or acted out and causing tragedy.
4. Use Meditation To Be More Mindful, Not To Be More Distracted
Healthy meditation fosters the development of mindfulness that allow conflict we have been acting out to become conflict we are aware of. Unhealthy meditation arrests this development by focusing on a repetitious task, such as repeating a mantra. Unhealthy meditation allows only temporary peace by limiting mindfulness.
I would suggest that all this focus on the meditation environment is unhealthy, and a search for false peace through escape. As one expert on meditation said, the best place to meditate is walking down the sidewalk in New York city taking in everything, letting it be in, and letting it pass on out of awareness.
The meditation I recommend is like watching fish swim by in an aquarium. Sit for a time with the courage to allow any thought or feeling whatsoever to come into awareness, to pass through awareness untouched by judgment, and to pass on out of awareness.
The major long-term benefit is peaceful co-existence of the various facets of the self. The sort term, because of increased awareness of conflict, true mindfulness is anything but peaceful. Looking for a specific benefit — such as peace of mind — is the opposite of mindfulness.
Looking for a certain benefit or meditative achievement causes censorship. The troubling content needs to come into awareness so it can be accepted. But goals keep it from coming into awareness at all. It helps to say to hell with benefits and have the courage to let whatever happen. After all, it’s just your mind. Nothing in your mind is real.
The concept of who you are is protected by psychological defenses. Psychological defenses, when in use, are completely invisible to us. If we become aware we are using a defense we simultaneously become aware of what the defense was hiding. In other words, awareness of a defense stops it from working. So experiment with mindfulness. Play around with it. Once in a while, a psychological defense will let something slip through (that’s what mindfulness is about) and you will have a tumble that scrapes your identity’s knee or elbow. Experience the pain. Get back at it. Return to letting whatever in. Going from mindfulness that covertly censors to mindfulness that is uncensored takes time and may require the help from a coach or a therapist.
If interested in a book on meditation, get Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. It opens, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
5. Be Mindful That Nothing In The Mind Is Real
Everything — including Perception — in The Mind Is Representational. Our senses induce us to formulate and approximation of what is around us. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that what is in the mind, being representational, may or may not be accurate. We maximize the accuracy of what is in the mind by examining it.
Reflective Function allows us to critique what is in the mind and distinguish imagination and memory from perception. Reflective function is what I should have been using back in flight training when I didn’t critique my thinking about where the plane was. It is important — sometimes to the point of life-and-death — to recognize that what is held in the mind may be different than what is real in the world around us.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
As you know, airline pilots must be in good health. When they retire, they are usually in good health. Yet, many airline pilots live only a few years after they retire. There may be more than one reason for this, but as a therapist, I have the notion that retirement can cause a loss some pilots do not know how to deal with. To some degree, their identity is based on being in command of an airliner, and retirement causes a loss of that identity. If being an airline captain is all the identity they have, all their identity is lost. Depression may result.
This is a tricky problem because when it comes to our identity, we can’t see the forest for the trees. This is not something mindfulness or meditation can address. It takes another person, a well-trained therapist, to examine. Though it would be good to go into therapy prior to retirement to head this problem off, most people will wait until a problem takes hold before seeking help. And, unfortunately, some will not seek help and even if they never had a drinking problem before, turn to alcohol for relief. Notice, of course, that when a problem results from loss of role causes loss of identity, the cause is not visible to the person in the middle of the problem.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
I think it is new to most people that our ability to regulate ourselves emotionally is based on inner resources. It shouldn’t be new. Myron Hofer wrote about “hidden regulators” in the 1990s. Joohn Bowlby wrote about “internal working models of secure attachment” in the 1970. So let’s catch up. These resources are developed based on how consistently responsive, accepting, and non-threatening our relationship with caregivers was during our first two or three years of life. A good internal working model of a good relationship is like an app that works in the background to keep us from being too revved up, too anxious, or too angry to function well.
Since we — including many therapists — are blind to this fact, and instead of helping clients develop better ability to regulate, we help them reduce stress, by changing how they live so things don’t upset them as much. No one seems to be telling teenagers that their belief is B.S. that things will be fine once they — instead of their parents — are calling the shots. So long as this belief lasts, I don’t see any hope that teenagers will see any value in optimizing their mental wellness.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller. I was in therapy but wasn’t getting anywhere. When I complained about it to a therapist friend she said, “Read Alice Miller.” I did. It was like an explosion, an emotional explosion I couldn’t contain. It set the work with my therapist on a fast track.
Miller wrote that some children can shape their behavior in a way that keeps an emotionally fragile parent from coming apart. This job consumes what should be childhood. The parent-child relationship is turned upside down. This is common in people who become therapists.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Everything depends on emotional regulation. Imagine a car. No matter how much horsepower the engine has, that power means nothing where the rubber meets the road unless the power can be regulated. It does’t matter how much intelligence we have unless we have adequate ability to regulate our emotional state. This regulation is, as I mentioned before, derived from early relationships. So the most important movement I can imagine in a movement that can help caregivers understand the importance of their role and help caregivers have the emotional regulation themselves to allow them to bestow good emotional regulation of those in their care.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Dr. Ralph Klein, who was director of the Masterson Institute when I studied their, told me “We are creatures of relationship.” I thought I understood that. But I had no idea of the depth of understanding that applies. We become human only through human-to-human relationship. And if you look at the lack of humanity expressed in our daily news, we can be sure that many of those reported on lacked what was needed for their humanity to develop.
Ralph went on to tell me about a movie taken in a Romanian orphanage where resources were so limited that the children were started for human-to-human contact. In the movie, an infant, not yet able to crawl, was on a rug on the floor. There was a spot on the rug. The infant used all its ability to wiggle toward the spot until it could put its cheek on the spot, So starved for relatedness, the infant struggled to relate to a mark on a rug.
When it comes down to it, the essential quality of humanness is relatedness.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!