And suddenly the Grief and Loss Dragons that I had been helping so many of my patients and social media followers cope with during the pandemic unleashed a fireball in my brain. Fortunately, as a psychiatrist who has spent decades helping people deal with death and loss, I knew that I needed to start the healing process as soon as possible. Some people think you need to wallow in suffering following the death of a loved one, but I always ask, "If you broke your arm, would you wait six weeks to get the bone set?" One of the most important steps in healthy grieving—I'll go over all of the steps in more detail in section 1 on the Death Dragons and the Grief and Loss Dragons—is to express your feelings rather than bottling them up. So I decided to share my pain with my followers on social media.
In a series of nightly live chats during the pandemic, I explained that during the mourning process—and at all times—your brain is always listening and responding to the hidden influences that act on it. This became even more evident in May 2020 when the heartbreaking and senseless death of George Floyd—a black man from Minneapolis who was killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for over eight minutes despite his cries of "I can't breathe"—led to rage and destruction. This social injustice on top of the rampant stress of the pandemic triggered the release of Angry, Judgmental, and Ancestral Dragons (which you will learn more about in this book) that drove some people into the streets to protest peacefully while spurring others to loot, vandalize, and set fires. The powerful influences on your brain include:
* Dragons from the Past—memories and events that still breathe fire on your emotional centers, driving your behavior
* They, Them, and Other Dragons—other people in your life—past and present—who each have their own set of dragons
* ANTs—automatic negative thoughts that link, stack, and attack you, providing the fuel for anxiety and depression
* Bad Habit Dragons—habits that result from dragon influences and increase the chances you'll be overweight and depressed, and have brain fog
* Scheming Dragons—advertisers, news feeds, social media sites, and the gadgets in your pocket that steal your mind and money
* Addicted Dragons—repetitive behaviors that damage your health, wealth, or relationships
Unless you recognize and redirect these influences, they can steal your happiness, damage your relationships, pilfer your health, rob your ability to cope with stress (like the coronavirus pandemic), and limit your destiny. The good news is that once you become aware and tame these dragons and eliminate the ANTs, you can break bad habits, shut down self-defeating thoughts, shore up your capacity to cope with uncertainty, reduce your vulnerability to schemers, and heal addictions. In fact, taming your dragons is essential for good mental health because when they control your brain, your entire life suffers.
JIMMY'S HIDDEN DRAGONS
The afternoon I met Jimmy, 39, a high-level business executive, he sat next to his wife on the soft burgundy leather sofa in my office. He had just been released from a psychiatric hospital that morning and looked anxious and worn-out. A week prior he'd told an emergency room doctor he had thought of killing himself to end the feelings of dread, panic, anxiety, and hopelessness that just wouldn't go away. His Anxious Dragon, one of the 13 Dragons from the Past, was running rampant in his brain.
Jimmy had been seeing another psychiatrist for years to refill medication for anxiety and depression, which was explained as "working to fix a chemical imbalance." The medication took the edge off his negative feelings, but it also took the edge off his positive feelings. While seeing the psychiatrist, he never learned any skills to deal with his Anxious Dragons or the 12 other ones that fueled his dark thoughts and mood swings.
The current "episode" that brought Jimmy to the ER started two weeks before when he found out he had to give a presentation to one of his company's largest customers. It filled him with dread. He told me, "If I had to describe the fear, it's like you're on death row and the clock's run out. The guard opens the door and you must take the first step—that kind of fear runs through my bones." Jimmy had struggled with glossophobia (the fear of public speaking) since middle school. Through an exercise called Break the Bonds of the Past, which I will explain later, we learned that this fear started when he was 12, the day his grandmother made him give an "impact statement" at the Los Angeles County Superior Court about why his father, one of the leaders of a violent street gang, should not get the death penalty for a double homicide. Jimmy's Anxious Dragons breathed fire on the fear centers in his young brain, and he was attacked by ANTs (automatic negative thoughts), including, What if I cannot speak in court and end up killing my father?